MA Holocaust Studies 1998, Hon LittD 2018
Author and speaker
Agnes Grunwald-Spier is one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. Born in Hungary in 1944, today she lives in London and is a passionate campaigner to ensure awareness of the Holocaust and its survivors remains in the public eye. Agnes was awarded an MBE in 2016 for her work as a Holocaust Memorial Day Trust Trustee and for ‘services to Holocaust awareness’. She received an honorary degree from the University of Sheffield in January 2018.
Some time after my birth in Budapest in July 1944, my mother, Leona Grunwald, was ordered to report the next day. She went with me in her arms. By some miracle, the man in charge that day sent the women with children back. I have no means of knowing who that official was and what his motives were for what he did. I cannot know his name or his fate. But his actions helped both of us to survive the Holocaust.
There is nothing like knowing that someone wanted to kill you to make you appreciate the joys of life. But with it comes what is known as ‘survivor’s guilt’. Why me? Why did I survive when so many others didn’t? Was it to do the work I do now, so late in my life? I am very conscious of speaking for the millions of people – including the 1.5 million children – who were murdered by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish. And I was so nearly one of them.
The sombreness of the Holocaust does not mean that I’m just a serious person. I love the theatre and ballet, visiting galleries, museums and interesting buildings. I’m an enthusiastic collector of porcelain and have appeared on two television programmes about antiques. I’m a good cook and love eating with friends and family in good restaurants.
There is nothing like knowing that someone wanted to kill you to make you appreciate the joys of life.”
My time at the University had an enormous impact on my life. In my 50s, I realised I needed to know more about the Holocaust, both for me and for my three sons. I felt I ought to be able to talk to them about it, but I didn’t feel equipped to. I wanted them to know who they were and where they came from, and to have pride in their past. When I heard about the MA in Holocaust Studies, I thought ‘That’s it, that’s for me.’ I thoroughly enjoyed it and I learnt a great deal.
For my dissertation, I wrote about an American journalist named Varian Fry who rescued Jews in France during the war. That led to me writing my first book, The Other Schindlers, about the many brave people who risked their lives to help those who were being persecuted. I realised that they followed their instinct for what was right – not what the dictators told them. I hope no one will ever again have to experience horrors on the scale of the Holocaust, but if someone makes a racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic comment in your presence, doing nothing is not an option.
As a pensioner I’ve been able to enjoy a whole new career. The Other Schindlers has gone on to sell over 13,000 copies and has led on to me writing two more books. I’ve also given talks internationally, including in Germany, which gives me a great sense of achievement. Many women my age are playing bridge and having their nails done, but I have a much more interesting life. I’ve received an MBE from the Queen and now an honorary doctorate. I’m proud of such public recognition for my work and it shows that people acknowledge the importance of the Holocaust. All of this came about because I did the MA, so I owe an awful lot to the University.
Being published late in life surprises people. They see a dumpy old woman and assume I am retired. When I say I’m a writer, one chap assumed it was cookery books. I said, ‘I write about the Holocaust.’ He was silent. I added, ‘I was a baby in the Budapest Ghetto.’ That shut him up.