Dubai: Holocaust survivor recounts nightmare at concentration camp

87-year-old Gidon Lev was in the UAE as special guest at International Holocaust Remembrance Day event held at Crossroads of Civilizations museum in Shindagha


Nasreen Abdulla

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Supplied photos
Supplied photos

Published: Sun 29 Jan 2023, 5:14 PM

Being constantly hungry, seeing his great grandmother for the last time before she was sent away to a death camp and secretly scraping some marmalade from barrels to eat with bread are some of the memories Gidon Lev has of his four years at a Czech concentration camp.

The 87-year-old Holocaust survivor was in the UAE as a special guest at the International Holocaust Remembrance Day event held at the Crossroads of Civilizations museum in Shindagha. “Good evening and assalamu alaikum (peace be upon you),” began Gidon Lev, addressing a group of over 150 people in Dubai, with the backdrop of photographs of his family and their history. “To be here, I couldn’t have dreamt in a thousand years.”

The septuagenarian, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1935, described in detail how his happy life with his parents and grandparents turned into a nightmare under the rule of Hitler in Germany. As a young boy who was saddened to leave behind his red tricycle when his family moved to avoid the Nazi rule, Gidon was unaware just how bad things were going to get as the years went on. The Holocaust was a systematic genocide of European Jews and is estimated to have killed about 6 million people.

The event, a first of its kind held in the UAE, was attended by several dignitaries, religious leaders and members of both the Jewish and Muslim community. Gidon, who began posting about information about the Holocaust on social media, has become a Tiktok sensation with over 2.2 million views. He has been recognized as one of the top 100 influential Jews of 2022.

Stolen childhood

Gidon described how his life in Prague got progressively worse as several restrictions were imposed on Jews. One of the memories he shared was of the day he realized he could no longer play in his neighborhood park. “My grandpa used to take me to a park in the corner of the street,” he said. “It had a swing like a canoe. I used to climb in and my grandfather would push me. I used to be in seventh heaven. One day I ran to the swing, and I climbed in. My grandfather said no. I was angry at him. He took me in his arms and showed me the sign in the park that Jews were forbidden from entering the park. I still remember it like it was today.”

His father and grandfather were sent to a resettlement camp in Terezin, while he, his mother and his grandmother followed shortly. He teared up on recalling how he never saw his grandfather, who fell sick and died shortly after his arrival at the camp.

Gidon Lev
Gidon Lev

He also recalled seeing his great grandmother before she was shipped off to the concentration camp in Treblinka. “Looking at the worry on my mother’s face, she said to her ‘don’t worry, what will they make me do? I am an old woman’,” he said. “Can you imagine her arriving there, all her hair being shaved and told that she was going to take a shower. She must have thought oh finally I am going to be clean. But the shower was with gas and that is how she died.”

“I didn’t have a childhood,” Gidon said about his days in the concentration camp in Terezin where his most persistent memory was of being hungry all the time. “We would get a small bowl of soup and a slice of bread every day. That was all. We would look for work so that we could find ways to eat more food.” He recalled how he found marmalade in a barrel and took a piece of cardboard to scrape some off the sides so he could have it with his bread.

He concluded by saying how after four years at the camp, his mother and he returned to Prague to try and rebuild their lives after the war. “Every day I would pray for my father to come back,” he said. “But he didn’t. Neither did 26 other members of my family.”

Biggest crime

After Gidon’s account, Consul General of the State of Israel in Dubai and the Northern Emirates Liron Zaslansky said the event surpassed all her expectations. “It is probably the most important event that the consulate has organized,” she said. “Because it tells you about the roots of the Jewish people and the people of Israel. To open it up here in Dubai to the Arab world it was something unimaginable just two years ago. It is a privilege to hear a Holocaust survivor and I am still very emotional from listening to the account.”

Throughout the event, various speakers stressed the importance of remembering the Holocaust and ensuring a genocide of its magnitude doesn’t occur again. “It was the biggest crime, biggest genocide against humanity,” said Ahmed Obaid AlMansoori, founder of the Crossroads of Civilization museum. “We want to learn the roots of these things so that we can prevent it. Unfortunately [genocides] are continuing to happen and might happen again.”

The evening also saw the unveiling of a rare scroll of a Czech Torah that survived the Holocaust. Brought to the UAE by the Memorial Scroll Trust, it will be on display at the Crossroads of Civilizations museum. The museum also has an exhibition titled ‘Stars Without a Heaven’, which focuses on the experiences of children who lived through the Holocaust.

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