Steve Braunias meets a Holocaust survivor in St Heliers.
If the worst the 21st century can throw at us is the Covid pandemic and its infectious little variants, then good. Not even its lethal glycoproteins can match the worst thing the 20th century had to offer: the Holocaust, a sickness that spread as an idea and took the lives of 6 million who perished for the sake of Nazi philosophy. It was a disease of the mind. "He didn't know he was sick," as Clive James wrote of Hitler. "He thought he was well."
Few survivors of the Holocaust are still alive. Most were children in the death camps. Kids, liberated across Europe, then packaged as individual components of the Jewish diaspora, an exodus sent by ship to safe harbours in Britain, the US, Australia, New Zealand. One such individual lives in expensive St Heliers, in Auckland, in an apartment that stares straight out on to the Waitematā, sparkling in bright midday sun on the day I visited. Rangitoto looked so close that it was like you could reach out and stroke it. Bob Narev, 85, trim, nimble, a small man with a very alert sense of humour, spoke of the past for two hours.
His wife Freda, 84, who has suffered two strokes, sat on the couch with her carer, who drives in each day from Weymouth in South Auckland. Freda was a lovely, smiling woman who seldom spoke but when she did, she made her words count.
Our interview was only the most recent time Bob had attracted the interest of the Herald. He made his newspaper debut in 1959, in a story headlined, "Brilliant New Citizen". Its two paragraphs were a wonder of the way a life can be condensed: "A boy who could not speak a word when he came to Auckland from Europe 13 years ago will be admitted to the Bar as a barrister and solicitor. Mr R Narve was born in Germany and arrived in New Zealand after undergoing unpleasant experiences in the war."
Never mind the dyslexic misspelling of his surname (abbreviated from Narewczewitz, as it was in Germany) – marvel at the discreet "unpleasant experiences". His family were Jews living in the town of Eschwege. They were forced out and moved to Frankfurt in 1942. In August, they were directed to board a train that took 1022 Jews to Czechoslovakia, and their ultimate destination: a concentration camp that was not really or merely a concentration camp, inasmuch as no one was put to death, no gas chambers, no firing squads, no gallows, none of the apparatus of the Nazi extinction programme. We form a generic picture of concentration camps – Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau – with their wooden barracks and smoking kilns. Bob Narev and his family were sent to an ancient town built from stone in Czechoslovakia. It became a centre of intellectual and cultural activity, and sporting, too, with an established football league. It was the fortress town of Terezin, named after St Theresa. The Nazis renamed it and Bob only ever called it by its German name, coming down hard on the last syllable: Theresienstadt.
It was bad enough. It operated as a transit camp, a kind of human weigh station, where an estimated 90,000 Jews were sorted and sent east to their deaths in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Terezin was a town of 4000; Theresienstadt became a prison of up to 50,000. It existed as a camp town from 1941 to 1945 and it's estimated 30,000 died there. Narev arrived with his parents and his two grandmothers. His father died after an operation, his grandmothers died within a year. There were other transit stations but Theresienstadt was unique: the Nazis, who never let the fact that nothing they ever did was funny get in the way of their sense of humour, put it to use as a false town in two propaganda films and during a visit from the Red Cross. Picture a Nazi official laughing up his sleeve as the ghetto was painted and decorated, and employed as a charade. The bad joke lives on. Narev has a book on Theresienstadt at his St Heliers home with the darkly satirical title Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stad. Translated, The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.
Bob was at Theresienstadt for four years from 1941-45. He was at Terezin, which has reverted back to its Czech name, for three or four hours on a family trip to Europe in 1994. Bob and his wife Freda, a Jew who also survived Nazi-occupied Europe, have three children, who now live in Australia. He said, "I felt it was necessary to go there, more for our children than us."
I asked, "What did it look like?"
He said, "It looked like a very gloomy town. Dreary. We went past the crematorium where probably my father was cremated."
"What was the weather like?"
His wife Freda said, "It was a foul day."
Bob said, "Dull. But I met a caretaker, a kind of custodian. Very nice chap. He was a Sudeten German. We chatted for a while and he invited me to his office. I was wondering why, and he opened the door and brought out a sandwich and offered me one. It was such a human gesture."
"What kind of sandwich?"
He said, "It was probably a bacon sandwich or something. I didn't look at it. I closed my eyes. Whatever it was, I ate it. It showed the humility of the man and reinforced my belief in the human – whatever we like to call it. Humanity."
"What was the mood of the family during the visit?"
He said, "I suppose contemplative."
"What did the kids make of it?"
Freda said, "It was sad, but … "
Bob said, "We were surprised how – one almost say how uninteresting the town was. There was nothing there that gave you any indication of what it was."
