THE Holocaust may be history but as the annual remembrance day approaches, mental wounds remain open for one survivor.

BEFORE German and Hungarian forces invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, life was idyllic for Rachel Levy, her parents and four siblings.

The Orthodox Jewish family, whose village nestled in the Carpathan Mountains, had little idea of the trauma to come.

Restrictions were imposed on Jewish families. Schooling and property ownership was banned.

In 1942, Rachel's father Solomon, then aged 40, was torn from the family and sent to work for the occupying forces.

Two years later Rachel - who now lives in Bromley - was captured along with her mother Shlima, aged 37, her elder brother Chaskel, 16, younger brother Ben-Zvi, three, and two younger sisters, Eta, eight and Rivka, 10.

With 100 other Jewish villagers they were herded on to trains destined for the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland.

Calmly recalling events leading to her capture, the grandmother-of-two, who was 14 at the time, said: "Our neighbours had been hiding us in the woodland but they were threatened with execution and forced to give us up.

"The troops were terrifying. We were crammed into trucks with no food, drink or sanitation.

"When we got off the train, the Gestapo officers were waiting.

"They separated children and older women and my older brother was taken to the men's camp.

"It was the last time I ever saw my mother, sisters and younger brother.

"They were taken straight to the gas chambers. I was totally alone."

Now 76, the mother-of-two added: "It's still painful and fresh in my mind after all these years.

"I was just bewildered. I didn't know what was going on."

During her imprisonment, Rachel was visited by the 'Angel of Death', Dr Josef Mengele, who chose which people would be sent to the gas chambers, and which would be sent to work.

Rachel said: "He picked me (for the gas chamber).

"I was numb and then I was outside the chamber knowing it would end beyond the gates.

"It was next to the camp's kitchen and I managed to get behind people carrying soup and escaped back to camp."

There was little to do in camp and Rachel added: "We talked about food mainly, because we were so hungry."

In January 1945, the Soviet Army forced the Germans to retreat from Poland, so Auschwitz was cleared and prisoners were marched to Belsen, Germany.

Rachel said: "We marched for 21 days without food and we scavenged the fields for things to eat.

"People died on the way. Some were shot for not keeping up and others could not continue.

"When we reached the camp, it was the worst thing I've seen."

At Belsen, Rachel found her mother's younger sister, also called Rachel, but she was severely ill.

She remembered: "We were lying on the floor covered in lice and picking them off our skin.

"There were dead bodies all over the ground. Nobody was buried, they just threw the new bodies on top of the old ones."

A devastated Rachel watched as her aunt was added to the piles a few days after their reunion.

In April 1945, the British Army liberated Belsen and eventually Rachel was taken to Prague, then Bratislava, where she finally found some reason for hope.

She said: "One day I heard footsteps and sat up in bed and my brother came in.

"I was stunned; it was such a special moment."

With the help of the Central British Fund for World Jewish Relief, Rachel and Chaskel were among 700 youngsters flown to the UK.

The pair were taken to Belfast in February 1946 and shortly afterwards moved to south London.

Rachel, who married Phin, a Jew from Brixton, in 1953, trained as a dressmaker and worked in London's West End.

Chaskel trained as an accountant and became director of a financial company before he died of tuberculosis in 1976, aged 48.

Rachel never discovered what happened to her father.

As part of Holocaust Memorial Day next Saturday, Rachel has told her story to youngsters from Brindishe Primary School, Wantage Road, Lee Green.

The pupils will perform a drama about her life next Sunday at The Broadway Theatre, Catford Broadway, Catford.

Children from Lewisham schools including John Stainer, Ashmead, Fairlawn and Rushey Green will also perform.

Rachel did not speak of her experience for almost 50 years and said: "The nightmares don't go away, but they lessen slightly.

"There are so few of us left to talk about it and it's important people know what happened."

A memorial service will be held next Saturday at Catford Synagogue, Crantock Road, Catford, between noon and 1pm.

For tickets to the theatre performance, call 020 8690 0002.

Tickets to the memorial service are free. Call 020 8314 8636.

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