Little guy who took up big fight
Leon Greenman, who has just died in London aged 97, was an ordinary little guy (literally) who, like millions of others, found himself caught up cruelly in the great horrific events of the 20th century, betrayed and robbed of his loved ones and happiness by those with power and authority. Only in later life did he find his voice to tell the younger generations what had happened and warn of the dangers they too might face if we gave way to racism.
I never got to know Leon Greenman, though friends of mine did. But hearing him speak a few times, telling his story, and seeing the tenacity and courage with which he kept up the fight, I felt his passing should not go without note.
Leon Greenman was born on December 18, 1910 in Whitechapel, in London's East End, one of six children, -three brothers, three sisters. The family background was Dutch-Jewish. You might say his tzorres began when he was two years old, and his mother died. His father remarried and took the children to live with the in laws in Rotterdam. Leon's stepmother beat him, as did his Dutch teachers. By the 1920s he had returned to London and was apprenticed to a barber in Forest Gate.
Keen like many an East End boy on boxing, Leon also took up singing, joining an amateur operatic society which is where he met Esther "Else" van Dam. They married in 1935 at Stepney Green synagogue, and spent their honeymoon in Rotterdam, staying with Else's grandmother. Else decided to stay, to look after her grandmother, and Leon commuted between Britain and Holland, working in his father-in-law's book business.
In 1938, fearing that war was approaching, Leon decided to bring Else home to Britain. But the night he arrived in Holland to collect her, they heard Neville Chamberlain on the radio announcing his agreement with Hitler, and promising "peace in our time". Reassured, Leon decided to stay. The British consul told him that if war came, as a British national he would be evacuated. On March 17 1940 their son Barnett ("Barney") was born. On May 10 the Germans invaded the Netherlands. The British embassy staff fled.
Believing that as an Englishman he and his family would be protected under the Geneva Convention on treatment of enemy civilians, Leon then saw the Nazis beginning deportations, as well as enforcing the wearing of the yellow star by April 1942. He entrusted his family's savings and passports to some non-Jewish friends for safekeeping. Fearing the penalties for helping Jews, they burnt the documents. Leon tried unsuccessfully to get new documents proving his nationality, but on October 8 1942 Leon, Else, Barney and their grandmother were rounded up and taken to Westerbork, the Nazi concentration camp in the Netherlands, from where captives were deported to the east.
In mid-January 1943 they were told they were being deported to a Polish "work camp". Leon told the camp commandant that as British citizens they should not be deported. But it was no good, they had to go. Years later he discovered that the commandant had found the Greenmans' replacement papers after the family had left. By then they were en route to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In his autobiography, An Englishman in Auschwitz (2001), Greenman describes how "the women were separated from the men: Else and Barney were marched about 20 yards away to a queue of women ... I tried to watch Else. I could see her clearly against the blue lights. She could see me, too, for she threw me a kiss and held our child up for me to see. What was going through her mind, I will never know. Perhaps she was pleased that the journey had come to an end. We had been promised that we could meet at the weekends..."
Else, her grandmother and Barney were sent straight to the gas chambers. Leon's last sighting of them was as they were taken away in an open truck. Else had made capes with peaked hoods for herself and Barney from bright red velvet curtains. Leon saw the two splashes of red. He called out, but his wife never heard him or looked back. "I thought they must be still alive," Greenman told the Guardian's Stephen Moss in 2005. The thought that he would see them again kept him going.
Leon had been selected for work. After six weeks in Birkenau he was taken to the main camp at Auschwitz. There, despite his protestations of "I am an Englishman, I should not be here", he was subjected to "medical" experimentation. He was convinced that it was his skills that saved him, earning extra food for shaving prisoners and singing for the kapos - prisoners chosen by the Nazis to head work gangs - in the evening. He believed the physique he had developed while training as a boxer enabled him to survive the selections held to weed out and murder the weak and sick. And he fought to survive, in that hope that Else and Barney might still be alive.
