In Her Words: ‘We Know that it is True. We've Been There’
MUSIC FADE UP AND OUT
As those the memories flood back in my mind's eye, I ask myself, "Why did I survive? How did I survive? Who am I?".
I am Veronica Philips, a geneticist, a scientist, one of the survivors of the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
Welcome to In Their Words: Surviving the Holocaust. Finding Hope, a podcast preserving the testimonies of those who survived the atrocities committed by the Nazis and their racist collaborators in the 1930s and 1940s, and who shared their stories at United Nations Holocaust commemorative events around the world, reminding us of the human cost of hate, and our responsibility to fight injustice.
The voice you’ve just heard belongs to Veronica Phillips, who graciously agreed to join us for this podcast edition. On 24 February, 2021, a few weeks after this interview, Veronica passed away at 94 years of age.
She was a survivor of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, an accomplished scientist and educator, and extraordinary woman.
I’m Natalie Hutchison, and had the great privilege of speaking with Veronica.When you listen to her you’ll hear that retelling the atrocities she endured was not easy for her.
Veronica only gave voice to this dark chapter of her life in her 90’s, following more than seven decades of silence.
As she told me, “it is not with pleasure” she recounted her story, and perhaps what makes this interview so momentous is that despite the emotional cost, she agreed to it. Her wish was for her experience to live on in society as a reminder for us to act with humanity, “from generation to generation.”
This was the last interview Veronica gave, but her voice and her story remain.
VERONICA: My name is Veronica Phillips and I'm a Holocaust survivor from Ravensbrück. Family, l'dor vador, from generation to generation. Family. It is thanks to my dear late brother that I have a family, my niece Janice and four children whom I love like my very own.
As Ruth said, to Naomi, "where they go, I will go.” Their children are my children. They have given me a reason to live. My entire family, except for my brother and my mother, were annihilated, thus destroyed, ripped from my very being.
My two cousins, shot in front of our very eyes, and I suffered eight miscarriages after torturous treatment in Ravensbrück. So where do I start to tell my story? I can only share with you pictures and images that left have an indelible print on my mind's eye. So often I wish they would disappear.
I see them day and night, I still feel the fear, the pain and the anger.
Budapest, Hungary, my beautiful home, our haven became our hell. Hungary, became allied with Nazi Germany in 1940 and Hitler in Germany, so his blueprint on the final solution of the Jews was repeated in Hungary. Of the six million murdered Jews, ten percent came from Hungary. Sixty thousand men, women and children were taken away, and never to return. The Nazis were experienced.
It took a little time to exterminate so many thousands. They had their experience in Europe. Then Hungary were the last in the line of destruction.
The date March 1944 will always be etched into my brain. 1944, one year before liberation, and we were all marched to concentration camps. I see the picture of my wonderful father who was taken to forced labour camps in 1940. My uncles and cousins were also taken to those labour camps, except for my father that I have never seen again. As those the memories flood back in my mind's eye,
I ask myself, "Why did I survive? How did I survive? Who am I?”.
I am Veronica Philips, a geneticist, a scientist, one of the survivors of the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
NARRATION: Veronica knew a life before the Nazi-led Holocaust. She remembers being an enthusiastic and diligent student in school, and holds dear the mental picture of her family—ushering in the Jewish Sabbath with candle-lighting and welcoming blessings. She clings to memories of her early years in Budapest, and says that though antisemitism was palpable, the image of her home life will always overpower the acts of inhumanity she experienced.
VERONICA: Before the Nazis, I lived in a luxurious apartment, my grandmother lived with us. We kept kosher home, I see the glow of the shabbos candles as my mother and my bobbeh, bensch, licht, and the wonderful ruach of the shabbos was brought into our home. The beautiful picture of my family always overpowers the images which are here in my rear-view mirror.
I was a bright child, top of my class. I always see the picture of my yearbook, where all the top students had their names in large print, but not me. And when I ask "Why?" they said, "because you a Jew." I remember answering, "and can't Jewish children be clever?" The pictures of my school life stand out to this very day. Written on the blackboard was the words, "Jews are rats." I started hating that which I loved so much, school.
Though the War was in its dying days, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to death and Concentration camps between May and July of 1944. The reign of the extremist Arrow Cross group later that year through the spring of 1945 inflicted further suffering upon Jews in Hungary. Some Jews in Budapest came one step closer to safety with aid from rescue committees and diplomate Raoul Wallenburg, offering Jewish families international protection—Veronica’s family was one of them. They were placed in a safe house, but the relief was temporary. She was separated from her parents and taken to Nazi Germany’s largest women-only concentration camp, at Ravensbrück.
Veronica: An incredible thing happened: I see now the Swiss embassy had given us certain pass to stay in a safe house, a tiny apartment shared with so many other families.
I went there with my mother, my brother, and my two cousins.
And then the picture changes to the Arrow Cross: Of walking to our tiny apartment, they took us from the fifth floor, threw us down from the stairs, and tore our passports apart. There is a picture of us all being marched to our park when my father joined us and we were taken and divided. My mother and my brother were taken to the ghetto, and my father and I to the cattle cars where they separated men and women. That was the last time I saw my father.
He never returned, we tried to find him through the Red Cross, but to no avail. In the picture book of my mind, I can still see, feel and smell how they took us to Ravensbrück. Those pictures are engraved in my very being: Pushed into cattle cars, no room to sit or lie. We stood one another against the other, unable to move, not even our arms. There was no food, no water, and no toilets.
I don't remember how long they stood squashed together-- days, nights, weeks. All became one, one death-defying feat of survival.
