Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust memorial day, marking the 67th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945.

When we were researching The Sugar Girls, we were surprised to learn that, following the Second World War, Tate & Lyle employed many European refugees who had settled in the East End.

The saddest story we heard was of a Polish man called Bassie. Here is the account of Erik Gregory, who started work at Tate & Lyle in the 1950s as a boy of 15:

“One man I met, I’ve never forgotten him, his name was Bassie. A Polish man. He lived in the Polish community in Stepney then. And I’ve never seen eyes like he had in my life. They were like grey steel, and fixed as if looking in the far distance.

One day it was snowing and us boys were pulling a huge load of bags on steel pallets, and he was pulling the handle along on a pump up truck, with two boys behind him pushing him, and it was snowing, bitterly cold. And you know how boys are, we were like ‘Leave him to it, he can pull it himself.’ He was like a cart horse, his strength was immense. And we were leaning against it, and he obviously knew that, so he came round to the back and he said, ‘Oy you boys, are you taking the piss?’

Anyway this charge-hand came round, old George it was, and he said, ‘What’s the matter?’

Bassie said, ‘These boys are playing up.’ He said to us, ‘You boys, you think this is hard and cold?’

My mate said, ‘Cold? Yeah, Bassie, it is cold.’

And he said, ‘No. You don’t know cold. You don’t know hard. You don’t know what hard work is.’ He said, ‘I’ve chopped trees at fifty below zero in Siberia. When the Russians invaded our country we were in cattle trucks, hundreds of us, shipped there.’ Of course, I’d heard about it, but I’d never actually met anyone who’d had it.

We said to him, ‘Why didn’t you go back to Poland after the war?’

He said, ‘I can’t go home, there is nothing there.’

We said, ‘Where’s your family?’

He said, ‘Auschwitz. Gassed by the Germans.’

He said, ‘We was taken to Siberia and they gave us rotten fish eggs and we used to crush bones up and eat it up. The Russians made us dig holes to live in, and if you couldn’t do it, kneel down, bang. Or you were just left to die.’ Then Germany invaded Russia and the British government came to an arrangement that so many Polish prisoners could come and join the forces here.

He said, ‘I was very lucky.’ He managed to get here and train with the Polish free force and he said, ‘Three times I’ve been blown out of a tank.’ (He was the tank driver.) ‘I was the only survivor three times, blown out of three tanks.’ He said, ‘You don’t know what hard work is, and I never want you to. You don’t know the jackboot smashing the door down, you know nothing of them things, you’ve been told about them but you know nothing.’

He said, ‘I don’t want you to see it, but don’t you take the piss out of me.’

We learned a lesson there and we didn’t take the piss no more.”

For more information on Holocaust Memorial Day, and to sign the 2012 pledge, click here.