Thursday, 5 July 2012


Many years ago, my father, who was an Accountant, had a book-keeper come to work for him.

Henry was a small, grey haired, bespectacled Jewish gentleman in his sixties. He was the sort of man who you would walk past without noticing, even if he was the only person you'd encountered on a desert island. The sort of man who made Mild-Mannered Clark Kent seem like a raging viking.

I would work for my Father during the holidays, so sometimes found myself working with Henry in the office. He was always polite, although not to the extent of referring to me as 'the young master', but reserved. You couldn't help but feel his life had passed by a little like the History of Mr Polly, not so much a series of adventures, of highs and lows; not so much a roller-coaster ride as a gentle walk across a flat and bland field.

Then one day, for reasons that escape me, the subject of the war in general, and the Holocaust in particular came up. Perhaps it was an anniversary, or an article in the press, but, one day when were alone in the office, it came up.

And slowly, Henry began to talk.

It turned out that mild, quiet, taciturn and shy Henry had been in the Army during the war. As a German speaker, he had been attached to an intelligence unit and was in the forefront of fighting across Europe.

It turned out that Henry, mild, quiet, taciturn and shy Henry had been attached to a Unit that had been involved in the liberation of one of the camps. My memory tells me it was Bergen-Belsen, but my memory is notoriously weak.

Unlike Henry's.

But then, I doubt, if I had seen what he had seen, that I would ever be able to remove it from the wide-screen of my memory.

Quietly, softly, he told me about how they entered the camp. He told me about being greeted by people who had clung to life like limpets on a storm-battered pier. He told me about the graves, about how the guards had been trying to shoot as many of the inmates as possible before the Allies arrived. About how, even afterwards, they continued to try.

He told me about how he and his colleagues reacted. He was not proud of his reactions towards the guards, but nor was he seeking any kind of recognition or absolution. He was simply telling me.

He told me about the way the people they were there to save were sick, so that even afterwards, many would be unlikely to survive.

He told me this with no pride, no agenda. I am not sure, to this day, whether he wanted to tell me so that I would know, or just because, for once, he wanted to talk about it. Perhaps, he simply wanted to help me attain the next level of maturity, to ensure that, if I should talk about this again, it would be with the benefit of a degree of insight.

I learned a lot that afternoon. A lot about the war, about the Holocaust, about what Man is capable of doing to his fellow human beings, in the process surrendering that very humanity. But most of all, I learned not to judge a man's history by his present, his soul from his demeanour. I learned that maybe, after a roller-coaster, a walk through the fields is all you yearn for, and that does make you any less relevant.

Compared to what Henry, and so many like him experienced, I am the one in the flat-lands. And I learned to be able to feel gratitude for that. Henry is long gone, but I remember him, as he remembered those for whom he was too late.

Thank you Henry

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