Interviewing Descendants of the Holocaust and Connections to Sobibór Death Camp

Adrienne Wallman began her PhD on the impact of carrying out Jewish genealogy, in 2014. It is very much a personal project, which developed as a result of starting to research her own family history the previous year. Prior to beginning her PhD Adrienne had a forty-year career in the museums, heritage and arts sectors, and in educational television. She worked for several years as Director of Manchester Jewish Museum.

Interpreting the Holocaust for a new generation is not easy. As most of the survivors are no longer with us, it is important to gather the stories of the descendants of those were murdered, as their experiences can also provide an important perspective on the wider impact of this time. My own PhD project at the University of Lancaster examines the impact that can occur when people are researching their Jewish ancestry. I have carried out interviews with twenty-eight individuals from a variety of backgrounds, some of whom do not identify as Jewish, and some who had grown up with very little idea, if any, of their Jewish ancestry. I present here two of the most poignant stories, which were recounted by those who had grown up with no knowledge of the members of their family who had been murdered during the Holocaust.

Anthony Phillips

Anthony Phillips was brought up and remains a practising Catholic. He knew nothing about his father’s Jewish ancestry until he began doing genealogy in March 2000, when he was 60. He told me that when he was younger he had never asked his parents for any information. What prompted him to begin researching his ancestry was the fact that his parents had drawn a small family tree for a school project that his son was carrying out. All he had known previously was that his father’s eldest sister Sophie had married a Dutchman, that they had lived in Amsterdam, and that they died during the war. That was all the family had told him, and his father refused to reveal anything more. Anthony began his genealogical search in the Dutch archives, examining compensation files in The Hague. It was there that he discovered that fourteen members of his Jewish family had died in the Holocaust. His uncle had been an accountant in a diamond firm, and Anthony told me that he thought that having a job like that would have enabled the family to stay safe, but unfortunately that was not the case. They were eventually taken to Westerbork, which between 1942 and 1944 served as a transit camp for Dutch Jews before they were deported to extermination camps, (From there the family was sent to Sobibór and Auschwitz- Birkenau. Eight family members were murdered in Sobibór, and six in Auschwitz.

In 2011 Anthony and his wife Monica decided to travel to Poland and Germany to visit various places associated with his family. This is an extract from their memoir, where Anthony reflects on the impact of seeing the site where his family died so tragically:

We travelled south from the town on the Chelm road for 10km and then eastwards into the pine woods for 7kms to the site of the Sobibór concentration camp. […] A sad sight, which affected me deeply as this was the resting place of my aunt Sophie, her family and many more of the Heijmans family. They had all been deported from The Netherlands via Westerbork and died in 1943.[1]

I interviewed Anthony in January 2017 and he described this visit and the effect it had on him in more detail:

We went off to Sobibór, which was where my aunt and her husband and my two cousins died, which we found to be very moving. It was interesting by the mere fact that we know the place had been raised to the ground after they had the uprising in 1943 […] There was the big mound where all the remains of the, um, Jews had been stacked up and covered, so it was about, something like 100 yards in diameter and three foot tall, a great big mound. And so that was very, very moving to go and see that’.[2]

Two years later Anthony and Monica returned to Sobibór, as they had been invited to take part in the 70th anniversary of the uprising. After attending this more formal occasion, I believe that Anthony was able to achieve a form of acceptance of what had happened to his family:

‘[…] everybody, er picked up their candles and lit them, and there was a torchlight procession for about 200 yards into the clearing where this big mound was, of where the remains had been interred, and it had a big plinth all the way round it […] almost three feet high from the ground. And everybody just laid their, erm, lighted candles all the way around and it was all done in complete and utter silence, not a word was being spoken. People were just having memories and thinking back to what had taken place there. And so it was a nice time to go there, to lay the ghosts to rest and pay our respects to our family who were interred there.’[3]

It was also interesting to see how Anthony’s discovery of his Jewish ancestry affected the way he perceived the Holocaust. It was no longer something that had happened to others, but was a part of his own history, as this reflection shows:

[Adrienne]: After discovering your family history did it change how you perceived the Holocaust?

Yes it did because you’ve known people there that have been directly affected by it, where if you just read about something […] it’s historical […] but when you can actually turn round and say […] my aunt died in it with her husband and my two cousins, people do take an intake of breath and suddenly realise that they’re talking to somebody who’s got very close family who died in it and therefore you’re affected by it.’[4]

Anthony at Sobibór. Copyright: Anthony Phillips


Ephrata is in her late fifties. She knew that her mother had come to England when she was a child and had lost her entire immediate family in a concentration camp. However,the fact that that this was because they were practising Jews was glossed over. As an adult, she began doing genealogy because she wanted to learn more about her grandparents. As she gradually pieced together their story, she found it almost impossible to bear. She told me that she spent ‘the first four or five years in tears, intense wrenching tears’.[6] Eventually, she decided to go on a study tour to Poland, which included a visit to Sobibór. Here, she reflects with disbelief on the contrast between the place as it was then, and its meaning and associations for her:

We went to Sobibór where my grandmother died and a couple of metres from where the gas chambers had been and where they’d had the sort of the pits where they burnt all the bodies, there was a kindergarten and there was a house. And I just thought – how can people be living here?[7]

In spite of these harrowing experiences, Ephrata did acknowledge the importance of genealogy in enabling her to gain a more rounded understanding of her family’s life, beyond their identification as Holocaust victims:

[…] there is a tendency initially to only see one’s relatives as victims of the Holocaust and genealogy’s very helpful in going beyond that, […] to the lives that one’s […] great great-grandparents were living, rather than just focussing on the horror at the end, you know, that there was something before and to try to go back to before the horror. […] They weren’t just sort of people who ended up in a concentration camp.[8]

The stories recounted by Anthony and Ephrata enable us to see the impact of what happened in camps like Sobibór, on future generations. This can result in many years of family silence. The practice of genealogy has an important role to play in helping descendants to overcome that silence and to achieve a form of acceptance.

[1] Anthony and Monica Phillips ‘In the Footsteps of My Forefathers’, May and June 2011 [2] Anthony Phillips, interviewed by Adrienne Wallman, 5 January 2017, London, 2017 [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid. [5] Ephrata was the name of my interviewee’s German great-great grandmother and she said she wanted to use that name for the purpose of the interview. She thought it was appropriate given all the research she has been doing into her German-Jewish origins. I don’t refer to it as a pseudonym as that has different connotations [6] Ephrata, interviewed by Adrienne Wallman, 4 January 2017 [7] Ibid. [8] Ibid.

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