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Freda and Bob Narev are working to create a Holocaust memorial in Auckland. Photo/Clare de Lore/Listener

How Bob and Freda Narev fled the Holocaust and became honoured Kiwis

Commemorations around the world have marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. An Auckland couple who survived the Holocaust are contributing to a global effort aimed at ensuring “never again” means just that.

The Theresienstadt concentration camp, near Prague, was presented to the world as an idyllic thermal spa, Hitler’s “gift to the Jews”. Hitler’s propaganda machine ensured that the camp, established in an old stone-fortress town, received favourable coverage in German newspapers. A movie, produced in 1940, showed happy and well-fed settlers. When the Red Cross visited in 1944, a few select parts of the camp had been given a fresh coat of paint, and thousands of Jews had been sent to Auschwitz so it appeared less crowded. The deceit worked and the Red Cross provided a favourable report. Thousands perished at the camp from disease and malnutrition, but Bob Narev, prisoner XII/1 618, lived to tell his and his mother’s story of survival. Narev still has the Star of David that he was forced, under threat of death, to wear at all times.

In their book From Darkness to Light, written with Graham Wear, Bob and Freda Narev record the extreme efforts taken to portray Theresienstadt, where Bob [then Robert Narewczewitz] spent nearly three years, as a desirable place to live. Some German Jews, believing the propaganda promising a retirement spa town for Jews, voluntarily left their homes elsewhere for the camp. Most, including Erich and Gertrud Narewczewitz and their son, Robert, were forced to leave their homes and board trains bound for Theresienstadt where the grim reality was immediately evident.

Freda, aged about 11, and Bob, aged about nine. Photo/Narev family collection/Supplied

It was a transit camp 80km from Prague, with most inmates eventually destined for Auschwitz and extermination. Although it was not officially a death camp, of the 150,000 prisoners sent to Theresienstadt, 33,000 died there of disease, malnutrition or at the hands of violent camp guards. For reasons unknown, the Narewczewitz family were not transported to Auschwitz, but Erich died there in 1943 after falling ill. His widow, Gertrud, and young Robert joined 1200 prisoners allowed to leave for Switzerland in what was later found to be a deal funded by a US Jewish organisation. Gertrud initially resisted the offer of a train journey, thinking they might be sent east to a certain death at Auschwitz rather than Switzerland. Robert nagged his mother for the chance to take a trip and probably saved their lives in the process – she gave in and they made it to freedom. It was a few months before the end of the war, and an infuriated Hitler forbade any further deals of its type.

Gertrud and Robert lived in Switzerland for two years before migrating to New Zealand in 1947. The family name was shortened to Narev and Robert became known as Bob. He was 12 by the time he arrived here, and he went on to excel at school, quickly mastering English then qualifying as a lawyer, becoming a partner in the firm Glaister Ennor. He and Polish-born Freda, who lost nearly all her family in the war before moving to New Zealand with her sister, have three children and eight grandchildren, all of whom live in Australia.

German soldiers in front of the camp entrance. Photo/Supplied

The Narevs are well known for their work in the business and charity sectors and both have received Queen’s Birthday and New Year honours for their contributions to New Zealand. Most recently, Bob was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2020 New Year Honours.

Freda, 81, has suffered two strokes but retains her sunny demeanour and Bob, at 84, continues to work as a consultant for his firm and is involved in many charities – notably as chair of the Hugh Green Foundation and as one of the driving forces behind efforts to establish a permanent Holocaust memorial in Auckland.

Given all that happened to your families, and arriving in New Zealand with few possessions, how have you pulled together the material and photographs for this book?

Some of the material is related to locations rather than people, and Graham Wear got that from various sources. As far as photographs of people are concerned, my mother and I had very little in the way of records or photographs. But my mother had a sister who came to New Zealand before the war, and she had some photographs. Other relatives overseas, who escaped from Germany before the war, were able to supply some. The story is much the same with Freda, in that her parents were murdered and she was hidden by a Catholic woman. She had nothing other than the clothes she stood up in when her older sister, the only other survivor, managed to find her and take charge to become her second mother. If her sister hadn’t picked her up from the Catholic lady who sheltered her, she would have remained as a Catholic and known nothing about her family or her background.

