Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Coming through slaughter

Agnes Grunwald-Spier
Henley Town Hall

AGNES Grunwald-Spier’s talk was billed as “Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust — in their own words”, which is also the title of her book published in February this year.

Unusually, Agnes wasn’t in conversation with anyone. Instead she stood the entire time at a lectern and talked to us, showing some slides to illustrate her stories.

She is a homely looking, friendly “Granny” type of person and seemed a little ill at ease talking to the group. Even though she told us that she had spoken at the Henley Literary Festival two years ago.

She is a very interesting woman and had lots to say, but she sometimes jumped around in her storytelling, so it was slightly confusing to follow her tales.

Agnes was born in Budapest, Hungary, in July 1944 — about five months after Hungary was occupied by the Germans. The author was just a baby when her remaining family were rounded up by the Nazis.

She quotes her mother as saying, “The man in charge sent women with young children back” — so she and her mother lived, they escaped deportation.

They were then sent to the Budapest Ghetto and Agnes survived because her mother breastfed her and kept her alive.

The ghetto was liberated in 1945. Agnes’s parents were eventually reunited and they decided to leave Budapest by train.

They got as far as Vienna where they spent a year in a displaced persons camp before they could get a family sponsor to help them get to England.

Agnes and her parents arrived in England in May 1947, settling in Sutton, Surrey.

Sadly, Agnes’s father committed suicide in 1955 — he had been rounded up by Hungarian fascists in 1943 and was used as forced labour, he was sent to the Western Front.

He did survive the war but was always very bitter about his experiences. Apparently it wasn’t uncommon for Holocaust survivors to commit suicide several years after the war.

Agnes only really became interested in finding out about the Holocaust when her three sons were growing up and started asking her questions about it all.

She decided to do a master’s degree at Sheffield University in Holocaust Studies. She went on to write her first book at the age of 65!

She showed a poignant slide of her extended family, children and grandchildren, etc, then she added red crosses on the faces of her sons and grandchildren and said that if her mother had not been sent back that day and if her mother had not continued to breast feed her to keep her alive in the ghetto, none of her family would have existed. It was a reminder of the lost generations of families.

Agnes’s first book was about rescuers. Published in 2010, it is called The Other Schindlers. She found she enjoyed writing and has since written two more.

Her latest book about women’s experiences in the Holocaust is a compilation of many stories, told in their own voices, through letters or diaries. Agnes went on to give us a few remarkable excerpts of these stories.

As the packed audience departed the town hall on a very wet Saturday afternoon, we felt there were still many heroic stories to be told.

Nicola Liddon-Horncastle

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