March 08, 2008

Leon Greenman OBE, Auschwitz survivor 98288 (1910 – 2008)

The very sad news has reached us of the death of Leon Greenman at the great age of 97. I won't say anything about Mr Greenman's personal story which is pretty well covered in the Guardian piece from 2005 (below), but I will say that I had the very great pleasure of meeting and talking to him when he came to Lancaster a few years ago to speak at a meeting of the then Anti-Nazi League. Despite even then being over eighty, one was immediately struck by his boundless energy where it concerned travelling anywhere to spread the word about the Nazis and the Holocaust, what it had meant to him personally and what it means now to fight and keep on fighting to keep the menace of the far-right at bay.

Lancaster Town Hall saw its biggest ever public meeting on the night he came to talk to us and there wasn't a single person in the audience who wasn't deeply affected by what he had to say. Nor was there anyone who wasn't impressed by his complete devotion to his task and the constant work he put into it. If we had a hundred Leon Greenman's, the fight against the far-right would be over in no time. Read the quote from him at the end of this article and remember it whenever you find your energy flagging. It should inspire all of us.

Leon Greenman

On January 27 1945, Soviet soldiers advancing through Poland discovered the largest and most lethal of Hitler's death camps: Auschwitz. Sixty years on, a survivor of the camp tells Stephen Moss his story

The first thing you notice about Leon Greenman's large but shabby terraced house in Ilford is that it has mesh shutters. He had them put up 10 years ago, soon after the National Front threw bricks through the windows. Two years ago, he received a Christmas card from the local fascists telling him he would make a lovely lampshade. Don't tell Greenman that nazism is a dry-as-dust historical phenomenon.

Greenman is an amazing 94, living alone in one room of his cold house; a room piled with papers and portraits of the wife and child he lost in the Holocaust, and of mementoes of his postwar days as a singer of ballads. The other rooms in the house are, he says, full of the goods he used to sell on street stalls, once the Beatles had done for the world of dance bands. He retired from the markets more than 20 years ago, so maybe the ladies' handbags in the locked-up rooms are back in fashion now.

The most poignant portrait on his living-room wall is of his son, Barnett "Barney" Greenman, born on March 17 1940; gassed in Auschwitz two and a half years later. Child and victim of war. Long, curly hair and a gorgeous, girlish face, thrusting a hand to a future that was to be denied him. Even now, had he lived, Barney would be only 64. The Holocaust. Greenman, small, wiry, a boxer in his youth, fought on, has spent 60 years combating racism, was awarded the OBE for his struggle, but in truth never recovered from that blow.

He was born in London, one of six children, but his paternal grandparents were Dutch and his father took the family to live in Rotterdam when Leon was five. His mother had died three years earlier and his father, struggling with his large family, had married his housekeeper. She beat Leon; the schoolmasters beat Leon; he took up boxing, a pocket battleship, unsinkable. He worked in a barber's shop and later in his wife Else's father's book business, commuting between London and Rotterdam.

Greenman's failure to leave Rotterdam before the Nazi occupation of Holland in May 1940 was a catalogue of catastrophes. He intended to leave in 1938 but was reassured by the Munich agreement; the British consul told him that, as a British passport holder, he would be evacuated in the event of war, but when war came, the embassy staff fled; he gave his passport to a friend for safe keeping; the friend panicked and burned it. Greenman was paperless, stateless, friendless. In October 1942, he and his wife and son were taken to the nearby Westerbork concentration camp. Four months later, they were moved to Auschwitz. Greenman was one of 700 Dutch Jews in that consignment; he and one other man survived.

In his book, An Englishman in Auschwitz, Greenman describes his arrival in Birkenau. "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 after our work was done. We will have a lot to talk about, I thought to myself."

"I thought they must be still alive," says Greenman now. "I didn't know they were gassed within hours. I didn't know about gassing. In my mind, there was nothing wrong with them. I told myself I would find them. They were somewhere in the camp. We'll wait and see. That went on day after day after day. The thought that I would see them again kept me going."

