THEY are simple artefacts – a striped uniform, a shoe and some eating utensils – but they help to encapsulate the horror of the Holocaust and will be among the most evocative items on display at a new exhibition centre located at the University of Huddersfield.
The Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre opens in September. Its funding includes more than £600,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the leading role in its creation has been played by the Leeds-based Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association, chaired by Lilian Black.
She recently returned from a visit to the memorial sites of the former concentration camps of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora, where she negotiated the loan of objects that illustrate the daily life of victims.
They are drinking and eating bowls, spoons and a shoe, plus the uniform of a Polish prisoner named Mieczyslaw Kowalski. The International Tracing Service, which documents victims of the Nazis, was able to furnish information about him.
Born in September 1928, he was imprisoned in October 1944 at Breslau, aged 16, then sent to Gross-Rosen concentration camp. He was transferred to Mittelbau-Dora on 12 February 1945 where he worked as a forced labourer. He spent time in the hospital prison at Mittelbau-Dora suffering from frostbite. He was liberated by American troops in April 1945. The Red Cross repatriated him to Poland.
Lilian Black’s late father Eugene – a Czech-born Jew who survived the Holocaust to build a new post-war life in England – was a slave labourer at Mittelbau-Dora, where the Nazis constructed the V2 rocket. He was sent to the camp after undergoing a selection process at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seems likely that he would have encountered Mieczyslaw Kowalski.
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Emma King, who is Director of the Holocaust Heritage and Learning Centre, said: “It is amazing to have such precious and original artefacts from the original camp settings, to be able to display for people to be able to actually see the reality of daily life in the camps.
“It was a deeply moving and emotional experience to see and touch these items which belonged to a human being who survived and donated them to our German partners,” she continued. “They add and enrich the documentary evidence we already have, of testimonies, photographs and recorded minutes of meetings planning the Final Solution.”
The artefacts were handed over to the Centre at a special ceremony attended by many of the people closely involved in the project, including one of its patrons, the Yorkshire businessman and philanthropist Jonathan Straight.
Also present was the University of Huddersfield’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tim Thornton, who said: “It is our great honour to be able to work with the HSFA and its partners to bring this new development to the University of Huddersfield for future teaching, learning and research. This is just the start of what I believe to be one of the most important partnerships for the future.”
HSFA Chair Lilian Black said: “It has been a long journey in more ways than one as my father and other survivors were prisoners at these former concentration camps, but it is critical that we preserve our legacy and make it accessible for future generations to know how thin the layers of civilisation are. I cannot speak highly enough about our German partners in Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora for entrusting us with such precious items.”
In addition to its Heritage Lottery Fund Award, the Holocaust Heritage and Learning Centre has received support from the University of Huddersfield, the Pears Foundation, the Toni Schiff Memorial Fund, the Association of Jewish Refugees plus a number of firms and patrons.
In this video, you can see the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre welcoming exhibits donated by the former concentration camps of Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora. You can view the official opening ceremony of the Centre on YouTube.