Architect who draws on his terrifying past

A CROUCH END architect who was incarcerated in Nazi death camps, forced to work as a slave labourer and escaped during the bombing of Dresden, has opened an art exhibition depicting the Holocaust

Charlotte Newton

A CROUCH END architect who was incarcerated in Nazi death camps, forced to work as a slave labourer and escaped during the bombing of Dresden, has opened an art exhibition depicting the Holocaust.

Although Roman Halter, 81, now lives with his wife in Dickenson Road, Crouch End, the pain and suffering he experienced during the Holocaust is never far away.

"The Nazis played cat and mouse with us, they tried to dehumanise us and break our spirits; but I never gave up hope that our suffering would come to an end," Mr Halter said in a talk at Hornsey Library last month.

Born in Poland in 1927, Mr Halter lived in Chodecz, on the German border where, before the war, 800 Jewish Poles and 950 Germans lived happily alongside each other.

Then in September 1939, Chodecz was annexed to the German Reich and Arthur Greiser appointed governor of the region. Greiser typified the brutality exhibited by Nazi officials towards the Poles, pursuing a plan to rid the Warthegau region of Jewish Poles and resettle the "cleansed" areas with ethnic Germans.

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When Mr Halter was just 12, his family home was seized and he became a slave to the local SS chief Hofman, who prior to the war had been a friend of his father's. He was forced to silently watch the SS brutally murder his Jewish classmates.

"I witnessed SS soldiers shoot my Jewish classmates in 1940 in my home town. I could not believe that human beings could do that to one other. I was physically sick and left heartbroken," Mr Halter said.

He was incarcerated in Auschwitz, Stutthof concentration camp, and then as a slave labourer in Dresden.

And it was while in Dresden that he decided one day he would be an architect.

"On November 24, 1944 the Nazis took us on a slave labour march from the railway station to the factory in Dresden. Even though we were starving, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of Dresden. It looked like Fiddler on the Roof. It was then that I thought 'when I survive this experience, I will train to be an architect and build beautiful buildings'," he said.

When Mr Halter returned to Chodecz, he discovered that his entire family had been murdered - in fact only four of the town's 800 Jews had survived.

In August 1945, at the age of 18, he was sent to the Lake District to recuperate with dozens of Jewish children who had been orphaned during the war. The group was later split up and the children housed in hostels.

Mr Halter then worked for three years as an apprentice in an engineering firm in Slough.

"I was paid the equivalent of £4.16 a week and £2 of this went on my lodgings. I cycled from Windsor to Slough every day and life was great. After the experiences of the war, nothing was bad."

It was while serving his apprenticeship that Mr Halter caught up on his schooling. When the 350 ex-servicemen whom he worked with discovered Mr Halter was a Holocaust survivor, they took it in turns to teach him English, maths and science.

It was also during this time that Mr Halter met his wife, an Olympic swimmer, after joining a swimming club.

"I met Susan when she came over from Hungary for a competition in 1948. I wasn't as good a swimmer as she was, but we swam together."

During his apprenticeship, he attended evening classes to obtain the qualifications he needed to study architecture.

Having passed his exams, Mr Halter opened his own practice - Roman Halter Associates - which has offices in Cambridge, Brighton and London. When he retired in 1974, his practice employed 15 people.

He went on to pursue his interest in art - working in stained glass and making royal coats of arms - and in 2007 he wrote and published his life story: Roman's Journey.

o The Day of Liberation from the Camps - May 1945 was on show at Hornsey Library until Saturday. It is now being exhibited in the New North Synagogue in 80 East End Road, East Finchley.