Holocaust memorial day – Solly Irving’s escape from the Nazis

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Solly Irving was born on 11th August 1930 in Ryki, Poland. At the age of just nine, Hitler ordered the invasion of his country.

It was the first military engagement of World War Two that saw some  1.5 million German troops march into Poland. The rounding up and deporting of Jews began soon after. The Sobibór extermination camp would become the destination for so many innocent Jewish families. Almost a quarter of a million people would be murdered there.

Solly’s father Yisroel Yitzhak, fearful of the intentions of the Germans, arranged for him and his sister Leah to escape. His other sisters Rivka, Hindel and Hendel, together with their mother and father, were not so lucky; they were captured and deported. Following their escape, Solly and Leah found temporary refuge with a cousin in the nearby town of Dęblin.

However, they were forced to flee again after the Nazis began the liquidation of Dęblin’s Jewish community and their assets. Leah was captured by a Polish farmer; it was the last time Solly ever saw her.

Solly was on the run. He spent the next few months hiding in forests, foraging for food and shelter. He soon decided he would have a better chance of survival by entering a labour camp for Jews in Dęblin. He tricked a guard into allowing him to become a child labourer. He was put to work moving coal and cement to a nearby airfield. After more than a year of back-breaking labour, the gradual advance of the Red Army meant that prisoners had to be transferred to another camp.

He was transferred to the city of Częstochowa. Solly was able to survive by gaining a job looking after one of the guard’s pet rabbits. This role would be rewarded by a meagre increase of food. The rabbit would eat plenty, whilst the prisoners would be starving.

In January 1945, in bitterly cold conditions, he and the other inmates were transported to Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. In April, as US troops closed on Buchenwald, he was moved again to Terezin concentration camp. It was here where Solly was finally freed by the Red Army in May.

Newly liberated, Solly went back to Poland, but anti-Semitism was rife and Jews faced violence at every turn. He returned to Terezín to join a group of over seven hundred young survivors (known as ‘The Boys’) who were brought to Britain from 1945 onwards. Solly eventually settled in London, where he raised a family.

Solly would go on to tell his story to schoolchildren for the rest of his life. He developed a particularly strong bond with schools in Plymouth which he visited every year. Two years ago, at the age of 87, Solly died. Yossi Shebson, one of Solly’s grandsons said at the time: “We cannot believe the support received from the people of Plymouth, we knew how much the city meant to our grandfather.”

Over the years, Solly estimated that he had spoken to more than 20,000 young people in Plymouth. He would teach children of the horrors of genocide, in the hope of preventing the near extermination of an entire people from ever happening again. I was lucky enough to be one of those children.

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