As the country came together to remember the Holocaust, we lost one of its most incredible witnesses.
Freddie Knoller BEM, who died last week, aged 100, lived a remarkable life. As a teenager, he fled his home in Vienna to Belgium and then France, hoping that he would remain outside of the Nazis’ clutches. His parents stayed in Vienna and were eventually murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
When the Nazis occupied France, Freddie secured false papers and worked as a guide, remarkably, showing SS Officers the brothels of Paris. He went on to join the French Resistance, but was betrayed and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he remained for just over a year, before being forced on a death march. He went on to survive Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp and Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated by British troops on 15th April 1945.
All of our survivors make a huge impression whenever they speak, but there was something about Freddie that was unique. When he spoke in schools he managed to engage even the most challenging students, and despite telling a story of unimaginable horrors, he often succeeded in making them laugh. I was particularly struck by the rapport he built with disaffected boys, who went away having met someone they thought was a hero. And he was.
Freddie’s story was told in two books and in an acclaimed BBC TV documentary, Freddie Knoller’s War. He charmed everyone he met including politicians and royalty. I will never forget in 2017 when he accompanied TRH The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall on their visit to Vienna and shared memories of his birthplace – the Duchess entered the room with a loud exclamation of ‘Freddie!’, greeting him as a dear old friend.
Despite everything that Freddie endured he was one of the most positive people anyone could meet. He always had a joke, a smile, and a twinkle in his eye. Constantly ready with a cheeky remark or a flirtatious comment. Every time that Freddie walked into a room, he lit it up and that light will continue to burn in all of us who knew and loved him.