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Arek Hersh

Born in Poland, Arek was imprisoned in Łódz ghetto and later at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Arek survived a death march before finally being liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945. He was then sent to Britain as one of the “Windermere Boys”.

Arek was born into a tight-knit Polish Jewish family in Sieradz in 1928, the fourth of five siblings. The family followed the Jewish faith and Arek attended a Jewish school. Arek had a happy childhood going to the park, ice-skating and singing solos in the school choir.

As a boy, Arek experienced some instances of antisemitism, particularly after the arrival of refugees from the Polenaktion in Germany in October 1938, and the increased friction with Volksdeutsche in the area.

When the German army invaded Poland, Arek’s family were forced to flee on foot. Initially they stayed with family in Zduńska Wola, but as the German army advanced, they moved to Łódź. When the German army marched into Łódź, Arek remembers the German soldiers laughing and joking whilst humiliating Jewish men by cutting off their beards. After witnessing these scenes, Arek’s father decided to take the family back to Sieradz.

A pair of leather ice skates hung by their laces

“I was coming out from the school and a few Polish children shouted (at) me, ‘Go back to Palestine.’  I was born in Poland, a Polish subject, but according to them we weren’t Polish.”

Towards the end of 1941 the authorities came to take Arek’s father to a work camp. But as they forced him out of the door, he managed to escape. Arek’s brother also managed a similar escape, so 13-year-old Arek was taken instead. He spent the night in a police station and the following day he and other prisoners were taken to a railway station where Arek’s brother was waiting to take his place. Arek refused. Arek and the other prisoners were taken to a camp called Otoczno (now called Otoczna), near Września. He was able to survive because his job was cleaning the commandant’s office, which meant he was indoors and able to steal food.

In 1942, Arek was sent back to Łódź ghetto. When everyone asked him for news of their relatives, Arek reassured them they were all working, because he could not bear to tell them what had happened.

In August 1942, Arek, his remaining family members, and around 1,400 ghetto residents were forced into a church in Sieradz on a hot summer’s day with no food or water. Arek managed to slip out to try to find some water for his mother, but at the gate an SS officer demanded to know Arek’s profession. Arek lied and said he was a tailor; he was sent to join a passing group of 150 people being taken to work in Łódź. His family, with the majority of others at the church, were taken to the death camp at Chełmno where they were murdered.

Arek went to live in the ghetto orphanage and worked in a textile mill for the next two years:

“I didn’t know what to do, I was on my own, the older people didn’t have time for me you know.  So I went out on the street.  I sat on the corner and I started crying, I didn’t know what to do.”

In the summer of 1944, Łódź ghetto was liquidated and, on 25 August, Arek was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was just 15 years old.

During the selection process, Arek noticed that the healthier-looking people were being sent to one side, so he quickly followed them when a disturbance distracted the guards. Arek was then shaved all over and made to shower before being given a striped uniform and tattooed with the number B7608. After this Arek lost his name and identity. From that moment on, he was only referred to by his number.

After two weeks, Arek went to Auschwitz I to work as an agricultural labourer for the SS, ploughing fields and fertilising them with ashes from the crematorium. Arek remembered feeling the bones as he spread the ashes on the ground. He was later transferred to the fishing commando, which involved catching fish from the river Vistula to be sent to Germany.

Fearing the Soviet advance, the Germans evacuated Auschwitz on 18 January 1945. Arek and the remaining prisoners were taken on a forced march which lasted three days, with no food and only their striped uniforms as protection against the deep snow and icy temperatures. Those who survived arrived at Katowice railway station and were then taken to Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar in Germany.

Arek was placed in a children’s barrack for a few months before he and three thousand others were loaded onto open wagons on 7 April 1945. Only 600 survived the month-long journey to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Arek was liberated by the Russian army on 8 May 1945. He remembers being given rice pudding to eat.

On 12 August 1945, Arek was transferred to Prague and flown to Britain as part of a broader initiative to help Europe’s child survivors.  A group of 300 boys and girls were taken to Windermere in the Lake District to recuperate and learn English. Remembered today as the “Windermere Boys,” Arek recalls the overwhelming surprise at Britain’s quiet landscape and hospitality.

“It was as if we had been taken to another world…A friendly world, a beautiful world. After everything we’d been through, we could not believe it.”

Arek then moved to Liverpool with some other rescued teens to learn a trade. He became an electrician, later married, and had three children.

After the war, Arek discovered that only forty Jewish people from his hometown had survived the Holocaust; most had been killed in Chełmno. In total, Arek lost 81 members of his family. From his close family, only his elder sister Mania survived. She had fled eastwards into Russia with an uncle and aunt, and later emigrated to the USA. Arek was reunited with Mania two years after the war had ended.

Arek did not speak about his experiences until he wrote his book, A Detail of History (1995) at just two lines a day. Until then, he suffered from regular nightmares about his experiences. Arek continues to speak with people of all ages about his experiences during the Holocaust, educating them about the dangers of intolerance and prejudice. In 2009, he was awarded an MBE for service in the field of Holocaust education.

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