Campaigner issues call as Holocaust survivors to receive British Empire Medals

All Holocaust survivors in Britain should be recognised by the Queen, a leading campaigner said as seven survivors were honoured in her 2019 birthday honours list.

Walter Kammerling, 95, Ernest Simon, 89, Gabrielle Keenaghan, 92, Ruzena Levy, 89, Ann and Bob Kirk, 90 and 94, and George Hans Vulkan, 89, will all receive British Empire medals for services to Holocaust education.

Holocaust Educational Trust chief executive Karen Pollock said survivors who continue to share their stories are providing a “public service” amid a climate of “rising anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial and hate”.

She said: “Though smaller in number, there are still survivors who continue to share their testimony, they work hard to educate about the holocaust, who have yet to receive national recognition, and I hope that they too will be rightly recognised while we still can.

“It is my view that all survivors who have not yet been recognised for their efforts should be. We are indebted to all of you.”

Since 2009, 44 Holocaust survivors have been recognised with honours.

Ahead of this year’s birthday honours announcement, survivors gathered at the Jewish Museum in north London at an event organised by the Cabinet Office.

Grandmother Mrs Levy, who survived the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland as a teenager, said she “never dreamt” she would receive an award.

Ruzena Levy
Ruzena Levy receives a British Empire Medal for services to Holocaust education (Yui Mok/PA)

The 89-year-old, who was born in former Czechoslovakia, came to Ireland after the war and later moved to England. She now lives in Golders Green, north London.

She told the Press Association: “The honour is a great surprise and appreciated by me and my family, and I’m proud for them, I really think it’s something that the whole family can share and talk about forever.”

Mrs Levy, who could not talk about her ordeal for 50 years, has visited hundreds of schools and her testimony became part of the curriculum for more than 20,000 students in Lewisham.

She said: “It all makes me suffer, by the fact that I think about it too much beforehand and certainly relive it afterward, but I’m glad to do it, I get very good feedback from children, lovely letters and reports from teachers (about) how much good it has done, and that is satisfying.”

She added that she has “great hope” that the families of other survivors with continue to share their stories once they are gone.

Mrs Levy’s daughter, Shelley, recalled discovering the news when her mother, who has suffered health problems in recent years including colon cancer, returned from a stay in hospital.

The 56-year-old from Lewisham said: “As I was reading the words of the letter the tears were streaming down my face. It was just the loveliest way to finish that day.

“She just couldn’t understand – ‘why would anybody want to give me that honour?’”

Her mother has tried to retire from public speaking three times but will not refuse an invitation when she is asked to relay her story, she said.

She continued: “She feels that it’s very, very important and she’s running out of time, and she needs to make the most of every day and talk when she can.

“She will have an audience of children so quiet you can hear a pin drop, she connects with them in the most incredible way and she will come away and feel very satisfied.

“The aftermath is she won’t sleep, she will have nightmares, she is severely affected by the stories she has told, it obviously churns up a lot of traumatic memories, it’s not a good experience for her … she forgets how awful it really is to have all these memories and painful experiences churned up and she will do it again.”

Also honoured were Mr Kammerling, Mr Simon and Ms Keenaghan, who were all sent to the UK on the kindertransport from Austria, and Mr Vulcan who fled Vienna with his family when he was just nine.

Walter Kammerling
Walter Kammerling (Yui Mok/PA)

Mr Kammerling said: “I was really honoured just to think about it, that somehow I get this honour – I am feeling ‘am I really worthy of getting this honour?’ because I don’t really think I am so special.”

Husband and wife Mr and Mrs Kirk were also recognised.

They came to the UK separately on the kindertransport and have educated more than 30,000 people about their experiences as children in Nazi Germany.

Addressing survivors, Ms Pollock said: “You didn’t have to speak about your experiences.

“You could have settled here, and lived your lives enjoying retirement, never having to look back. But you stepped up and you continue to make a difference.”

Communities Secretary James Brokenshire said: “Many congratulations to the seven recipients, rightly receiving honours for their dedication to Holocaust remembrance and education.

“I have had the privilege of meeting and hearing survivors speak and through their powerful testimony, in the retelling of difficult, personal, tragic stories, we’ve learnt the terrible consequences of where bigotry, intolerance and division can lead.”

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