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Arek Hersh’s life changed when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. He was taken to Auschwitz, but eventually escaped the Holocaust and came to live in England. Arek built his life in the UK and for the past 30 years he has told his story to thousands of people. We meet Arek and his wife Jean to find out more.




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Arek Hersh was 11 when the Second World War started. His story is long and complex. Below, Judy Wild introduces Arek and then summarises his story, with input from her conversation and from his book.
It was a great honour to to meet Arek Hersh, one of the last survivors of the Holocaust. As a young child, I learned about Auschwitz by watching The World At War on TV. It frightened me to think human beings could act like this. To meet Arek and his wife Jean was a great privilege. The couple welcomed us into their home and were generous with their time.
Arek is now 94 and has had an extraordinary life. As a youth, he survived the worst atrocities of the Nazi vendetta against the Jews. He came to the UK aged 15, not being able to speak a word of English and he has built a successful life for himself and his family. He was evacuated to England in 1945, one of 300 who became known as the Windemere children.
Arek is extremely unassuming. He is small in stature and still has a Polish accent. His home is adorned with photographs of him meeting famous people. There is a photo 

with him and the late Queen, Prince Charles, Lisa Minnelli and Boris Johnson. I asked him what the new King is like. “A very nice fellow!” he replied. “I have met him four or five times. I get on with with him very well. He presented me with my MBE.”
Despite his regular brushes with royalty, he seemed most pleased to have met Lisa Minnelli! He spent quite a bit of time with the actress and singer when she was visiting Leeds. Arek has fond memories of having dinner with her.

As well as being honoured with an MBE, Arek has had his portrait painted by Italian artist Massimiliano Pironti. Because of the pandemic, this was all done virtually; the end result is a very impressive and realistic portrait that Arek is very proud of. The portrait was one of seven that depict Holocaust survivors, commissioned by the then Prince of Wales: Charles is patron of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and these portraits will become part of the Royal Collection. As well as this painting, Arek has many pictures of his three daughters and grandchildren adorning the walls of his comfortable home. He is a very proud husband, father and grandfather.
Arek has told his story many times and it is well documented. His book, A Detail of History, is a harrowing account of what happened to him. Of his immediate and extended family only Arek and one older sister survived the war. He has brought up a family in a foreign country; his children have not having the benefit of grandparents, aunts and uncles. A whole generation wiped out. Arek has made it his life’s work to explain to the children of today what happened and to ask them to be tolerant towards everyone in society.
Lodz Ghetto and the Otoschno Camp
On 1st September 1939 the German Army invaded Poland. Arek’s family fled to Lodz to stay with family. To get there they walked 65km over three days. Once there, they were forced to live in the ghetto and were required to wear the yellow star of David to identify them as Jews.

The Germans started rounding up men for the work camps. As both his father and brother had escaped Arek was taken in their place and sent to Otoschno Camp.
“I was 11-years-old when I was taken away by the Germans. We were building a railway line, ready for the attack on Russia. There were about 1000 people there in the camp, My father was taken to another camp.”
Later that year he and his family were taken to a church in Sieradz and sorted into groups. Arek managed to switch lines in the selection process. Those in the other line including his family were taken to the death camp at Chelmno and murdered. Arek remained in the ghetto. After hitting rock bottom he was “rescued” by a woman who treated him as little more than a slave. Arek says in his book, “I did not feel that I had been chosen to survive but simply to exist on my own with no one in the world to care for me” He was just 11 years old. Arek was able to get a place in the ghetto orphanage and was relatively well looked after for the next two years. He had a roof over his head but was always hungry. Arek describes in his book how he had vivid nightmares at this time. He says, “I dreamt I was being chased by two black cats through dark narrow alleys in pouring rain. I ran and ran, sweating with fear, towards a closed gate. As I neared it,I felt myself going up on a ladder away from the gate. I kept on running towards a closed gate. I kept on running, heading towards the sky, and a frightening mass of black clouds. As I turned my head, I saw two SS men in black uniforms pursuing me. I cried out, Mama! Papa! Help me!” He then describes waking in terror and having to be calmed down by his friends.



When Arek was 15, the Russian Army was approaching Lodz ghetto. The Germans decided to move the residents to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Along with 185 other children, Arek endured a two-day journey to get there. When he arrived Arek moved to a queue of strong-looking people.


“I told them I was a different age than I was. He pointed to me to go to the right side. I learned from the first camp not to say you were younger. I told them quite a few lies.”


Arek knew he needed to look strong, stand tall and look capable of work to be useful to the Germans. By doing this he avoided immediate execution in the gas chamber. Arek was then shaved all over and showered before being tattooed B7608: no longer an individual - just a number.


“It was terrible.”


Arek was subjected to hard agricultural labour including ploughing the fields using ashes from the crematoria.

The Death March
In January 1945 as the Russian army advanced the Germans decided to empty Auschwitz to hide the evidence of their crimes. The remaining prisoners that were strong enough (dressed only in their thin cotton stripy uniforms) were marched through deep snow to a train that then took them to Buchenwald camp. After a month, Arek and 3000 others were loaded onto an open train wagon setting off on a month-long journey to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. Arek describes the cold that crept into his bones and the constant hunger. He ate grass just to put something inside of him and also ate some leather from his boots to stay alive. Of the 3000 that set off on this journey, only 600 survived. Arek was liberated on 9 May 1945 by the Russian Army.
“I was liberated in Czechoslovakia.”
He recalls being given rice pudding to eat. Arek notes in his book the Russians gave the survivors 24 hours to do anything they wanted to the German soldiers. Arek told me how much he hated the German soldiers. He chose to do nothing - he was a human being and not depraved in his behaviour.
Escaping to England
Arek was brought to England as part of a group of 300 children in August 1945.
“I was one of the Windemere children. When we arrived, they gave us some different clothing and we got better food. Slowly we began to fatten out a bit. They helped us out a lot. They started teaching us English – I never spoke a word of English before.”
Arek felt safe and was glad to be in a safe and democratic country.
“I’d read about England, that it was a decent country. I was there in the Lake District for six months. Then I was sent to Liverpool with about 20 boys. They distributed us to different places. Some went to London, some to Glasgow. I had no choice, we were sent by the committee. There was a Jewish committee in London. The British government helped too. There was around 30 or 40 children in each city. We lived in hostels.”
After Liverpool, Arek was sent to Manchester.

“After a year, I went to be an auto-electrician. Me and another boy. The boss was Swiss and he had about 10 people working for him. I then took other jobs. It was just after the war. There were no complaints from me. People were very welcoming.”
Living in Leeds
Arek married in Manchester.
“I had 3 girls with my first wife. One lives in Gibraltar, one lives in Italy and one in Leeds.”
The couple divorced and Arek met his second wife, Jean, in Leeds.
“My friend had a girlfriend in Leeds – and I was single as well. He said, come with me and I will introduce you to some different people. I had plenty of friends in Manchester, but he persuaded me and I came. And I met my wife. We met at a dance, in a dance hall. Today it’s a Chinese restaurant. We were married many years ago.”

Arek built up a property management business, letting flats and houses to students. He is very modest about his success as a businessman.
“I did alright!”
His success in business allowed him to retire at 60.
“I was able to reach where I wanted to reach. It was a struggle without any family support. I have an inner strength that pushes me to do well.”
It was only at this point that Arek decided he wanted to tell his story.
“I wrote a book and have sold a few thousand copies. It’s a very good book! It sells for £5 a copy, but I decided to give all the money to charity. We give talks about my life to children in schools.”
Arek and Jean became part of the National Holocaust Museum and have spent the last 30 years sharing Arek’s story. The pair have visited many schools and spoken to thousands of children. Now in his 90s, Arek is aware that soon there won’t be many survivors of the Holocaust left. All the more reason to share his story in these pages.


Arek has been telling his story for 30 years. On visits to schools and community groups, he’s usually accompanied by his wife Jean. They are a team and look after each other. Often the spouses of Holocaust survivors don’t get to tell their story, so we asked Jean to share her thoughts about how she supports Arek and how telling his story has affected her. This is Jean’s Story.
Nobody ever asks what it’s like to live with a Holocaust survivor. I never stop learning about the Holocaust. It’s a huge story. Arek and I are a very strong couple. We visit many schools together to spread the message of what happened to Arek.
When I first went out with Arek, I was an ignorant person. I knew bits about what had happened but it wasn’t foremost in my mind. I could hear Arek had an accent and asked him where he him where he had come from. He told me he was from Poland but then changed the subject.
We started going out together and slowly learnt that he was a child of the Holocaust. Even now I don’t know all of Arek’s story. I am sure there are things that Arek has never spoken about.
Any of the remaining wives would tell you their husbands had issues. All kinds of personal issues. Feeling unloved, abandoned. You cannot go to the absolute hell that these young people went through and come out the other unharmed and untouched. It’s impossible.
Arek is a very loving man. He’s very joyful about life. He does not have the bitterness that some of the survivors have. Some were very bitter men. For this I am grateful. You always have to tell Arek that you love him, on a daily basis. There was this thing that was missing in his life. I have lived with Arek for 40 years. We both had lives before we met.
I think I have been the best thing that ever happened to Arek. I really do, I am sincere about that. I am very strong and supportive. I am the only wife of any of the small handful of speakers that goes with their husbands and stands on a platform and talks.
I am not wonderful; I have my faults, many of them! Arek isn’t perfect, but the faults that he does have he carries from the camps. The damage! There are a lot of damaged people. Arek would be in denial of his faults. He is not observing himself, like other people are observing him. He`s very kind, he does not see many faults in anyone else. For instance, you might say something that’s not quite nice. Arek would say, “Oh, she didn’t mean it!” He sees the very best in most people, which is to his credit.

"Nobody ever asks what it’s like to live with a Holocaust survivor. I never stop learning about the Holocaust. It’s a huge story."

He has had it said to him he has no bitter- ness. Maybe he has. We get normal questions from audiences about his feelings. One of them is, “Do you forgive the Germans”? Of course he will never forgive them, why should he? Forgive the perpetrators that took his family and childhood away? This applies to every single survivor of the Holocaust. Arek lost 83 members of his family. Arek’s children never knew what an aunt or an uncle was. Or a cousin, or a grandma or grandpa.
So, the survivors had a difficult time. They came to this country. They had no language, no financial background, no parents to advise them. Nothing! The Jewish organisation that helped to bring them over financed the Government. The refugees were not supposed to stay here. They were supposed to be here for a certain amount of time and then go back to their own countries. What was in Poland for them? Who was there? Why would they want to go back? Everything had been taken away from them.

We went on a visit to Poland. We went down a street. Arek is pointing to a house he lived in. And suddenly a Polish gentle- man comes out and says to Arek (who speaks Polish fluently), “What are you doing”? Arek explained: “This was my house when I was a child.” The man said, “This is mine now”, in a very possessive way. As if to say, “Don’t you ever think you can have this house.” Not that Arek would want it. Arek was just pointing out a fact.
Arek said he didn’t talk to his children about his experiences when they were children and he wanted to protect them. They were too young. I didn’t want to hurt them with his story. The survivors were all the same they didn’t tell their children. Men who have heard Arek was in the camp with their dad and who has now died, would ask Arek what their father was like: “What happened Arek?” They would say their father would never ever talk to them.
In 1993, Schindler’s List came out and it opened up Holocaust stories. Suddenly Schindler’s List gave survivors permission to talk about their experiences.
A wonderful Christian family started a museum in rural Nottingham. It was in the middle of nowhere. It was set up by a vicar and his wife a teacher of religion. The family want on a Christian visit to Israel. On the last day they went to Yad Vashem - the biggest holocaust museum in the world. When they left, the family’s two sons (one 16, one 14) asked their parents to give them two rooms in the vicarage to set up a museum. This was nearly 30 years ago. From this small beginning, a wonderful museum has grown where children can learn about the Holocaust. This has become the National Holocaust Museum. When Arek started to work for them he was supported by 27 other survivors. There are now three. People like Arek are very precious.
Thanks to Arek and Jean for welcoming us into their home and talking to us with such candour. To find out more about this important and fascinating story, Arek has written a detailed account of what happend to him in his book. A Detail of History by Arek Hersh is available on Amazon for £2.89.


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