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.