JOANNA Millan is Jewish but admits she is reluctant to admit it on official documentation.
“I fear that sometime in the future a government might use it against me,” she told the crowd gathered at Banbridge Town Hall on Wednesday evening.
“It happened before and it could happen again.”
The 70-year-old is a Holocaust survivor and now travels the world recounting her experience as a three-year-old orphaned by one of the most shameful periods in the history of humanity.
Born Bela Rosenthal in Germany during the Second World War, she lost her father to notorious concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later her mother to tuberculosis in the Theresienstadt Ghetto near Prague.
The three-year-old was liberated from the camp along with less than 100 other children in 1945. She was one of six orphans who managed to survive the bleak conditions and spoke proudly at being included in a survival study by famous psychologist Sigmund Freud’s daughter in later years.
The toddler was flown to the UK shortly after liberation and lived with her fellow orphans for some time afterwards.
While small in stature Joanna - whose named was changed by her adoptive parents when she moved in with them aged eight - maintains an inner strength that is almost visible as she recounted the horrors experienced by her parents and the pain-staking work she did after the war to trace a family she had all but lost.
Against a backdrop of black and white images she described the exasperation she felt at trying to discover where her family descendants may have moved to, and the utter elation when she met blood relatives in America and Australia - years after she had almost given up hope.
Despite both Joanna’s father and uncle serving in the German Army during WWI, the family were stripped of their German citizenship when the Nazi’s brutal Nuremburg Laws were enacted in the 1930s.
Now Joanna, who speaks with an English accent and has spent more of her life in the UK than her native Germany, considers herself Jewish by religion but British by nationality.
She went on to marry a Jewish man, have a family and enjoy various jobs including time spent as a Magistrate. Despite leaving school at 16 she later gained a law degree and achieved a Masters degree in Business and Finance - of these academic successes she is clearly proud.
On forgiveness of those who perpetrated the most heinous of crimes against her family and her race, she said, “It is not for me to forgive. My father and mother and so many others perished at the hands of those criminals. In order to gain forgiveness I imagine they would have to pray to their God for that.”
Throughout her speech, while she admits anger towards those who carried out such vast atrocities and those who stood by and watched, Joanna exudes gratitude for the “borrowed years” she has enjoyed since she faced death at such a young age.
“I feel so lucky to have all these borrowed years so I try and do as much as I can,” she said with a broad smile on her face. The mother-of-three and grandmother to eight is as active as ever, lecturing in China each year, and working with various charities as well as volunteering with the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Following a visit to two of the local secondary schools Joanna said she was overjoyed to see the progress made in Northern Ireland following our troubled past.
“One of the causes of conflict is often that people are seen as different and other people are afraid of that,” she said. “Every situation is different but certainly there are parallels with the situation here. Northern Ireland has made a fantastic start and is progressing as an inclusive society. But this is the beginning of your journey and it is important keep talking about things, to keep moving forward and to get to the end of that journey.”
Joanna’s visit to the district was funded by the Council’s Good Relations Programme.