‘Oh no, not you again,’ I heard a man jokingly exclaim.
It was late last year during a Channukah party at the Jewish Community Centre in North London, before he swooped in and gave me a friendly kiss on the cheek.
But this wasn’t just any man – it was King Charles, and it was the second time I’d met him and got a kiss in the space of a few days. I joked to a BBC journalist who interviewed me that I was never going to wash my cheek again!
I’m a survivor of the Holocaust, and in my work in trying to raise awareness of this with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, I’ve been honoured to meet His Majesty on three occasions.
Having seen first-hand the care and compassion he has shown towards survivors, I think it’s wonderful that this weekend’s coronation will allow him to receive recognition for the work he’s done.
Prince Charles, as he was then, reached out to me via the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in 2020 to say that I had been chosen as one of seven survivors who would have their portrait painted as part of a special collection to be put on public display in Buckingham Palace.
To be chosen was incredible, and to be able to meet the future King, who remains patron of the Trust, and now-Queen Camilla was the honour of my life.
In fact, I remember – as a relatively new refugee in the UK – joining the crowds at the late Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. Now, almost 70 years on, I’m so glad the country can celebrate our new King.
My family was torn apart by the Nazis. I was born in 1927 in Pabianice in Poland, into a Jewish family.
I remain so struck by the level of compassion that the King showed me and others
Just two days after the outbreak of the war in 1939 – when I was 12 – the Nazis invaded, and the terror for the Jewish population was instantaneous.
For two years under the occupation, we lived in a ghetto in a single room, separate from non-Jews, and forced to work as slave labour, before the ghetto was ‘liquidated’.
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My mother, brother and I were taken to Łódź ghetto, while my father – amid the terror, confusion and shooting – was separated from us. I later found out he was gassed while volunteering to help children escape the chaos.
This ghetto was notorious, for a reason. We were crammed into a single room – malnutrition and disease were everywhere, and hundreds died of starvation.
In 1944, all but 800 of the Jews in the city were deported by the Nazis to Chełmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camps, where they were killed.
As my brother spoke German, we escaped that fate. Out of 75,000 we were among the mere hundreds that survived, eventually fleeing after hiding during the brutal winter of 1944-45 and being freed due to the Russian invasion.
After the war, I moved to the UK – where I initially struggled, I didn’t speak a word of English, and it felt like there was a struggle for survivors to get their story heard.
On the journey from London, on a boat so tiny it was miraculous we ever made it, I befriended a Polish woman who talked to me about her son George who was stationed in Norfolk.
One day he came to visit his mother in Willesden, where I also lived, and George and I met, fell in love, and were married in 1947.
Only a few years after I moved, in 1953, I was outside Buckingham Palace to take part in the celebration for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation – it was a wonderful experience seeing the crowds cheering for the Queen.
I remember there being no public transport and I had to walk home to Willesden over eight miles away.
I lived in West Africa after that, as my husband was seconded to the Colonial Office, who administered the parts of the world that were still under British rule, before returning to the UK after three years and building a life in London, where I still live.
I only began sharing my family story in the early 1990s after being contacted by the Shoah Foundation which was set up by Steven Spielberg to document the Holocaust, and – almost 30 years later – I met the then Prince Charles for the first time.
I’ve been to a lot of events as part of my work raising awareness of the Holocaust, and I remain so struck by the level of compassion that the King showed me and others.
When we met to unveil my portrait in early 2022, I saw the King’s eyes fill with tears as he heard testimony from myself and other survivors of the horrors of the Holocaust – not least when I told him about my father’s death.
He listened, reflected, and showed that he truly cares about, not only our plight, but the importance of keeping the memory of this genocide alive.
I didn’t expect that I’d manage to see the King again, but I was invited to a Christmas drinks reception at Clarence House, where I was star-struck meeting some of the celebrities, and received that first kiss on the cheek from His Majesty!
At the Channukah party – before I met him again – I watched him happily join in with dancing the Hora, and I was again reminded of how much his continued care for survivors of the Holocaust means to survivors like me.
I can never thank him enough for the work he has done, and will continue to do, to keep awareness of the atrocities of the Holocaust, which devastated my family and so many others alive.
Today, I’ll be watching the coronation with my daughter, and I’m sure I’ll have tears in my eyes after meeting the King so many times and being touched by his interest in my story, not least my father’s heroism before he was killed.
It means the world to me – and I hope that the King and Queen Camilla have a long and happy reign for many years to come.
As told to Ross McCafferty
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