I had the privilege of sitting down with Harry Davids, a Holocaust survivor. In our conversation, we discussed his life story, his worldview and his relentless optimism. Responses have been edited mildly for clarity.
Can you tell me a little about yourself and what your community life were like growing up?
Well, I cannot tell you what my life was like growing up before I was taken to Africa because I have no recollection of it. I have no memories of anything that happened to me before. What I know is based on the research that’s in this binder, so everything is documented… that is my memory. If you want to know what it was like growing up in [South] Africa, I can tell you a little about that. I had a normal life there. Just like I probably would’ve had a normal life if I had come to the United States instead. I went to school, did the usual things, played sports and all that kind of stuff.
Did you ever experience any anti-Semitism over there?
In South Africa, in my first year or two at school, there was a little bit of anti-Semitism but not much and after that it went away — it stopped.
How did you cope emotionally with your experience?
Well, it’s really a question of how I coped after I was told about it because at the age of six while I was in Africa, the people that I believed were my parents asked me to come in their bedroom and shut the door. This was my first year at school, and they had something to ask me. They then shocked me by asking me If I was aware that they were not my real parents, that they were really my uncle and my aunt.
I did not recollect that when I was four and a half years old, a year and a half earlier, my uncle had to bring me to [South] Africa because my real parents and other family members had been killed in the big war. I was shocked. I had no recollection of that at all, and it did affect me psychologically. I had difficulty falling asleep for the next four years, for example. But, eventually, I got over it. I was also very curious, and I was moved more by curiosity than anything else because I wanted to know more. So that conversation took place about 69 years ago now. Ever since then, whenever I have the chance, I try and get information about what happened not just to myself, but to my family and others.
How did you search for and find the information about what happened to your family?
Well, my new father was able to tell me a few things, but not much… they didn’t want to tell me much, I was too young. I tried to drag out a few tidbits of information from him as the years went by. But then, later [in my life], I met up with other people who had been there and started reading articles when they came out. I was able to make contact with other survivors in the country, but there were not that many. My biggest breaks came when I came to the United States and the internet emerged, but that was decades later.
Without the internet, I would not have been able to move as fast. One thing I did have before that, at age 21 and still living in Africa [was a dossier]… my uncle, who became my new father, turned over to me a dossier containing a lot of paperwork he had needed to win the custody battle for me in the Netherlands. [He had the paperwork because] you can’t just go into somebody’s home and say ‘this is my nephew, thank you for taking care of him, have a nice life, bye, I am taking him with me.’ You can’t do that. You have to be able to prove who you are, who the child is, how the two of you are related and prove that his parents are not still alive.
So, the [dossier contained] information about where we lived, documented proof about what happened to my parents, [and other] things like that. That dossier provided very valuable information to me. But most of the information that I really wanted, I could only get with the Internet. [The internet enabled me to] get names, and contact information, where I could even contact the people that I really had to contact. Sometimes I would get stuff in writing, perhaps through emails and faxes from people overseas, disproving things that I thought were true and turned out to be false. So, all this took a long time.
When did you move to the United States?
I moved to the United States in June of 1979. I moved to San Diego with family members, and I was 37 years old.
Do you think the Holocaust strengthened or weakened your faith in the Jewish religion?
Well in my case, that is probably is not the right question, because I didn’t know what faith meant before the war. So, I think the fact that I knew what happened to me during the Holocaust, I think [the Holocaust] probably [did] not [strengthen my faith]. Whatever faith I had probably was not because of or even despite the Holocaust. Faith is an independent thing for me.
Did you form friendships during your experience?
No. My rescuing family was in the doghouse with their neighbors. Their neighbors had all found out that I was Jewish, and they probably didn’t want their children to befriend me at that time.
Why do you think it is so important to share your experiences?
It is important that people are aware of the things that happened. To alert people of the dangers of what happens when you have bigotry and racism of that kind, that they can lead to other things. Also, to point out that there are things you can do that, even if they don’t affect you [initially], over time they can affect you because people have to clean up the mess afterwards. And that is usually going to be the bystanders that clean up the mess.
My job is to encourage people to be up-standers, not bystanders… to prevent the mess in the first place rather than [ignore it until it’s too late]. It also serves as a warning to other minority groups: It could happen to them just as easily as it could to us and that they need to learn about this kind of history so that they are informed. [I want them to be able to] see what is going on around them and take steps to prevent themselves from becoming victims before it is too late.
What do you want the participants of the Bearing Witness program to remember most about your experience?
Good question. Well, I like the term Bearing Witness because in a sense, you are now a witness as well. Even though I was not a direct witness in the sense that I [do not] recall the events personally, I have all the paperwork to prove [that I was there.] So, people like yourself, you are now all witnesses yourself. [You are] bearing witness of what has happened, and you can pass that message on to others to ensure that there will be enough up-standers in the future when bad events start happening again. Also, [you can] alert people in trouble of what is going on so they will not become victims themselves.
When and why did you begin to speak out about the Holocaust?
Well, you can’t speak out about the Holocaust because it already happened. I can use the Holocaust as a teaching tool to warn people, and that I have been doing since I retired. Before that, I didn’t even have all the information that I wanted, and I was working very hard, long hours. So, I couldn’t really get involved in Holocaust education until after I retired about 10 years ago.
Did you go to college?
I went to college in [South] Africa. Actually, when I came to the states, I decided to do a master’s program in the states at an old age. I got my master’s degree when I was 60. It is never too late to get an education! However, it is a good idea to get it earlier if you can. But I have been a life-long student.
Have you met anyone that has not believed your story?
I don’t know if anyone may not believe my story. They would have a hard job with me in any case because they cannot challenge my memory. I don’t have one, I have never claimed to have one. They would have to challenge all the documentary evidence. If there are any who don’t believe, they are welcome to come have a look at it. They will have a hard job [denying my story]. I would probably be a Holocaust denier’s nightmare because they would have to challenge each piece of evidence. They would have to say “this is fake,” “that is fake,” and so on. In fact, they would have to say everything is fake in order to make their case.
Why did you choose to take part in Bearing Witness?
Because my job is to educate people, and this is an educational program [for college students]. I am particularly interested in speaking to students because you are at the stage of your life where you really study the history, at least at school and at the age where you really start thinking for yourselves. You can ask the right questions. So, I think that students of either high school or college age are the best people I should be speaking to.