Holocaust childhood is remembered in words and painting
Roman Halter is using his art to show the world what his childhood in the Holocaust was really like, writes Bridget Galton ROMAN Halter remembers the important dates of his stolen teenage years with devastating clarity. September 1939 was when the SS
Roman Halter is using his art to show the world what his childhood in the Holocaust was really like, writes Bridget Galton
ROMAN Halter remembers the important dates of his stolen teenage years with devastating clarity.
September 1939 was when the SS began murdering Jews from his Polish town; September 1940 when the survivors were sent to Lodz ghetto; October 1940 when his grandfather starved to death; autumn 1941 when his father died; Spring 1942 when his mother, sister and her two children were murdered at Chelmno; August 1944 when he arrived at Auschwitz, and February 13-15 1945 when he survived the bombing of Dresden by sheltering under a sodden lice-ridden blanket on the banks of the Elbe.
From Dresden, in the dying days of the Third Reich, the
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18-year-old was taken on a death march. He escaped on the third night and was sheltered by a German couple until the end of the war.
Halter returned home to find just three other survivors from the 800 Jews who had lived there before the war.
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So he lied that he was 16 to get into a children's home in Theresienstadt from where he was sent to England, to recuperate by Lake Windermere.
He still recalls the blissful peace of sitting under a tree after a swim, eating unrationed raw kippers to build up his emaciated body. "At first I didn't realise how very kind and civilised the people here were," says the
"It took time to get used to. I was like a bird on a fence looking to right and left. When I heard steps behind me, I expected a kick or a club or to be shot, but I turned to see a smiling face. It was like a different planet.
"A doctor advised me if I wanted to put some meat on my bones, to swim twice a day in the lake. It was bloody cold, but I became a good swimmer."
Swimming has come to symbolise Roman's hard-won freedom that has seen him emerge from his harrowing experience with humanity and dignity - and without anger, bitterness or guilt.
It was through a swimming club that he met his wife Susie - a Hungarian Olympic swimmer - and the pair still take a daily dip in the Park Road pool near their Crouch End home.
Roman says the decades after the war saw him concentrate on his growing family and developing career.
After Windermere, he worked in an aircraft factory where a manager, a former Squadron Leader who had ironically led the bombing raids over Dresden, helped him with his English.
It was while being marched from Dresden station to work in a munitions factory that Halter decided to become an architect - and the Squadron Leader's education gave him the grounding to study architecture at university.
"Chodecz was a village of thatched roof single-storey houses like Fiddler On The Roof and Lodz ghetto was very ugly. In Dresden, I saw a beautiful city I had never imagined. Starved and undernourished as I was, I looked to the left and right and thought, 'When I survive I will become an architect.'"
Halter established a thriving practice. But by the early 70s, when he moved to his current home in Dickinson Road, he could no longer ignore his past.
"Everyone had had a bad war, nobody wanted to talk about it straight afterwards," he says wryly.
"I had my practice, the children were growing up and I pushed the whole experience to the back of my mind. When the children asked me what it was like being in the Holocaust, I avoided direct answers.
"But it suddenly started resurfacing and in 1974 I made the decision to get out of architecture and write and paint about my experiences."
Halter says it was "a sort of compulsion" but he initially hoped to exorcise his ghosts then return to his old life.
"I didn't want to submerge myself totally in the past. For some people, the past is history. But, for me, it was terribly heart-rending."
Driving him on was his beloved grandfather's last words.
"I was very close to him. He lived with us and had more time for me than my father. When he was dying of starvation, he said: "When you survive, you must be clear about the past. Don't exaggerate, but tell the truth of our time that we are all being murdered." I felt it my duty to pass on this information, but I make quite certain that I don't exaggerate or make myself a hero in telling it."
Roman says he has avoided
so-called survivor's guilt by understanding the random nature of survival in such appalling circumstances.
"All of us were condemned to death. It's only a certain chance that helped us survive. But because my grandfather said when, not if, you survive, I had a childish belief that I would.
