Welcome to hell on earth

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 12:00am

'My eyes saw what no man should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high-school and college graduates. So, I am suspicious of education . . . your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.' - Anonymous Holocaust survivor 'The only thing necessary for triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.' - British philosopher Edmund Burke A TRIP TO YAD VASHEM, Israel's Holocaust museum, is a harrowing excursion into the darkest heart of evil. Half-dead human wrecks, their hollow eyes screwed deep into stubbled skulls, reaching out from grainy photographs across half a century to remind us this must never happen again.

It is a journey few from Hong Kong make, if the ignorance and insensitivity shown by the media in recent years is any guide - pictures of Hitler used to whip up World Cup football hype, swastikas plastered on T-shirts, hobby shops reporting a roaring trade in Nazi flags and Hitler posters. And then, the infamous ATV double-page advertisement proclaiming the Fuhrer could have successfully implemented his final solution had he been able to avail himself of the station's services.

An increasingly irate local Jewish community has decided enough is enough and for the first time in Hong Kong has assembled a hard-hitting exhibition, next to the Ohel Leah synagogue in Robinson Road. The vast collection of artefacts include children's art from Yad Vashem, memorabilia - including bullets and shoes retrieved from mass graves, yellow Stars of David, passports, telegrams and toys from the Sydney Jewish Museum - and a 40-panel narrative display, from the Museum Of Tolerance in Los Angeles, charting Adolf Hitler's rise and the nightmare of the Holocaust.

The exhibition, chiefly aimed at schoolchildren, is not open to the general public - the idea being to touch young hearts before they become hardened by prejudice, crassness and apathy. When the exhibition closes tomorrow, 1.5 weeks after Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day, more than 1,000 children will have been given a lasting reminder of what can happen when evil is left unchecked.

Perhaps even more powerful than the stark images on show is the narration provided by Helen Straub. At first glance she appears no different from any other grandmother, with her coiffured hair and gentle grey eyes. It is those eyes, though, that still harbour the shadows of the carnage and depravity she witnessed as a teenager, rounded up from her Czech village and herded to Auschwitz concentration camp.

'This week,' Mrs Straub begins, her voice firm and strong despite her 75 years, 'it is 55 years since the Russian soldiers freed us. But you know, every day I still cry.' It's not easy to capture the rapt attention of a room full of 13-year-olds, but you could have heard a pin drop as Mrs Straub quietly explained what life was like in the massive shop of horrors that was Auschwitz. 'In 1942, when I was 17, they came and told us we were going to the ghetto in Terezin [near Prague]. I had been going to school but in 1940 Jewish children were told we couldn't go to school any more. And then one day, they gave me, my mother and father, and my brother a number and a yellow star which said 'Jude' [Jew]. We were allowed to take enough food for two or three days.

'When we arrived at the ghetto, there were already 50,000 Jews there. One hundred people were dying every day, from hepatitis, typhoid. Everyone had lice. Every day people were taken away in trains, we didn't know where.

'In September 1944, my brother and father were taken away. And then in October, they came for my mother. I didn't know where she was going, but I volunteered to go with her. The trip took several days. When we arrived at Auschwitz it was terrible, like hell. There were loudspeakers blaring, men with dogs and rifles. I held hands with my mother, but she was taken away.

'I was still strong, so I was put in a barrack with 100 other girls. There was a chimney coming up through the floor in the middle of the room, and an SS man told us 'that's where your mothers are'. We didn't understand at first. I realised later, even as they were shaving my head, that my mother was already dead, gassed, her gold fillings prised out. You know, those chimneys were burning all the time. In Auschwitz, there are fields of human ashes.' Still young and strong, despite subsisting on a spoonful of soup and a crust of bread per day, Mrs Straub managed to avoid the 'showers of death', working in the fields and shovelling coal until the Russians arrived. Her father and brother also managed to cheat death, and in 1949, they emigrated to Australia. She now lives at Sydney's Bondi Beach, about as far from Auschwitz as you could imagine.

Somehow she managed to resume a more normal life. She married, had three sons and now has five grandchildren. But the memories are vivid, like it all happened yesterday. 'Every week, I tell my story at the Jewish Museum in Sydney,' she says. 'It's important the children know what went on.' Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, of the Ohel Leah Synagogue, says students' reactions to the exhibition depend on how much they already know about the Holocaust. 'Some have been told less than others, and they are just shell-shocked, choked up. We hope this will affect not just children but also their parents, when they go home and relate what they have seen. There's still a lot of ignorance here. Not anti-semitism. Just gross ignorance. This wasn't war, it was a twisted, organised effort to exterminate a people, and we want to sensitise young people here to what happened.' Chun See-ching, 12, in grade eight at Island School, says she had heard about the Holocaust but was not prepared for the graphic reality. 'It's just so sad and tragic. It seems so hard to believe. The Nazis tortured them like animals, it was a game to them.' Gaurav Jhunjuhwala, 13, says the exhibition shook him to the core. 'It made me feel sick. It's like just about the whole population of Hong Kong being wiped out. And it's not ancient history. This was only a little more than 50 years ago.' Jason Gagliardi is a Post staff writer on the Features desk