Fifteen leading local businessmen attended a lunch in Tunbridge Wells last week to listen to a speaker tell the story of his incredible early life.
That speaker was Freddie Knoller, whose story took him from a strict childhood in Austria through to the start of World War Two and the streets of Paris when it was occupied by the Germans, and then on to the death camps at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz was a network of Nazi extermination camps in Polish areas annexed by Germany. From 1942 until late 1944 transport trains delivered men, women and children to the gas chambers there from all over occupied Europe. More than one million died at the camps, most of them Jewish.
Ninety-five-year-old Freddie Knoller was one of those who survived.
During the lunch at Salomons he shared his moving story of life under Nazi rule.
He recounted how he joined the French Resistance after fleeing his native Vienna at just 16 years old before being captured and imprisoned at the notorious Auschwitz, where both his parents perished.
He ended up spending 15 months at the camps after a French girlfriend betrayed him, revealing his Jewish identity to the authorities. Hunger among the inmates was so bad they ate anything to survive, including human flesh.
After the liberation, Freddie Knoller went with a British officer to a nearby farm to find food. In the wardrobe he discovered a picture of Hitler which he cut up.
The farmer, a supporter of the Nazi leader, shouted anti-Semitic abuse at Freddie Knoller, who reacted by stabbing him. Soon after this incident he left for France, where he was reunited with his brothers who had survived in the US.
For 35 years Freddie Knoller did not talk about his experiences.
Then, one night, his daughters, aged 19 and 21 at the time, asked what they were going to tell their own children about the life of their grandfather. That was when he opened up.
Asked at the lunch how he endured and survived the atrocities, Freddie Knoller, who now lives in London, replied: “My spirit and optimism.”
He cited them both as ‘a gift’ from his mother. The question was also posed as to whether he was bitter about his experience under the Nazi occupation. “No,” he responded. “Life is too short. I am grateful to be here. I love life.”
He visits at least one school a week in the UK to tell his remarkable story, which he also kept a secret from his wife for three decades, and he works with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Guests at the lunch were handed signed copies of Freddie Knoller’s book Living with the Enemy. He has also written another book called Desperate Journey (both published by Metro Books) and his testimony can be found in Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, published by the Holocaust Centre.
Discussions are taking place with a view to making a film about his life. Last year saw the broadcast of Surviving the Holocaust: Freddie Knoller’s War on BBC Two.
STORY BEHIND THE BOOK…
Freddie Knoller was forced to abandon his family and flee Vienna as Nazi Brownshirts swept through his apartment building in November 1938.
Little more than an ordinary Jewish schoolboy, his desperate journey took him, among many other places, to Paris, where he earned a living guiding the Nazis around the red light district. He was a pimp – an occupation that provoked complex feelings of guilt, elation and fortune.
But his luck ran out, and he was soon on the run again before he fell victim to a girlfriend’s betrayal that saw him transported straight to Auschwitz concentration camp. Against all the odds he survived and has lived to tell his remarkable story.