Retired Newcastle lecturer George Currie has had a poem about the Holocaust published in an anthology exploring human rights and social justice.
The book, called In Protest: 150 Poems for Human Rights, was put together by the Human Rights Consortium at the University of London and a group of poets who meet at Keats House, the one-time London home of poet John Keats.
The book’s editors chose George’s poem and others from among 600 submissions. It is called A Potato and it is included with a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, and others from people from all walks of life.
George’s harrowing poem records a conversation between a mother and a hungry child as they are transported to a Nazi death camp.
“Mama, it is cold in this train and wet and dark and noisy and smelly and scary/ And I am very hungry,” declares the child.
“Ah, my child,” replies the mother, “all I have is a small potato...”
In the book George explains that he feels weighed down by the knowledge he has accumulated over the years about the Holocaust, or rather by the responsibility he feels for ensuring it is passed on to others, especially the young.
“I believe poetry is the way to convey the emotion and feeling of the Holocaust for future generations as it causes one to learn through emotion as well as fact,” he writes.
George’s poem perfectly fits the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day – always January 27, recalling the liberation of the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau – which is Journeys.
George, who has visited all the existing former camps and travelled widely to add to his fund of knowledge, said he first became interest in the subject as a child when he read about the heroes and heroines of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), formed in 1940 to work behind enemy lines.
In particular he was fascinated by “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas, whom the Gestapo nicknamed “The White Rabbit”.
Parachuted into France in 1943, he helped to create a strategy for obstructing the Nazi occupation. A year later he was betrayed, tortured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp where he again began organising resistance and even made a brief escape.
“Another of my geat heroes and heroines was Odette Churchill,” says George.
A Frenchwoman who had married an Englishman, Roy Sansom, giving birth to three daughters, she was sent to France undercover in 1942, where she met her supervisor, Peter Churchill.
Eventually they were betrayed, captured and tortured, but Odette claimed Peter was the nephew of Winston Churchill and that she was his wife. Odette was condemned to death and sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, but her supposed Churchill connection, making her seem a useful hostage, helped to keep her alive until the end of the war.
She married Peter Churchill in 1947 after her first marriage was dissolved, but the couple were divorced in 1956. Odette then married Geoffrey Hallowes, another former SOE agent.
George says he was went to the Imperial War Museum to see an exhibition of SOE memorabilia, including Odette’s wartime clothes. “It was very moving,” he says.
On one occasion George even managed to get into the very exclusive SOE club in London.
“It was behind Harrods and there’s a spiral staircase with all the photographs of the SOE agents. At the top of the staircase are four bedrooms named after SOE agents, including Odette.
“I had tea in the club with two old ladies who enjoyed drinking their tea out of very fine china cups. I had to keep reminding myself that they were both trained killers.”
George went to his first camp, Majdanek, in Poland, about 20 years ago. “It was a terrible place,” he recalls.
But it didn’t stop him visiting other terrible places, drawn by the horror and a determination that people shouldn’t forget what happened there.
George says his work as a lecturer in education, notably with children suffering from conditions such as cerebral palsy and spina bifida, drew him to the crimes of Nazi physician Josef Mengele, who conducted terrible experiments on prisoners and decided who should live or die.
In George’s poem, Mengele is referred to as “Uncle Josef”.
“He was a truly terrible man but the children really did call him uncle,” says George. “He fed the children sweets before he murdered them.”
When lecturing in Argentina George was taken to the spot where another notorious Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, was captured in 1960 by Mossad agents. They drugged him and spirited him back to Israel where he was put on trial.
“It was a very mundane spot by a bus stop,” says George. “His trial enabled the whole story of the Holocaust to come out.”
George has recently returned from a visit to Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria and next month plans to return to Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated by British troops in April 1945.
In Protest: 150 Poems For Human Rights is published by the Institute of Advanced Study, University of London, and costs £7.99.