Written by Kirsty Jukes, Hub Rights Officer, Unlocking our Sound Heritage in association with Archives+, The Heritage Lottery Fund and The British Library.
As Hub Rights Officer for the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project (UoSH), the main purpose of my role has been to search for the individual behind every oral history sound recording. I tried to make contact where possible and ask for permission to publish the recording for public access and use. In many cases, little information was left behind to find the speaker or their next of kin. This left minimal options aside from marking the recording as an ‘orphan work’. In some cases, this is due to the age of the recording (the speaker is likely deceased) or a lack of documentation taken at the time (no full name, address etc.) In the instance that a work is labelled ‘orphan’, the recording may still be used by a hub for a project and accessed by the public on the proviso that the wishes of anyone who comes forward in the future as copyright holder are adhered to. This can range from completely ‘taking down’ the recording or editing/shortening the clip. The large majority of works for this project were ‘orphan’ category recordings after full diligence and due process were followed.
A ‘diligent search’ is key to properly preparing collections. It may include a web search, ancestry websites, land registry, social media, or paperwork from the original project creator. Although rights holders can be missed even after completing this search, detailing the process proves that an attempt towards at least the minimum set of parameters in finding the owner of the copyright has been completed for every recording. It is a much easier outcome all round when interviewees and/or their families are found as we not only gain direct copyright permissions but are perhaps able to reunite them with a sound recording long lost. It becomes less likely that a next of kin will be around the longer the speaker has been deceased and the more time has passed since the recording was made. When we do contact a family member, the preservation of the recording takes on a much more personal meaning, unlocking heritage and family history.
This happened as I came to clear a collection of recordings featuring the Liverpool Jewish Community that were recorded in the 1980s and 1990s by Maurice Hesselberg and a group of other interviewers. The collection is now held at Liverpool Record Office and consists of sounds recordings and accompanying documentation (much of which were handwritten notes that needed to be transcribed for use in this project). The content of the collection is really fascinating, it is a broad view of life as a Jewish person in and around Liverpool including recollections of customs, childhood, holidays, and relationships. I felt privileged listen and attempt to clear the tapes so that others could benefit from a chance to learn about their local area and, potentially, their own family. This collection also struck a personal chord with me and I often wonder what my relations would have had to say about their faith and their lives. I also spent some time recording my Grandad as a teenager, recordings which now may be lost to me. UoSH has definitely made me feel more connected to people I miss.
All the tapes in this collection, except one, were in the format of an interviewer questioning an interviewee. One tape contained the testimony of a G. W. Sevenoaks who, unusually, recorded himself at home in response to a letter from project lead Maurice Hesselberg. George Sevenoaks had a South-Eastern English accent, very different to all of the beautiful old Scouse accents of many of the other participants, and so he stood out immediately as a person not from the area. His involvement with this set of recordings seemed to stem from a letter he wrote in response to a Telegraph article from 27th January 1995. A letter published in response to his article cast aspersions on the truth and accuracy of his testimony about his time in Auschwitz as a prisoner of war (POW). In the tapes, he sounds unwavering about his experiences which are detailed and distressing.
This first clip is of George reading a letter he wrote on 22nd October 1995 in reply to an individual questioning his account of his experience at Auschwitz. The murder of Jews and other persecuted groups in Auschwitz, in particular thousands of Hungarian Jews at the time George was put to work at IG Farben, is clearly still fresh in his memory –
He was given a first-hand account by a German Kapo who was with him in the work camp that surrounded the death camp. Named ‘Auschwitz III’, the IG Farben plant used forced labour for the creation of materials used by Axis powers during the Second World War. Other people interred here included Nobel Peace-Prize winner Elie Wiesel and the prominent Italian writer Primo Levi. Many other ex-Nazi soldiers were drafted there upon imprisonment, expulsion from the party or from active service for many different reasons and manned the furnaces and other parts of the death camp alongside others according to George’s Kapo. He relayed his experiences on return to the work camp on numerous occasions. Some Kapo’s were visibly and audibly ashamed of their actions. George took this as a first-hand account and has no reason to believe there were falsehoods, in fact, his later experiences working with Hungarian Jewish men brought to the work camp only bolstered his belief.
