Many travellers checking in at the Kuwaiti Airlines counter carried Christmas presents for families and friends but Kola just had his bags, as it was a working trip for him.
Kola Olu was on his way to Kuwait City to run a course for a local oil organisation, and as it was the Christmas season, had been offered double his usual fees. With his divorce just coming through, he also did not fancy going to Lagos on holidays. Leaving Heathrow on Thursday, 23rd of December, he would be there on Friday, a day of rest in the Muslim world. He could then indulge in desert driving in four wheel drive hire vehicles and later sup on lamb in the hotel.
Now at 9.30pm, he had two and half hours before boarding, so he took a seat in the departure lounge, which gave him a ringside view of the busy airport apron.
Enjoying this reverie, he saw from the corner of his eye, a woman sitting down about three seats from him. He didn’t enjoy this closeness, after all the departure lounge was very empty and she could have sat further away from him.
‘Hello’ she said and he looked at her, replying ‘Hi to you too’ with a fake smile. She was slim, maybe in her eighties, with her hair almost all gone. With a large coat to ward off the cold late December air, her liver spotted fingers were all ringed. Kola was quite observant in a non obtrusive way, the result of working as a training psychologist to many police services across Britain.
‘I’m off to Damascus‘ said the woman ‘You?’. ‘Kuwait’ was his answer.
‘What for, holidays or work?’ He shrugged without replying as he was not always communicative even with people he knew, let alone some old biddy, who was probably lonely and wanted to make conversation.
‘By the way, I’m Annie’ she said reaching out her hand, which he took. ‘I’m Kola’ he said. She struggled with the pronunciation and asked him to teach her to say it, which he did. Her accent was East European and London. Kola asked her why she was going to Syria.
‘I’ve never been there’ She replied. ‘Every year’ she continued ‘I go to a different country for Christmas’.
Kola replied ‘Wow, that must be exciting’.
‘It is’ Annie said. ‘I live alone and many people feel sorry for me, always asking me to come stay over Christmas, I think, out of pity. To counter that, I always go away abroad as I can afford it. In the past 15 Christmases, I have been to most of the world.’
‘Just to avoid going to stay with family and friends over Christmas?’ Kola asked.
‘I have no more family’ Annie replied ‘just friends and many of these have died’. Kola felt there was a story behind that answer and as he had warmed to this friendly lady, he asked ‘You don’t sound as if you have always lived in London’.
‘You can tell, can you?’ she intoned with a twinkle in her eye. ‘Young man, I’ll have you know, I’ve lived a long and varied life’.
‘I’m sure you have’ Kola laughed now intrigued.
‘Let me tell you about Annie’ she said talking about herself in the third sense.
Annie Lebowitz, born Annie Kaminski in Kleczew, Kalinz province of Poland in October 1930. Her dad Avaram, was a Hasidic Jew as well as mother Hannah. They had met, married in the Ukraine but because of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, moved westwards to Poland for a respite from the pogroms.
The family ran a succesful bakery, although the clouds of war were darkening again. With no siblings, she was soon helping out in the family business as was as having religious lessons. Father looked stern with long hair and beards, traits of their faith, but at home he was just Papa, fun and a joy. In contrast it was mum Hannah, who was the strict one, the one who made sure whom she played with and made sure she adhered with the tenets of her faith.
By the time Annie was six, Poland, which had been the heart of the Jewish world in the 1500s was becoming scary, with anti Semitism on the rise. Many Jews had fled from the old Soviet areas towards Germany because of the pogroms, without knowing the same problems were brewing there. The Soviet media had not highlighted this in its publications like the Pravda.
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, bringing with them the ‘final solution’ with wholesale round ups of Jews cloaked as ‘relocation’. Avaram shut down his bakery for good, once the streets became too dangerous to walk in. His family prayed that they be spared, as rumours had come back that there were really no relocations at the end of the journeys.
In January 1941, posters showed up all over Kleczew asking Jews to report for this relocation. The Kaminski family gathered their things and like so many others, went to the town square from where they were marched to the train station. There, they were loaded into goods wagons like sardines, arriving thirty six hours later at the Chelmo Concentration Camp. Holding onto her mum’s hand, she came off the goods wagon with her father carrying their pitiful belongings. As they came off, German soldiers shouted ‘Women and children to the right, men to the left’. There was forced separations, wailing, and scuffles. Avaram and the other men were herded off to another part of the camp and this was the last time she and her mother would ever see him. Chelmo Concentration camp was in a beautiful forest with the River Ner running nearby. It also had two castles which looked forbidding and as Annie looked at it through her tears, remembered fairy tales Father read to her as a child.
As the women were settled in filthy overcrowded dormitories, there were whispers as to what was happening to the men, with shots being heard every minute. Annie’s 10th birthday came and went with starvation the order of the day. She, her mother along with all others had lost weight and lethargy had set in.
In early 1942, she was taken from her mother, Hannah, who howled at the separation and taken to a building on the other side of the camp where German men and women wore white coats. These were medical staff, who used the women and some spared men, for brutal degrading experiments.
Annie was injected with a variety of cocktails and toxic substances that would make her infertile. Then technology in the form of gas showers came to Chelmo, and it was through this that Annie’s mother Hannah met her end in late 1942. A group of women were taken out of the room were taken out and that was it. Annie cried and cried and wanted to go with her mum to the gas chambers. She was shoved aside by the kapos or guards who did not let her go. What saved Annie was the fact that she was a guinea pig for the experiments and as such was given minimum rations to keep her barely alive.
