mon 24/06/2024

Surviving the Holocaust - Freddie Knoller's War, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Surviving the Holocaust - Freddie Knoller's War, BBC Two

Surviving the Holocaust - Freddie Knoller's War, BBC Two

Testament of character and endurance told with disarming modesty

Lost childhood: Freddie Knoller, far left, with his family in pre-war Vienna

First-hand testimonial is surely the building block of history. Whether it’s in the form of written diaries or the television memory, it allows us to go back to the very basics as we, the reader-viewer, effectively re-experience the life of the teller.

Last year witnessed a multitude of such remembrances of the First World War, and brought home the fact that little could match the sheer simplicity of such memories of those who had lived through that experience. But there were no more survivors to tell tales, and before long the same will be the case with the Holocaust, currently being marked by the BBC in a season linked to the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Surviving the Holocaust - Freddie Knoller's War, proved paradoxical, however: this was history told rather thin, or at least with considerable modesty, to some extent challenging our preconceptions of its subject.

Now aged 93 and living in north London, Freddie Knoller had indeed survived the Holocaust, described rather superfluously in the opening voice-over (by Tamsin Greig) as “one of the defining events of the 20th century”: surely that goes without saying. Born in 1921, the story of his life between 1938, when he was sent away from his native Vienna by his parents after the Anschluss, and his liberation from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, was indeed momentous, even when told by a man with something of a disinclination to exaggerate the significance of the events which he’d experienced.

But the detail, that element that gives history its special immediacy, sometimes seemed in rather short supply. The circumstances of that departure from Vienna was a case in point: no mention of the difficulties of obtaining passports and permissions of the kind that feature heavily in other such memoirs. What we did feel strongly was the personal experience of a teenager forced prematurely into adulthood, to make his own decisions.

Knoller certainly did that. Escaping from the refugee camp in Belgium which had been his temporary home after arrival from Austria, he made for France, only to be interned as a German citizen, despite the large red letter “J” in his passport indicating his religion. Escaping from there too, he found relatives in the south of France and arranged forged French documents, only to return to Belgium in search of the beloved cello that he had been forced to leave behind there: music had clearly been one a central part of his Vienna childhood (the Knoller family portrait, main picture), and it remained a source of solace in age as we saw.

That was a decision those relatives termed meshugga, or crazy, and Knoller described himself as cocky and self-assured when he came to Paris in December 1940. He would spend two years there hanging around Pigalle, using his native language to introduce German soldiers to the local nightclubs and cabarets, his living paid for by commissions from the venues to whom he brought visitors (he used the word pimp to descibe that occupation, though that seemed a rather harsh judgment). Rather than evading the Nazis, he seemed somehow to court them, until he was indeed approached by the Gestapo – not for investigation, however, but with the offer of a more formal interpreting role for the occupying forces.

That was an offer that he could only refuse, escaping instead to join the French resistance in the countryside around Figeac. All seemed to go well there, until after a quarrel with his local sweetheart, he found himself arrested by the local gendarme. Rather than reveal anything about his contacts in the underground Knoller must indeed have surprised his interrogators when he revealed the truth about his origins. From there the road to the Drancy detention camp outside Paris was assured, followed by sardine-like train wagon departure to Auschwitz. Chosen for the work battalions there he endured, surviving too the forced march evacuation from there at the beginning of 1945 (pictured above right, Knoller after liberation from Belsen in 1945).

The honesty of these remembrances came in unexpected places, one of the few hints of a tear in the narrative appearing when he recalled stealing bread from under the mattress of another concentration camp inmate: there was no shame, Knoller emphasized, in such circumstances when the imperative was to survive. But he did feel the boundaries of the acceptable: in Belsen, despite feeling a “hunger so strong it hurt”, he just couldn’t try to rip the flesh from dead bodies to eat it as others did. It's a narrow distinction, when a little earlier he’s admitted that throwing the bodies of the dead from the crowded transport trains actually proved a relief.

After such knowledge, what could be the future (pictured left, Freddie Knoller today)? It took him 30 years to tell his story to the wife whom he met in post-war America. He only learnt the details of his parents’ deaths 50 years after they perished. Remarkable then that Simon Winchcombe’s film should end on a note of triumph. The experience, Knoller said, rather than breaking him completely, made him believe in himself, and brought a pride in his survival and ability to tell the world. “I’m a fantastic guy,” he almost beamed in the final moments, before qualifying that more modestly, “I’m very proud of myself.”


It took him 30 years to tell his story to the wife whom he met in post-war America. He only learnt the details of his parents’ deaths 50 years after they perished


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