For those snared by the Nazi death trap during the Holocaust, simply surviving was a miracle. The conditions in the concentration camps were so appalling, the spectre of death so pervasive, that simply living to see the arrival of the Allied liberators was an astonishing feat in itself.
But actually escaping the Nazis' clutches? Well that was a different thing altogether, an achievement even more remarkable than simply surviving. Those who risked their lives to spike the Nazi extermination machine required levels of courage and selflessness simply unimaginable to those who weren't present.
Remarkably, Naomi Blake managed to both survive and escape the Nazis. After enduring the horrors of the camps, she fled the Germans' death march to the sea, and managed to get home alive. As if that weren't enough, she went on to fight in Palestine, and lived through the War of Independence despite being shot in the neck. Then she moved to London and became a renowned sculptor, creating some of the most powerful artwork seen in Britain during the 20<sup>th century.
Naomi's journey is dotted with little miracles. The empty house, full of food, she stumbled upon during her escape from the SS; the Jewish Russian soldier who refused to send her to prison and helped her escape the Soviet Zone on her journey to Palestine; the tiny wooden dog which provided a focus for her adult life. Were it to be documented by a Hollywood scriptwriter, Naomi's story simply wouldn't be credible.
But now Naomi, aged 90, recounts that remarkable tale for IBT. Although she is living out her final years in the adumbral tranquility of Muswell Hill, her memories of the Holocaust still burn fiercely, and she is determined to tell her tale in full, to help ensure that future generations never repeat the Nazis' crimes.
'It was an open, progressive atmosphere'
Naomi was born Zisel Dum on 11 March 1924 in Carpathian Ruthenia, part of what was then Czechoslovakia. She had nine siblings, one of whom died in infancy. She recalls that, "compared to other people in the town, we were comfortable. I was the youngest. Most of my brothers and sisters had already left home by the time I can remember. A couple of sisters were already married off so there were about four or five siblings when I was growing up."
Naomi's parents ran a textile shop, which had actually been set up by her mother, demonstrating a resourcefulness which clearly courses through the veins of her family, particularly its female members. She recalls a happy childhood in the inter-war period, which gave no hint of the troubles to come.
"That area of the world where I lived which was called Karpatska Rus, and before the First World War, it was part of Austria-Hungary" she says. "In 1920 there was a treaty that gave that area to the Czechs and that whole place went through a transformation.
"The Hungarians were quite authoritarian but the Czechs had a socialist government and they were very free-thinking, they certainly gave equality to the Jews. The young people really loved the Czechs, they went to a Czech school and it was a more open, progressive atmosphere."
This blissful childhood was rudely interrupted by Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, when they signed the Munich agreement in 1938.
The treaty gave the Germans control of Karpatska Rus, and Hitler, recalling Hungary's support for Germany during the First World War, allowed the Hungarians to reclaim the area. This arrangement lasted until 1944, when the Nazis, frustrated at Hungary's refusal to offer up their Jews, stormed in and took direct control.
Naomi recalls that anti-semitism began to gradually increase in Hungary, closing in on the Jews like a vice, just as it did in the rest of Hitler's empire.
"We had to wear yellow stars, and we felt the oppression pretty soon. First of all when we were allowed to go to school we were sent to Hungarian school, where boys and girls were separate, so it was a completely different atmosphere.
"This progressive atmosphere of the Czech regime disappeared overnight. In the schools they didn't like the Jews, they would say all these awful things, and then within a year or so we weren't even allowed to go to school. So there were these progressive issues and problems.
"I was also a member of a Zionist socialist group and any left-wing movements, whether Jewish or not, were not allowed to exist. So we had to have meetings in secret and went out of our way to change the place of our meetings, not to leave the meeting all together, and things like that."
'The repressive Hungarian regime saved our lives'
Looking back, however, Naomi believes the relatively benign regime of the Hungarians was a blessing in disguise.
"Although it was pretty bad under Hungarian rule for the Jews, it was probably what saved our lives because many Jews were taken to concentration camp in the early 1940s, and fewer of them survived" she says. "The later you went, if you weren't sent to the gas chambers, the more chance you had just because you were in concentration camp for less time."
When the Germans finally decided to take control in 1944, they immediately set up two ghettos. The Jews were given a couple of days to pack up their belongings and take refuge in one of the squalid enclosures. Luckily Naomi's mother's best friend lived in one of the ghettos, and she arranged for the whole family to come and live with them. However the conditions were still extremely difficult; three whole families were squeezed into one room, 20 people sharing a space meant for four.
Naomi recalls: "There was no food in the ghetto. Anything we could eat was either something we'd brought with us or that was in the houses, or that was smuggled in on the black market so there was very little to eat. People died in the ghetto because the conditions were so bad.
"Again there was a curfew, I advised my father to shave off his beard so he wouldn't be singled out as this very orthodox Jew. You had to be very careful on the streets, there were a lot of beatings. In the ghetto we were basically waiting for orders as to where we were going to go next."
