March 10, 2008

Guardian obituary for Leon Greenman

While confined in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in 1943, Leon Greenman, who has died aged 97, vowed that if he ever survived, he would spend the rest of his life testifying about nazism. But it was not until 17 years after his release from the Buchenwald concentration camp - in the early 1960s as he listened to Colin Jordan, then one of the new coterie of British Nazis, expressing the views that had led to the destruction of his life and that of his family - that this mission began to be realised. Leon then started giving the talks that would define the rest of his life. He believed that if he could tell enough people the truth about nazism, then it could never happen again.

Leon was one of six children - three brothers and three sisters - born in Whitechapel, in the East End of London. His family background was Dutch-Jewish; his mother died when he was two. His paternal grandparents were Dutch and when his father remarried he took his children to live with them in Rotterdam. Leon's stepmother beat him, as did his Dutch teachers. By the 1920s he had returned to London and was apprenticed to a barber in Forest Gate.

He was keen on boxing and on singing. In the 1930s he joined an amateur operatic society where he met Esther "Else" van Dam. In 1935 they married at Stepney Green synagogue, and spent their honeymoon in Rotterdam, staying with Else's grandmother. This was to be a decisive moment in Leon's life. Else decided to stay, to look after her grandmother. He commuted between Britain and Holland, working in his father-in-law's book business.

In 1938, fearing that war was approaching, Leon decided to bring Else home to Britain. The night he arrived in the Netherlands to collect her, the young couple heard Neville Chamberlain on the radio - following the British prime minister's meeting with Hitler in Munich - in which Chamberlain had spoken of "peace for our time". Reassured, Leon decided to stay. The British consul told him that if war came, as a British national he would be evacuated. On March 17 1940 their son Barnett ("Barney") was born. On May 10 the Germans invaded the Netherlands. The British embassy staff fled.

But Leon believed that, as an Englishman, and under the Geneva Convention on treatment of enemy civilians, he and his family would be protected from Hitler's race laws which were being rigorously applied. By late April 1942 the Nazis had enforced the wearing of the yellow star of David on Jews in the Netherlands and France. Leon had meanwhile given his family's savings and passports to non-Jewish friends for safe keeping. His friends, scared of reprisals for helping Jews, burnt the documents.

Leon's efforts to get new papers to prove his nationality failed. On October 8 1942 Leon, Else, Barney and their grandmother were rounded up and taken to Westerbork, a Nazi concentration camp in the Netherlands. In mid-January 1943 they were told they were being deported to a Polish "work camp". As British citizens, Leon informed the camp commandant that they should not be deported. He was told they had to go. Years later he discovered that the commandant had found the Greenmans' replacement papers after the family had left. By then they were en route to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

In his autobiography, An Englishman in Auschwitz (2001), Greenman describes how "the women were separated from the men: Else and Barney were marched about 20 yards away to a queue of women ... I tried to watch Else. I could see her clearly against the blue lights. She could see me, too, for she threw me a kiss and held our child up for me to see. What was going through her mind, I will never know. Perhaps she was pleased that the journey had come to an end. We had been promised that we could meet at the weekends..."

Else, her grandmother and Barney were sent straight to the gas chambers. Leon's last sighting of them was as they were taken away in an open truck. Else had made capes with peaked hoods for herself and Barney from bright red velvet curtains. Leon saw the two splashes of red. He called out, but his wife never heard him or looked back.

"I thought they must be still alive," Greenman told the Guardian's Stephen Moss in 2005. The thought that he would see them again kept him going.

Leon had been selected for work. After six weeks in Birkenau he was taken to the main camp at Auschwitz. There, despite his protestations of "I am an Englishman, I should not be here", he was subjected to "medical" experimentation. He was convinced that it was his skills that saved him, earning extra food for shaving prisoners and singing for the kapos - prisoners chosen by the Nazis to head work gangs - in the evening. He believed the physique he had developed while training as a boxer enabled him to survive the selections held to weed out and murder the weak and sick. And he fought to survive, in that hope that Else and Barney might still be alive.

In September 1943 Leon was sent to the Monowitz industrial complex within Auschwitz. By January 1945, as the Red Army advanced, the Nazis began moving the slave labourers westwards. Leon and others were force-marched 90km to Gliwice in southern Poland and then, in open cattle trucks in freezing conditions, to Buchenwald, near Weimar. On April 11 1945 he was liberated by the US army. Of the 700 people transported from Westerbork, Leon was one of only two survivors.

He never remarried. In London he started to rebuild his life. He became a tradesman, travelling the country with a suitcase full of bric-a-brac, and a singer. Then came the afternoon in Trafalgar Square.

I first met Leon in 1992 on an Anti-Nazi League counter-demonstration against a meeting in London by the Holocaust denier, David Irving. A homemade badge on Leon's coat read "Auschwitz - Never Again" and "98288", the number tattooed on his arm in the camps. He was an inspirational speaker, and people were moved by his courage and dignity. He spoke at schools, synagogues, trade union and student meetings. He spoke about Jews, the Roma, communists, homosexuals and all the others persecuted and exterminated by the Nazis, and asked people to continue his fight.

I often saw him addressing schoolchildren. Sometimes, the teachers would be nervous that the classes would become restless, as Leon usually talked for more than an hour. Yet, even with the most difficult pupils, he would hold their attention.

He led many delegations to Auschwitz - I went with him four times and there were three Anti-Nazi League visits. He was impatient to ensure we learned as much as possible. He once told me that he wished he could live near the camp, to guide groups around it each day. He marched too, against the British National party and the National Front. Unity and organisation could defeat Nazis, he would say, and that they had to be confronted wherever they tried to gain a foothold. You could never argue with Leon that he should take things easy as he got older. In 1993 he took part in the demonstration to shut down the BNP headquarters in Welling, Kent. As mounted police charged the demonstrators, he had to be lifted over a garden wall for safety. In 1993, following the election of a BNP councillor in east London, a death threat arrived - thrown through his living room window, attached to a brick. He had mesh shutters installed in his Ilford house as a protection. In 2003 local fascists sent him a Christmas card telling him he would make a lovely lampshade.

There was a permanent exhibition of Leon's life at the Jewish Museum in north London, which will be back, in a new form when the museum reopens during the next year. He also contributed to the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust exhibition. He was awarded the OBE in 1998.

Leon was quite extraordinary, and he moved all those who met him. I shared endless car journeys with him, where he would tell jokes and sing and he also described how lonely he was. Had it not been for those terrible events, he would have happily lived the quiet life of a husband, father and grandfather. Leon had that option stolen from him. But he fought so that others would be free to enjoy it.

Recently, when I visited him in hospital, his mood had turned weary, but then we spoke of our campaigning times. He smiled. "Those," he said, "were the days, when we were fighting the Nazis". What a fighter he was.

Leon Greenman, campaigner and witness to the Holocaust, born December 18 1910; died March 6 2008


No comments: