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Terrible things happen when we are polarised, Holocaust survivor says

Holocaust survivor Joan Salter at her home in north London (Yui Mok/PA)
Holocaust survivor Joan Salter at her home in north London (Yui Mok/PA)

A Holocaust survivor has warned about the dangers of “polarisation” in the wake of the Hamas-Israel conflict.

Joan Salter, who was just three months old when Belgium was invaded by the Nazis, said “terrible things can happen” once interfaith relations start breaking down.

The 84-year-old said the Hamas attack on October 7 has had a divisive effect on Jewish and Islamic communities – Just as the terrorist group intended.

Speaking at her home in north London ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on Saturday, she said: “I and most of the other Holocaust survivors speak in the hope of changing things to make people understand the dangers of propaganda and where it can lead to.

“And then came October 7. What is going on there is horrific.

Holocaust Memorial Day
Mrs Salter lights a memorial candle at her home (Yui Mok/PA)

“Instead of people realising what Hamas did, the hatred has turned either against the Jews or there’s a lot of Islamophobia, and that polarises our two communities.

“It’s what Hamas intended. It’s what they did with the intention of creating this hatred between the Jews and the Muslims.

“Once the polarisation sets in, that’s when terrible things can happen.

“I’m a great believer of interfaith, and so much of it has virtually evaporated within days.”

Born Fanny Zimetbaum in Brussels in 1940 to Polish Jewish parents, Mrs Salter was three months old when Belgium was invaded by the Nazis.

Following the invasion, she escaped to France with her mother and sister before being taken by the Red Cross to the USA in 1943.

Mrs Salter remained in foster care in America until being reunited with her parents – Jakob and Bronia – in 1947 in London, where she has lived since.

Speaking about her early life, she said: “My parents were Polish Jews who lived in France most of their adult lives.

“My father thought Belgium would stay neutral, so they moved into Belgium.

“When the Nazis invaded they started targeting the Polish men. My father was taken but he jumped from the train and managed to escape.”

Having moved back to Paris, Mrs Salter’s mother decided to cross the Pyrenees to the safety of Spain.

She said: “A policeman warned her that we were going to be rounded up.

“My father escaped over the mountains, into Spain, but we didn’t turn up and he thought we had died.

“Then my mother climbed over the mountains with my sister and myself.

“It was thought Spain would fall so my mother gave us up to the Red Cross and an American organisation took us across to America.”

In 1947, having lived with an American foster family, Mrs Salter was reunited with her parents.

On Saturday, Mrs Salter and thousands of others will light a candle and put it in their window as a form of collective commemoration.

Holocaust Memorial Day
Mrs Salter and Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (Yui Mok/PA)

Chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Olivia Marks-Woldman said: “On the Holocaust Memorial Day itself, we’re inviting everyone to light a candle and put it in their window so that the light spills out.

“Holocaust Memorial day is for everybody, regardless of background, age, faith, no faith.

“We are so inspired when we see people from all backgrounds coming to events.

“Sadly even in the UK prejudice against Jewish people has rocketed, and anti-Muslim hatred has increased.

“We all need to be aware of that kind of prejudice and to be able to take responsibility for challenging it.

“That’s what we ask everyone to do on Holocaust Memorial Day to learn from the Holocaust and genocides and play a part in making a better future.”

Holocaust Memorial Day
(Yui Mok/PA)

On the importance of sharing her story, Mrs Salter added: “When we’re in a room with young people or adults, we can feel the interface between us and know that what we’re talking about is influencing them and making them understand where prejudice leads, and that is the one reason I speak.”