The Perse School

Holocaust survivor gives annual Josef Behrmann lecture

29 Jan 2016

On Tuesday, pupils and staff welcomed Holocaust survivor John Dobai to the School’s annual Josef Behrmann Lecture, where he gave a moving testimony on his experiences during the Second World War.

This special lecture takes place each year to explore issues of religious tolerance and understanding. It is named after Josef Behrmann, a Latvian pupil at the School’s Jewish boarding house, Hillel House, in the 1930s. When the Nazis invaded Latvia, he was arrested and sent to a succession of concentration camps. After the war, Behrmann enjoyed a successful acting career and was a key witness at the Nuremburg Trials.

John visited the School on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s outreach programme, ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day. He shared his detailed testimony on life under Nazi occupation as a young child: a time of fear, discrimination and his parents’ attempts to keep the family safe.

Born in Budapest in 1934, John was the only child of a banker and a housewife, who up until the outbreak of the Second World War enjoyed an idyllic childhood. As news of the rise in anti-Semitic feeling in Germany reached Hungary, John’s parents (who were Jewish) decided to convert to Roman Catholicism, and John was raised in that faith. Many Jewish families at this time also changed their names in order to appear more Hungarian. However, with two Jewish grandparents and Jewish heritage, the family was considered Jewish and faced discrimination like so many other families.

After the outbreak of the Second World War and as Hungary became involved in the conflict, John’s father was called up to serve in the army, though was sent home after only a few weeks when it was decided that people of Jewish origin would no longer be able to serve in the Hungarian armed forces. He was then taken from the family home and sent to a labour camp. John recounted that very soon after Germany had occupied Hungary, a raft of new anti-Semitic legislation was passed, with Jews now being required to wear a yellow star to mark them out as Jewish. He explained that Jewish people were no longer deemed worthy of sharing the pavement with non-Jews, and so were forced into the street. The property, businesses and belongings of Jews was taken from them, as was their education. John found out from his friend that he would no longer be able to attend school because of the anti-Semitic laws – something he struggled to comprehend.

Aged just 10, he and his mother moved into an apartment with several other Jewish families. His mother believed he would be safer away from Budapest, so she arranged for him to live with a family in the countryside. After becoming ill with chickenpox, John was sent back to his mother in Budapest, where his father had recently been released from the labour camp. His father was able to obtain visas from a Swedish diplomat (Sweden was neutral in the war and so offered protection for those suffering discrimination), which meant he was able to save John and his mother from being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. They took up a place in one of many ‘safe houses’ set up by Sweden, which were declared to be Swedish territory. The Nazis decided that these houses were not Swedish territory, and so began removing their inhabitants. Luckily, John and his family were liberated by Russian forces in January 1945.

His talk was followed by an ‘Q&A’ session, where he was asked for his most vivid memory of that time in his life – he answered that he felt constantly hungry, and remembered at age 10 being shouted at with hatred by a stranger in the street, because of his Jewish identity. John concluded by saying that whilst he does not think that the horrors of the Holocaust will be repeated in the future, we must be vigilant to avoid discriminating against others on account of their religion, race or other factors. He promised his cousin who had survived Auschwitz that he would continue to share his story of the Holocaust as long as he is able to, educating people about tolerance, love and respect.


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