Holocaust Memorial Day: ‘In a few years’ time, no survivors will be around’
Peter Lantos was only five when taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. As one of the last survivors of the Holocaust he explains how he feels it’s his responsibility to share his story with today’s children.
Newly liberated passengers from Lantos’s train. Image: George Gross photos
Every October, Peter Lantos receives a letter from Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp he was sent to as a child in 1944. “It’s a letter wishing me all the best on my birthday,” he says. Lantos considers it a sign of acceptance, reconciliation and friendship. “They are, in a way, saying we are delighted that you survived. It’s a nice gesture.”
Peter Lantos was born in 1939 in the town of Makó in Hungary. His family owned a timber yard and his earliest memories are idolising his older brother Gyuri and playing with his cousin Zsuzsi among the logs and planks.
Hungary was a Nazi ally until Germany invaded in March 1944, concerned that Soviet advances would cause the country to switch sides. The occupiers forced the Jewish population to move to a ghetto, then in the summer rounded them up to be sent north.
There were two trains and Lantos’s family was split between them. His parents and grandmother in one; others, including his cousin and aunt, in another. In the terrible conditions of the packed freight wagons, nobody knew where they were heading.
Lantos’s first destination was what is now Austria, where his parents were forced to work in a brick factory and repairing roads. Then later that year, another train journey took them to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Just five years old at the time, some memories are still clear for Lantos, who is now 83.
“The most vivid memories are the physical hardships. Because by the time we got to Belsen, the beginning of December, it was bitterly cold. Standing for hours in that ice-cold wind waiting to be counted every day, going to wash ourselves in a shed, which was partly open, in ice-cold water and being hungry practically all the time. This I remember.”
Despite being deported and witnessing the death of his grandmother after the first arduous train journey, for the most part, five-year-old Lantos saw life as a series of unusual adventures.
“Don’t forget that my parents, particularly my mother, were a sort of buffer,” he says. “Travel was unusual, but it still was exciting. There were little pauses when life could have looked normal, in Austria when I could play with other children. But I was even then remin-ded that nearby my parents had to do slave labour.
“Increasingly, I couldn’t completely understand what was happening. In Belsen, it became so blatantly obvious when I could see hundreds of dead people lying on the ground. So Belsen was when I realised that we may not be going home. And in fact, my father died in Belsen before the British arrived.”
Lantos and his mother were taken from the camp days before it was liberated. As the Allies grew close, the Germans removed hundreds of prisoners to use as potential collateral. Then on 13 April 1945, the train was freed by an American tank unit.
The war was over, but the tragedy was not. Returning home to Hungary, Lantos and his mother learned that, as well as his father and grandmother, his older brother Gyuri and another 18 members of his family had been lost. The other train he could have been on was sent straight to Auschwitz.
“As a child, my mother didn’t talk much about what happened to us,” Lantos says. “I gradually realised the extent of evil that happened in our town, then I realised it affected all of Hungary, then most European countries. But I was too young to process that emotionally. It’s only when I became a teenager that I really started to think about what happened.”
Lantos began to “intensely” ask his mother about their experiences during the war. In later life, after retirement, he retraced the journey he’d taken decades earlier from Makó to Bergen-Belsen and back again to refresh memories. Research led him to meet George Gross, the US tank commander that freed his train in 1945. Although Lantos was young and couldn’t comprehend what was happening, his experience during the war has been a constant influence throughout his life.
He says, “I think without Belsen, I would have been a different person. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but somewhat different.
“There are various ways of reacting to the experience. One is to try to get on with life, and not to develop hatred. Hatred is the boomerang of emotions, because it hits the person who hates, not the person whom you are hating. So what I tried to do to draw strength from the experience of Belsen, the idea was, if I survived Belsen, I will survive everything. And that helped me through hardship later [in] life.”
And there were a few more hardships to come. Lantos studied to be a doctor in Hungary and took the opportunity to travel abroad when offered, heading back to (East) Germany. “It was a very interesting month, August 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up,” he says, and making friends with young German medics helped him process his past.
Then in 1968 he was able to travel beyond the Iron Curtain, having been awarded a research fellowship to study in London. After the year, he decided not to return to Hungary and was sentenced in absentia to 16 months in prison for defection. Lantos had all of his possessions confiscated and wasn’t able to return to his home country until the fall of communism two decades later.
In the UK, Lantos became one of our most renowned researchers in the field of neuroscience. Chair of neuropathology at Maudsley Hospital’s Institute of Psychiatry, he taught psychiatry, neurology, neurosurgery and led a major research programme studying neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, motor neurone disease and Parkinson’s.
His career choice stems from his history. “I think that experience of Belsen was a major factor because I wanted to have a job or profession in which I can help my fellow human beings.” The achievements Lantos made – a boy who survived when millions did not – is a reminder that the tragedy of the Holocaust is not the number of lives lost, but how each of those lives could have been led.
Dedicated to the memory of his mother and “all the children who died in the Holocaust”, Lantos has written about his own experiences as a child. “I try to tell the story for children, from the point of view of a child, so it’s not the memories of an old man,” he explains.
He feels responsibility to do this.
“In a few years’ time, no survivors will be around,” he says. “I was a child. I am the last generation of people who survived. No one will be around who can testify, ‘Yes, I was there, this is what happened’. It will be a fact in history books.
“I thought a sort of testimony was important to tell to children. And further, which may or may not work, to make them realise that they can do something so things like that don’t happen again. Even now, there are people who deny the Holocaust. But if more people are aware of what happened then perhaps those people can do something about it.
“The number can be disputed but millions and millions of people disappeared. They didn’t disappear, they were murdered. Their murder had been planned. I can’t vouch for all six million, but I can vouch for 21 of my family who were innocent, ranging from my cousin of five who was gassed in Auschwitz to my grandmother who died aged 70 outside Vienna.”