"There were those who survived because the war finished in May not July, because they had strong genes or, like me, managed to scrape through the net again and again like a sardine that escapes and swims away."
Roman admits it helped to be young and alert at the start of
"Youth propelled you. If you knew what the world was like, if you were married or your children were taken away, the spring of life broke and you couldn't go on. It was easier to throw yourself on the high tension wires. But when you are young and you are kicked, you nurse your wound. When you can't sleep in certain conditions, you sleep standing up. Pessimism doesn't invade you as it does an adult."
Halter was picked as a metalworker which gave him extra rations and got him out of Auschwitz.
"When I arrived at Auschwitz there was a selection, some sent to the left and taken to the gas chambers, others sent to the right into the camp. Mengele the sadist carried out selection and I observed that anyone who was frightened or broke down was sent to the left. It was a question of making yourself stand tall and proud and answering if he spoke to you."
Sadly his faith was destroyed by Auschwitz. "I used to pray to God to save my family. But when the cattle trucks arrived in Auschwitz, we felt without being told that we had arrived in this terrible place. Some wept, a lot prayed, some hugged one another. But I couldn't pray, so I recalled the faces of every member of my family. I held them before me like you hold a photograph before your eyes and that was my form of prayer. The ones who were Orthodox said a prayer which translated, 'I submit my spirit into your hand dear Lord.' They kept repeating it as they were thrown into the gas chambers and they fretted less than those who didn't have such faith."
Halter adds: "I have no guilt because I wasn't responsible for the murder of other people and because, as a human being, you have to have certain boundaries and say, 'No, I will not collaborate' - like the people who ran the ghetto and unfairly distributed the starvation rations so that they would survive. I was grateful that I came through. I don't lose sleep over it or become furious or embittered because I know that hate and revenge damages you very much more than the people you hate, and it won't bring my family back to life."
Despite this clearsighted view, Halter harbours many bad memories: scavenging potato peelings and nettles from the Lodz cemetery for his mother to make soup; being toughened up at Stutthof by carrying boulders from one side of a field to another; or the gypsy families he shared with at Auschwitz being taken to the gas chambers by torchlight.
At Dresden, the factory workers huddled terrified in the basement while the firestorm raged.
"Our Jewish manager was very astute and told the junior SS officers we were going to burn to cinders if we didn't make our way to the river. Each took a blanket cut two holes and wetted the blanket. As the fire chased the oxygen, there were rolling cartwheels of fire and we had to throw ourselves on the hot tarmac to avoid them."
After withstanding the storm for a day and a night, their guards asked for volunteers to be "taken to hospital" before administering lethal injections to those who stepped forward.
But there are better memories: the mutually dependent friendships fostered while huddling together on Stutthof's freezing Appelplatz for warmth, the donated tins of Ovaltine which gummed up his mouth at Theresienstadt; and the Lake District fishmonger who kept aside his plumpest kipper for the starving refugee.
"The decency of people in England penetrates to such an extent that you pick up a whiff and it gets into the marrow of your bones."
He has returned twice - in 1967 and again last year for a BBC documentary by Feargal Keane. He says Chelmno and Auschwitz "leave you absolutely numbed.
"You suddenly find you can hardly react or find words to describe your feelings."
And although the repeated retelling of his story can detach him from certain aspects, "other aspects are too close to the knuckle".
His memoir of his life - Roman's Journey - has taken years to write but he feels liberated by having set it down.
This month, he also has an exhibition of Holocaust-inspired paintings at the Imperial War Museum.
And he is proud of his artistic work; making coats of arms for Crown Courts and British embassies worldwide, designing the gates for Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Israel, and a stained glass memorial in Kigali to the victims of the Rwandan genocide.
It is these modern atrocities that make him depressed. "I am so despairing when there are awful leaders governing us because the people and the country depend on wonderful compassionate, able leaders with foresight."
Roman's Journey, which was published by Portobello Books in January, is priced £16.99. Roman Halter paintings are on display at the Imperial War Museum from March 28 until April 5.