Kept alive she was, but always on the verge of death until in January 1945, the levels of gassing in the castle increased and most of the inmates died.
One day the medical staff doing the experiments did not show up. Annie, expecting to be dragged down to the rooms that were the laboratories, was wondering what was happening or in her case, not happening. She dragged herself off the floor where she and other guinea pigs slept and tried the door, which was open. They were walking gingerly through the laboratory when suddenly men in uniforms burst in, speaking a language she later understood was Russian. The Russians had advanced onto the camp and the SS guards as well as doctors had vanished, knowing this. This were her liberators she thought, but in spite of their emaciated, sick and filthy conditions, the 14 year old and the other women was set upon by these soldiers and raped several times over the next few days. Then the fear of typhoid scared away the Russian soldiers, and the few inmates left alive amongst the bodies had to fend for themselves.
Annie’s band of survivors looted the German offices and rooms for food and clothing finding some money and jewellery the Germans had stolen from the Jewish prisoners and even found American chocolate Hershey bars.
This group of survivors then decided their best option was to head for the Baltic Sea ports, from where they hoped to find a ship, boat, anything that floated to make their way across to Denmark then maybe neutral Sweden. This trek was to be made through the forests and woods to avoid both Russian and German troops.
Kola Olu had been entranced by Annie’s story over the last two hours and looking up at the announcements board, saw that his flight would be in less than 40 minutes meaning boarding would start soon. ‘This is fascinating and I would love to hear more please but I’m leaving soon.’ he said to her. ‘
Same here’ she said and as she spoke her flight to Damascus was called. She said ‘I’ll give you my telephone number so you can call, to hear the end of my story, will that be alright?’
‘Oh yes please’ Kola replied pulling out paper and pen. She wrote her number and name out for him and wished him a safe flight. He stood up, thanked her, shaking hands with her as she made her way to her gate.
During the six hour flight to Kuwait City, all Kola thought of was Annie’s life. There, he delivered his courses flying back to Birmingham two weeks later. A few days after getting home, he was emptying his bags when he came across the paper with Annie’s phone number. He thought for a while, maybe she was just being polite by giving him her number and would not be expecting him to call. However he was curious, what happened to her after leaving the camp? He didn’t call.
Some weeks later, he was in London for a meeting and this time he did call. Asking her whether she remembered him, she did.
He said ‘Annie. Could I take you to dinner and maybe persuade you to tell me the rest of your story?’
‘Goodness’ she replied ‘No need to buy me dinner, come over to my house and I’ll make you a light meal of zrazy’.
‘Thanks’ Kola said and after work that day, took the tube to the Swiss Cottage area of London at the address she had given him. It was an old block of flats dating back to the 1930s and when she answered the door, was still in the coat she had on at Heathrow’s Terminal 4 back in December. It was a small pokey flat with pictures and a Torah on the centrepiece. Kola had to squeeze his large frame into one of the chairs and almost immediately she had a plate of zrazy or stuffed meats for him to eat. After much small talk she continued her story.
It took the motley group of survivors almost 2 months to reach the shores of the Baltic hiding, meeting up with other people on the run including both Russian and German deserters. At the seaside, they found many sailors or ship owners who offered to take them to Denmark or Sweden for a fee, if they desired. However they had heard stories that some of these sea men, collected money from people and then handed them over to the authorities whilst pocketing the money. After their camp experiences they did not trust anyone that was not of them but they then paid a man, who had a schooner to take them to Sweden, paying him with some of the gold coins they had. Once the ship sailed, they told the man that if his intent was to double cross them and take them back into captivity, it would be the last thing he ever did in his life, showing him the two Mauser pistols they had under their clothing. The captain’s eye widened in horror and any plans he might have had for saving himself a journey vanished. Landing in Trelleborg late one night, they all disembarked and surrendered to the authorities. By then the Third Reich had almost disintegrated so the Swedes had lowered their neutrality so much they were almost a British ally. The group then shared the rest of the money and jewellery they had, some deciding to try for Palestine, others the USA, some including Annie just wanted to grieve for her loved ones.
She lived in a hostel with other displaced persons or war refugees in Malmo, where she met her first husband who had been born in London but had become trapped in Poland when on a business trip, the week war broke out. They moved to London where he continued his export business once again, dying in 1955 of a heart attack. She married husband number two, in 1959 and he demised in 1960 before marrying again to her third husband in 1968 till 2004 when he died. All her marriages were happy ones, although she did not take anything for granted due to her camp experiences. She was unable to have children, although had nephews and nieces from her various husbands but after their deaths, her extended families had kept her at arms length. Her husbands had left her some wealth and thanks to her frugality, she lived a good existence highlighted by her trips all over the world.
‘How did you find Damascus? ‘Kola asked.
She replied ‘I researched it and number one, it averages 21 degrees centigrade in December which is good and also, it has a Jewish heritage some of which I was able to see in the Old City part of Damascus’.
She showed Kola her camp tattoo as a concentration camp inmate. ‘In some ways I am proud of this. It is my identity, my faith, my being. As people we all live in so many years, die in so many years, and are tested routinely for our beliefs and systems. Mine is that my loved ones have all died, I am now 89 and whatever years I have left will be richer ones, than the ones I have had behind. This is me.’
Kola stood up, kissed her on the cheeks and promised her to call her occasionally to see how she was.
Annie died in 2010. Now each time he is at an airport, he looks around at his fellow travellers and wonders what stories or lives they have had.