There are guided tours in Terezin. A story in May this year on the Deutsche Welle (DW) site features an interview with Jiri Hofman, who runs the town's tourist information office. He said visitors were always asking him about the whereabouts of the gas chambers. "And then they are disappointed and somehow dissatisfied," Hofman told DW.
The tourists were looking for a past that never was; Bob Narev told a story about preferring to see the past rather than the present. He said, "I've been several times to Berlin. But without Freda. Each time – and she was on the same trip obviously – she refused to go there."
Freda said, "I wanted to remember it as it was in ruins."
Bob said, "She went through Berlin in 1946 or 47 on the way to a displaced persons camp. She wanted to remember a bombarded city rather than its rebirth."
I asked, "You didn't want to see it looking good?"
She said, "No."
Bright winter sunlight dazzled the Waitematā. Rangitoto stretched out like a cat. Auckland, that bright port in the South Pacific, a lucky country for displaced persons and the stateless who survived the Holocaust; Bob remembered few details of from his childhood in Theresienstadt, and even the family visit to Terezin in 1994 was vague, blurry, grey.
I asked, "Did you stick around for long?"
He said, "No. We'd seen what we wanted to see."
Bob Narev's career was the kind enjoyed throughout the National Party homes of the eastern suburbs. By the time of that 1959 Herald story announcing his brilliance, he'd joined the Glaister Ennor and Kiff law firm. He worked out of their offices on the second floor of Norfolk House on the corner of High St and Vulcan Lane in downtown Auckland for the next 50 years, becoming a senior partner. He also took on a startling range of voluntary roles in Auckland's Jewish community, always as leader – president of the Auckland Zionist Society, president of the Zionist Council of New Zealand, president of the United Synagogues of New Zealand, chairman of the Auckland Holocaust Memorial Trust, chairman of the Shadows of Shoah Charitable Trust.
I asked, "Have you ever been subjected to anti-Semitism in New Zealand?"
He said, "Personally, never. I've always felt that there was no anti-Semitism as such here. Well - you get the odd remark. I was at a bar dinner once, and was going to approach one of the QCs, who I knew. He was talking to a judge at the Court of Appeal as it then was. As I was approaching, I heard him say to the QC, they were talking about some barrister in Wellington, and the judge said, 'You know he's got a Jew girl as a secretary.'
"I decided not to intervene and say anything. I couldn't see the point. But it's there in the background of many people. He probably didn't mean anything nasty by it, but that was his way of describing her."
He had a calm, gentle, attentive nature, always with a sense of fun at the edges. Bob and Freda self-published a memoir in 2019 and their son Rick talked in his interview about a happy childhood playing pool and table tennis in the rumpus room of their Meadowbank home, and softball in the back yard "where we were in awe at how Dad could hit a ball – albeit pitched to him by a 6-year-old – clear over the neighbours' house". After the kids grew up "and nobody was using the pool", Bob and Freda moved to their first apartment, in Ōrakei. "We were one of the early apartment dwellers." He was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit (1999) and an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2019). Beneath all of it, though, was memory, loss, sadness. He had lived through the central, agonising event of the 20th century and it stayed with him, in fragments, and in his character.
I asked, "When I say the word TerezIn, what does it provoke in you?"
He said, "It basically provokes the fact that I'm a Holocaust survivor, that I was in a concentration camp called Theresienstadt and, knowing the history now, I am surprised to be here. I feel very fortunate. But also very sad I lost my father, my two grandmothers, and never knew my parents-in-law, and all the things associated with the events that occurred. They are pretty well to the front of my mind most of the time."
He relays his few memories of Theresienstadt in his school visits – the Narevs are regularly invited to speak to children, and just before lockdown he had gone to St Kentigern, for school visit number 109. He brings out the old stories. Potatoes falling out of a food truck, and Jews snatching at them on the ground. Collecting the covers of razor blades: "It was like stamp collecting. I kept a book of them. But I always envied one of the inmates who had a lovely stick, and I swapped my collection for a stick." A German guard hitting his father across the face as they waited to board the train to Czechoslovakia.
I asked, "Do you remember what your father looked like?"
He said, "Vaguely. Middle-aged. He was 40 when I was born and I was 7 when he died. A gentleman. Upstanding. I can remember him as a fairly stern person. But good-natured at the same time."
One of the most remarkable events in the four years of camp life at Theresienstadt was the prisoners' performance of the Verdi opera Requiem. It was produced during the Red Cross visit in 1944, and was witnessed, according to Josef Bor in his beautiful book, The Terezin Requiem (1963), by that efficient bureaucrat of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann. Bor was an inmate in the town. He boarded a train with his family to Auschwitz; he alone survived. His book is a possibly imaginative account of the Requiem performance but there is no doubting the force of Bor's document. He puts himself in the mind of the opera's conductor, Raphael Schachter, wanting to raise Requiem into a momentous work of art: "It must be new, a different kind of Requiem, with a fanatical faith in historical justice here in this world. Only such a Requiem could they sing here in a concentration camp, only such a music would prisoners comprehend. He would perform such a Requiem as had never yet been heard."
