On 11th March, around 240 students representing all the schools in the Magherafelt Learning Partnership (Sperrin Integrated, St Mary’s Grammar, Rainey Endowed and St Pius X College, Magherafelt High School) gathered together in Magherafelt High School to hear a testimony from Holocaust survivor, Joanna Millan,as part of a visit organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET).
The testimony was followed by a question and answer session to enable students to better understand the nature of the Holocaust and to explore its lessons in more depth. The visit is part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s extensive all year round Outreach Programme, which is available to schools across the UK.
Miss Finlay welcomed Joanna to Magherafelt on behalf of all the schools in the partnership:
“It is a privilege for us to welcome Joanna Millan to our school and her testimony will remain a powerful reminder of the horrors so many experienced. We are grateful to the Holocaust Educational Trust for co-ordinating the visit and we hope that by hearing Joanna’s testimony, it will encourage our students to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust and make a positive difference in their own lives.”
Karen Pollock MBE, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust added:
“The Holocaust Educational Trust educates and engages students from across the UK, from all communities about the Holocaust and there can be no better way than through the first-hand testimony of a survivor. Joanna’s story is one of tremendous courage during horrific circumstances and by hearing her testimony, students will have the opportunity to learn where prejudice and racism can ultimately lead.
“At the Trust, we impart the history of the Holocaust to young people, to ensure that we honour the memory of those whose lives were lost and take forward the lessons taught by those who survived.”
Joanna was born Bela Rosenthal in August 1942 in Berlin. At the end of February 1943, Bela’s father was taken from the streets of Berlin and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was killed. Later that year in June, Bela and her mother were taken from their home and sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp 50 miles outside of Prague. In 1944, when Bela was two, her mother contracted TB due to the conditions in the camp, leaving Bela orphaned and alone in the camp. The conditions in the camp were horrendous and, in addition to the dangers in Thereseienstadt, there was always the threat of being sent on to Auschwitz. It is approximated that only 11% of those who entered Threseienstadt survived.
Year 10 Magherafelt High School students speak with Joanna about her experiences
Therefore it is even more surprising that a three year old orphan defied all odds to survive. Food was scarce. There were none of the assumed childhood ‘basics’ such as toys and Joanna remembers that she and five other young orphans were mostly left to their own devices and looked after each other like family. This is particularly moving when we realise that the oldest of these orphans was only three years and ten months when they were rescued from the camp.
Some of the women working in the kitchens would take food to the orphans. One woman, Litska Shallinger, knowing that the food in the camp was contaminated and working in the vegetable patch, would bring back fresh, clean vegetables hidden under her clothes, some of which she would give to Bela. After the war Litska wanted to take Bela home with her, but the authorities did not think that she had the means to care for a child. On 3rd May 1945, the Red Cross took over control of the camp and Bela was liberated by the Russians.
After the liberation Bela, along with five other surviving orphans, was flown to England in British bomber planes which had been used to return Czech pilots who had been flying with the RAF during the war. After transferring through a series of children’s homes, Bela was adopted by a Jewish couple living in London. They decided it would be better to have a less German sounding name and so her name was changed to Joanna. Joanna was told not to mention that she was Jewish or that she was born in Germany and to pretend that she was their natural daughter. Growing up and hiding her identity was hard for Joanna, but she says that the scale of antisemitism was such that Jews were discriminated against in all spheres of society, even in England. Just before they died, her adopted parents told Joanna that they had considered committing suicide during the war because they were so afraid of what might happen to the Jewish people in England if the Nazis had won the war.
Joanna went on to marry a Jewish man and has 3 children and 8 grandchildren. She is a magistrate and today speaks regularly about her experiences during the Holocaust.