Holocaust Memorial Day: ‘We have a duty not to forget’

Jadzia Kaminska, whose father escaped the Nazi death camps, sees racism rising in Ireland

Jadzia Kaminska with her father Jan Kaminski:  ‘I’m really proud of who he was and how he managed to live his life’

Jadzia Kaminska with her father Jan Kaminski: ‘I’m really proud of who he was and how he managed to live his life’


In 2017, Jan Kaminski brought his three grown-up children to visit his birthplace in the Polish town of Bilgoraj for the first time*. The Dublin-based family retrieved birth records for Jan’s parents and his two sisters, but there were no records for his baby brother.

Three quarters of a century earlier, in November 1942, Jan had fled Bilgoraj when Nazi killing squads sent the town’s 5,000 Jews to the Belzec death camp 70km away. Jan – whose birth name was Chaim Srul Zybner – managed to escape but never saw his parents or siblings again. He survived the war by foraging and hiding in the woods, and changed his name.

Four years ago, the family visited Belzec, where they believe Jan’s immediate family perished. “Dad didn’t walk around, he just sat at the entrance,” recalls his daughter Jadzia Kaminska. “We knew most of the people sent to that camp went straight to the gas chambers – being there was incredibly emotional. Seeing the train tracks up to the camp gates and imagining people being pulled off it gave me the strangest feeling.”

In 2019, Jan died aged 87. It was only in his later life that he had revealed to his children the horrors he lived through before ending up studying at Trinity College Dublin in the 1950s. “I think mainly he didn’t want to be defined by it, but we were made very much aware of the Holocaust from a very young age,” says his daughter. “It was very much a part of our life without being discussed.

“For all of us, including my kids, that identity is very important. I’m really proud of who he was and how he managed to live his life.”

“Many other survivors also only spoke about their experiences later in life,” says Kaminska. “I think Holocaust Memorial Day has helped them to do it because there was never a platform before.”

Ireland’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day event is usually held in Dublin’s Mansion House but, because of Covid-19 restrictions, this year’s memorial service will be broadcast live this Sunday.

Migrant communities

Kaminska says more work is needed to educate younger generations about the horrors of the second World War. She is also worried by how racism towards migrant communities is rapidly re-surging across Europe, including in Ireland. “I’m saddened that Irish people are behaving like this. History is important and we need to make it accessible to all students... We have a duty not to forget.”

Yoram Tokar, who is from France but has lived in Ireland for 17 years, agrees it is vital his three children know about their family history. Tokar’s relatives were caught up in the 1942 Vél’ d’Hiv roundup, when more than 13,000 Jews in Paris were detained in the city’s Vélodrome d’Hiver before being sent to concentration camps. Tokar’s grand-uncle and aunt died in the Auschwitz gas chambers, his uncle joined the French resistance and other siblings went into hiding.

Tokar’s surviving family preferred not to speak about the war. “It took a lot to have the courage to relive it all. I think began to talk about it because they don’t want these stories to disappear with them. We have a responsibility to them to keep their stories alive. They say history repeats itself and for me, the main reason that happens is we forget about the past.”

Each year, Tokar lights a candle on Holocaust Memorial Day – not just for the Jews who perished but the millions of others persecuted by the Nazis.

“I also do this for my children; they have to understand what happened. Soon there will no longer be first-hand witnesses to tell their stories.”

Watch the Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration at 6pm on Sunday at  https://youtu.be/yhqniQouKq8

*This article was amended on January 29th 2021