Eventually the orders came. Auschwitz. Naomi, her family and the rest of the ghetto's population were put on cattle trucks, and forced to stand for days as the train ground its way to Poland, an ordeal which claimed many lives before the train reached its final stop: hell.
Although very few images survive to document the Nazis' selection process at Auschwitz, the picture of families being herded into queues on the ramp has been burned into the popular consciousness, a snapshot of the evil man is capable of. One queue led to the camp's barracks; the other straight to the gas chambers.
For Naomi, this process decimated her entire family, at the stroke of an SS bureaucrat's pencil. Naomi and her sister were sent to the camp, and every one of their relatives were taken the other way, to immediate death. I ask Naomi why the Nazis spared her and her sister; why were they the only ones deemed worthy of life?
"Age" she said. "What the Nazis wanted was labour, cheap labour. Anybody over the age of 30 was not useful to them, they wouldn't be able to work them hard. So it was age-related. They wanted to know either if you had a trade, because they wanted skilled labour, and your age, because they wanted young people. It was very simple."
Naomi and her sister spent only a few at weeks at Auschwitz, before being taken to a transit camp and then onto Brannau, near Bydgoszcz (named Bromberg by the Germans) in northern Poland. The conditions were less formidable than those at Auschwitz, but they were still very harsh.
'That's your family, up there in the smoke'
The inmates were forced to make bombs for the German army, backbreaking work for the healthiest of individuals, let alone a young girl forced to live off watered-down soup and stale bread. Disease was rife in the barracks, which were hugely overcrowded and lacking the most basic sanitation.
In addition, Naomi and her sister had to cope with the growing likelihood that all her relatives had gone. At Auschwitz, a fellow inmate had pointed at the fumes from the nearby crematoria and told Naomi: "That's your family, up there in the smoke."
Yet, when confronted with these horrific words, Naomi refused to accept that her family was no more, a realisation that may have extinguished all trace of hope.
"I thought the woman was mad" she recalls. "It's something that you cannot believe when somebody tells you that. You only absorb that type of information later when you've got no alternative but to believe it. I just thought that person was nasty and out of her mind.
"Even though, probably deep down, I knew that the rest of the family hadn't survived, I always had this dream that I would get back home and see my father waiting for me at the front of the house. When does the realisation happen? It kind of happens when father isn't waiting at the house."
So what kept Naomi going? "What we always dreamed of, the women, was a fresh loaf of bread. We talked about food, we shared recipes, we argued about who made the best chicken soup, which sounds a bit odd when you're starving but that's what you do.
"I slept in a bunk with my sister, and a woman underneath me had somehow managed to find a photo of a loaf of bread and stuck it on her bunk. She would lie there going 'aaaaaah', looking at this bread. We all promised each other that when we were free – it wasn't if, always when – we would never go out of the house without a loaf of bread in our bag. Out of these horrible things come some nice stories."
Naomi also managed to give a daily show of defiance, by sabotaging the bombs she was making for the Nazis fighting on the eastern front.
"There was a conveyor belt of devices and we were told by one of the prisoners of war working in the next building how to sabotage these bombs" she says.
"We had to stick our hands down to the bottom – it was a bit dangerous – and twist something until it snapped. That would signify that the bomb couldn't detonate.
"Later, when we were on the death marches, we passed through some areas where there were some unexploded bombs, and we wondered whether those were the ones we made."
'We were escaping from the people that were coming to help us'
As the Russians began to close in during the early weeks of 1945, the Germans panicked. The camp commandants received orders to take the healthy prisoners and march them north, to the Baltic sea.
The Nazis hoped that the emaciated, demoralised prisoners would die on the march. Those that survived would simply be driven into the Baltic, and drowned. The idea was to dispose of the evidence, to prevent anyone from telling the world of the Nazis' crimes once the war was over.
Naomi recalls: "It was still winter, snow was on the ground. The Nazis took us, rushing us, beating us, telling us to hurry up because they were scared the Russians were gaining on them. I don't know how we survived. There was one moment on the death march where I was so tired that I sat down and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. My sister started screaming at me, and revived me."
At one point, Naomi remembers, "me and my friends realised we were escaping from the people that were coming to help us. We just thought 'we need to get of this situation.'
"So, at one moment, we decided, about 10 of us, that we would run for it, but we would disperse in twos and threes, into the woods. My sister and two other people went one way, and although the soldiers came after us, for some reason, we hid behind a little shelter and the Germans didn't go in there. They fired shots, they shouted, but they didn't go in there. Maybe because they heard movement elsewhere of other people running away."
Did any other escapees die? "Not that I know of. We were focused on ourselves at that point."
Naomi and her sister still weren't out of the woods, in any sense. They had to get home, dodging the returning German soldiers as well as Russian troops, who became notorious for raping the women they had come to liberate. The air was freezing, the snow often up to their knees. Eventually, however, they staggered back to Karpatska Rus.
