Last survivors of the Holocaust keep memories alive
- 27 November 2011
- From the section Magazine
Two remarkable women living hundreds of miles apart were fortunate enough to survive the Holocaust - one became a famous pianist, the other fought with Tito's Partisans.
Jamila Kolonomos leafs slowly through the ageing photographs, her finger tracing the outline of her family members.
"My mother Estef, my father Isaac," she begins, moving through them slowly. "Then my brothers and sisters."
She goes on, naming all 18 of her relatives killed in the Holocaust.
"I was the only one not taken. I didn't even say goodbye to them," she muses, grappling with the memories.
Jamila Kolonomos is one of the few Jews still remaining in Macedonia - a country that lost 98% of its Jewish population, the highest proportion anywhere in the world. I stopped off at her house in Skopje on the way to the city's new Holocaust museum.
At 89 years old, she is one of the few who remembers the deportation of the Macedonian Jews, sent by the occupying Bulgarian forces to the Nazi German death camp at Treblinka in Poland.
Jamila only survived by hiding in Macedonia and then joining Tito's partisan resistance.
As she casts her mind back, her kindly eyes suddenly narrow and a look of sheer anger fills her elderly face.
"I can't forget the screams as the soldiers arrived," she says, almost shouting. "I still dream about them. And now, when I laugh, something aches in my heart."
As the cold, cramped trains filled with deportees wound their way from the Balkans through Central Europe and up into Poland, they may even have passed another camp on the way - Plaszow, just outside the city of Krakow, since immortalised in the film Schindler's List.
Allowed to live
It was there that my grandmother, Natalia Karp, was taken in 1943.
She was a young, beautiful concert pianist from Krakow, trying to escape into the mountains with her sister when she was seized. The two women were sent to Plaszow, destined to be killed.
But the camp commander, Amon Goeth (played in the film by Ralph Fiennes) had one soft spot in an otherwise brutal character - he was a music lover, and the night my grandmother arrived was his birthday.
An order was sent out for the young virtuoso Polish pianist to play at his party.
She told me years later how revolted she was by Goeth, dressed in his white uniform and surrounded by beautiful women.
She had not played for four years whilst in hiding. The commander suddenly turned to her.
"Sit down and play," he barked.
She chose Chopin's Nocturne in C Sharp Minor - a piece full of sadness.
As she ended the last note, she paused. The commander turned.
"She will live", he said.
"Not without my sister," my grandmother ventured. "She, too, will survive," Goeth proclaimed.
For 10 months, the two women remained in Plaszow. Then they were moved to Auschwitz Birkenau where, again, they survived.
When the war ended, my grandmother moved to London. There, she continued a successful career and was, fittingly, elected a member of the Chopin Society.
Natalia continued giving concerts into her 90s. I remember watching her walking - unaided - to the grand piano for her recitals, and playing with such grace.
She always wore short sleeves so that her Auschwitz number tattooed onto her arm remained visible.
And then in July 2007, at the age of 96, she died suddenly of a heart attack.
One of the most important chapters in European Jewish history had closed, said the rabbi at her funeral, as we listened to her recording of the same Chopin nocturne that had saved her life.
The camps bequeathed to my grandmother a determination to survive, a courage that I will forever admire.
Until the end, she looked so much younger than she was, always able to recall tiny details from years before.
She travelled and entertained and even drove (badly) into her 90s.
She was strong, she loved life, she was seemingly unbeatable. It was even as though she had chosen when to die suddenly, so as not to fade away through illness.
And so as I sat, looking at the gentle face of the elderly Macedonian Jamila, there was a lot of my grandmother there too.
Both were utterly lucid in their old age, both full of warmth.
One had been spared the horrors of the camp but lost her entire family. The other had been spared death but forced to live through beatings at Plaszow and Auschwitz. Both had endured untold suffering in their own ways.
I will always feel a deep connection to the stories of the survivors - Jamila among them.
With every sentence, every image that she paints, I can see my own grandmother Natalia on her way to the camp, and I can picture her decades on, sitting in her north London flat telling me anecdotes over a bowl of chicken soup.
Each of the survivors, each of those who lived through the agony of the Holocaust, passes on to the next generation the responsibility to remember and inform, and ensure that the stories never die.
Of Jamila, of Natalia, and of millions more.
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