The lasting impact Holocaust refugees and their families have had on New Zealand was recognised on January 27 at events around the country to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Holocaust refugees battled the odds and arrived in New Zealand with little more than the clothes on their back. Yet they and their children went on to help shape New Zealand today,” Holocaust Centre chair Deborah Hart said.
“Their harrowing and often heartbreaking histories are the quiet stories behind such icons as Vogel’s bread and leaders such as former prime minister Sir John Key. Others helped establish our arts, culture and hospitality sectors. They were doctors, business people, manufacturers and chemists.
“Many Jewish refugees who settled in New Zealand after the Holocaust went on to make a significant impact on our country, despite the hardship they endured,” Hart said.
Sir John Key’s mother, Ruth, was born in Vienna, Austria and was just 16 when the Nazi’s invaded in 1938. Jewish people had only two choices, face death or flee. Ruth fled to Britain, leaving everything she knew behind. A decade later she had met his father George and the couple moved to New Zealand.
“My mother’s ability to pick up her life and start again had a massive impact on my life. She taught me that anything is possible and that you have to take every opportunity. The resilience that Jewish refugees like my mother showed is as inspiring today as it was 70 years ago,” Sir John said.
Helen Klisser is the eldest daughter of Han Klisser, the Jewish refugee who helped bring Vogel’s bread to New Zealand. He was also just a teenager when he, his brother Leo and his parents were forced to live in hiding in Amsterdam, about a kilometre away from another Jewish teenager, Anne Frank, who was also hiding with her family in an attic.
“The Dutch underground then helped the family into a safer hiding place in the countryside. But they couldn’t house them altogether, so they were split up,” Kilsser said.
“Han would visit them whenever he could. The last time Han saw Leo and his parents alive was his 16 birthday.” Han’s parents and Leo were captured and eventually sent to Auschwitz where they were killed.
After moving to New Zealand, Han met his Dutch wife Janna and began working for another Jewish refugee, German Dr Max Reizenstein, in his Ponsonby bakery. When Klissers Farmhouse Bakery opened in the 1950s they were making 1200 loaves a week. By the time it was sold to Goodman Fielder in 1990, the company was baking more than 500,000 loaves of Vogel’s a week.
Klisser said her father, who is now 93-years-old, is proud Vogel’s became an iconic New Zealand brand. “He’s so grateful that he and his family have been able to build a new life in this land of milk, honey and …bread.”
Hart said about 1,200 Jews who fled Europe managed to immigrate to New Zealand, despite barriers from the government at the time. “New Zealand is a better place because of our refugee communities, and we must continue to welcome refugees from other cultures.”
Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy is the Patron of the Holocaust Centre. She said we must teach the next generation of Kiwis that the discrimination, hatred and violence that led to the murder of six million Jews – including 1.5 million Jewish children – must never be allowed to exist in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“The March 15 mosque attacks and the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us the power of unity. We must celebrate our differences, and look at each other with humanity and kindness. We must pledge ‘never again’ ,” Dame Patsy said.
January 27 was established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day to honor the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and others who were also murdered by the Nazis. The day was chosen because it was the day in 1945 the Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp.
Commemorative events are held on January 27 around the world and in New Zealand this year in Auckland, Wellington, Hamilton, Napier and Christchurch.