A Point of View: Why survivors' stories matter

Image source, Getty Images

Having just marked Holocaust Memorial Day, Tom Shakespeare says that first-hand accounts are far more powerful than history books and science studies.

Last month, my work took me to Cape Town. I'd never been to South Africa before. For the tourist, Cape Town is such a beautiful city, with Table Mountain, and the Botanical Gardens, and the Cape of Good Hope. But memorials to apartheid are everywhere. Over there are the Cape Flats, and here is the District Six Museum and always out there in the bay is Robben Island.

On the Sunday morning, my colleague had booked me on to the first boat. It was shocking to realise that the prison has such a good view of Cape Town. When we arrived at the island, we got into battered buses and were driven around to see the church and the village, and the lime quarry where Nelson Mandela and his comrades broke rock. But the highlight of our tour was the cell block. Our guide that day was a former political prisoner called Tom Moses, who calmly and patiently explained to us about the brutalities of the regime. I found the rough corridors hard going, so he offered to push my wheelchair. We stopped at Mandela's cell, left exactly as the day he walked free from prison. Tom explained about the cold floor, and the thin blankets, and the poor food, and the toilet bucket that was emptied only once a day. He spoke of how difficult it was for the political prisoners to hear Nelson Mandela saying that they now had to forgive their jailers.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
Robben Island - once South Africa's most notorious prison - is now open to visitors

In the corridor, there was a recording of the South African protest song, Senzenina (What Have We Done?). It was a song we used to sing as students, when we held sit-ins at the Cambridge branch of Barclays Bank or on demonstrations in Trafalgar Square in the 1980s. Since then, I've met exiles and campaigners in the struggle. I've read Mandela's autobiography. But before my visit to Robben Island, it was as if I knew nothing of apartheid. It was profoundly moving to be in that notorious jail, talking to someone who had been imprisoned there for nearly a decade. Tom Moses, who'd experienced it first-hand, made it real.

That encounter reminded me of when I'd been invited to read a statement on behalf of the disabled victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme at the National Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Newcastle nine years ago. The process of devising and approving the text was rather laborious. The final straw was being instructed to report to the theatre at 08:45 on Sunday morning, in preparation for a ceremony that was being held at 16:00 that afternoon. As I waited in the green room feeling irritable, an old man came in and sat quietly on a chair. We began talking. He called himself Harry, he was a retired builder, he was in his 80s, and his accent was an odd melange of Geordie and Polish. Without any prompting he began to tell me his life story. He had come to Britain in 1946. By chance, he had ended up in Newcastle, and done well for himself in the construction trade. He had married a local woman, and ended up with many children and grandchildren.

The tattoo on his shoulder said A19879, but his real name was Chaim Nagelsztajn. He had been born near Lublin in Poland and his father Shlomo had been a builder. Chaim had been 14 when the Nazis came to take his people away in 1942. When they arrived at their village, his family had hidden. The others had been discovered and killed. Eventually, shortage of food forced him to emerge from hiding, and he joined a detachment of young Jewish men who the Nazis used as labour. Their first task was to dig mass graves for the bodies of their families and friends.

Image source, Alamy
Image caption,
KL Lublin (Majdanek) Concentration Camp was set up in Nazi-occupied Poland

When the work ran out, Chaim was sent to Majdanek concentration camp, where his head was shaved and he was given the striped uniform. An older man in the queue for selection told him he must lie about his age and tell the guards he was a builder. It worked. First, he helped build a barrack block. Then his detachment was sent to build a pickle factory at Zamość. Even when he was weak from typhoid, he knew he had to work. Chaim was then sent to Auschwitz, where he kept his head down and went on laying bricks. By the end of 1944, the Russians were closing in, and he was sent by forced march and then train to Ebensee in Austria, where the Nazis were preparing their last stand in the mountains.

At liberation, Chaim was lying in the hospital wing, weighing only six stone and so weak from dysentery that he could not even cheer when the Americans arrived.

Harry emphasised how over and again he had faced death, but luck had intervened, and each time he had been saved. He had been secular all his adult life, but now he was wearing a yarmulka and he was back attending synagogue. For nearly 40 years, he had believed all his family had died in the Holocaust and that he was the sole survivor. But then in 1982, he received a call out of the blue from America. It was from a man called Mike, who said his mother's name was Manya. Manya was Chaim's sister, whom he had always believed lost. She had survived the camps, emigrated and married Meyer, her childhood sweetheart. Four days later, Chaim and Manya and Meyer were reunited at Newcastle Airport. Eight thousand Jews had lived in Hrubieszow before the war. They were three of the 200 who had survived.

I had never met a Holocaust survivor before. I was able to sit behind stage at the Theatre Royal, and hear Harry tell me the story he had been unable to tell for nearly 60 years. Now he told it over and over again to anyone who would listen, but particularly to local schoolchildren. He wanted a new generation to understand the reality of the Holocaust. The privilege of his company, face to face for several hours, was the blessing I had not expected. He died three years later.

Image source, PA
Image caption,
The late Chaim Nagelsztajn (left) at the 2007 Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in Newcastle

Tom Moses and Chaim Nagelsztajn both endured the worst that human beings can do to each other. Hearing their testimonies affected me more deeply than any lecture, book or film. They were unforgettable authentic encounters.

But the power of first-hand experience is also important closer to home. In my job at the University of East Anglia's Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, I am responsible for making sure that we involve the lay people who our graduates will later serve. For example, when we interview prospective students of nursing or rehabilitation sciences, we use patients and other members of the public to help us decide who should have a place.

When we teach our trainee doctors about disability or ageing or mental illness, we invite people with lived experience to share their stories with the students. When we plan our courses, we try to ensure that the lay perspectives are always included. What in university jargon is called "service user involvement" is more than tokenism or box ticking. It's a recognition that the academic expertise which we lecturers have, derived from scholarship, cannot tell the whole story. We use the term "experts by experience" to refer to those members of the community who have different but complementary insights into illness and infirmity. We have data. They have testimony. In the words of another medical student, the poet John Keats: "An axiom is not an axiom until it is proved upon a pulse."

Whether it's Tom or Chaim, or my stroke survivor friend Linda, or people like Kevin or Amanda who live with mental illness, these interactions are not about sympathy. They are about growing awareness of the reality of another's suffering. The outcome, in every case, is to enable us to gain respect for the other, as human beings, and as survivors of persecution, or exclusion, or difficulties of body or mind. When our students evaluate their teaching, it's usually the opportunity to learn from someone with first-hand experience that they rate most highly. I know, too, that they will remember an individual story long after they have forgotten a sociology lecture. The truth of life is irrefutable.

More from the Magazine

Image caption,
Hana Katz in Israel after the war

After World War Two, the BBC attempted to find relatives of children who had survived the Holocaust - they had lost their parents but it was believed they might have family in Britain. Seventy years on Alex Last has traced some of those children and found out what happened to them.

This is an edited transcript of A Point of View, broadcast on Friday on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated on Sunday at 08:50 GMT. Catch up on BBC iPlayer

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