"By that time the war was over," Naomi explains. "Everybody was trying to get back home so we clambered on trains, got rides wherever we could, walked for miles. The whole of Poland was in disarray because there were so many people going through, trying to get to wherever they needed to go.
"A few days after our escape we found an abandoned house where there was food on the table. It was like a little miracle. We went in there, we ate too much, we were very sick, but it probably saved us, as well. We stayed there a few days, before we continued on our way."
'We didn't want to be deemed German collaborators, and we were afraid to say we were Jews'
When Naomi returned home, she found the property empty, and her father was not standing there. This shattering blow, coupled with the punishing march home and the months of privation before that, would have crushed most ordinary people. But Naomi resolved to fight on; she wanted to go to Palestine and help the burgeoning Jewish independence movement carve out their own state.
"There were Jewish organisations that helped people get to Palestine. I connected up again with my youth movement, and they had a network of people helping people cross borders and directing them, giving us places to stay so we could make our way. It was mostly either on foot or trucks, on the back of trains... however we could get there.
"Our biggest hurdle was getting from the eastern zone, the Russian zone, to the British zone. The organisation had a way of getting us over the mountains but at one point I got lost and we were captured by a Russian soldier who started asking us questions.
"We were very frightened, we didn't know what to say. We didn't want to be deemed German collaborators in any way, and we were afraid to say we were Jews, but fortunately, this man was Jewish. He guessed we shared his faith so he started asking us questions about Jewish traditions, to see whether we were actually Jewish or not. Then he helped us. We could have been sent back home, or sent to prison."
In Palestine Naomi adopted her present name, which comes from the Hebrew root Naim, meaning nice, or pleasant. She also joined the Palmach, the Israeli defence organisation which was trying to hold on to the areas already under Jewish control, in anticipation of a UN declaration which would create the state of Israel. She was posted to an area near the Walls of Jerusalem, a relatively quiet sector.
But, once again, peace was soon snatched away from Naomi. On 1 April 1947 A British soldier, standing on the city walls, took a pot shot at her. The bullet ricochet off some stones and the shrapnel lodged in her neck, narrowly missing the windpipe. Had the shrapnel made contact just a few millimetres away, Naomi would have been killed instantly.
'My artwork was always more than a Jewish thing'
Thankfully, this was to be Naomi's last brush with death. And it also triggered an epiphany; whilst recovering in hospital she began carving a little wooden dog out of a piece of olive wood, for one of her friends in the army. The woodwork was meant to be a token gift, the whole exercise one of therapy rather than a potential vocation.
Yet that small dog roused something inside Naomi. Later, she realised what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, something which would provide a focus for her natural passion and determination, and allow her to forget the endless cycle of death which she had been locked into for the past decade.
She enrolled in the Hornsey School of Art when she moved to London in the mid-1950s with her second husband, a former German refugee whom she met on a boat (her first marriage, to an Italian opera singer, had lasted only a couple of years). Her work, inspired by renowned practitioners such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, was always shaped by the Holocaust.
Naomi's sculptures often featured mouthless, eyeless figures, taking shelter or escaping from some invisible nemesis. Many of the figures in her collection appear to be holding each other, a symbol of hope and solidarity, traits Naomi has always strived to demonstrate.
Naomi's work, and her story, soon caught the imagination of the Britain's liberal clerisy, and her art has even found its way into the collections of Prince Charles and the Queen Mother, whom Naomi has met.
Yet such high-profile acclaim isn't, for her, the most satisfying by-product of her career as a sculptor; far more important is the fact that "the art was displayed in churches, not just synagogues. It wasn't just a Jewish thing. That became a mission for me, to promote understanding between faiths. I was proud that I was able to put that message across."
'The Holocaust could happen again'
Naomi has now lived in Britain for almost 60 years, and been embraced by all sections of society, right to the very top. But is her view of this country tainted by the fact that Britain didn't do more to stop the Holocaust – and by the fact that she was almost killed by a British soldier?
"I wouldn't live in the UK if I thought like that," Naomi says. "I've always felt Britain was a very tolerant, open society. Britain was also the only country to accept children on the Kindertransport. [Initiative to rescue Jewish children from Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War]"
Regarding Germany, however, her view is very different. "I don't want to know about them too much. I've met a lot of German people and made friends with them, and I did visit Germany, but I wouldn't buy German products. I don't want to blame the younger generation of Germans, I just don't want to think about it too much."
On the Holocaust, Naomi is even more emphatic. She has previously come out in opposition to Holocaust deniers such as David Irving, even appearing on TV to refute his views. Even now she says it makes her "very upset, and angry", when she hears the received Holocaust narrative being disputed, or played down.
So could the Holocaust happen again, I ask? Naomi, a woman of such warmth and positiviity, darkens a little.
"It will happen again," she says, "if we don't take it seriously."
IBTimes UK thanks Naomi's daughter, Anita Peleg, for arranging the interview and for answering our questions when Naomi herself was unable to do so.