In September 1943 Leon was sent to the Monowitz industrial complex within Auschwitz. By January 1945, as the Red Army advanced, the Nazis began moving the slave labourers westwards. Leon and others were force-marched 90km to Gliwice in southern Poland and then, in open cattle trucks in freezing conditions, to Buchenwald, near Weimar. On April 11 1945 he was liberated by the US army. Of the 700 people transported from Westerbork, Leon was one of only two survivors.
He never remarried. In London he started to rebuild his life. He became a tradesman, travelling the country with a suitcase full of bric-a-brac, and a singer. But events in the late 1950s and early 1960s persuaded Leon Greenman that he could not put his tragic past behind or just try to get on with his personal life. A rash of swastika daubings across Europe, the attempted comeback of British fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, and the emergence of new Nazis like Colin Jordan proclaiming "Hitler was right", all persuaded the little ex-boxer Leon Greenman to put on the gloves politically, and join the fight against resurgent fascism.
If daring to hope his wife and son were alive had kept Leon going through the camps, knowing their fate would now sustain him in the struggle against Nazism reborn. His special contribution would be to bear witness, telling people what he had seen and what had happened to his own family, rebutting the Holocaust deniers who try to reduce this massive human catastrophe to a game with numbers, and educating the younger generation as to where racialism can lead. At an Anti-Nazi League rally against the historical revisionist David Irving he wore a homemade badge reading "Auschwitz - Never Again" and "98288", the number tattooed on his arm.
This was in 1992. It is worth noting, because although established Jewish organisations like the Board of Deputies and the Association of Jewish Ex-servicemen and women (AJEX) had responded to the new Nazism in the early 1960s, providing speakers and educational material (albeit trying to keep young Jews out of clashes with fascists), by the 1980s their outlook had changed. The Deputies advised local Jewish communities to keep quiet about incidents such as swastikas daubed on synagogues, saying they were taking this up with the Home Office. They urged Jewish people not to get involved with the Anti-Nazi League, because some of its leading figures were "left-wing extremists" who might condemn Israel as racist.
Dr.Jacob Gewirtz, the Board's defence officer, peddled the new line from the US neo-cons which was that right-wing antisemitism was a thing of the past and the real danger now was the Left with its anti-Zionism. At more than one meeting he rounded on audience critics from the Jewish Socialists' Group, denouncing them as "the real enemy".
Leon Greenman was no anti-Zionist leftie, indeed like many of his generation he would not take kindly to criticism of Israel. But he had seen too much of real antisemitism and Nazism to let the new 'wise men' of the Establishment deter him from fighting it, and he remained prepared to ally with whoever was genuinely taking up that fight. The little man grew in stature, whether on demonstrations, or speaking to schools, synagogues, trade unionists and students. He did not just speak about his personal tragedy, or that of the Jews, but also about what had happened to the Roma, the left-wingers, the homosexuals and others in the camps. He urged unity and organisation to confront racism and fascism.
Leon Greenman went back to Auschwitz several times, leading delegations and guiding parties around the camp. Back in Britain he took part in demonstrations including that in 1993 to shut the BNP headquarters at Welling, when we were charged by mounted police and he had to be lifted over a garden wall for safety. That same year a BNP councillor was elected in the East End, and Leon received death threats and a brick thrown through his window. He had to install mesh shutters over his windows at his home in Ilford. The death threats continued, but Leon would not retire from the fight. In 2003 local fascists sent him a Christmas card telling him he would make a lovely lampshade. Such 'humour' was a testimony to the enmity he inspired from them, but also a reminder if needed that behind the suited respectability they present for the media, our homegrown Nazis are the same psychopathic scum who would murder millions if given the chance.
The Jewish Museum in north London set up a permanent exhibition of Leon's life, and in his last few years he was on hand on a Sunday to talk to visitors and guide them through it. He was awarded an OBE in 1998. He died in hospital, where he had been recovering from a fall, on March 6, 2008. Having been deprived of his loved ones and so much that might have made for a happier life when young, he had dedicated his later life to helping guide the younger generations so they should not have to endure anything like it again.
Guardian obituary on Leon Greenman :
earlier piece with quote: