Holocaust survivor Mayer Hersh, who has dedicated his life to retelling his experience of one of the most appalling times in history to educate others, received an honorary award from Edge Hill University today (16th July).
Since the 1970s, Mayer has been an influential contributor to the Holocaust Education Programme in the north-west and has been a regular speaker at schools, colleges, universities and prisons. For countless numbers of children he has taken history out of the textbooks and transformed it into a living reality.
He has inspired teachers and students, including those at Edge Hill University, to pass on the lessons of the past to the generations of the future, making him a deserving recipient of an honorary doctorate. Listen to his interview here.
Speaking after the ceremony, Mayer said: “Today you have added a most unexpected but delightful footnote to the story of my life. For despite the fact that my education was terminated early, today you have acclaimed me an Honorary Doctor of Education. I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the honour you have extended to me today. I also add my heartiest congratulations to all my fellow graduands. I wish each of you every success in your chosen careers, and joy and fulfilment in your lives.”
The names of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau have become synonymous with the horrors that took place at these concentration camps. Mayer experienced it all first-hand. Born in Sieradz, Poland, in 1926 he was just 12-years-old when Germany invaded the land of his birth in 1939. “It was the first day of the new term, and I was getting ready for school” he recalled. ‘It was half past six; school started at eight. My father said, ‘Mayer, there’s no need to rush, you most probably won’t be going to school today’. For Jewish students it never reopened.”
In spring 1940 Mayer and his brother Jakob were seized to be slave labourers. He never saw his parents again. Moved from camp to camp, he arrived at Auschwitz in May 1943, a place he later described as “the worst hell on earth”. For a time even Mayer gave up hope. “I was in total despair”, he remembered, “but the man next to me, a stranger, said ‘you can’t give up now, the war is virtually finished’, that made me carry on.” Mayer was freed by the Russians in the last days of the war.
“When I was liberated by the Russians in May 1945, I was eighteen-years-old, a filthy, emaciated skeleton. My hair had stopped growing because of constant starvation, so I was completely bald. I was wracked with typhus, and infested with fleas and lice. Tragically, many thousands of my fellow-prisoners died soon after liberation. I had emerged from the Holocaust bereft of everything except life itself. My home, family and community had all been destroyed. I had to learn again how to live as a human being.
“Despite everything I experienced, suffered and lost, I eventually recovered my physical strength with my sanity intact – a miracle that I cannot explain, but for which I give thanks to every day. I often ask myself, ‘Why did I survive when others, including my parents, brothers and sister did not, but there are no answers.”
Mayer and his brother Jakob were the only survivors from a family of eight. At the end of the war Mayer settled in Manchester where he has lived ever since. It was there that he met his wife Judith and established a successful tailoring business – the same occupation as his father. He became one of the co-founders of the ’45 Aid Society, a support group for Holocaust survivors and refugees from Nazi oppression who settled in the UK.
Today, Mayer is one of a handful of Holocaust survivors living in this country who have the courage to revisit painful and traumatic memories to tell of their experiences. For many who hear him speak the impact of Mayer’s story is life-changing. Yet, he remains committed to passing onto the children and teachers of today the learning and education that he himself was cruelly denied. In doing so he gives a voice to the countless victims of the Holocaust whom the Nazis sought to obliterate from history books forever.
“Recalling and retelling my story is painful,” said Mayer. “But nevertheless I treasure the opportunity to do so because in so doing I am able to cherish and preserve the memory of my family and community; the pain of remembrance IS my only link to them. But my story is important for another reason: it serves as a warning that the blessings of peace, freedom, democracy, and the concepts of justice and human and civil rights can never be taken for granted. They are delicate and precious gifts that we must take care to nurture in ourselves, in our children, and in our communities.”
Mayer seeks no financial gain for his speaking engagements. He freely gives of himself and asks for nothing in return. His only reward comes in helping others to understand the devastating consequences of hatred and prejudice.
He said: “It’s no use being ungrateful and forgetting the good things and always remembering the sad ones. That is not right. There’s got to be balance, because life is like that. And then you come out from that ordeal and you’ve got to celebrate it, and you’ve got to thank God and thank the people who were involved in making your lot much better.”