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‘Listen to and understand people with kindness’

Holocaust survivor and Jewish resistance fighter Lea Borgenicht’s message for social work

Professional Social Work magazine - 2 March, 2021

Born in Belgium, Lea Borgenicht and her family fled in the middle of the night when Germany invaded in 1940. A seven-day train journey took them to the French Pyrenees, where the family went into hiding.

Aged only 13, Lea ended up under the cover of the Jewish Resistance, moving from one place to another. Lea was still a child, so she didn’t have to carry identification, and this proved useful to the resistance effort. She remembers: ‘Because I didn't need any papers, they asked me to go out and get food coupons and false papers. Had I been discovered and arrested, I would have been tortured.’

On 1 Aug 1944 in Nice, their cover blown, Lea and her family were arrested. But because the local train station had been sabotaged, they escaped being sent to Drancy and then on to Auschwitz. On 28 August, Nice was liberated, and Lea remembers waiting for deported friends to return: “We didn't know that hardly anybody was going to come back. It's hard to describe the liberation. We were still healthy, there was dancing in the streets, and we thought everyone was going to return.” More than 3,000 people were forcibly deported from Nice during the Nazi occupation and the names of those who did not return are commemorated on a memorial.

When asked how social workers today can help reduce division in communities and bring people together, Lea says: “If you are a social worker then you are interested in people, it is a profession you choose. What is very important is to listen to people and to understand them with kindness.

“It’s also important to believe people - the people who came back from the camps, at first they didn't speak. Then they did, and we didn't believe them.”

Lea spoke earlier this year at a BASW webinar to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day. Fellow speaker at the event, renowned child psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor Lydia Tischler, also spoke of the need to bear testimony to suffering.

“The reason people didn't believe what they saw on their television screens when Belsen was liberated is because the need to deny such sadistic behaviour is so strong that they will simply deny what has happened,” she said.

“So if people tell you horrific stories you need to listen. Being listened to and heard can start the healing process.”

Lea recalled the plight of children who had lost parents during the conflict: “After the war, children had been orphaned in the camps and were looked after near Nice. We went to talk to them, and at first they ran away, but eventually they talked to us. They would still go out at night to steal bread and put it under their pillows. All they knew was shooting.”

Asked whether poverty will always be a breeding ground for radicalisation and hatred, Lea said: “You can brainwash people - it is the same with terrorism today. You can convince people by brainwashing.”

The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January was ‘Be a Light in the Darkness’.

In the words of the Holocaust Memorial Trust: ‘Darkness draws in distortion and hate. The perpetrators of genocide divide society into those worthy of humane treatment and those who are not. Distortions are deployed using propaganda, stereotyping, identifying and then victimising specific groups, followed by discrimination enshrined in law.

“The darkness of genocide causes deep emotional trauma, fear, hopelessness and dread. The light during the darkness is resistance, bravery and kindness. There have always been those who oppose the regime by risking their own lives and families.”

See the March 2021 edition of PSW to read Auschwitz survivor Lydia Tischler’s testimony