Greenman's hairdressing helped him survive: one of his jobs in the camp was to shave the inmates' beards. In September 1943, he was sent to the work camp at Monowitz, where he was employed as a builder, extending the camp. "You were there to work and to die," he says, "and the big fellers went quicker than the little ones." Greenman is a little over five feet tall and built for survival. He endured almost a year and a half in Monowitz, then a 60-mile death march to Gleiwitz, and a nightmarish five-day journey in open cattle trucks to Buchenwald, from which he was liberated by American forces on April 11 1945. A tiny man with the largest of hearts, in this tiny, paper-strewn room that contains the century.


“Young and old alike must learn about the Holocaust as warning against the dangers of racism. There is no difference in colour or religion. If I had survived to betray the dead it would have been better not to survive. We must not forget. Please do not forget.”

Leon Greenman


Antifascist said...

This from London's Jewish Museum website.

'Leon Greenman OBE, 1910-2008

The Jewish Museum is very sad to announce the death of Auschwitz survivor Leon Greenman OBE on Friday 7 March 2008.

Leon was born in London on 18th December 1910. When he was five years old his family moved to Holland, settling in Rotterdam. In the early 1930’s Leon met his wife, Esther van Dam, who was Dutch but lived in London. Leon decided to return to London and in 1935 they got married. However after the wedding Leon and Esther returned to Rotterdam to look after Esther’s grandmother.

In 1940 their son Barney was born and was registered at the British embassy, so he too had British nationality. A few months after the birth of their son the Nazis occupied Holland. Despite Leon’s British citizenship he was registered as a Dutch Jew, and in October 1943 the whole family was taken from their home and deported to Westerbork and then to Auschwitz, where his wife and child perished.

Leon was the only Englishman in Auschwitz, and one of only two men to survive this transport of 700 Jews from Westerbork in Holland to Auschwitz.

Leon survived the war and six different concentration camps. During his ordeals he made a promise to God that if he survived, he would let the world know what happened in the camps. He started to speak in public about his experiences in 1946, and in 1998 he received an OBE for his services against racism. Leon never remarried and grieved for his wife and child all his life.

A permanent gallery dedicated to his story was established at the Jewish Museum in Finchley in 1995 and has been a huge success. Well into his nineties, Leon himself visited the museum every Sunday to talk to visitors, as well as talking to school groups throughout the week and touring the country to take his story to as many people as possible. His message will continue to live on through the new Holocaust Education Gallery when the Jewish Museum reopens in Camden Town in June 2009.

“Looking through the eyes of a single victim is an immensely powerful way to learn about the Holocaust. Leon sits quietly at the end of the gallery, patiently answering visitors’ questions. The one I couldn’t ask, because I could find no way of formulating it without sounding banal, was where can a man find such reserves of courage?” Simon Calder, The Independent'

No Platform said...

Far too many people are described in death as having been inspirational for doing what, in the grand scale of things,are often quite unremarkable things in comparison to others.

Leon Greenman was a true exception.

He defied the Nazis and their heirs until the very end.

Even when they smashed his windows and sent him death threats in an attempt to make him a prisoner in his own home and keep him quiet, Leon kept on giving his heart-breaking testimony to warn future generations of the evils of Nazism and the aspirations of their apologists.

That is what made him truly inspirational.

We are going to lose many more of the tremendous men and women like Leon as age finally catches up with them.

These men and women have inspired and ignited the passions of anti-fascists and anti-racists all over the world, by sharing their unimaginable testimonies so that we could learn from them.

We must make sure we do not forget ever, what people like Leon told us, so that we may tell others of their bravery and their sacrifices and their suffering.

Anonymous said...

“Young and old alike must learn about the Holocaust as warning against the dangers of racism. There is no difference in colour or religion. If I had survived to betray the dead it would have been better not to survive. We must not forget. Please do not forget.”

Your right. They are words well worth rembereing.

Anonymous said...

A damn shame.

Anonymous said...

It kinda puts your own little troubles into perspective doesn't it.

Anonymous said...

