Trude Silman, 91, was born in Czechoslovakia into a Jewish family. After the Nazis occupied the country, Trude fled to England. Trude has been awarded several honours to recognise her work sharing the stories of Holocaust Survivors in Yorkshire – not least the MBE, and most recently the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Yorkshire Women Volunteer Awards.
I was born in 1929 in Bratislava, which was then the second city of Czechoslovakia. My father was a banker. Six months after I was born, the Wall St Crash occurred; he lost his a bank and we became a rather impoverished family. However, I was never aware of this. My mother’s family were all quite well-heeled and they supported us. My father kept a little income from being a journalist and helping a friend with his estate agency.
I do not know what
happened to my mother.
I don’t know whether she was shot, whether she died of starvation or disease
As far as I was concerned, I had a very normal life. I went to ballet classes and went swimming. I enjoyed my school. I had a happy childhood. I was largely unaware of the rise of Hitler and Nazism until the end of 1938, when my parents sent my older sister away to England. We all started missing her – but I didn’t realise at the time that she would never come back home. The Germans came into Czechoslovakia on 15th March 1939. I was sent home from school that day, and I stayed at home and didn’t go out for two weeks. I felt the nervousness in the household. On March 28th my mother said to me, “Tomorrow morning you will be going to England.” That was the first I knew about it. My mother packed my things and the following morning a taxi came. I don’t really think I understood anything of the politics. All I knew is that the Germans had occupied Czechoslovakia
and I had to go away. As a child of nine you don’t understand these things. I haven’t any memory of saying goodbye to my parents or brother. I don’t remember whether I hugged them or whether we cried. All I remember is a happy childhood, then having to leave.
I travelled to England with one of my Aunts and her 4-year-old daughter. The taxi took us to Vienna and then we caught a train. It was quite an eventful journey. It should have only taken 24 hours, but the Germans kept coming on the trains and taking Jewish passengers off. This happened to us a number of times, but we were lucky to be allowed to board other trains. The journey eventually took us four days before we arrived in London.
Trude in her childhood
Somehow or other I ended up near Newcastle with a lovely family who had offered to take me in. They were a Methodist family and their church had collected money to put down £50 as a guarantee, which the government demanded, so that I would have enough money to buy a ticket to go home. Of course, that never happened. Although the family were very kind, I didn’t stay long because I couldn’t settle. I couldn’t speak English – I spoke only German, Slovak and a little Hungarian so it was very difficult. The house was cold, I didn’t like the English food and I was frightened of their dog. As you can imagine, I was very homesick.
I then went to stay with an Aunt and Uncle who were briefly in London waiting for a visa to go to USA. Very soon after I arrived at my Aunt and Uncle’s, war was declared, and I was evacuated. Within 6 months I had become a refugee and an evacuee. I moved around quite a bit, to a number of different places and schools before ending up in a fantastic boarding school in Cornwall, where I had an excellent education. Finally, I got to university in Leeds in 1947 to study biochemistry. It was a very new discipline with only five of us on the course, and I was the only woman. I eventually graduated and became a biochemist, got married and had two children. I worked at Leeds General Infirmary in a number of roles. I then became a lecturer and ended up teaching at Leeds Beckett University.
Trude with her husband Norman
My parents had managed to get all three of their children to the UK, but we were all in different places. My older brother, Paul, came over to England in June 1939. At first, we got quite a few letters from home, but then they became very sporadic. I believe that father wrote to us every week, but we didn’t receive all the letters. When my brother got a letter, he’d send it to me, and I’d send it on to my sister. So, in this way we’d pass letters between us. Father wrote much more frequently than mother. I don’t know why she didn’t write more. The letters stopped in 1942. It was then very difficult to find out what had happened to my parents. After the war ended, my brother received news from Czechoslovakia. A cousin who had survived the concentration camps wrote to Paul in 1945. She had found out that my father had been taken to Auschwitz in 1942 on one of the first transports that had gone from Czechoslovakia. He was killed in the gas chambers within 3 weeks of arriving there.
I haven’t been able to find out my mother’s fate. I have discovered that in 1942 she married a family friend of her parents. He was 26 years older than herself and he had converted from Judaism to Christianity. She got baptised too. They must have thought that they would be safer if they were a married ‘Christian’ couple. Both of them remained free until December 1944 when they were taken to Sered, a concentration camp near Bratislava. Within a couple of weeks, my stepfather (whom I never knew) was taken to Sachsenhausen (another camp) and was reported dead shortly afterwards.