Mission accomplished. Among the town's population were musicians and singers; as Bor writes, "The Nazis had assembled in one camp the greatest Jewish artists from a large part of Europe." He describes the performance as something staggering and triumphant. And then, Bor writes, "The summer drew to its close, and the time of the transports began again. The Command had promised that Schachter's company should not be separated. The promise was kept. All together they ascended into the first wagons of the first transport… " The train went to Auschwitz. All the musicians were killed on arrival.
But the amazing performance – Requiem was also performed earlier, for a Nazi propaganda film of the town – went by without Bob Narev noticing anything. "The children weren't told very much about what was going on," he said.
I mentioned I'd read in Bor's book that the Nazis emptied the hospital to stage the show. Bob asked, "Do you know when that was?"
He said, "Oh. That was after my father died. I remember once, after his operation when he was really suffering, because I don't think there was much pain relief, visiting him when he was still in the hospital. Only that I sat there at his bedside and held his hand, and I don't remember talking to him other than saying, 'Oh Dad' or something similar."
There was something graceless in my continual hectoring of Bob Narev, asking him what he remembered of the Red Cross visit, the film, the Requiem performance, the thriving football league (Liga Terezin consisted of three leagues plus a knock-out cup tie: "Captives avidly followed the games", writes Kevin Simpson in his book Soccer Under the Swastika). He didn't remember anything. I was like a visitor on a tour of Theresienstadt, disappointed at having nothing to look at. But my questions were all about the historical record. His own stories – the lovely stick, holding the hand of his dying father – were the truth about his life in Theresienstadt.
The Nazis 1944 film about the town – you could describe it as a mock documentary, based on real events – was directed by prisoner Kurt Gerron. Like Raphael Schachter, he was put on a train when his work was done, and sent to his death at Auschwitz. Fifteen minutes of the film is available online. It's remorselessly cheerful. Jews make pottery, milk cows, play football, attend lectures – a book on Theresienstadt records that Narev's father Erich gave a lecture on maths and physics. "It must have been quite an interesting talk," said Bob. And then: "I wasn't there when he gave it."
I asked, "Have you watched the film?"
"It's easily available."
"Yes, I know it's available, but we don't really see films of the Holocaust or read too much material because we feel that what we've got in memory is enough for our purposes."
"You don't have any interest in watching it?"
He said, "Now you mention it perhaps we should develop an interest. What do you think, Freda?"
Freda said, "I agree with you. I don't want to watch any Holocaust movies."
Bob said, "Her experiences are in some respects much worse than mine because she lost both parents without ever really knowing them."
I turned to her, and asked, "Freda, are you German or Czech?"
She replied, "I'm Jewish."
"Freda finds it a little bit difficult," Bob explained. "She's had a couple of strokes. Am I allowed to butt in here? Freda was born in what was then Poland, and is now Belarus. Her father was a shopkeeper and her mother was a schoolteacher. All was well until the Nazis came to their town [Widze], picked the leading 15 Jewish men, and took them out and shot them all and buried them in a mass grave, so she lost her father when she was about 2 or 3. Her mother realised that there was little prospect of survival so she took her to a friendly Catholic farmer and disappeared with another sister. We never found out what happened to them."
It was a masterly wartime story told in 99 words.
Freda was eventually found by her sister, and emigrated with her to New Zealand; Bob and his mother Gertrud left Theresienstadt by train, and taken to Switzerland, three months before the end of the war. He asked whether I knew the story behind their release. Yes, I said, he mentioned in an interview with John Campbell ("Extraordinary!", etc) on Breakfast that there was a swap between Jews, and German prisoners of war.
"That's what we thought," he said. "But that was not the case. What had happened was, and I only found out quite recently, a group of orthodox Jews in New York collected a million dollars and offered it to [Nazi leader, Heinrich] Himmler to let 1200 people go from the camp."
"So you were bought," I said.
"Effectively," he said.
"What does that make you think?"
He smiled, and said, "I'm glad the million came. I was saved."
The gracious apartment, the picture window filled with light. When I asked whether Bob had any mementos or trinkets from Theresienstadt – what was he, a gift shop? – he replied with his usual calm and tolerant good manners, "Of Theresienstadt, nothing at all. The only memento I have of the Holocaust is the Jewish star we were all required to wear. Would you like to see it?"
He brought it out. It was in a plastic bag. I held it in my hand, the yellow fabric with the Star of David and the word JUDEN, not just an abstract symbol of monstrousness but an actual exhibit of it, a small piece of fabric from the darkest years of another century.
I asked, stupid to the end, "Have you thought of framing it?"
"I keep it where it's not likely to fade," said Bob. He put it back in the plastic bag.