Since the year 2000, international communities and governments have been commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January, to remember those many millions killed in the genocides in Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur (Sudan). 27 January marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.  

Holocaust Memorial Day is a chance to collectively reflect on the accounts of those who tragically did not survive the attempts to persecute and exterminate their kind, and also to hear the testimony of those survivors who are important eye-witnesses to the depths humanity was capable of sinking to.

On 28 January, one day after the official commemorative day, I went to Brompton Library to hear the account delivered by a librarian to a small audience, of a Frenchwoman and Jew, Renee Bornstein, now living in England, who escaped the possibility of being rounded up in France and sent east.

Renee Borstein was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1934.  As the Nazis tightened their grip on France and extended their reach across the country, Renee’s parents moved the family (Renee and her younger brother and sister) down to the south-west of France.  There, they got used to a way of life hiding in barns, farms, cellars, chapels and attics, constantly exposed to the possibility of betrayal by locals, or other fateful discovery by the Nazis.

Eventually, Renee’s parents grew too afraid of the risks they were running, and made the agonising decision to send their children away to the safety of neutral Switzerland on what was known as the Kindertransport – literally, children’s transport.   They were given false papers and joined other supposedly non-Jewish children on lorries and a train; their story was to be that they were on their way to a Children’s holiday camp.  They were shepherded by a young woman, Marianne Cohn, a Jewish Girl Gide and French Resistance worker, who time and again took a hail of blows from the Nazis – and eventually was killed by the Gestapo - as she stood her ground against the Nazis and their fierce interrogations as they sought to have Marianne reveal the truth about the identity of her charges. After two short spells of living in convents on their journey through France towards Switzerland, with tension rising with the presence of Nazi soldiers everywhere (the sight of soldiers’ uniforms later and for the rest of her life made Renee shiver) the mayor of a Savoy town near Annecy negotiated their release in August 1944.  They were among the more fortunate of those torn from their home (the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day), as they were reunited after 6 months with their parents, who had survived the War and the Nazis by staying in hiding. Nevertheless, Renee was never the same again.  She lost her childhood, and was not able to be carefree.  She married and in later life settled in Manchester, happy among her many children and grand-children, who restored her faith in humanity and gave her hope and love.