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Leon Greenman: English survivor of Auschwitz

Leon Greenman was the only Englishman to be incarcerated in Auschwitz. For more than half a century after his release, he dedicated his life to Holocaust education and was passionate in his pursuit of telling the truth about the Nazi death camps.

Emerging from Buchenwald when it was liberated by the Americans in April 1945, Greenman entered mainstream life bearing the physical and mental scars of torture, imprisonment and hard labour – and a prison identity number, 98288, tattooed on his arm. His Dutch wife and toddler son had been exterminated by the Nazis and Greenman returned to London with nothing but willpower and determination.

His strength lay in his conviction in humanity: he was confident that if people knew what had happened in the camps, they would commit themselves to preventing a repetition of the Holocaust. This belief took him to schools, colleges and conferences and he spoke to hundreds of thousands of people; he was appointed OBE for his work in 1998. "Young and old alike must learn about the Holocaust as warning against the dangers of racism," he said. "There is no difference in colour or religion. If I had survived to betray the dead it would have been better not to survive. We must not forget. Please do not forget."

Greenman changed people's lives with his words. For him, the camps and the fight against racism was not a history lesson but rather a battle for today to prevent a repeat of history. But he paid a heavy price for his conviction. His home in Ilford, east London, was attacked by Combat 18 in 1994 and he endured death threats and hate mail for speaking to the press and for joining anti-Nazi platforms. Meetings that he addressed were physically attacked, with the aim of frightening him and intimidating others. It made him even more determined to speak out.

It was this strength of mind that had helped him survive six concentration camps and a 60-mile "death march". Yet, as a British citizen, he should never have been taken prisoner. But, with no passport, he had no defence. Greenman had given his passport to a neighbour in Rotterdam for safety as the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940 had restricted Jewish rights. When he asked for it back, he discovered that his friend had burned it out of fear. Greenman had pondered taking his wife Else back to Britain before war broke out, but the Munich Agreement of 1938 had reassured him of their safety.

Greenman had lived in Rotterdam for most of his life, travelling to and from London as a bookseller. His five brothers and sisters lived in London, where Leon himself was born in 1910, in Whitechapel, and where he had lived until the age of five (his paternal grandparents were Dutch). He trained as a barber and had aspirations to be a boxer; he also loved singing and entertaining people. These were skills and qualities he was to use to great advantage in the Nazi camps.

In October 1942, Leon, Else and their two-year-old son Barney were taken from their home in Rotterdam first to Westerbork for several months and then on to Auschwitz, in a group of 700 Jews from the Netherlands. When Greenman arrived, he was one of 50 men selected to be a labourer. He waved goodbye to Else and Barney, thinking he would see them at the weekend. Along with others, he had no knowledge of the reality of their fate. It took him years to accept that his wife and son had been gassed and burnt in open pits. Greenman was one of only two survivors from that shipment.

He endured a living nightmare in the camps, first at Auschwitz, and then at Monowitz for a year and a half. The struggle for survival was paramount. He was helped by his physical strength and mental prowess, labouring by day and singing for extra food at night. His barbering skills meant he was always assured an extra job, for which he was given more food.

Towards the end of the war, as the Allies advanced, Greenman was forced to make a 60-mile death march from Monowitz to Gleiwitz. Frozen and exhausted, he was kept upright and encouraged to keep walking by a Frenchman. Greenman felt he owed his life to this man. He often spoke of him and wondered if he had survived.

It was during his recovery in a French hospital that Greenman took his vow to educate others. But back in London he faced a wall of silence: Britain in 1946 did not want to be reminded of the trauma of war – a very different place from Britain in the 21st century, with Holocaust Memorial Day and a national curriculum that educates every schoolchild about the Holocaust.

These changes are the result of work undertaken by Leon Greenman and others over decades. Since 1995, the Jewish Museum in north London has hosted a permanent exhibition of Greenman's life (with an accompanying educational resource, Leon Greenman Auschwitz Survivor 98288, published in 1996). Into his nineties Greenman was to be found in the museum every Sunday, willing to talk to anyone about his experiences. He published his own memoir, An Englishman in Auschwitz, in 2001.

Up until about two years ago, Greenman attended every protest against the growth of the far-right in Britain; in 2005 he compared tattoos with Pete Doherty at the Love Music Hate Racism gig in Trafalgar Square. When far-right groups were entering mainstream political society in the early 1990s, Greenman was at the forefront of the struggle to stop them. In 1993, with the election of a BNP councillor and the murder of Stephen Lawrence, he led the 60,000 "Unity" demonstration to demand the closure of the BNP's headquarters in Welling, south-east London. And he was an active supporter and recruiter for the Anti-Nazi League and Unite Against Fascism.

Julie Waterson

Leon Greenman, barber, bookseller and political activist: born London 18 December 1910; OBE 1998; married 1935 Else van Dam (died 1943; one son deceased ); died London 7 March 2008.