The Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away. exhibition showcases individual artifacts and their background stories to demonstrate the world that was lost because of the Holocaust. One such example is the love story of Else Van Dam and Leon Greenman.

In the last room of the exhibition, a display case holds a set of rings, a sapphire, and a note. Next to this display case is text that explains the background of these artifacts.

A tin, two wedding rings, a sapphire, and a note,
A tin, two wedding rings, a sapphire, and a note, left by Leon Greenman. Collection of Ruth-Anne Lenga, United Kingdom. Photo: José Barea

The text reads:

Else van Dam and Leon Greenman, young and deeply in love, married in 1935. They moved from London to Rotterdam where Leon worked as a hairdresser or selling books in his father-in-law’s business and Else worked as a seamstress. In March 1940, Else gave birth to Barney. Leon registered the new-born at the British consulate in The Hague. A few months later Germany invaded the Netherlands. During the hardships of the occupation, Else and Leon continued to take family photos, taught Barney to play the piano, and made him toys.

On October 8, 1942, the police rounded-up Jews living in Rotterdam. The Greenmans were brought to the Westerbork camp. Leon learned his British papers, secreted with a friend, had been destroyed. He wrote the Swiss legation, which represented British interests, for papers proving his British citizenship: their only hope out of the camp. The papers never arrived. On January 18, 1943 Leon, Else and Barney were deported to Auschwitz. On arrival three days later, Leon was separated from them: “I could see Else clearly for she was wearing a thick red cape over her head and shoulders to keep her warm. She gestured a kiss to me with her hand partly holding up Barney so that I could see him also.” Else and three-year-old Barney were loaded onto a truck, and the truck departed. Leon entered the camp as #98288.

Returning first to the Netherlands, Leon realized he alone survived. He collected objects left behind and moved to London. Perturbed by the rise of neo-Nazism, Greenman became active in Holocaust education and the fight against racism, accompanying students to Auschwitz. In recognition for his work, Leon received the appointment of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Greenman never remarried. At his death, a friend found a tin for throat lozenges in his bedside table. It contained his and Else’s wedding rings, and a small white sapphire. Leon’s handwritten note enjoined the finder to a last act on his behalf: to melt the two rings and the sapphire, their Barney, into a single piece.

Else, Barney, and Leon Greenman, 1942.
Else, Barney, and Leon Greenman, 1942. Collection of Ruth-Anne Lenga, United Kingdom.