Anybody would have been surprised had they arrived midway into Holocaust survivor Joanna Millan’s lecture. Immediately different to your average lecture theatre, all seats were filled, everyone was silent, and there was no one at the back struggling with an oncoming hangover. In the audience, students and staff alike were utterly enthralled by Joanna’s graceful communication of her inspirational story at this very special event, which was organised by students from the History Society at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).
It is often easy to forget that the horrifying tragedy of the Holocaust is so close in our historical timeline. Joanna opened her talk by explaining why she tells her story. Both she and student co-organiser Hannah Hardman represented The Holocaust Educational Trust – which received all proceeds from the talk. They each emphasised the importance of remembering and learning from history in order to prevent its repetition. Joanna explained, “History awakens us to dangers.”
During her introduction, her forthright opinions surrounding her historical experience became clear and caused some students to describe her as “very, very honest”. As history student and society member Kate Allcroft explained “she has a very set opinion of what she thinks.”
Joanna then went on to tell her story, setting the scene and explaining how difficult the Nazis made it for Jews in Germany. She was one of 140,936 Jews deported to Theresienstandt. “There was no way out except in death” she explained, shedding light on the Jewish peoples’ hopes that “maybe tomorrow will be different, maybe tomorrow we’ll be free.”
Her words ‘hit home’ for her listeners as she emphasised “we take so much for granted.” After being liberated by Russian soldiers, like many others, she had nothing in the world but her “memories.” Joanna, then named Bela Rosenthal, arrived in England an orphan, where eventually she came to be adopted by an English couple who changed her name.
Whilst Joanna’s speech was particularly emotionally affecting, her approach and attitude was energising, especially as she explained her discovery of blood relatives who had all presumed her dead, saying “the last piece of the jigsaw was only four years ago.” After the speech, she explained how meeting blood relatives allowed her to realise “this is who I am.”
Joanna added a human perspective to the events of the Holocaust, something far more tangible than the facts and figures quoted in textbooks. Her talk gave the impression that life really does go on, by putting it into perspective for the avid audience. Afterwards, impressed students and members of the History Society explained that “it is her legacy; how her family coped, how she coped and life after it” and this is why they left “really inspired” by Joanna’s speech as many others, including myself, also did.
Thanks to Joanna and to MMU’s History Society, this is an event that will be remembered by all. Joanna’s affecting story of her own history and subsequent self-discovery will stay with her listeners long after leaving the lecture theatre. Joanna’s talk succeeded in becoming a “living memorial” of all those involved in the Holocaust, telling a story that will be passed on to generations to come.
Lucy Simpson is a prospective journalist who is passionate about reading, writing and eating chocolate. You can read more of her work on her blog