De Beauvoir social worker turned author releases collection of Holocaust survivors’ stories

Barbara Bennett

Barbara Bennett - Credit: Archant

“We learned to play again, and our favourite game was hide and seek,” one Holocaust survivor recounted her experiences to social worker Barbara Barnett.

The statement was to later provide the inspiration behind the title of the 88-year-old’s book, Hide and Seek Children, which is a collection of horrifying stories collected over her career from some 150 Slovakian Jewish children who witnessed the mass genocide during the Second World War.

Ms Barnett, of Ufton Road, De Beauvoir, first encountered some of the children who were sent to England or Ireland from Slovakia for recuperation just after the war in 1946.

She began compiling their stories to help them speak of their experiences – but it wasn’t until more than 50 years later when one asked whether she had thought about publishing the accounts.

Ms Barnett said: “My family haven’t known persecution in living memory, we’ve been in England for generations, so for me I was doing something to help people.

“I made a very clear ruling to myself, I did not interview people. If they wanted to talk about it then they could, I did not cross-examine them, I did not encourage them.”

Ms Barnett, a member of the Bevis Marks synagogue in the City of London, had no direct link to the Holocaust – she was evacuated to Quebec during the war.

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“Moving to Quebec was nothing like concentration camps,” she said.

“But it gave me an idea of what it would be like to lose your family and to be in a completely different environment.”

Ms Barnett went on to join the Canadian Air Force before returning to England and training as a social worker, which led her to getting involved with helping Holocaust survivors.

Though many were initially uncomfortable with talking about life in concentration camps, they later opened up.

Ms Barnett said: “They did not want to contaminate their children with the horrors they had been through.

“They later opened up more – they realised that they had a responsibility to talk about the past.

“We gradually heard of the awful things happening, and it was known what the Nazis were up to but we did not know of the details of the concentration camp until years later.”

As many people she had spoken to had suffered at such extreme lengths, Ms Barnett said gaining their trust was a complex issue.

She has also lived and worked in Israel where she met Olga Grossman – a survivor of Auschwitz and victim of the notorious SS officer physician Josef Mengele.

She became a good friend and has contributed to the book.

Some of the stories are told by Ms Barnett in the book while other memoirs appear in the subject’s own words.

The stories, which are preceeded by a historical introduction to the personal reminiscences that follow, tells not only of their suffering but how their lives developed, going on to have careers and families of their own.

Barbara is still compiling stories and has received more information since publication, which has persuaded her to write a new version of the book.

n Hide and Seek Children is published by Mansion Field and is available from Amazon.