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News > School news > Holocaust Educational Trust Comes to Talk to TWGSB Sixth Form

Holocaust Educational Trust Comes to Talk to TWGSB Sixth Form

We were very honoured to welcome Mr. Uri Winterstein who came in to talk to the Sixth form students last week about his experience surviving the Holocaust.
16 Nov 2022
Written by Lucy Tipler
School news
Mr Winterstein with Head of History, Mr. Pratt
Mr Winterstein with Head of History, Mr. Pratt

Mr. Winterstein came on behalf of the The Holocaust Educational Trust which was established in 1988. The organisation’s aim is to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today and to ensure history does not repeat itself.


 

Uri Winterstein was born in Bratislava, Slovakia in October 1943. His parents were both lawyers, but his father’s main passion was the welfare of the Jewish community and he was very active in Jewish community affairs.

Uri related the story of his life and what his family endured when the Nazis took over Slovakia during World War II.  When the Jewish people and other "untermensch"  (the Nazi term for non-Aryan "inferior people" ) were rounded up and put on trains to "resettle them" in unknown ghettos or "transit camps".  This was the propaganda terminology the Nazis used to blindside the rest of the world as to the actual death camps they were being sent to. 

When Uri was only a month old, his parents put him in the care of a non-Jewish woman, and he was not reunited with his family until after the war. They did so because they realised that it would be very difficult to keep a baby quiet if they needed to go into hiding, an eventuality for which they felt they always had to be prepared.

Nine of Uri’s wider family were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were killed. During the war, Uri’s father was a member of an underground movement known as the Working Group, who attempted to halt the deportation of Jews from Slovakia for almost two years (from October 1942 to late September 1944). They did this by bribing key SS officers and government officials.

At Rabbi Weissmandl's initiative, the Working Group was also responsible for the ambitious but ill-fated Europa Plan which would have seen large numbers of European Jews rescued from the Nazis and Fascists.  A key heroine of that group was Gisi Fleischmann.

The Working Group also played a central role in the distribution of the Auschwitz Report in spring of 1944 which recounted what was actually going on in the concentration camps to the rest of the world who weren’t fully aware of the reality. Ultimately the report reached George Mantello in Switzerland via Budapest. He immediately published the report's summary. That triggered a major Swiss grass-roots protest in the Swiss press and streets. It was a major factor leading to President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and others threatening Hungary's regent with post-war retribution if he did not immediately stop the transports of Jews to the camps.

At the time, about 12,000 Jews per day were transported from Hungary to Auschwitz. Consequently, Raoul Wallenberg was able to go to Budapest, where he and diplomats like Carl Lutz, Angelo Rotta, and others rescued large numbers of Jews.

In autumn 1944, Uri's father was deported to Terezin in what is today the Czech Republic. His mother and sister managed to evade being deported and went into hiding underground. However, they were eventually caught and sent to Terezin.

Following the Slovak National Uprising of August - October 1944, the Germans invaded Slovakia and deported most of the remaining Jews. The Working Group was unable to bribe or negotiate with the German military authorities, and a massive roundup on the night of 28 September caught 1,800 Jews in Bratislava, including most of the Working Group's leadership.

Gisi Fleischmann was not arrested, and continued to help Jews until she was deported on the last transport to Auschwitz on 17 October. Designated "return unwanted," it is likely she was murdered upon arrival.

It is said that, "Fleischmann's name deserves to be immortalized in the annals of our people, and her memory should be bequeathed to further generations as a radiant example of heroism and of boundless devotion."

When the Russian army was approaching Bratislava, the family Uri was with decided to give him to a local peasant woman. This woman did not wish to be bothered with the care of a child and Uri received little attention.

Thankfully, Uri was reunited with his family at the end of the war, aged 19 months old, but he could not walk or talk and ate only a roll dipped in coffee, the food he had eaten during his stay with the woman. Despite this, without the minimal care she gave him, he could not have survived.

After the war, following the takeover of Czechoslovakia by the Communists in 1948, his family left the country and ended up in Brazil, where Uri grew up.

Uri is now married and has two daughters, a son and five grandchildren. He lives in Chiswick and has been speaking in schools for the Trust since 2013.

Uri recounted to the students about not realising he was a holocaust survivor until later in life as his family never spoke of what they endured after the War. When he researched his background himself, he then understood better the severity of the situation he grew up in, and the lucky escape he had because of his parent’s actions and devotion to save him and what remained of their family.  

He explained to the students that along with this epiphany, he, like many holocaust survivors, suffer from ‘survivor’s guilt’ which can happen after a traumatic incident and the mind cannot work out or manage the emotional after effects of why they survived when others didn’t.

Once he realised all this in his adult life, he wanted to see how he could help society ensure nothing like this happens again, which is when he came across The Holocaust Educational Trust whose mission it is to educate people to this end.  Uri explained the work of the Trust was especially vital now in this day of ‘fake news’ and young people spreading the conspiracy theory that the Holocaust never happened which can lead to right wing movements stirring again.

It was very interesting to hear how he emphasised that the Nazi regime started so gradually that people didn’t see what was actually happening across Europe until it was too late; he warned the students about encountering expressions and words in their future that should alert them to extremism and racism, and to be aware.

The TWGSB students were actively engaged with this fascinating talk and asked many interesting questions afterwards.

Mr. Winterstein said of his visit, “I enjoyed my visit to your school very much not only because it was a relief to be doing a talk in person rather than via zoom but also as both the teachers and the students I met were lovely. The students asked a lot of interesting questions, which for me is the part to which I most look forward”.

* Quote from Gideon Hausner, prosecutor at the Eichmann trial ref. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gisi_Fleischmann

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