Very few of us have the opportunity or good fortune in our lives to meet, let alone to know, someone who is a truly great human being. Certainly someone like me, of only modest talents, whose life and profession do not lead to encounters with politicians, media stars or the literary Illuminati, would put himself in the category of ‘ordinary person’.
Oh, I’ve met a few celebrities in my time, I even have one in the family, but there is only one person, one great man, with whom I have the honour and privilege of acquaintance.
His name is Mayer Hersh.
He is a Holocaust survivor.
The vagaries of chance, or fate, if you will, led us to meet some 15 years ago, or was it 20? He was a friend of my wife’s cousin and someone you ‘saw around’. I knew very little of his story. We struck up a conversation because I discovered he was Polish and I asked him to translate the writing on the back of some old family photographs.
Soon he told me he came from a town called Sieradz, in Western Poland, which happened to be the next town to Kalisz where three of my grandparents had been born.
Many years later, by careful research and amazing good fortune, I had managed to contact my father’s mother’s family in Israel. To my surprise I discovered that many of them had lived in Sieradz. When I told Mayer he declared us to be ‘landsleit’, an appellation that I carry with pride to this day.
As I related to Mayer what I knew of my new-found family in Israel, he asked me my family’s name. “Szer”, I said. “Szer the baker?”, he asked. My spine turned to ice. The thought that Mayer may have known, or passed in the street, members of my family was incredible. Although I found out later that this Szer was probably a great great uncle or a cousin, nevertheless I had found an unexpected connection which certainly reinforced our landsleit status.
Mayer told me how, as a child, he had an argument with his mother and, being somewhat stubborn, decided to ‘leave home’. This excursion did not last long and he skulked back to sleep on the stairwell. In the morning he was famished and went across to Szer the baker. Mr Szer took pity and gave him a bagel even though he had no money to pay. “Ok”, I said, “Cough up. On behalf of my family you owe me for that bagel!”.
Mayer Hersh was born in Sieradz, Poland, in 1926. When the Germans arrived in his town at the beginning of World War II, he and his brother Jakob were eventually parted from their parents and siblings and extended family. They never saw any of them again.
Mayer was 13 years old as he began his obscene odyssey through the horrors of the Holocaust where he witnessed murder, brutality, even cannibalism.
He experienced nine camps including Otoczna, Auschwitz, Stutthof, Gotha, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt where he was eventually liberated in 1945.
He was in Auschwitz for 18 months and, amazingly, met his brother there. Jakob also survived the war, eventually emigrating to the United States.
It was only after the war he discovered the terrible fate of his parents and sister Kayla.
Unable to return home he became one of “The Boys” of whom Martin Gilbert wrote, and found himself in Ambleside in Cumbria. He eventually settled in Manchester where he took up the profession of his father and became a tailor.
Mayer, as one would expect of someone of his profession, is a smartly dressed, dapper, compact man, softly-spoken with a distinct Polish accent and a command of the English language which is staggering.
Despite his life experiences, Mayer is humble and modest and he has devoted the past 30 years to Holocaust Education, telling his story at schools, giving interviews, receiving accolades. He tells his story simply, dispassionately, quietly but profoundly and with a determination to fulfil his purpose and mission: to consecrate memory.
Talking to Mayer is always a pleasure and a privilege. Recently, we sat next to each other at a family celebration. Mayer is in short sleeves, his tattooed number looking somehow less incongruous in these days of fashionable tattoos. Conversation with Mayer can take unexpected paths. This was one such occasion. He was telling me about how a friend of his was surprised that he had maintained a friendship with someone with whom he had had a dispute. “Why shouldn’t I be friends? Dr Mengele was my friend. He saved my life many times”, he said.
Mayer then told me how Mengele, that murderer of children, that antithesis and negation of the very word ‘Doctor’, would choose daily who was fit to work and who would go to the gas. “I don’t know why he never chose me. Dr Mengele was my friend because he kept me alive” .
The very idea that I was just one remove from these experiences was chilling and profoundly moving. Mayer is testament to the obscenity of the randomness of survival.
What is greatness? Is it measured by fame or wealth or academic achievement or sporting prowess only? Or is it also to be found in the quiet but steely determination of one man to survive, to claim and proclaim his right to life, to dignity and respect. This too, surely, is greatness.
Mayer Hersh is a great man.
I wrote that Mayer is also an eloquent man. At the end of an interview with a Guardian reporter in January 2005 he described his ‘fulfilment’. I’ll end with Mayer’s words. In this one, heartbreaking paragraph he manages to condense every word, every book, every history of the Holocaust. A thousand Ahmadinejads or Irvings cannot unsay these words, these thoughts, these truths. No more eloquent expression could possibly be written of what motivates Mayer and should inspire us all to continue his life’s work.
“In 1944 I was daydreaming – when I had a chance to daydream – that maybe I’ll get through and survive, knowing by that time that not many people will. I thought how wonderful it would be if I do survive, how people will put me on a pedestal. You know how the childish mind works. Well, I am on a pedestal, I am given certain honours, you come to interview me. To me, this is a fulfilment. But why is it a fulfilment? Because I’m talking about my family, whose lives were extinguished and whose voices were obliterated. The perpetrators also wanted the memory of these people to be obliterated, and that’s something I don’t want to happen. I want their memory to be preserved for eternity.”
See Memories of Auschwitz, Guardian January 27th 2005
From Auschwitz to Ambleside at www.anotherspace.org.uk