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Legislative Assembly

07 June 2022
Second reading
Will Fowles  (ALP)


Mr FOWLES (Burwood) (15:21): I rise to speak on the Summary Offences Amendment (Nazi Symbol Prohibition) Bill 2022, and I note the amendment. This is an important piece of legislation that will help combat racism, vilification and far-right extremism in our community. The bill creates a criminal offence prohibiting a person from intentionally displaying a Nazi symbol in a public place or in public view. Victorians have seen several recent examples of the Hakenkreuz being displayed in public, sometimes in tandem with violence and harassment. In my electorate there have been a number of examples of the Hakenkreuz being graffitied on signs, fences and pathways. It is not and will never be acceptable. It is not and will never be a valid expression of free speech. The harm of this symbol clearly massively outweighs any benefit to free speech. It is especially important for this Parliament to act on this issue, because outside of Israel Melbourne has the largest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the world. We must continue to educate Victorians about the significance of the Holocaust, not just through the government’s curriculum changes but also in conversation with our community. And a critical part of that education is hearing from survivors.

My focus today is on the story of a great woman, Halina Strnad. Halina is a Holocaust survivor, a constituent, a neighbour, a human rights activist and a dear friend. And she is also here with us today—an outcome that can only be described as a miracle upon a miracle, for the horrors and deprivations of her childhood have not stopped her living a life of passion and purpose. She sits here a magnificent 95 years of age. Halina Strnad was born Halina Wagowska, and she spent five years and nine months in captivity under the Third Reich—five years and nine months. She has told her story many times, including in her stunning book entitled The Testimony as well as through many, many interviews with Holocaust researchers. She has been an active prosecution witness, including testifying in the 2020 trial in Hamburg of Bruno Dey, an SS guard at the Stutthof death camp where Halina was a prisoner. Poignantly, Halina often described the sentiment of her and her fellow prisoners during the Holocaust in these terms: ‘If we survive, we must testify until we die’. Today I share some of her testimony with this chamber for two reasons: firstly, to put on the parliamentary record just some of the horrors of the Holocaust that was survived by our fellow Victorians; and secondly, to acknowledge the danger and deep pain associated with the Hakenkreuz and other Nazi symbols. I would like to warn those listening or watching or reading that some of the material following is graphic and distressing. Time constraints also mean of course that it is merely a snapshot of her incredible story.

Halina was born in Poland and raised in Poznań. Halina’s parents loved her and each other and were peaceful people. Both of Halina’s parents were agnostic and, while of Jewish origin, their appearance and names were not Semitic. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland, and a few days later Halina and her family were having breakfast when a German soldier burst into their home and demanded to know if they were Jews. Halina was 12 years old. What followed was a series of events that are real and yet unimaginable. The soldier demanded their valuables: Halina father’s wallet, her mother’s silver chain and pendant with a photo inside, their wedding rings. He went through the cupboards looking for more. Neighbours who had put up the Nazi flag in their windows to show allegiance were called in by the soldier to help with removing the family’s possessions. Halina watched them remove everything of value from their home. They filled two trucks. Halina and her family were left in an unrecognisable home with almost all of their possessions taken or broken.

Eventually the Jews living in Poznań were ordered to leave their home city. Halina and her family travelled to Nazi-occupied Lódź in central Poland. At first Halina and her family could move around the city freely, but they had to wear a yellow Star of David to identify them as Jews. In Lódź, to survive, Halina had to pretend to be older than she was. Deception did not come easily. Her parents, having spent her childhood emphasising the importance of being honest, now had to teach her how to convincingly lie as a matter of life and death. They knew that Halina had to be seen as useful or she might be disappeared, as had happened to her younger cousins. Fortunately Halina was tall and had long hair that she could wear in plaits that made her seem older. They stayed with a family member until they were eventually moved into a single room in the ghetto, which was sealed off in 1940. Halina survived for 3½ years in the Lódź ghetto. Living conditions were horrendous, especially over winter. The Germans established factories in the ghetto, where Halina and her family were forced to work. There were regular public hangings, punishment for escape attempts or sabotage. The residents, or rather the prisoners, were made to watch as a deterrent. The first time Halina was made to witness a mass execution it was the public hanging of six young men. Death was all around her. The threat of execution was constant. There was no room to misstep. Many thousands of Jews perished in Lódź.