Freda’s mother, Kora Malacki, with her younger sister, Ester. Photo/Narev family collection/Supplied

Do you have vivid recollections of the years you were in the concentration camp?

My recollections are fairly general. I learnt afterwards that if young children live through traumatic events, they tend to have memory loss, and that applies to me. I was in the camp from age six to nine. There are things I remember and record in the book – the armed guards with dogs, for example. After my mother and I left, there was an epidemic of typhoid fever and many people died for lack of medical facilities. So we might well have succumbed if we’d been there for the last three months before the camp was liberated by the Russians. I’ve gleaned a fair bit of information about the camp itself from other sources, books and records provided by others.

Did you ever return to the town where the camp was?

Yes, Freda and I went there with our children. It’s a bleak town 70 or so years later and nothing looked familiar, even though I was there for two and a half years. There is a small museum.

Bob’s father Erich and mother Gertrud. Photo/Narev family collection/Supplied

Did your mother talk to you very much about life there?

No, and my one regret is that I didn’t talk enough to my mother about our lives during that period. She would answer questions when we asked and, had we thought of producing a book, we would have made much more effort to get as much of the story as she could remember. Obviously, as an adult, she would have remembered a lot more. And the position is the same with Freda. She never really knew her parents, and her sister would speak if asked, but Freda doesn’t have a good picture of her very early life.

Why did you finally decide to commit your stories to paper?

Two reasons. First, we feel that we owe it to those who didn’t make it, that their story should be told in terms of what we experienced ourselves. And second, we found out after a recent survey by a Jewish organisation that knowledge of Holocaust events is fairly minimal, particularly among young people. There have, of course, been recurring incidents of genocide and persecution. But this was a unique event in world history; a decision by a civilised country to get rid of a whole people. And we feel that this should be known in the hope that not only will younger people learn the history of it, but also individually try to do something to prevent a recurrence.

Camp prisoners on liberation. Photo/Getty Images

Anti-Semitism became an issue in the recent British election, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused of allowing anti-Semitism in his party to go unchecked. Did you follow that issue?

Well, as much as one can via articles in the press and the television news, but it seems fairly clear that he had very strong anti-Semitic tendencies, although, to some extent during the campaign, he tried to reduce the effect of that. But, from what I know, the Jewish population of the UK was very glad he did not win the election. There is significant recurrence of anti-Semitism worldwide, but I always used to say there was no anti-Semitism in New Zealand. But, inevitably, there are anti-Semites – people who don’t like Jews – and it’s perhaps getting a little worse.

To what extent is it due to some people conflating the policies and conduct of the Israeli Government with Jewish people generally?

Well, some people obviously conflate it, as you put it. But first of all, I always say during my talks, and when we come to a Q and A at the end, that I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about the Holocaust – and that really applies to this interview as well. There’s no doubt that some things that are happening are not to everyone’s liking, but we mustn’t forget the geopolitical situation of the Middle East – how small Israel is, probably less than the size of Northland, surrounded by hostile nations.

Bob with a Torah scroll commemorating relatives killed in the Holocaust.

You’ve had a long career in the law – are you still practising?

Well, technically, I’m still a consultant to my law firm. I still have a practising certificate, and this is my 64th year in the law. I now concentrate more on pro-bono work.

For the better part of a decade you have been trying to establish a Garden of Humanity, a memorial to the Holocaust, in Auckland’s Domain. How is it progressing?

The story is interesting – the Warsaw Ghetto was the only place where there was a significant revolt against the Nazis, although it was ultimately unsuccessful. Eventually, the city of Warsaw sent quite a large number of cobblestones from the ghetto to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. They used some of them and sent others to museums around the world, including Auckland Museum, which then passed them on to the Auckland Hebrew congregation, with which we’ve been involved since we came here. We got them some seven or eight years ago and want to create a Garden of Humanity incorporating them. We’re still negotiating; it’s by no means concluded. The hope is that we can get consent from the council and approval from iwi. The Holocaust memorial will be somewhere in Auckland. Our preferred site is in the Domain, which is in proximity to the War Memorial Museum. The memorial will be donated to the people of Auckland.

This article was first published in the February 8, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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