Nazi concentration camp survivor warns of danger of standing by

By Alexandra Newlove -
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Bob Narev's story features in Shadows of Shoah, an exhibition which tells the stories of concentration camp survivors, that is on show in Whangarei. Photo / John Stone
Bob Narev's story features in Shadows of Shoah, an exhibition which tells the stories of concentration camp survivors, that is on show in Whangarei. Photo / John Stone

Nazi concentration camp survivor Bob Narev has spent his life trying to warn people about the dangers of standing by and letting others be cruel.

But he still sometimes worries the world has learnt nothing from the World War II Holocaust.

Mr Narev's story forms part of an exhibition which opened in Whangarei last week. Shadows of Shoah runs until August and tells the stories of six Holocaust survivors using simple, candid photography, music, and their own words.

I wasn't frightened, but had I known what my mother had known, I would have been.
Bob Narev, Holocaust survivor

"We are often asked to speak to schools about our experience," Mr Narev said, as he was in town for the exhibition opening. "My wife [Freda] is also a Holocaust survivor, she was hidden by a Catholic family in Poland after her parents had been killed.

We obviously don't enjoy the speaking but we find it satisfying because we're able to tell to a young generation about the Holocaust, which most of them have never heard about."

Mr Narev, a German Jew who has lived in Auckland since he was 12, was taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia in 1942, along with his parents and two grandmothers. Of the five, only he and his mother survived. The other three died from illness shortly after arrival.

"I wasn't frightened, but had I known what my mother had known, I would have been," the now 80-year-old said.

Theresienstadt was a kind of transit camp, he said, and nearly everyone who went there was eventually taken to Auschwitz.

"When you are in that situation as a child, your memory turns off," Mr Narev said.

Mr Narev said he remembers being put in a "children's house" though he was able to wander the camp and see his mother regularly "but, she was required to work for the Nazis."

"Jewish people were gathered from all parts of Europe. Most of them were ultimately deported to Auschwitz, where just about all of them were murdered.

"During the time I was there about 150,000 passed through and 17,000 [of those] survived. Some died in the camp through malnutrition and illness, but it was not an extermination camp as such."

The most harrowing of the few memories he has of Theresienstadt was a day when the Nazis decided to conduct a census, so rounded everyone into a field.

"We had to stand the whole day while they counted and recounted us," Mr Narev said. "Many of the people there just didn't make it, they just dropped [dead]. They were the elderly or weren't well. That's one of the things I do distinctly remember."

Mr and Mrs Narev made their way to New Zealand after the war through family connections.

"After the war my aunt's family discovered my mother and I survived the war and they got us a permit to come to New Zealand," Mr Narev said.

From there, Mr Narev had his first experience of school, going on to study a double degree in arts and law at the University of Auckland. He is now in his 60th year as a practising lawyer.

"The important thing for us now is that not only should we tell the story but also point out the consequences if people stand by and do nothing," Mr Narev said. "In schools we emphasise this by talking about bullying in the playground - don't just stand by and let it happen."

Mr Narev said anti-Semitism still raged elsewhere in the world. "But in New Zealand I have never been subject to anything that I would call anti-Semitic," he said.

"You read enough about the resurgence of it in other countries to know that it hasn't gone away. The question has always been why? That's a question we haven't been able to answer."

Photographer Perry Trotter designed Shadows of Shoah. He started photographing Holocaust survivors in 2008 and had since worked with more than 45.

He said he had become captured by the "antagonism over thousands of years" experienced by Jewish people, and the many and varied reactions to living through the Holocaust.

- Shadows of Shoah is on now at Whangarei's The Hub on Dent St.

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