Leon Greenman, the only Englishman sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp, has died this past Friday, March 7th. He was 97.
Greenman was one of six children born in Whitechapel, in the East End of London. His family’s background was Dutch-Jewish. His paternal grandparents were Dutch and when his father remarried, Greenman’s mother died when he was two, he moved the family to Rotterdam in the Netherlands. By the 1920s, Leon had returned to London apprenticing with a barber in Forest Gate. During the 1930s he joined an amateur operatic society where he met Esther "Else" van Dam. In 1935 they married and in 1940 their son Barnett was born. Meanwhile, he commuted between Britain and Holland, working for his father-in-law's book business.
Greenman believed that being a British citizen, his family would be protected from the Nazis. But by late April 1942, the Nazis had enforced the wearing of the yellow Star of David on Jews in the Netherlands. Leon, meanwhile, gave his family's savings and passports to non-Jewish friends for safe keeping. Scared of reprisals for helping Jews, his friends burned the documents.
On October 8, 1942 the entire family were rounded up and taken to Westerbork, a Nazi concentration camp in the Netherlands. In mid-January 1943 they were told they were being deported to a Polish "work camp." His wife Esther and three-year-old son Barney perished there at Auschwitz. Greenman survived the war and committed the rest of his life to teaching and reminding the public what he had witnessed at Auschwitz and the five other camps he was sent to. He believed that if he could tell enough people about the horrors of the camps and Nazism, perhaps it would never happen again.
He published a memoir, An Englishman in Auschwitz, and continued to lecture well into old age. In 1988 he received the prestigious Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II for his work fighting racism.
(Photo of Leon Greenman by John Londei)
Here’s an article written by Stephen Moss for The Guardian UK, from January 13 2005.
The first thing you notice about Leon Greenman's large but shabby terraced house in Ilford is that it has mesh shutters. He had them put up 10 years ago, soon after the National Front threw bricks through the windows. Two years ago, he received a Christmas card from the local fascists telling him he would make a lovely lampshade. Don't tell Greenman that nazism is a dry-as-dust historical phenomenon.
Greenman is an amazing 94, living alone in one room of his cold house; a room piled with papers and portraits of the wife and child he lost in the Holocaust, and of mementoes of his postwar days as a singer of ballads. The other rooms in the house are, he says, full of the goods he used to sell on street stalls, once the Beatles had done for the world of dance bands. He retired from the markets more than 20 years ago, so maybe the ladies' handbags in the locked-up rooms are back in fashion now.
The most poignant portrait on his living-room wall is of his son, Barnett "Barney" Greenman, born on March 17 1940; gassed in Auschwitz two and a half years later. Child and victim of war. Long, curly hair and a gorgeous, girlish face, thrusting a hand to a future that was to be denied him. Even now, had he lived, Barney would be only 64. The Holocaust. Greenman, small, wiry, a boxer in his youth, fought on, has spent 60 years combating racism, was awarded the OBE for his struggle, but in truth never recovered from that blow.
He was born in London, one of six children, but his paternal grandparents were Dutch and his father took the family to live in Rotterdam when Leon was five. His mother had died three years earlier and his father, struggling with his large family, had married his housekeeper. She beat Leon; the schoolmasters beat Leon; he took up boxing, a pocket battleship, unsinkable. He worked in a barber's shop and later in his wife Else's father's book business, commuting between London and Rotterdam.
Greenman's failure to leave Rotterdam before the Nazi occupation of Holland in May 1940 was a catalogue of catastrophes. He intended to leave in 1938 but was reassured by the Munich agreement; the British consul told him that, as a British passport holder, he would be evacuated in the event of war, but when war came, the embassy staff fled; he gave his passport to a friend for safe keeping; the friend panicked and burned it. Greenman was paperless, stateless, friendless. In October 1942, he and his wife and son were taken to the nearby Westerbork concentration camp. Four months later, they were moved to Auschwitz. Greenman was one of 700 Dutch Jews in that consignment; he and one other man survived.
In his book, An Englishman in Auschwitz, Greenman describes his arrival in Birkenau. "The women were separated from the men: Else and Barney were marched about 20 yards away to a queue of women ... I tried to watch Else. I could see her clearly against the blue lights. She could see me, too, for she threw me a kiss and held our child up for me to see. What was going through her mind, I will never know. Perhaps she was pleased that the journey had come to an end. We had been promised that we could meet at the weekends after our work was done. We will have a lot to talk about, I thought to myself."
"I thought they must be still alive," says Greenman now. "I didn't know they were gassed within hours. I didn't know about gassing. In my mind, there was nothing wrong with them. I told myself I would find them. They were somewhere in the camp. We'll wait and see. That went on day after day after day. The thought that I would see them again kept me going."
Greenman's hairdressing helped him survive: one of his jobs in the camp was to shave the inmates' beards. In September 1943, he was sent to the work camp at Monowitz, where he was employed as a builder, extending the camp. "You were there to work and to die," he says, "and the big fellers went quicker than the little ones." Greenman is a little over five feet tall and built for survival. He endured almost a year and a half in Monowitz, then a 60-mile death march to Gleiwitz, and a nightmarish five-day journey in open cattle trucks to Buchenwald, from which he was liberated by American forces on April 11, 1945. A tiny man with the largest of hearts, in this tiny, paper-strewn room that contains the century.