A hero we can't afford to forget
PUBLISHED: 14:16 15 May 2008 | UPDATED: 09:10 11 August 2010
2004 Getty Images
LEON Greenman devoted his life to making sure the atrocities of the Nazis will never be forgotten. He was the only Englishman to be sent to Auschwitz during the holocaust and years after surviving the ordeal, which cost him his family, he was awarded the
LEON Greenman devoted his life to making sure the atrocities of the Nazis will never be forgotten.
He was the only Englishman to be sent to Auschwitz during the holocaust and years after surviving the ordeal, which cost him his family, he was awarded the OBE for services against racism.
Leon was born in Whitechapel, East London in 1910, and died March 7 this year, aged 97.
As a young man, he trained as a barber and was a keen boxer.
Little did he know that both these skills would later help him to survive the notorious 'death camp' where over one million lost their lives.
In the 1930s Leon met Else van Dam and the young couple were married at Stepney Green synagogue in 1935.
They honeymooned in Rotterdam and when Leon returned home, Else remained behind to look after her elderly grandmother.
From then on, Leon split his time between Holland and London.
In 1938, Leon returned to Rotterdam, aiming to bring Else home.
However, reassured by Neville Chamberlain's infamous speech ensuring 'peace in our time', the couple remained in Rotterdam, where Else gave birth to a baby boy, Barney, on March 17, 1940.
Leon was also assured by the British Embassy that if war were declared, they would be evacuated as British civilians.
When the German army invaded the Netherlands on May 10 Leon returned to the embassy to find it locked and deserted.
The young family were stranded, and Leon gave their passports and family savings to a non-Jewish friend for safe-keeping.
When he heard foreign nationals were being evacuated under the protection of the Geneva Convention, Leon returned to his friend only to discover that he had panicked and burned the documents in fear of reprisals for helping Jews.
On October 8, 1942, with no way of proving their nationality, Leon, Else and Barney were taken to Westerbork, a Nazi concentration camp.
Over the following weeks Leon tried unsuccessfully to convince his captors that he was a British civilian.
On January 18, 1943, the family were transferred to Auschwitz.
Just hours later, too late to save them, papers arrived at Westerbork proving the Greenman's nationality.
Else and Barney were executed in Auschwitz's gas chambers, shortly after their arrival at the camp.
Unaware of their fate, Leon fought to survive in the hope he would one day see them again.
Leon was tattooed with the number 98288 and despite two and a half years of brutal beatings and 'medical' experimentation, managed to avoid the routine culling of the sick and weak.
On top of back-breaking labour, he worked as a barber, and believes it was this skill, combined with his fitness from boxing, that enabled him to survive.
In September 1943, Leon was transferred to Monowitz, an industrial complex within Auschwitz, where he remained for a further 18 gruelling months.
When the Russian Army began to advance in 1945, the camp was evacuated and the prisoners were forced into a 60-mile 'death march' in freezing whether to Buchenwald.
Leon wrote of his ordeal: "The camp uniforms were thin and my feet had gangrene. "When we reached Buchenwald I felt I was near the end. I could hardly lift my legs."
But Leon swore that if he ever made it out of the camps he would make it his mission to ensure the world knew about what had occurred behind the wire fences.
Eventually, on April 11 1945, Buchenwald was liberated by the US army.
Leon returned to London where he started to rebuild his life, though he never remarried.
Then, in 1962, he was in Trafalgar Square where Colin Jordan, leader of the National Front, was holding a rally.
Shocked and devastated that such racist views could still be expressed, Leon decided to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting racism.
He would visit schools and lead trips to Auschwitz, transfixing people with tales of his experiences wherever he went.
A permanent exhibition of his life was opened at the Jewish Museum in North London in 1995, and Leon would sit beside it at a table every Sunday answering questions from the visitors.
In the 1990s, he was a lead figure in a 60,000 strong march demanding the closure of the BNP headquarters in southeast London.
In 1998 he was appointed the OBE.
In return for his efforts to fight racism in any form, Leon received numerous death threats and was forced to install mesh shutters on the windows of his Ilford house after having bricks thrown through his windows.
Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin, of the Chabad Lubavitch Centre, said: "He showed me letters that were pushed through his door by the modern day sympathisers of Nazi Germany saying 'They one left out. You should have been a lampshade'.
"I was heartbroken, but not Leon - his determination was strengthened to tell the world, and this is what he did.
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