When Uri Winterstein started crying as he gave the reading at his first Holocaust memorial service about five years ago, he realised that he too was a survivor.
For the 70-year-old grandfather was just a baby in the last two years of the war, regarding his parents, Dr Vojtech and Margrit, and sister, Ruth as the survivors and himself as “fine”.
On Monday he spoke to 150 senior students at Jedburgh Grammar School about the atrocity.
“I was a Hidden Child, a month old when my parents gave me to a non-Jewish family to look after because they realised they might need to go into hiding: you can’t tell a baby to be quiet. I was around 20 months when we were reunited.”
Uri’s story is peppered with close shaves and lucky escapes for both him and his immediate family.
He and the family looking after him were in the forest enjoying the sunshine. At nine months old, he was running around with no clothes on when the Commandant of Bratislava and his wife walked by.
“They came over to pat me on the head as people do with babies. They would have known I was a Jewish child. I cannot know what happened or why, but obviously, if they had denounced me I would not be here.”
Nine of his wider family, including his 91-year-old grandmother, were sent to Auschwitz where they were killed. Living in Bratislava, Slovakia, both Uri’s parents were lawyers. His father was a member of the Working Group which halted the deportation of Jews from 1942 to 1944 by bribing SS officers and government officials. Eventually Uri’s sister and parents were caught and sent to the concentration camp, Terezin (in German, Theresienstadt) near the Polish border, which was also used as a transit camp for Auschwitz and Treblinka. The family Uri was with decided to flee and gave him to a peasant woman to look after.
“She didn’t really look after me, I got sick and had vomiting and diarrhoea whenever I ate. She found a roll dipped in coffee stayed down so that was all I was fed. There are still large swathes of food I find I can’t eat.”
He was left in his pram often and at 20 months couldn’t walk or talk.
“I’m grateful to both of those women, ” he said.
“My sister never spoke about it until I asked her last year. Of 15,000 children who went through Terezin, only 150 survived. My sister is one of those 150 children. She paid a heavy price for what happened.
“You can do what you can to survive but in the end it’s extreme luck. The reality is that when I was small I didn’t know anything about any of this baggage. I was a teenager when my mother told me some stories. My father only talked about it once and said the Working Group did everything it could to help people. I thought I had escaped with very little baggage”
His synagogue had invited him to do the reading at that emotional Holocaust memorial service: “In the middle of it, I totally broke down. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop myself. I realised I was much more affected than I had thought. There were times when I was obsessed (as a teenager) but I just didn’t think it affected me: I was trying to understand my family. I thought of them (his parents and sister) as survivors and I was fine, lucky. Then the penny dropped and I realised I had survived too.”
It wasn’t until he was at a memorial last year, when the Czech and Israeli ambassadors spoke, observing the generation of Holocaust survivors are passing, that he was prompted to talk about his experiences.
“It was a trigger for me and I thought I should be doing something.” He contacted the Holocaust Education Trust, which organised Monday’s school visit.
“The reason I talk is not to do with the Holocaust, it’s the future. Germany was a very advanced, highly cultured society that produced world-renowned artists, musicians, scientists, yet the Nazi Holocaust happened. It can happen in any society if you allow prejudice to slide into hatred and intolerance, and extreme and fanatical ideas.”