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TUESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2024
The remarkable Mala, survivor of Belsen and hero of the Holocaust
If you have never heard of Mala Tribich you might want to rectify that and watch her deliver a 40-minutes long unscripted lecture to teenagers, utterly transfixed by what she had to say. It’s available on the internet. Mala was 87 at the time, very poised and beautiful and looking at least 20 years younger. And she stood throughout her talk. She is now 93 and is one of the most remarkable people I have met.
Mala Tribich is Jewish and is a Holocaust Survivor.
I was reminded of her on Saturday, World Holocaust Memorial Day, and of the help she gave me when I was doing research for my book, Toto and Coco: Spies, Seduction and the Fight for Survival. My heroine Toto Koopman, former Chanel model, former lover of the great Beaverbrook (and of his not so great son Max) and bravest of brave British spy. When Koopman was finally captured by the SS in Venice in 1944 she was taken to Ravensbruck, the women-only concentration camp north of Berlin.
Mala Helfgott, as she then was, had also been incarcerated in Ravensbruck before her transfer to Bergen Belsen. She was nine when the Nazis invaded her home town of Piotrkow Trybunalski in Poland. What followed was life in the vile, overcrowded Jewish ghetto, life on the run pretending to be a Christian girl, the loss of her mother and eight-year-old sister, murdered in the nearby forest in yet another Nazi round-up, and gruelling work as a slave labourer aged 12.
And finally the two concentration camps, all part of the Final Solution. Just like Toto Koopman, stripped naked and shaved of their hair and given a piece of bread, a grey liquid masquerading as soup and the notorious striped shift uniform. All valuables, and even the not so valuable possessions, were confiscated.
Toto survived the horrors of Ravensbruck and died at the age of 82 in 1991. I never met her, indeed I had never heard of her until 2017 when the Beaverbrook family approached me, so I sought out help from the few remaining women who had known Ravensbruck only too well. Mala was my remarkable informant.
‘We didn’t know where we were going when we left our labour camp. In fact I think the German guards were not sure either because they kept receiving different orders. When we finally arrived after four and a half days in a cattle truck we were lined up at the train station and made to march in two columns, four people wide, clutching our few belongings in little bundles, to Ravensbruck.
‘We were given those awful clogs which never fitted and made to take a freezing shower. The worst thing was we no longer recognised ourselves or each other without our hair. We were stripped of our personality and of all hope.’
Worse was to come: Bergen Belsen. ‘After 10 weeks at Ravensbruck we were transferred to this vision of hell where my abiding memory is constantly stepping over dead bodies.’
At the end of her talk to the kids, who sat in absolute silence throughout, Mala said: ’What we the survivors have been able to show is that the human spirit will prevail. My message to the young is: Don’t stand by, never tolerate hatred or racism or anti-Semitism.’
She is not alone. The BBC recently showed again a moving and inspiring documentary, Portraits of the Holocaust, about the then Prince of Wales’ initiative to have seven portraitists paint seven Holocaust survivors. Each survivor was remarkable, dignified and praised the UK for what opportunities it had given them when they arrived here, mostly in 1947.
Manfred Goldberg, now 94 and fearful that anti-semitism is returning because of the war in Gaza; Rachel Levy, who was one of a group of survivors taken first to Millisle on the beautiful Ards Peninsular in Co Down before relocating to London; Zigi Shipper, who died last year on the day of his 93rd birthday; the elegant Helen Aronson, 97, Arek Hersh, aged 95 who lost 81 members of his immediate family to the Holocaust; Anita Lasker-Wallfish, a beautiful and accomplished 97-year-old with an honorary doctorate from Cambridge and Lily Ebert, who celebrated her 100th birthday a month ago with a letter from the King praising her ‘extraordinary strength of spirit, resilience and courage.’
They all survived the horrific, perverted philosophy of Hitler and his evil gang and we are all the better that they did. Sadly, six million didn’t and we must constantly remind ourselves that there are enough tyrants in an increasingly unstable world who might attempt a repeat.
In Mala’s words, the human spirit must prevail.
As I write this in balmy London, it’s more like a fine Spring day than the middle of winter. So naturally an old man’s fancy turns to ... cricket. What a result from Hyderabad in the first Test which seemed all but lost until Ollie Pope’s sublime 196, Ben Stokes’ masterful captaincy and brilliant run out of Jadeja, and new boy Tom Hartley’s seven wicket haul in his first England game. Trebles all round please steward!
So the vultures are gathering again, this time in a Sicilian (how very appropriate) restaurant in Covent Garden, plotting to bring down poor little Rishi and install yet another brief tenant in No 10. Whoever is the mysterious donor funding the antics of these lunatics, he or she must have deep pockets. That recent poll which forecast the wipe-out of most Tory seats cost more than £40,000 and Giovanni’s in Goodwin’s Court doesn’t deign to have prices for food or wine on its website.
Let’s hope they stuff themselves to the gills with the heavy-on-the-garlic menu and order the Brunello di Montalcino because that won’t be cheap. So if you meet a Tory MP stinking of the potent little allium and with wine red lips you might have solved the problem currently occupying political types.
29 January 2024