‘It was always there’: German envoy Martin Schäfer remembers Shoah survivor Veronica Phillips

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Germany's ambassador to SA Martin Schäfer speaking to Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips (Supplied)
Germany's ambassador to SA Martin Schäfer speaking to Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips (Supplied)

Last week, Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips passed on in Johannesburg at the age of 94. German Ambassador to South Africa, Martin Schäfer, remembers his friendship with Veronica.

My dear Veronica,

There is so much that I would have liked to share with you before you go.

Just a few days before your sudden and, despite your advanced age, so surprising and untimely death, we had arranged to meet again, after the second wave of the pandemic had subsided – the earliest possible moment when it seemed feasible to mitigate the remaining risk of a transmission, with my family and my little daughters you were so fond of.

I was shattered and devastated when, in the early hours of last Wednesday, Tali Nates from the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center let me know that that was not to be anymore.

Friendship and affection are strange things. They appear out of nowhere. Sometimes they subside with time; sometimes they grow and flourish, against all odds, in spite of the differences in age, faith and culture, and even when the horrors of history stand between us.

I still don't fully grasp why it was my family, my children and me, who could ever be so close to your big heart and become the target of your affection. Everybody who knew you will always remember your big heart. Indeed, so big that there was space for us, descendants of the perpetrators who brought incredible suffering into your world.

It was Germans, the people I represent in South Africa, who brought disaster and destruction to the peaceful life you lived with your family as an adolescent in Budapest, at the other end of the world, in another time.

It was Germans who stoked the raging fires of anti-Semitism across Europe and set up Jewish ghettos for worse to come, also in Budapest. Germans deported you to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück, forced you to work as a slave labourer, treated you as if you were not a human, and forced you during the last days of the Nazi regime on a death march that nearly cost your life. You survived. So many others did not.

It was Germans who mistreated, tortured and butchered so many members of your family.

It was my mother tongue, the language of Goethe and Schiller, of Beethoven and Bach, you knew so well that was used to shout the abuses, to give the orders destined to humiliate you and rob you of your dignity.

It was the end of civilization, the end of humanity and of all decency.

Haunted dreams

I wish I could feel with my own senses the angst, the pain and sorrow, the fear and anger that you must have felt, under the boot of your German oppressors, and that might have haunted you in your dreams until now, without ever letting me know. I cannot. Nobody can because it is beyond the imaginable.

All that, the horrors that you went through, for so very long, you kept for yourself, buried deep down in your heart, but you did not forget - because such pain and suffering cannot be forgotten.

In a beautiful movie, just a few years ago, you told your story of fear and sorrow, misery and horror. It is also a story of strength, of endurance, of your wish, with all your courageous heart, to survive and to live, to be able to laugh again and to have your own family.

Indeed, I want to believe, you liberated yourself from the shackles of the horrors you went through.

You became a Vorbild - the German word for somebody who is a guide or a role model - and a beacon of hope for so many, in South Africa, the country destiny made your home of choice, in Hungary, the country of your birth, in Israel, the state your people erected after the Shoah, and beyond.

It is your untamed strength, your unbroken soul, your fierce determination that has turned the horrors of your youth into hope and into a vibrant lesson of humanity for the present and the future.

I cannot even say how happy I am that you mustered the courage to come out and leave the story of your life behind for us to remember and to contemplate.

The greatest miracle of all, though, for me, was the gift of friendship.

Your friendship.

Our friendship.

It is far more than reconciliation, but it needed reconciliation as a necessary step forward, the mutual will to appraise and recognise what happened, to listen, to sense and accept the responsibility stemming from what happened.

I am deeply grateful for your friendship, of you, of all people, caring for my family and my children.

I am deeply grateful for your Haltung, your attitude towards life. You never gave up, you never bemoaned anything, neither the nasty ailments that come with age nor the turns and twists in your long, fulfilling life.

Martin Schäfer with Veronica Phillips
Germany's ambassador to SA Martin Schäfer with Holocaust survivor Veronica Phillips (Supplied)

And still, regrets remain, and a sense of how terribly unfair life can be, Most of all, that you were not able to have your own children, with all your love for little ones, for what Germans had done to you and to your health.

I cherish and remember the wonderful moments we had, the simple joy of having a meal together, of sharing family photos, of sitting together in my garden in the bruising sun of southern Africa, of celebrating your last birthday on 9 November, of my little daughter sitting on your lap, without a shred of the dark cloud of history hanging over us, just humans sharing happy moments of their lives with one another.

And then, I know, inevitably the Holocaust was always with us, and between us, with me understanding very deeply how important the "We Remember" and the "Never Forget" will be forever more, for you, for those who survived and those who perished, as well as for the descendants of the perpetrators.

I shall never forget the moment when you showed my little four-year-old daughter your doll, which you donated to the Holocaust and Genocide Center in Johannesburg. Your mother had kept it for you, hoping - against all odds - that you would return from the horrors of the Shoah. You did. And you made sure that the "We Remember" and the "Never Forget" will be understood by generations to come.

Hopefully, this can give you some peace of mind that something has been learned from history, from the history of your life, and that what you went through was somehow not in vain, that it was not just a cruel coincidence, but had some inner meaning, a reason that we can at least try to grasp.

And maybe, just maybe, there is also a meaning in all this happening in South Africa, the beloved country, this country of blessings and curses, of violence and forgiveness, with its own heroes and villains …

On your last journey, at the West Park Jewish Cemetery in Johannesburg, with your family and your friends, a tremendous South African thunderstorm and daunting thunderbolts just gave us the time to put you to rest before the floodgates of the skies opened up. I felt that to be a befitting Sinnbild, a suitable allegory to your long walk, almost a century long, from Budapest to Johannesburg, through the hell of Ravensbrück.

I miss you, go well, my dear Veronica!

May your soul rest in peace wherever you are!

-Martin Schäfer is Germany's Ambassador to South Africa.

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