Telling kids about the Holocaust

A 70-year-old Holocaust survivor talks to children about life and death in a concentration camp so that they never forget the inhumanity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 April, 2013, 9:27am

When you're in grade seven, it's hard to grasp what life might have been like for those interned in a concentration camp during the second world war. It's even harder to fully understand the horrors of the Holocaust.

But Joanna Millan is determined to help today's children understand. She was a speaker recently at Carmel School Association's Elsa High School, answering questions about the darkest days of the 20th century.

"How do you feel about being adopted?" "Do you have regrets in your life?"

Millan, 70, offers warm smiles and encouraging words, but she's no ordinary grandmother. Her memories are those of a childhood that has left a mark on her life. As an infant, she survived being interned in a concentration camp during the Nazi persecution of the Jews, which took place between the 1930s and 1945.

Millan is visiting a dozen schools over a week, telling youngsters the facts about that period of fanaticism.

"People see films and read books about the Holocaust, but most of it is not accurate," she says. "People who were not there don't know what's true and what's is not. Some of the books children are given to read are totally inaccurate."

Born Bela Rosenthal in Berlin, Millan and her mother were taken from their home in 1943 and sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp outside Prague, today the capital of the Czech Republic. Earlier that year, her father was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland, where he was killed. In 1944, when she was two, her mother died of tuberculosis because of the conditions in the camp. In 1941, about 11 million Jews lived in Europe; by May 1945, the Nazis had murdered six million of them, a quarter of whom were children.

"It was possible even during the Nazi period to say it's wrong and not be punished, but people chose not to because it's mostly about greed as well," she says. "People took money from Jews, their homes and possessions."

My message for students is not to stand by and allow bad things to happen
Joanna Millan, Holocaust survivor

Millan was three when the Russians liberated the camp at the end of the war and was among an early batch of about 300 orphans flown to a Jewish children's home in London. Soon after, a British Jewish couple adopted her and gave her a new name. But eventually her new environment and identity led to a feeling of being unsettled. By the age of 12, she had started researching Jewish history without letting her adopted parents know.

When the Holocaust was included in the national curriculum in schools in Britain 15 years ago, she volunteered to speak about the historical period and her own experience. Now a board member of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, she gives up to 70 school talks in Britain a year.

For the past eight years, she has made regular trips to the mainland for international seminars on the Holocaust and Jewish history.

Although Millan emerged from her childhood ordeal relatively unscathed and grew up to be self-sufficient, she says that's both good and bad. "It is quite hard to accept help from friends who offer it; it's hard to make relationships."

Nonetheless, she has a positive attitude and doesn't take anything for granted. "Because I was lucky to survive, I feel I have a responsibility to make sure my life counts and do something worthwhile with the life I was given. Every day is like a new opportunity," she says.

"My message for students is not to stand by and allow bad things to happen ... For me, [life] is in technicolour; life was just good, exciting. You learn from bad experiences. If you don't have bad times, you don't really appreciate the good times."

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