I do not know what happened to my mother after she arrived at Sered. I don’t know whether she was shot, whether she died of starvation or disease, or of exposure on one of the final death marches. She remains one of the 2 million people missing after the war. I am still looking for information and hope that I will eventually find out what happened to her.
I had a very interesting experience in 2005. One of the Jewish organisations in Leeds asked me whether I would go with them on a visit to Auschwitz. There were two coachloads of us. Each coach had two a refugee. We spent the day in Auschwitz, initially walking round with a guide, then we were left on our own. It was the most beautiful day. The sun was shining – it wasn’t cold. Oddly enough, I found myself alone on the railway track. As I walked along that track, I unexpectedly got a very peaceful feeling. My father would have been in the ashes that were buried somewhere in that ground. At that moment I felt that I was putting my father to rest.
Many, many years ago, someone said to me, “You were given a good education and wonderful support
– you’ve got to give something back to society.” So, eventually when I retired, I started doing voluntary work. I did all sorts of jobs and roles, mainly related to health and social care, welfare, and public transport. Then one day while I was tidying up my flat, I noticed an advert in a newspaper which said, “Are you a Holocaust Survivor? We’re making a new group, come and see what we’re doing.” I’d barely put my nose through the door when I was pounced upon to become the Secretary. I said I’d try it for a month and if I didn’t like it, I’d give it up. To this day, I have never stopped working for the group. It is called the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association (HSFA). I also joined the Leeds Older People’s Forum as a board of LOPF for many years and to help with the important work that they do with the local community.
Initially, the HSFA was a very small group, meeting for friendship and support. We’d share our stories between ourselves: our childhood experiences, how we’d arrived in the UK, our lives since the war. It was after doing this for a short time that I felt this wasn’t quite enough. I thought, “Well, I’ve been a lecturer for all these years – why not spread this further?” We ought to be telling our stories in schools and to anyone who would listen. We felt that it was vitally important to tell people how easily hatred and intolerance can spread and can result in terrible and tragic events. So, we started an education project. About 20 of us went on a course to teach us how to present our stories: rehearsing what we should say and how we should say it. After a short time, we started speaking in schools, prisons, and colleges. Some of our members who were multi-lingual would also go and lecture in Germany, Slovakia and other countries.
Trude on her 90th birthday
I have given talks all over England, telling my story. This has filled a large part of my life. When I talk to children, they seem to be very interested. They learn about the Holocaust at school but having an actual survivor tell their own story makes it real. I tell them about my childhood and my school life, and I try to get them to identify with me. I try to get them to understand that we are all human beings irrespective of nationality, colour, religion or beliefs.
When the first Chair of Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association stepped down, I took over. I was the Chair for many years and eventually I became an honorary life president. The next Chair was Lilian Black. She was the driving force in setting up the HSFA’s Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre in the University of Huddersfield in 2018. The exhibition tells the stories of 16 Holocaust Survivors (including me) who settled in Yorkshire. This is the first Holocaust Centre in the north of England. We hope that, after the Covid pandemic restrictions are lifted, many groups of students and individuals will resume visits to the centre. Tragically, Lilian Black died of Covid in 2020. I hope that the centre will go from strength to strength and be a fitting legacy to her memory.
I now live in Jewish Sheltered Housing and we are aware that there is more Anti-Semitism around at the moment. If one goes back historically, the Jews have always been the scapegoat. If you go back to Abraham in the Bible – he was asked by God to sacrifice his son. Then the goat came out of the thicket and Abraham sacrificed it instead. That was the original scapegoat. Jews and many other minorities are often scapegoats nowadays. The trouble is sometimes that minorities can be inward looking. This is why I have personally always felt it important to have a good relationship with the wider, non-Jewish population, and for Holocaust survivors to share their experiences with as wide an audience as possible.
The Holocaust is a historical fact that should not be forgotten. I’ve told my story many times and I hope that this has helped, albeit in a very small way, to increase tolerance and understanding. I firmly believe that Holocaust education can be a powerful tool to help people to realise that we are all the same under our skin and we all have the same needs and desires. I would like all of the world to realise that, whatever our differences, we are all human beings who deserve to be treated well and to have a decent life.
Trude is part of the HSFA which established the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre, based in the University of Huddersfield. The Centre tells the stories of 16 Holocaust survivors who settled in Yorkshire.
The centre is currently closed but you can check out their website at www.holocaustlearning.org.uk
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Older people share their memories of significant or interesting events in the history of Leeds. In partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries.