Last week, as we prepared for Holocaust Memorial Day, we heard the devastating news that Martin Bennett, a survivor of the Holocaust who had spent many years speaking in schools up and down the country, had passed away. For six years, he was imprisoned, starved, tortured and brutalised. Out of a family of 10, only he and his brother survived.
But despite everything he endured, he remained one of the most positive, kind and warm people I have ever had the privilege to know. He refused to let what happened to him change him. And he made it his life’s mission to speak to as many people as he could to make sure the Holocaust will never be forgotten.
When we think about resistance during the Shoah, the first things that come to mind are the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the burying of the Oneg Shabbat archive. But just as important is resistance of the spirit and Martin epitomised that.
When Martin was 11, the Nazis occupied Poland. The situation for Jews in Poland rapidly deteriorated. Martin was told that if he volunteered to work, he could send money back to support his family. He was a child when he left his family for the last time to go to work – except this wasn’t just work, this was forced labour.
Of course, his family didn’t receive a penny.
He was 15 when he was deported from the forced labour camp in Posnan to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He had been told they were going to a new, more modern camp. But as soon as he arrived, he realised that this was yet another lie. The one glimmer of hope was that he was reunited with his brother, Tovia.
Tovia saw his younger brother and went straight to him, whispering to tell the guards he was older, and to tell them he was a cabinet maker. These ‘lies’ saved his life – the Nazis didn’t want 15-year-olds, and they didn’t want unskilled workers, but a slightly older, skilled worker had value. He was sent to work.
He later recalled that throughout the rest of the war, he was able to stay with Tovia. “My brother was my angel. Many times I wanted to give up. We were hungry and cold the whole time but we managed to survive together,” he said. He remembered his brother’s constant words – “maybe tomorrow …[they would be free]”. They survived because of – and for – each other.
After liberation, Martin learned that he and Tovia were the only ones left. His parents were murdered in the gas chambers of Chelmno. Only the two of them survived. In 1947, he came to the UK, where he met and married Priscilla. They raised a family together, and ran a clothes shop.
Later in life, he dedicated his time to speaking in schools and colleges about his experiences. He felt passionately that his experiences should serve a purpose; that young people should know what happened to him, his family and six million men, women and children who never had a voice. He refused to stand by as the Holocaust disappeared into history; even in old age and failing health, he refused to stand silent.
After everything that had happened to Martin and everything he had lost – his family, his home, his childhood – no one would blame him for being angry. But he showed the most courage
I can imagine. He rebuilt his life and he refused to hate anyone, ever. He couldn’t understand when people asked him whether he hated the Nazis. He refused to let what had happened to him change him, and he remained a loving, courageous and incredibly strong man, until the end of his life.
Martin, and the other survivors with whom I have the privilege of working, inspire me every day. In 2012, Martin was filmed for our appeal film and, when asked why our work was important, said it was because “I can end my life, I’ll know I’ve done my bit, and they’ll carry on doing my bit forever”.
Martin will be hugely missed, but my determination to ensure his story is never forgotten is even stronger than before. We will keep on doing his bit forever, as will the thousands of people who have been touched by his story.
• For more information about the work of the Trust, visit www.het.org.uk