We arrived in Ravensbrück at night. We heard the dogs barking and growling, the SS were shouting "Schnell! Schnell!" This was a living nightmare, especially for a young girl. They marched us into massive tents. Again, there was no room to sit. In the corners were large oil tanks which were used as latrines. Again, no food, no water, no room to sit or sleep. So we slept against one another in an upright sleep.
The place was full of lice. I remember scratching, scratching, an itch I can never forget. Three women slept in one bunker and lice scrawled all over us. When we were given food. It was a rotten sweet potato soup, which poured out of our guts into the toilet holes into the ground. There are pictures in one's mind of the smell. It was the smell of the burned bodies that entered our every cell.
We are about to enter into the gas chambers, when there was a call for 140 women to work in the aeroplane factory. I was one of the chosen because I spoke German. We were marched to Penig, where the factory was in the Triangle of Chemnitz, Dresden and Leipzig. We worked in two shifts.
I see the picture in my mind's eye of Dresden continuously burning, and we were taken on the final death match. I still have the vision of people marching, falling, dying. Those who couldn't, were shot on the spot. There was no food, I still taste the grass that we ate when the SS wasn’t watching. A few of us survived.
In the spring of 1945, the Nazi occupation could no longer maintain its stronghold on Europe, with Soviet and Western Allied forces closing in. Following Adolf Hitler’s death by suicide on 30 April, Germany announced its unconditional surrender on 8 of May. The war had ended, and the journey toward what Veronica knew as home, began.
VERONICA: My cousins and I travelled on the top of an oil tanker, sitting on the top of a flank, as we traveled towards Hungary. In Hungary I remember seeing electric tram six, which took me to the shop where my family was.
I was recognized by a gentile woman who told me that my brother and mother had survived. We all arrived at Johanngeorgenstadt, where we were liberated by the allies in May 1945. I met my husband, who had been in forced labour since 1940.
We got married in Budapest. In 1956, we went to England, where we lived for 20 years.
Veronica and her husband moved to South Africa in the mid- 1970’s. Three years after the Holocaust ended, the National Party of South Africa had come to poweron a platform of apartheid, founded on principals of racism and white supremacy. By the 1970’s the country had been witness to decades of draconian and brutal state repression, and irresolute resistance. Veronica arrived to a country populated by signs on park benches, at the entrances to shops, theatres, cinemas, beaches, public pools, that forbade black people from entering, and reminded all of the second class status assigned to the majority of the population classified as inferior by the State. The signs were markers of a state that had institutionalized inequality.
The first decade of Veronica’s life in South Africa was marked by the imposition of subsequent States of Emergencies that turned South Africa into a police state that detained without trial thousands, including children from as young as eight. Torture was routine. However, apartheid was in its death throes, and within twenty years of Veronica coming to South Africa, her new homeland finally became a democracy. Why would a survivor of the Holocaust come to South Africa in the 1970’s? When these questions are asked, and not always kindly, what gets forgotten is the deep trauma suffered by the survivors, trauma still raw decades later, who would follow their families no matter where. Why did Veronica come to South Africa?
VERONICA: My brother was offered a job in South Africa, and of course I came with them, because they were my family.
NARRATION: Veronica taught for years at the University of Witwatersrand.
NATALIE: If you could convey one message to young people about how to prevent a future Holocaust, about hate, what would you say?
VERONICA: You know, there are a lot of uneducated people who still believe that it was no Holocaust, they denied everything, they even take it to court, and they had to agree that there was Holocaust. They took the people from the courts to Auschwitz and showed them everything, and they still denied it. They read it like a book.
As long as we live, we know that it is true. We've been there, we suffered it.
NATALIE: Certainly this conversation will serve that purpose: To continue telling the story and ensure that people don't forget.
May I ask you, you participated in a commemorative event in January with the UN and partners, how did it feel to share your story, especially after not having spoken for so long about what happened?
VERONICA: As long as I live, I will commemorate. And God gave me a long life to be able to tell them that they are lying, because I was there, I suffered it.
NATALIE: You are a strong woman with an extraordinary story. I'm especially grateful that you would speak to us, I thank you.
Do you think your surviving is miraculous? Do you think that you were meant to survive this?
VERONICA: Not very many stayed alive. Six million. Only a few survived. And because the Hungarians were the last one, by then the Germans lost the war, whatever they could do bad to us, they did.
You know, I feel God is keeping me, I’m 94 years old. God is keeping me alive to fight for it. And that's why I’m doing it, not with pleasure, but I'm doing it in my heart.
NATALIE: Well, I appreciate it very much, Veronica. Thank you so much for your time. It's truly a pleasure to meet you.
VERONICA: Thank you very much. And when you need me. Call me.
NATALIE: Okay, I’m very appreciative of you sharing your story. And I wish you all the best.
VERONICA: Thank you.
MUSIC FADE UP AND OUT
Veronica Phillips, survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust, imploring us all to act with humanity in her final interview, which took place weeks before her passing.
It’s difficult to put into words my experience of hearing Veronica’s story firsthand. It is best explained by its impact.
To hear her testimony was in some instances to hear her relive it, a testament to her selflessness. Listening to Veronica was an overwhelming emotional wave for which no preparation is adequate.
Recording Veronica’s deeply personal account created an emotional proximity with her, and subsequently a profound empathy. To interview Veronica was to be a recipient of her wisdom and kindness. .
I’m Natalie Hutchison, and you’ve been listening to In Their Words: Surviving the Holocaust. Finding Hope, a podcast by the United Nations Holocaust Outreach Programme. To find out more about the organization's Holocaust remembrance and educational programme and how you can participate, visit www.un.org/en/holocaustremembrance. Thanks for listening.