In 1944 the Nazis decided to destroy Lódź, which was by then the last remaining ghetto in German-occupied Poland. Residents were deported to various death camps, and Halina and her family were eventually deported to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The journey there was slow and painful on a freight train overcrowded with other inmates. At one point a soldier looked in their carriage and found a young baby. He ripped it from its mother’s arms and swung the baby by its legs, smashing its skull on the floor. Halina watched as blood and brains oozed from the baby’s skull.

In Auschwitz the horror continued. At the gates Halina and her mother were separated from her father. He waved goodbye to them, and that was last time Halina ever saw him. They were then processed with the other arrivals. Heads were shaved, any remaining jewellery was taken and those with gold teeth had them immediately removed with pliers. The weak were separated out and killed. Halina and her mother were deemed useful enough to live. Along with other inmates she was made to assist with the work of the gas chambers and the crematoria. Hundreds of bodies would be carted each day from the gas chambers. Halina’s horrendous task was to load the bodies from the carts into the ovens. Efficiency was an obsession in the concentration camp. Soldiers would beat them for moving too slowly. There was no time to dwell on things like the occasional weak pulse Halina might feel on a body being loaded into the oven.

In late 1944 Halina and her mother were moved again, this time to Stutthof. At Stutthof the SS guards would call Halina and the other inmates ‘Untermenschen’, meaning ‘subhumans’. Halina was beaten, kicked and spat on. During one of these beatings her skull was fractured. She describes discovering a fellow inmate who had given birth to a stillborn fetus. Halina and other inmates did what they could, breaking a window and using the glass to cut the umbilical cord. Two doctors in the group tended to the woman; however, she died from blood loss. Halina was given the job of disposing of the dead baby. She took it to the toilets and using a plank of wood pushed it down under the excrement. Later the bloated fetus floated to the top of the toilet, an image that appeared in Halina’s nightmares for years to come.

While at Stutthof, Halina was not made to work. Apart from the early morning roll call and the clearing of dead bodies, there was not much to do. There were no beds; Halina and her mother slept on some straw on the ground. It was filthy. The toilet was merely an open hole with slippery edges watched over by sadistic guards. Halina befriended a woman who she describes as remarkable—Freida, a university professor from Budapest. Older than Halina, she became a mentor, but Halina also mentored her and protected her. It was Freida who kept repeating, when the prisoners dared to speculate about a postwar world, that if they survived, they should testify and bear witness for the rest of their lives.

Death was all around Halina, a normalised daily part of life. Many inmates were overwhelmed by their circumstances and committed suicide by using the electric fence. One day Halina set out looking for Freida and could not find her, until eventually she found Freida’s body hanging on the wire. She had electrocuted herself. The day before she had said to Halina, ‘In a world that allows Stutthof to happen, I do not want to be’. Halina regretted not foreseeing Freida’s intention. Typhoid passed through Stutthof, and Halina and her mother were both struck. Halina survived, but her mother passed away in her arms. Everyone Halina loved had now been taken from her by the Nazis. In the last days of the war Halina was taken on a death march from Stutthof. She and two other inmates managed to escape and hid for two weeks. They were fortunate enough to be aided by civilian Germans and survived. Three years later she made the journey to Melbourne and now resides in my electorate.

Halina survived the most unimaginable horrors during the Holocaust. The Hakenkreuz was there every step of the way. It was the symbol worn and displayed. It was the backdrop to the genocide of 6 million Jews. It was the sign of strength of the Third Reich. It was and is a symbol of hate, a symbol used to intimidate and vilify, a symbol that has no place in a tolerant, peaceful and multicultural society. So that is why I invited Halina to be with us here while we debate this important piece of legislation. I pay tribute to her now as she watches from the gallery, and I pay tribute to her evidence given yet again next week in yet another war crime trial. If I can conclude, and with indulgence, with her words, ‘If we survive, we must testify until we die’.