He witnessed the arrival of thousands of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz during 1944 and saw only evidence of the men in the work camps who asked over and over where their families were. The men were worked until they couldn’t work anymore and then also disappeared. Auschwitz was surrounded by barbed wire with machine guns pointing inwards. It was a trap, a place full of people who were never intended for release or life after the war was over.
George’s account is precious and brings to public attention life, such as it was, for those the camp who were had a marginally better chance of survival. So many voices were lost in this atrocity, and I personally feel that we are fortunate men like George were able to share their experiences so that we can gain a better understanding of what happened there. Holocaust denial will always be with us if bigotry exists in the world and even more so as the time between the events that started to come to an end on 27th January 1945 extends and memories become more distant. Oral histories need to be preserved and heard.
In the following clip George discusses one of the more eidetic memories of his time in the camp. He recalls hearing a band play from inside Auschwitz, mainly on Sundays, and the fear he felt when he found himself caught in the no-mans-land between the work camp and the death camp –
After listening to this recording, I wanted to ensure that I did what I could do in order for it to heard and set about looking for his next of kin. I followed all my usual leads and processes in trying to contact copyright holders but came up blank. This was such a shame as some recordings are so personal and historically significant that they would benefit from approval before being made public. I exhausted all the obvious possibilities until one day I came upon a post on a message board, here is what it said –
“My Uncle, George William Sevenoaks, during WW2 was ~ Private G W Sevenoaks; Royal Army Service Corps; 188827; POW no. 220550;
1942 Stalag, 344, Lambinowice, Opolskie, Poland.
1943 I.G Farben Buna Plant; West of the Buna/Monowitz Concentration Camp ~ Auschwitz III.
He was also on The Long March…
George born in 1919, returned home to London, gradually recovered sufficiently to marry his Pen Pal in 1947. He died in 2011 age 91, after spending a quiet retirement in Norfolk.
George never said much about his POW years to me, just an occasional quip, if in general conversation a reminiscence came to mind.
He mentioned once whilst wiping the dishes for me after dinner, how he’d escaped more than once. On one occasion he got ‘out’ stole a motorbike, but took a corner too fast, skidded & crashed, just as a lorry full of Germans came from the opposite direction – “that was that” was all he said!
Plus, I vividly remember, once when visiting him in Norfolk, mid 1980’s & Channel 4 TV station was mentioned. He interrupted & apparently, he’d contacted them after reading a newspaper article about research for a new program & someone had come to interview him. After that interview he was told that his account as a POW especially in Auschwitz III was so awful, they wouldn’t be able to use it on the program ~ I often wonder who that interviewer was & if he still has my Uncle’s account.
Hope this information has been of some use.”
This was the glimmer of hope I needed. George had related to his niece Janet that he was interviewed originally for a television program which, much to their disappointment, wasn’t aired in the 1980’s as planned. He had also been interviewed for the aforementioned article in the Telegraph. I contacted Janet via email after reading her post on the message board hoping to reach her although the information contained there was over 4 years old and I worried that she may not use the same email address or be around to hear her Uncles story.
Here George recounts his experiences again in more detail. Speaking from memory rather than his written reply to an earlier letter questioning his account. He recalls what happened day to day and, upsettingly, his experiences meeting and talking to the prisoners from the other side of the camp, brought to work alongside him and his fellow POWs –
Thankfully, Janet made contact within a couple of days. She sounded delighted and relieved on the phone, we chatted about George and I agreed to send her the recordings. It was so rewarding to hear her say how much this meant, after years of searching and coming up blank as well as the broken promises of other publications and interviewers. Janet was painfully aware of how much this meant to her Uncle and wanted the chance to set the record straight in order to salvage his reputation which so many times over had been called into question.
Janet agreed to release the recordings for use by the UoSH project and kindly answered some questions about her experiences –
1. Firstly, can you tell me how you heard about the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project and how did you feel when we made contact with you?
