History at first hand: hearing from a Holocaust survivor

Year 9 boys, Sixth-Formers and staff gathered to hear the astonishing testimony of Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich when she visited the School.

All of Year 9 were permitted to take a break from normal lessons to listen to Mrs Tribich, who survived a spell as a slave labourer for the Nazis and periods in two concentration camps, Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen. Having lost all her family except her brother in the Holocaust, in 1947 she came to England and built a successful life here.

Matthew Dunston, the History teacher who organised her visit, said: “Mrs Tribich’s story is truly amazing. It was a great privilege to be able to hear at first hand from one of the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors.”

Her visit to the School was covered by the  team of QE journalists who have entered the BBC School Report project. They filmed the event in the School’s Main Hall with a view to it forming one of the features to be submitted as part of the 15-minute news programme they have to produce.

Mala Tribich’s story

Mala was born Mala Helfgott in 1930 in Piotrkow Trybunalski, Poland. When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, her family initially fled eastwards. On their return, they had to move into the ghetto that had been established in her hometown, the first in Poland. Life in the ghetto was terrible, with families living in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions.

The family decided it would be safer for Mala and her cousin, Idzia Klein, who were both Jewish, to be taken to the town of Czestochowa and pretend to be Christian children, staying there until the deportations were over. A couple named Maciejewski came to their home to collect payment in advance and it was arranged that Mala would be collected first and Idzia a week later; it would have been too dangerous to take two Jewish children on the train at the same time.

""Mala and Idzia were taken to a house on the edge of Czestochowa and pretended to be relatives from Warsaw. Life was uncertain for the girls and they often felt vulnerable. Sometimes it was safe to mix with visitors, but at other times the girls had to hide in a wardrobe and stay there until they had left.

Both Mala and Idzia missed their parents, but it was not safe for them to return. When Idzia told the Maciejewskis that she could go and stay with good friends of her parents, who were hiding their valuables, they took her there. Mala was eventually taken back to Piotrkow, where her father was waiting for her in the attic of a flour mill with Idzia’s father. On seeing Mala, he turned white with shock and said: “Where is my daughter?” Idzia was never seen again.

Shortly after Mala’s return to the ghetto, there were further round-ups, during which her mother and eight-year-old sister were snatched. Everyone taken was murdered in the local forest. Soon afterwards, Mala had to undertake the responsibility of caring for her five-year-old cousin Ann Helfgott, whose mother had been deported to a concentration camp.

When the ghetto was liquidated, Mala became a slave labourer until November 1944, when the remaining Jews were deported. Mala was separated from her father and brother and, together with Ann, was sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp.

After about ten weeks, they were transported in cattle trucks to Bergen-Belsen, where conditions were appalling and Mala contracted typhus. At the time of the liberation by the British Army, Mala was very ill. She was transferred to a children’s home offering medical care and it was many weeks before she recovered.

Three months later she was sent, with a large group of children, to Sweden, where she spent nearly two years. Not expecting any of her family to be alive, Mala was surprised to receive a letter from her brother, Ben, who was by then in England, the only other member of her close family to have survived.

In March 1947, Mala came to England to be reunited with Ben. She learned English, attended secretarial college and within a year was working in an office. In 1949, she met Maurice, whom she married in 1950.

Whilst her children were growing up, Mala studied and gained a degree in Sociology from the University of London. Today Mala has two children and three grandchildren. Her testimony appears in the book, The Boy, by Sir Martin Gilbert.