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https://civilservice.blog.gov.uk/2021/01/28/commemorating-holocaust-memorial-day-2021/

Commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

Eugene Sochor, far left, with some of the other Jewish orphans hidden by the Belgian resistance in the tuberculosis hospital

Government Chief People Officer, Rupert McNeil writes about Holocaust Memorial Day, and reveals his deeply personal family connection.

We are living through unusual and difficult times. But pandemics, while rare, are not unique human experiences. The Holocaust is. 

We need to try and understand what it was, particularly through the testimony of those who survived it. Tuesday’s Cabinet Office Holocaust Memorial Day event, attended by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet Secretary, included the personal testimony of Steven Frank BEM. 

Unimaginable

It is a privilege, and one that sadly will not be available forever, to hear witnesses like Mr Frank in real-time.  It is a privilege to benefit from their willingness to tell us about this unimaginable and terrible event.

Eugene Sochor's star and ration book (with a non-Jewish name)

My wife Nicole’s father, Eugene Sochor, who died in 2015, was also a Holocaust survivor.  After the German Army invaded Belgium and occupied his native Antwerp, he lived with his father, his step-mother and baby brother Robert above their Tobacco shop, required to wear a yellow star on his jacket when he went outside. 

In 1942, when Eugene, aged 14 and Robert were out of the house, German soldiers came and took his parents. His step-mother was gassed in Auschwitz. His father died in a labour camp.

Dragged away

Eugene’s step-mother scribbled a telephone number before she was dragged away. It belonged to a relative in the Resistance who arranged for Eugene and Robert to be hidden. 

Despite attempts to flush them out - once Eugene received a postcard purporting to be from his parents saying he and Robert should join them at a ‘holiday camp’ - Robert (now a retired lawyer and grandfather in New Jersey) was eventually hidden with a farming family, and Eugene found a safe haven - with fake chest x-rays - in a tuberculosis hospital: a place his pursuers would not go. 

Eugene Sochor

Liberation day came.  British soldiers were in Antwerp. Eugene and Robert could come out of hiding. A British soldier gave Eugene a bar of chocolate.  Robert was too young to have tasted chocolate.  A couple of years ago, Robert told me that he still remembered the day Eugene gave him a piece. 

“Here, try this,” his brother said.  

On the run

This year’s Holocaust Memorial day reminds us that there is ‘light in the darkness.’ 

We are all experiencing the strangeness of lockdowns, and school children and other students have had to learn at home, with parents and teachers helping them. Eugene’s light, when he was on the run, hiding for 18 months in an attic and then in the hospital, was his learning. He taught himself languages and literature. He read as widely as he could.

Holocaust survivor, Eugene Sochor with his grandchildren

When the war ended he got himself into university. He very, very rarely spoke about that time, so most of what we know comes from some photos and documents he kept, with his yellow fabric star, in a brown paper bag marked, ‘The War.’  

After he died, we discovered essays and a play he wrote and that the other children in the hospital performed. 

We  discovered the letter that a kind British corporal wrote to his Uncle in the USA, telling him that Eugene and Robert were alive and arranging for them to join them.  When Robert and Eugene emigrated to America, with help of that British corporal, Robert made sure he could get hold of Belgian chocolate.

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6 comments

  1. Comment by wendy minney posted on

    Thank you for sharing your families story. It must have been a shock to come across the dreaded yellow star that he was made to wear. Makes it even more difficult to process, that there are still places on our planet, today, that are committing genocide against another race/creed. The story brings hope.

  2. Comment by Natasha Winters posted on

    Thank you for sharing the story. It was truly a terrible time. Both of my parents are Jewish. I managed several years ago to trace the camps where their families were murdered - Auschwitz & Buchenwald. I had a chance and went to Buchenwald a number or years ago. I would recommend people visit a camp if they get a chance. To be able to see the places where these atrocities were committed is a strange experience but one that I am glad I took part in. People need to learn from these experiences in our history and not repeat the same mistakes. Especially in todays world where it can often be a very cruel place.

  3. Comment by Rose Thomas posted on

    Completely agree @Natasha Winters. I have no personal connection (that I know of), but I visited Auschwitz some years ago and the impact will stay with me forever.

    It was shocking and appalling to see references to the Holocaust on flags and garments worn by rioters in USA recently - a reminder how hatred and violence can escalate if the conditions allow. Joe Biden made a speech on 7th January (the day after the riots at the Capitol building) in which he reflected on the pressure individuals had come under but how the integrity of the democratic institutions had prevailed. "When history looks back on this moment we've just passed through, I believe it will say our democracy survived in no small part because of the men and women who represent an independent judiciary in this nation. We owe them a deep, deep debt of gratitude."

    No country is immune. We can all play our part and stand up for a healthy and inclusive democracy. Sometimes it takes something going on in another country to remind us all to appreciate the independent judiciary in this country and (in my corner of the Civil Service) value our role in supporting them.

  4. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Rupert for sharing with us why the Holocaust Memorial Day is both important to you and your family.

    During my posting to East Africa, I took the opportunity to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial with my family. As well as providing a meaningful tribute to those who perished, it also offers a unique educational opportunity for the current and future generation.

    Certainly, my wife and found the Children's memorial extremely moving!

    We should continue to do our utmost to ensure that both current and future generations are able to reflect on the Holocaust and the other subsequent Genocides.

    I certain make sure to light a candle on Wednesday evening, in observation of this important moment.

  5. Comment by Gavin Thomas posted on

    Thank you Rupert for sharing with us why the Holocaust Memorial Day is both important to you and your family.

    During my posting to East Africa, I took the opportunity to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial with my family. As well as providing a meaningful tribute to those who perished, it also offers a unique educational opportunity for the current and future generation.

    Certainly, my wife and found the Children's memorial extremely moving!

    We should continue to do our utmost to ensure that both current and future generations are able to reflect on the Holocaust and the other subsequent Genocides.

    I was certain to make sure to light a candle on Wednesday evening, in observation of this important moment.

  6. Comment by Rob Bernstein posted on

    Rupert - thank you for sharing. It is so important to keep history alive - to try and avoid such heinous situations occurring.