Henri Obstfeld

Henri Obstfeld spoke to students and schoolchildren

Students moved to tears by testimony of Holocaust survivor

A Holocaust survivor has revealed the day-to-day fear and horror experienced by those evading capture and persecution in Nazi-occupied Holland during the Second World War.

Speaking at the University of Exeter on Wednesday (January 17), Henri Obstfeld told students and local schoolchildren how he was separated from his parents and forced into hiding as a young boy during the Nazi occupation of his homeland. 

At the age of two, he was smuggled to safety by his parents, as Jews in the Netherlands were being rounded up and sent to work camps.

His parents had already refused to report him when summoned by the authorities. They concealed the toddler from the occupying forces by leaving him with a non-Jewish family. 

Mr Obstfeld had to pretend he was the couple’s orphaned nephew, and he was not allowed to play with other children or go to school.

Speaking about the family who sheltered him, Mr Obstfeld said: “I was meant to be their nephew who had lost his parents during the bombardment of Rotterdam. And in Holland everyone knew about it of course… so it was a good excuse.

“Did everyone buy the excuse? No, there were a few people who had reservations but I didn’t know about that until after the war.”

Explaining his reasons for speaking to the students and schoolchildren, he said: “I feel that whilst I can, other people must find out what it was like, so hopefully it will not happen again.

“But that is unlikely to be the case, because it has been happening and is it happening.

“I think this is important because not everyone knows about it and some people do deny it.

“Well, as long as someone who was there can tell the story, then these people have problems – which I think is good.”

At the end of the war, Mr Obstfeld was reunited with his parents, while the couple who sheltered him – Jakob and Hendrika Klerk – were honoured for their bravery.

Mr Obstfeld spoke at a special event hosted by the University of Exeter to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

It was attended by students from the University of Exeter, pupils from four Devon schools and members of the local branch of the Historical Association.

University of Exeter academics Dr David Tollerton and Dr Ana Antic ran seminars for students on issues related to the Holocaust, and Rosemary Schonfeld – whose parents lived through the Holocaust – spoke about her family's experience.

The event was organised by Barnabas Balint, a history student at the University of Exeter.

“It was a privilege for us to welcome Henri Obstfeld, and his testimony was a powerful reminder of the horrors many experienced,” he said.

“I hope that by hearing Henri’s testimony, and from discussing the Holocaust in an academic environment, students will be encouraged to make a positive difference in their own lives.

“Learning lessons from the past to create a safer, better future.”

Tony Reese, Jewish Chaplain at the University of Exeter, said: “Students and school pupils who heard this testimony were visibly moved. There were tears. 

“It is important that the younger generation are aware of the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust.

“This may be the last generation that will have the opportunity to meet Holocaust survivors, and I am very pleased the university made this possible and hosted this event.”

Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said there was no better way to educate young people about the Holocaust than with first-hand accounts from survivors.

“Henri’s story is one of tremendous courage during horrific circumstances and by hearing his testimony, students will have the opportunity to learn where prejudice and racism can ultimately lead,” she said.

Students from the University of Exeter are also taking part in the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust's 'Postcard project'. They have created an exhibition about the life of Renie Inow, a Holocaust survivor. They plan to send a postcard to Renie, and will receive a reply. 

Date: 19 January 2018

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