How the daughter of Holocaust survivors and the grandson of a Nazi war criminal became friends

Celebrating an unlikely friendship

How the daughter of Holocaust survivors and the grandson of a Nazi war criminal became friends

Former GP Noemie Lopian is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors. Writer and educator Derek Niemann is the grandson of a Nazi war criminal. Together, they give talks about the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism.

Noemie is the daughter of Holocaust survivors Dr Ernst Israel Bornstein and Renee Bornstein.

Derek is the grandson of Karl Niemann, a committed member of the Nazi party who organised slave labour in the concentration camps.

Noemi’s mother, Renee, was 10 when she was imprisoned by the Gestapo after trying to flee her native France. She survived, along with her brother and sister, and they were reunited with their parents when the Second World War ended.

Noemi’s father, Ernst, also survived, but his parents and two younger sisters were killed at Auschwitz. After the war, Ernst went on to become a doctor and dentist. When he died, aged 55, Renee moved her three children to Manchester, seeking out the comfort of the Jewish community. Noemi was 13 years old.

Meanwhile, in Scotland where he was born and raised, Derek Niemann grew up quite unaware of his dark family legacy. He became an author and nature writer, writing about bees and butterflies.

Derek never knew his paternal grandfather, who died before he was born. He grew up believing he had been a bank clerk in Berlin. That is what his father told him.

When he was 49, Derek, who now lives in Bedfordshire, decided to look up the house where his father was born. An online search revealed that his grandfather had been an SS officer and a manager of slave labour in concentration camps including Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Further research revealed that his grandmother knew the nature of her husband’s “work”, which he hid from his children.

Derek’s devastating discovery became the subject of his memoir, A Nazi in the Family (published by Short Books). One day, Noemi attended a talk he was giving in a synagogue and introduced herself.

“Why would I want to?” she has said in an interview. “It came down to something deep within me. A need to be proactive about my past and find a way to use it for the good. When we met, Derek readily agreed that we had to do something together.”

They have been friends ever since.

Having translated her father’s memoir, The Long Night: A True Story (published by Toby Press), Noemi knows the horrors her parents, and millions of other victims, suffered. She has said: “The shadow of the Holocaust haunts me now and I devote as much time as I can to educating others.”

But her father has been her greatest teacher. “My father was such a humane man. As a doctor after the war, he treated everyone including Germans. He wouldn’t allow himself to hate. He said hatred eats up the person who hates.”

Derek’s friendship with Noemi has taught him a lesson, too. It is vital, he has said, “to learn to look beyond difference and to act against prejudice before it’s too late”.

In his fascinating book, Unlikely Friends: Bridging Ties and Close Friendships (published by Lexington Books), American sociologist James Vela-McConnell states the benefits of focussing on what you have in common with someone else rather than what you might fear about them.

By talking about our differences, says Vela-McConnell, people form powerful alliances. Friendship breaks down barriers and society becomes more cohesive as a result.

Derek and Noemi are living proof that friendship can bring about social change.

Derek’s life was changed by discovering his grandfather was a war criminal. It has been changed again by sharing his story with others and being accepted by them in return.

“I met someone who was in the French Resistance whose best friend was killed in Buchenwald,” says Derek, “and he shook me by the hand. At our talks, survivors have invited me to sit with them afterwards and taken me by the hand. It’s incredible.”

Together, Derek and Noemi talk about the past in order to shape the future.

“I don’t think I can change the world,” Noemi says, “but maybe by showing people how we have stepped beyond difference, that will make a difference.”

The friendship between Noemi and Derek is a symbol of hope and reconciliation. We are shaped by our family history and karma. The tragedy experienced by a previous generation shapes their outlooks and choices, and influences how they raise their children and instil their beliefs and philosophies on them.

Sometimes tragedies compound themselves and we become victims of victims. We have seen long-term racism, genocide, antisemitism and conflicts between countries and communities which seem impossible to resolve.

Facing history and finding acceptance in how it has shaped who we are means we can make the conscious choice to stop this chain of suffering. Very often, this is the best way to break the karma and create a more positive future.

Previous article
The power of gratitude
Next article
Forgiveness lies within