I was contacted by Kirsty Jukes of the Northwest Hub – Unlocking Our Sound Heritage early in 2022, after she’d found information about George that I’d posted on a Social Media site in 2018 ~ which was a Memorial to POW’s that had been interned at Lamsdorf, Poland. I was extremely surprised to learn that a Sound Recording of George had been found & delighted that his story or at least part of his years as a POW would be saved.
2. Tell us more about your Uncle George Sevenoaks.
I always found my Uncle George as a very kindly & considerate man. Neither he or his younger Sister had an easy start in life, both being taken into ‘care’ at an early age.
Perhaps the rigours of this type of upbringing helped him to be resilient during his years as a POW after being captured in what is now Libya. He was transported to Italy, eventually handed over to the Germans, for further years as a prisoner & then used by them as a forced labourer. Anyway, he rarely mentioned anything, probably so that he didn’t upset anyone with his WW2 experience stories, especially if our children were about ~ because that was the man he became. Once he’d recovered as best he could in the late 40’s, which was when I was young, he worked hard & made a new, positive life.
He was a lifelong supporter of the British Red Cross & even at his funeral, anyone wishing to make a charity in his name, the British Red Cross was mentioned. He was also a volunteer for the Samaritans for many years & I can imagine that anyone phoning for help because their life was in turmoil, he would have understood.
He was an avid reader & before it even became fashionable, he was promoting the conservation of water & told me about the damage aerosols could do, when he saw that I had many in my bathroom! 11 years on, I still miss his telephone calls to me, especially on my Birthday & his kind words of advice if I’ve had a problem ~ he was always very supportive.
3. What was your search for George’s story like before we were in touch?
Considering I knew virtually nothing about my uncle’s or/his sister’s earlier lives, before the 1950’s ~ I hadn’t been prepared initially for the shocking facts that I discovered during my, mainly online, research about George during WW2.
I think that I may have assisted & confirmed some facts to Kirsty.
I can only say that I am immensely proud of my Uncle George ~ for how he endured all of his life’s difficulties, was definitely resilient & he rightly deserved his retirement, which were much happier times for him.
4. Have you ever had any dealings with other projects before? How was your experience different to this one?
Not a project like this one. I’ve only researched George & other members of my family via online family history companies or/by visiting record centres or/ joined appropriate Facebook groups. It has literally taken me ‘Years’n Years’ ~ but every now & again a new piece of information comes to light.
5. How important is it for projects like UoSH to continue ?
Funding for these projects are so important ~ not least of all because after doing so much online research, I have found many ‘private’ useful sites suddenly disappear for unknown reasons & if you haven’t printed out the information it’s gone. Therefore, I’m extremely supportive, especially of UoSH. It was quite emotional to hear my uncle’s voice again, especially describing events during that most awful time of his life.
Thank you so very much, goes to Kirsty Jukes the Rights Officer of the Northwest Hub, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage & whoever arranged the funding.
In this final clip, George recounts the weeks and months that made up the end of his time in Auschwitz, the threat of air raids, his escape and subsequent recapture just before the camp was liberated –
Preserving the voices of those lost to the Holocaust so long after the atrocities of the Second World War and Nazi tyranny before and after is incredibly important. There is also a place for the testimony and first-hand accounts of others who were witness to these awful episodes in history. This includes people who fell outside of persecuted groups but were nonetheless caught up in the machines of war. These accounts support and confirm the words and experiences of people lost in time, forging links between communities.
I believe George wholeheartedly when he describes just how far mankind can go in destroying itself. We are lucky that we have his testimony and that he was allowed to live long enough to advocate for others in the way that he did. I hope groups suffering the persecution today will in turn have their stories echoed to future generations so that one day we can understand that events such as these should, indeed, never happen again.
I would like to thank Janet Morris for kindly agreeing to the use of George’s recordings in what must have been difficult circumstances.
I would also like to thank the Manchester Hub team for their support during the 3 years we have worked together and the Rights Team at the British Library. Extra special thanks goes to the Heritage Lottery Fund for funding such important projects.