The BNP newspaper message board last night posted an evil comment on the Harrow Times calling the Holocaust an issue "for communist traitors". The person who wrote this sick and shameful remark went under the name of Brian Cosworth, but it's probably just another of Mark Collett's internet aliases.

Mark must be so relieved that Leon is dead. That is why it is our duty to carry on his messages both warning about racism, and about hope for the future.

Anonymous said...

I was at the memorable Lancaster event that Leon Greenman spoke at (I was a student at the time) and I remember him as a tiny old man with a passion and intensity enough for ten. A terrible pity that he's passed on but I guess all the survivors are rapidly dwindling in numbers now. A great shame but a strong reminder of why we fight the likes of the British National Party.

Anonymous said...

This is the Harrow Times link so you can see the sort of comments the sick bastard BNP post on (the link has been changed since yesterday due to website updating)

Duncan said...

Inspiring words. The suffering he and his generation went through must never be repeated.

Also, I'm impressed you managed to change the link to the Maryport Against Racism site so quickly, I was about to email you asking you to do that.

Antifascist said...

'Also, I'm impressed you managed to change the link to the Maryport Against Racism site so quickly, I was about to email you asking you to do that.'

The joy of RSS feeds. As soon as I got the feed saying you'd moved, I changed the link. :-)

Anonymous said...

Bless him, Leon was acknowledged on BBC News. Much deserved.

Anonymous said...

I visited Auschwitz only yesterday. It was one of the most important days of my life. I can't even comprehend the suffering and fear the prisoners experienced. We must never never forget what these innocent people were made to endure simply because of their race. My heart broke to learn of the death of Leon Greenman - A true hero.

Antifascist said...

'I visited Auschwitz only yesterday. It was one of the most important days of my life. I can't even comprehend the suffering and fear the prisoners experienced. We must never never forget what these innocent people were made to endure simply because of their race...'

Absolutely. If you'd like to do a first-hand report for us, we'd be only too pleased to post it up on the blog.

Anonymous said...

I was visiting Poland for the first time this week. I caught the 07.00 bus to Auschwitz. I was blessed to be one of the first people of the day. No large tour groups. No noise. Just a bleak, stark camp surrounded by two rows of electric barbed wire fences. Auschwitz 1 has been turned in to a museum. Auschwitz 2 is over a mile square. It took my breath away it was so vast and bleak. It has been left as it was and you are free to just wonder round. Very eerie. Very moving. Very powerful.

There are accounts of the horrific selection processes where 75% of people were gassed on arrival. The "lucky" ones were separated from their families and forced to sleep on straw, or in wooden bunks cramped together with not even enough space to lie down. They then had to work for 10-12 hours a day in arms camps or construction work. Slave labour. Some had to clear the sewage. Many were made to clear the bodies of the thousands of dead prisoners.

There are collections of belongings displayed in giant glass cabinets in the buildings used for living quarters. Thousands of hairbrushes, shoes, childrens clothes and vast amounts of human hair that was sold.

These people were not allowed any dignity. The latrines were in giant open sheds. They were fed rotten vegetables and often died of food poisoning. There was little opportunity to wash, and undergarments were only changed every few months.

Women were often used in horrific medical experiments, and if they became ill, they were gassed. There were cells for punishment. Some had no windows to cause sufforcation. Others were called standing cells - Dark cells just a few feet square where 4 prisoners were kept at a time.

I could go on and on for the list of atrocities is almost never ending. I feel I have lived in the dark til now about what really happened there. My visit to Auschwitz will stay with me forever.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that the BNP hated Leon Greenman.

Leon Greenman's home was attacked in the 1990s by the neo-nazi terrorist group Combat 18 (set up the BNP). This was in addition to the numerous death threats he received from Combat 18/BNP members.

Anonymous said...

Leon was and will continue to be an inspiration. NEVER AGAIN

Entdinglichung said...

Never Again!
¡Leon presente!

Beaman said...

I wish I'd had the chance to meet this great man.

Jeremy Hackman said...

Story of my Uncle fighting Nazis