27 January 2022
As part of Jewish Book Week’s school events Sydenham High School delighted to welcome Debra Barnes to speak to years 8 & 9 about her book, The Young Survivors, based on her family’s experience of the Holocaust.
It was a very moving occasion, as the audience learnt about the direct experience of Debra’s mother and uncles and the journey she embarked upon to research her family history and write her novel.
Debra described the long history of Jews leaving Poland because of prejudice, the meeting of her grandparents in France and their early life, the birth of their five children and the necessity of relocating from Metz to a village near Poitiers along with many other Jewish families. Their life was simple and fairly quiet until France was occupied in 1940 when life became very difficult for Jewish people with curfews, bans on running businesses and even going to the park. In 1941 stricter rules were implemented and their human rights were further eroded. In 1942 Debra’s grandfather was arrested for being stateless, despite having lived in France for 20 years he was refused citizenship and his Polish citizenship removed for not serving in the Polish army. On 26 August he was murdered in Auschwitz.
The horrific experiences of Jewish people during the second World War are well documented but hearing Debra’s story made it even more compelling as she introduced each person, sometimes through video footage and photographs which really brought it all to life. Pupils learnt how the eldest child, Jacques, went to the Gestapo for a note to release his twin sisters (later discovered in the Washington Holocaust Museum), who had been taken with their mother, and how he was able to take them but had to leave his mother, whom they never saw again. The younger children were initially taken in by neighbours before being ordered to report to a children’s home, whilst the older boys worked. Despite the Normandy landings in 1944, and the imminent end of the war, German officers arrested all the children in the home before dawn, sending them to their death at Auschwitz, via the Drancy transit camp, weeks before France was liberated, “to exterminate future terrorists”.
It transpired that Debra’s mother, Paulette, had contracted measles and was in a hospital at the time of the dawn arrests and was taken into the care of nuns to be hidden. She was later sent to England to live with a cousin but would never speak of her childhood.
Though her mother found it difficult to speak about her experience during the war, Debra was able to discover a great deal about her life in France from speaking with her uncles and conducting her own research. They initially found a book written by another orphan in 2006 and her mother was shocked to see the photograph of herself aged 5 for the first time at age 68!
Debra contacted the publisher of the book and Paulette was able to be reunited 62 years later with Denise, the author and mother figure to Paulette during her time in the children’s home, who had thought that all the children had been murdered.
Since her mother’s death in 2010, Debra has completed extensive research and wanted to share the story with as many people as possible, both the murder of 76,000 Jews in France and the kindness of strangers which saved her mother’s life.
Debra left the audience with an important message to be kind, be tolerant, be brave and be the one to speak out.