I spend much of my time working with young people, sharing my story and reflecting with them on its meaning, past, present and future. I do remember the past. I also think about the future.

- Arek Hersh 

Arek was born in 1928 in Sieradz, Poland. He was 1 of 5 children and has happy memories of his childhood before the Nazi invasion, playing in the nearby forests and skating on the frozen rivers in the winters. Arek’s family were Orthodox Jews and religion was a particularly important part of their lives.

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Arek remembers witnessing one of the first war planes flying above his house followed by heavy rifle fire. Poland was defeated quickly, and with the occupation of Poland by the German army came an immediate persecution of the Jews.

One day Arek saw Jewish men being dragged from their homes into the street and beaten. To his horror he noticed his own father was among them. The men were kicked and beaten with rifle butts, including Arek’s 21 year old cousin, who was kicked to death.

When Arek was just 11, the Jewish part of his town were ordered to supply a labour force of Jewish men. First, they came to take Arek’s father, who escaped, and then Arek’s older brother, Tovia, who also managed to escape. Finally, they came for Arek. He was taken to a camp to work on a new railway to Russia. The men there worked 12-hour days and suffered vicious beatings with very little food. When he arrived there were 2,500 men. When he left, there were just 11.

In August 1942, just two weeks after Arek had returned from the labour camp, the remaining 1,400 Jews in Sieradz were ordered into the square and then march to a nearby church. 150 people were being selected for work and despite his efforts, Arek was ordered into the church. After a short while, Arek left in search of finding something to drink, and this time he was selected to join those fit for work. Although he did not realise it at the time, his life had just been saved. All those remaining in the church were sent to Chelmno extermination camp and murdered, including Arek’s family.

Arek was then sent to the Lodz ghetto. Conditions in the ghetto were awful, lack of food and over-crowding meant starvation and endemic diseases presented an ever-present threat to life. Arek remembers one day, looking through the fence of the ghetto to the free citizens on the other side in despair, and began to cry. He felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see a woman who asked him what was wrong and took him to stay with her and her daughter. This kind gesture helped Arek to feel a sense of belonging for the first time since his family were taken.

Arek eventually joined an orphanage in the ghetto, which made his life a little more bearable as he had more food and was able to make friends.

In 1944, the Nazis began to liquidate the Lodz ghetto. After spending almost 2 years in the ghetto, Arek and the rest of the children were taken to a railway station and loaded onto a wagon, which had very little ventilation and nowhere to sit, with only a bucket as a toilet. Arek was grateful that some of his friends were on the same wagon as him. Their journey lasted a full day and night, with many people fainting or even dying from the heat and exhaustion.

Eventually they arrived at their destination – Auschwitz. Immediately the arrivals were separated into lines, one line on the left with the children, the sick and the elderly, the other on the right with the adults fit for work. Arek knew he had to avoid the line with the sick and elderly, but to his horror he and the other children from the orphanage were placed in the left line. During some commotion, Arek seized his opportunity and slipped across to the other line without being noticed. All of those in the left line, including Arek’s friends, were murdered in the gas chambers.

Arek was placed in a barracks with around 1000 other men, with 10 men to a bunk. It was horribly overcrowded, and they were barely fed enough to keep them alive. Arek worked various jobs in Auschwitz

As Allied forces approached Auschwitz, many prisoners were marched to Germany on what became known as Death Marches. Arek began his march just 9 days before Auschwitz was liberated on the 27th of January 1945.

They were marched through freezing conditions, with no food or rest. Those who lagged behind were shot. When they reached a Katowice, Poland, they were put into goods wagons and began the journey to Buchenwald concentration camp. The journey lasted several days, and they were given no food. Arek and his friend had managed to steal a bag of semolina from Auschwitz, which staved off some of the hunger.

Eventually they reached Buchenwald, which had similar appalling conditions to Auschwitz – however, at least there was shelter and small amounts of food. Arek soon left Buchenwald, and was once again forced to march, this time to the city of Weimar.

There they were loaded onto open wagons again, once more with no provisions against hunger or the cold. This journey continued for many days and nights, Arek was even reduced to eating grass during a rare break from the journey. Many men died during this journey.

Eventually they reached Czechoslovakia, and were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto. They were a miserable sight to behold, and only 600 of the 4,500 who left Buchenwald had survived. On the 8th of May the Russian army liberated Theresienstadt.

Arek was not yet 16 when he was liberated and had witnessed some of the worst horrors in human history. The only remaining member of Arek’s family was his older sister, Mania, all of the others had been murdered in the Holocaust. Arek later moved to Britain with other children who had survived, where he led a happy life.

In later life Arek has dedicated a lot of time to working with young people, telling his story so that his traumatic past might help build a better future. His long-standing friendship with the National Holocaust Centre and Museum continues to this day. His testimony plays an integral role in Holocaust education and will continue to do so in years to come.