On January 21 1943, an Englishman, his Dutch wife, and their two-year-old son, arrived at the so-called “Altejudenrampe”, the old unloading ramp between Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The family were immediately separated and by chance, the Englishman, named Leon Greenman, was among a small group of men chosen to work as slave labourers within the camp. Before being marched off, he caught sight of his wife, Else, and son, Barney, being loaded on to trucks. It was the last time he ever saw them.
The tragic unfolding of events for the Greenmans began when Leon gave his family’s British passports to a non-Jewish friend for safekeeping – only for the friend to burn the documents for fear of being caught with “Jewish” papers. And without a means to prove their identity, the family were arrested.
The Greenmans were then taken from their home in Rotterdam in October 1942 and imprisoned in Westerbork camp in Holland. Leon’s desperate attempts to secure substitute documentation to prove their identities came to nothing, as although papers eventually reached the camp, they arrived on the day the Greenmans were deported to Auschwitz, unseen by the authorities.
While Leon would go on to survive Birkenau, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, a death march, and Buchenwald concentration camp, Else and Barney were murdered within a few hours of arrival in Auschwitz in the gas chambers of bunkers one and two.
How can life go on?
Ultimately, Leon’s survival owed much to chance. But it also relied on his resourcefulness and determination – both fuelled by his hope of one day being reunited with Else and Barney.
Months after “liberation” from Buchenwald concentration camp, Leon returned to his home in Holland only to discover what had happened to his wife and child.
From Rotterdam, he headed back to England, where he would earn his living as a market trader in London – working for over 40 years. It was hard graft, but all the more necessary given the British government’s refusal to award Leon any financial assistance from the German-funded compensation scheme that was available to Holocaust survivors.
When not working, Leon travelled the country, sharing his experiences with students, teachers, and anyone prepared to listen. Over the decades he spoke to thousands of people.
He also committed himself to combating the far right – attending hundreds of demonstrations and challenging extremism wherever he encountered it. These two activities became his “life’s work”, and for his efforts he was awarded an OBE in 1998.
Yet Leon’s activism came at a price. He became a target for the far right, with bricks thrown through the windows of his house and hate mail posted through the letterbox. One hoax letter, said to be from the local council but written by Holocaust deniers, suggested he dress up in his camp uniform and turn his house into a museum.
These and other experiences drove Leon – quite literally – into retreat. He put metal shutters on his windows and confined himself to living in the upstairs of his house. It was to there that he returned each day, to grapple with “surviving survival” and the isolation of being alone. Yet despite this, with impenetrable tenacity and courage, Leon carried on his work in schools and with visitors at The Jewish Museum in London.
Coming to terms with the past
Leon’s death at 97 in 2008 was suitably marked, with eulogies in the media, a local memorial and service. But a decade on, Leon doesn’t occupy the position he arguably should in our national Holocaust consciousness.
Where his wartime experiences highlight the complexities and contingencies of the Holocaust, his post-war story poses troubling yet important questions about contemporary Britain. These questions have not gone away, but instead grow in urgency – as the rise in racism and antisemitism show.
Today, Leon’s story and its capacity to challenge our thinking about the Holocaust and its legacies, lives on in the work of the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education. Leon runs like a golden thread throughout our research-informed professional development programme for teachers – giving educators the tools to use his experiences in the classroom. This allows students’ to then develop historical knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking about the subject.
At a time when the passing of survivors raises questions of how to remember and how to teach the Holocaust, it is an innovative and powerful approach. For it is through Leon, and others like him, that we are forced to confront the raw connotations of what this history actually entails, and consider whether “coming to terms with the past” is actually ever possible. Leon’s voice has much to tell us, if we are prepared to really listen.