An 89-year-old Holocaust survivor has finally told his story, 77 years after the end of World War II.
Leon Placek, who lives in Paris, has published a book called I was 10 years old in Bergen Belsen – a memoir of his time at the Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany.
Having survived one of the most horrific chapters in human history, Leon initially didn’t want to tell his story. It was pressure from one of his sons that led him to agree to recount his experiences.
Placek told AFP: “He stalked me for two weeks! I gave in.
Placek, a chartered accountant who still practices at his firm Placek & Apelbaum, first stood in front of a group of high school students to tell his story.
Then, with the help of journalist Philippe Legrand, he writes his testimony. In the book, he says of his uncertainty in speaking up so far: “We were like strangers, coming back from a world you don’t usually come back from. I hesitated for a long time to break this silence… My word? point! Will he carry this word? What could I say?
Nearly eight decades might seem like a long time to wait to tell a story, but that’s not uncommon among Holocaust survivors, many of whom wanted to move on after the war and not discuss what they had been through. .
Moreover, as the professor of French literature Dominique Moncond’huy points out in his book The Human Species and Other Writings from the Camps, when people come forward, the testimonies are often treated with indifference or incomprehension.
“Nothing, without doubt, could be more violent for the survivors, in the discomfort of returning among the living from whom an irreducible distance separated them, than to note that their voice was not heard”, he writes.
Despite the inherent difficulty of telling these traumatic stories, several Holocaust survivors have recently published memoirs, perhaps aware that after 77 years their numbers are dwindling.
Lili Keller-Rosenberg, another Bergen Belsen survivor, released And We Returned Alone last year at the age of 88. She said she first told her story to a group of college students in 1983, but only recently found the courage to put it on paper.
“I can’t sleep anymore,” she writes in her book. “We are no longer numerous, the deportees. In the Hauts de France [the northernmost region of the country]I am the last survivor who can still testify.
Génia Obœuf, a survivor of the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp, which Keller-Rosenberg also passed through, died aged 98 before the publication of her memoir Génia et Aimé later this month.
Julia Wallach, an Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor, waited until she was 96 to publish her story. His novel, God was on vacation, co-written with Pauline Guéna, will be released in November.
“Even now, it’s hard for me to tell my story,” she says. “The arrival at Birkenau! Even now I still have the screams in my ears.