The History Department of Fort Hill Integrated College was privileged to have Holocaust Survivor Joanna Millan as a guest speaker in school recently.
Over 170 Fort Hill pupils in Year 11, 12, 13 and 14 who study History, RE and Sociology, as well as some pupils from St Colms had the opportunity to hear Joanna’s personal testimony as a Holocaust survivor.
Joanna was born Bela Rosenthal in August 1942 in Berlin, Germany.
At the end of February 1943, Bela’s father was taken from the streets of Berlin and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he was killed.
Later that year in June, Bela and her mother were taken from their home and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto.
In 1944 when Bela was two, her mother contracted TB due to the conditions in the camp, leaving Bela orphaned and alone in the camp.
The conditions in the camp were horrendous and, in addition to the dangers in Thereseienstadt, there was always the threat of being sent on to Auschwitz.
Therefore it is even more surprising that a three year old orphan defied all odds to survive. Food was scarce. Joanna remembered that she and five other young orphans were mostly left to their own devices and looked after each other like family.
This is particularly moving when the students learnt that the oldest of these orphans was only three years and ten months when they were rescued from the camp.
Some of the women working in the kitchens would take food to the orphans. One woman, Litska Shallinger, knowing that the food in the camp was contaminated and working in the vegetable patch, would bring back fresh, clean vegetables hidden under her clothes, some of which she would give to Bela.
On May 3, 1945, the Red Cross took over control of the camp and Bela was liberated by the Russians.
After the liberation Bela, along with five other surviving orphans, was flown to England in British bomber planes which had been used to return Czech pilots who had been flying with the RAF during the war.
Eventually Bela was adopted by a Jewish couple living in London.
They decided it would be better to have a less German sounding name and so her name was changed to Joanna. Joanna was told not to mention that she was Jewish or that she was born in Germany and to pretend that she was their natural daughter.
Joanna went on to marry a Jewish man and has three children and eight grandchildren.
Pupils, staff and members of the Board of Governors were captivated by the moving and inspiring recollections from Joanna. At the end of her talk, pupils had the opportunity to ask Joanna questions about her experiences and life since. Maureen Greene,
Head of History at Fort Hill College, said: “It was a privilege for us to welcome Joanna to our school. We hope that by hearing Joanna’s story first hand, rather than reading it in a textbook, will encourage our students to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust and make a positive difference in their own lives.”