Happening On Campus

Holocaust Survivor Gives A Talk On Campus

A Holocaust Memorial located at Theresienstadt.
Felix Hawes

Joanna Millan was a survivor of the Holocaust who came to share her experiences at the University of Nottingham during an event held on the 16th of February. After attending the talk, Felix supplies Impact Magazine with a summary. 

Joanna was part of the 10% of Jewish children that survived the genocide orchestrated by the Nazis. She opened the talk with a statistic that if one Jew was killed every second, it would take three and a half months to kill as many as were murdered in the 1940s.  

Joanna was born in Berlin in 1942, during the Second World War. Aged only a few months old, her father, who had served in the German army in the First World War, was sent to Auschwitz and killed on arrival for being a Jew. He never returned home from work as a slave labourer, and it was never spoken off.

Joanna’s mother was not deported, as her work in a factory (which was making facilities for concentration and death camps) was considered vital. However, in June 1943, there was unrest at the factory. Joanna and her mother, along with all the children in the nursery were rounded up and sent to Theresienstadt camp. Joanna’s mother had to clean her apartment so that Nazi sympathizers could move in and pay for the train ticket to go to the camp.  

A quarter of all people that were sent there died

Theresienstadt camp was for Jews only. 50,000 people lived there at any given time, seven times the number that the camp was built for. It was a labour camp, with a 70-hour week. The conditions were poor, and they were fed 200g of unpeeled potatoes and watery soup twice a day for their meals. A quarter of all people that were sent there died, mostly of starvation and disease, but 259 took their own lives. Joanna herself had Scarlet Fever and Polio whilst at Theresienstadt.  

Sadly, Joanna’s mother died of Tuberculosis in 1944. She was cremated in ovens built for one person but could house four because the bodies were so thin. Her ashes were later thrown into the river.  

Of the 15,000 Jewish children deported, Joanna was one of less than 100 that survived. After two years spent at the camp, the Nazi regime was losing the war. Desperate to kill as many Jews as possible, underground gas chambers were constructed at Theresienstadt.

After The Red Cross found out about this, they offered the camp’s chief, Karl Rahm the offer to escape if no Jews were killed. He accepted. Upon the withdrawal of the camp, some Nazi guards threw grenades to kill as many Jews as they could. Rahm fled but was later captured and executed for his crimes against humanity.  

Joanna later found out that her documents were burnt

After the liberation of the camp, Joanna was one of 1,000 children that the United Kingdom took in. She stayed with five other orphans from her camp in the home of Lady Clark. Here she learnt English, but also simple things that she had never had the chance to learn, like how to use a knife and fork.  

A year later they moved to London where she was then adopted. Joanna recalls how her adopted parents never wanted to bring up the war, and Joanna later found out that her documents were burnt. Her name was also changed from Bela to Joanna.  

Joanna later married and had three children and eight grandchildren. She values her family deeply, as they are the only family she was able to have. Joanna later found out that her father’s younger brother Kurt survived the holocaust. After meeting him and his family, she was delighted when Kurt’s granddaughter was named after her. To this day, Joanna is still in contact with three of the other orphans that she grew up with. 

“The road to Auschwitz was built not by hate, but paved with indifference”

Joanna wanted students at Nottingham to know that the horrors of the Holocaust could only happen because ordinary people let it happen. Antisemitism was rife across Europe, not just in Germany. She says she believes that a genocide of this scale could happen again, as could a new world war. It was recounted that the number of antisemitic hate crimes recorded in the UK was at its highest in 2021 for thirty years. 

Her last words of her talk to the students were the poem of Pastor Niemöller: 

“First they came for the Communists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Communist 

Then they came for the Socialists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Socialist 

Then they came for the trade unionists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a trade unionist 

Then they came for the Jews 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Jew 

Then they came for me 

And there was no one left 

To speak out for me.” 

As Ian Kershaw said, “the road to Auschwitz was built not by hate, but paved with indifference”. This is the lesson of the Holocaust Joanna wanted students to leave with. 

Thank you to Joanna for sharing her story and to the Holocaust Education Trust and student Bill Edmonds for organising the talk.  

Felix Hawes

Featured image courtesy of Robert Eklund via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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