A new permanent display, opening on 27 January 2023 at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, tells a story of how a small act of kindness can have a life-changing impact. Naomi and Arthur: Letters from Liberation focuses on two people from different worlds – Arthur Tyler, a soldier with the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, and Naomi Kaplan, a Polish Jew who survived both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
When the Oxfordshire Yeomanry liberated Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945, they found prisoners living in appalling conditions of disease, starvation and cruelty, with many thousands of unburied dead. Naomi Kaplan was one of the survivors who had endured several years in the Nazi camp system.
She approached soldier Arthur Tyler and asked him to write to her family to tell them she was alive. Her mother, husband and sister-in-law had all perished in Auschwitz, but Naomi remembered the address of her Uncle Bill in Houston, USA. Arthur wrote a letter straightaway and began a correspondence with Naomi’s sister, Elizabeth Brandon, who was also safe in Houston.
In her response, Elizabeth thanked Arthur, saying, “I am infinitely happy to know that she is alive and well, and I will not rest until we are reunited.” Naomi herself described the effect of being reconnected to her family as “a continuation of wonderful experiences”, as her brother-in-law and other US Army soldiers were soon able to visit her in Germany.
When Naomi eventually reached the USA, she also wrote to Arthur, to thank him, saying: “I met very many British soldiers, and I asked everybody to write about me to my family, but nobody did it – only you.”
Her optimism and courage were clear from her attitude to her new beginning in the USA, reunited with her remaining family: “I try to forget my sad past, I am thinking about the fine present and the beautiful future.”
Naomi became a highly successful businesswoman in Houston, raising three children and running an international meat import and processing company. She remembered Arthur’s kindness throughout her life, telling her family of the soldier who had helped her. Her retirement was filled with philanthropy, sharing her experiences with young people and supporting the Holocaust Museum Houston.
For her 80th birthday and to celebrate her extraordinary life, her three children established an education programme – the Warren Fellowship for Future Teachers – based at Holocaust Museum Houston, which continues to teach and inspire. Arthur led a modest life in London after the war. But he never forgot what he had seen at Bergen-Belsen.
Almost 50 years after the liberation, he protested against Holocaust denial, standing shoulder to shoulder with survivors and being interviewed for several national newspapers. Both Naomi and Arthur had their lives changed by their meeting at Bergen-Belsen.
Now, a new generation has been touched by the story. Research by Dr Myfanwy Lloyd has enabled the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum to connect with Naomi’s children and grandchildren in Houston. Through their generosity, visitors to the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum can see the original letters, family photographs and newspaper reports that tell the story of Naomi and Arthur.
Ursula Corcoran, Director of the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, said: “Letters from Liberation is a wartime story with a difference – focusing on an act of kindness and the courage of survival. Through Naomi and Arthur, we can remember the devastation that the Nazi regime inflicted on so many families.
“But we also see that humanity can shine through in the bleakest of situations. The story is also a powerful reminder that we need to be vigilant against Holocaust denial and the rise of authoritarian rule. The new display gives a human face to the Holocaust Memorial Day theme for 2024 – the ‘Fragility of Freedom.”
‘Naomi and Arthur: Letters from Liberation’ goes on display at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum from 27 January 2024.