Meet Holocaust survivor Irma Hanner OAM



Irmgrad (Irma) Hanner was born in Dresden, Germany, in 1930. Her family had lived in Germany for many generations. They were a traditional Jewish family who attended synagogue regularly.

When Irma’s mother Rosa was nineteen she married Wilhelm, who worked in the building trade. He died when Irma was very young.

Irma and her friend Lydia in Dresden, 1937.


Outbreak of war, 1939

Irma remembers: “We used to walk in the street with the star ‘Jude’, and the children used to bash us with a stick. I protected myself – to go out of the building where we lived, which was a very poor area – I protected myself by covering the star with my satchel from the school.”

Irma (4th on left) with school friends at the Jewish School in Dresden in 1939.

Following the outbreak of war, Irma returned home from school one day to find that her mother had been taken by the Gestapo. She never returned. Irma was forced to wait alone in the house for two days. Finally Irma’s aunt came to visit and took her home with her.

Irma was required to place a yellow star inscribed with the word “Jude” on her chest. She was also compelled to carry a compulsory passport which identified her as a Jewish person. These passports were mandatory for Jews over the age of twelve and were stamped with the word “Sara” for females and “Israel” for males. Irma’s aunt was exempt from wearing the star because she was married to a non-Jewish person.


Early war years

Irma soon moved with her aunt and uncle to a poorer area of Dresden, where there was a cannery. The owner of the cannery paid other children to follow Irma and she was reported for attempting to conceal her star. Irma and her aunt were arrested but, possibly due to her uncle’s intervention, they were soon released.

In 1942 Irma was interned in Scheuer Platz in Dresden for a few months. In late spring she was transported by passenger train to Theresienstadt ghetto and transit camp with other Jews from Dresden and the district of Saxony. She was twelve years old and alone.


Irma was taken to a camp in Czechoslovakia called Theresienstadt, which was created in the fortress town of Terezin.

In Theresienstadt, Irma was allocated a bunk in a room with twenty other girls. She had no possessions; a small case her aunt had hurriedly packed had been taken from her. When she first arrived there were no toilets, only latrines and Irma knew of an incident in which a girl had died after falling into a latrine.

 Inmates in Theresienstadt were forced to work. Irma was required to split mica that was being used in the aircraft industry. The mineral had to be split into very thin layers, which created much dust. As the work was carried out indoors in their living quarters, this was detrimental not only to the lungs of the inmates working with this material, but also to those sharing the quarters.

Irma was also taken from the ghetto to pick chestnuts. The view of the Czechoslovakian countryside from these trees was the only pleasurable moment of Irma’s entire wartime experience. This was a bittersweet reminder that beyond the ghetto walls there was life and hope.

Due to overcrowding, starvation and disease were rife. A tonsillectomy was performed on Irma by a Czech Jewish doctor in order to save her life. There was no anaesthetic, so a clothes peg was used to hold her tongue. For Irma there was no choice; she would have died from infection or been sent to Auschwitz.


Spiritual resistance

Although Irma was not able to participate in any schooling, she benefited from the education of younger children in Theresienstadt.

As part of their clandestine schooling, children were given pencils and whatever material could be found to help occupy their time. In September 1943 Irma used these pencils and paper to make cards for the Jewish New Year. These cards were hidden underneath Irma’s straw mattress in her barracks.

Irma’s Jewish New Year card, 1943.


In May 1945 Theresienstadt was liberated by Soviet troops.

“It was in the middle of the night, when the door was suddenly pushed open and torch light shone in our faces. Of course it was a big relief to be free, but at the same time a very sad event because we heard that some girls were raped. The next day the officers came and they tried to make order. In a few days we were given some food, very little, and some clothes from the large storerooms – clothes which were taken from all the thousands of people who went through Theresienstadt.”


This ID document issued after the war, identifies Irma as a “Victim of Fascism”.

The girls that Irma had been imprisoned with shared a unique bond and this is revealed in the poetry books that Irma has kept since liberation. The girls wrote messages and poems to each other as they parted for unknown destinations.


Going home

Following liberation, Irma’s aunt – who had survived the war in Dresden with her husband – contacted Irma through the Red Cross. In July 1945 Irma left Theresienstadt by truck. A badge and armband was issued for Irma by the Russian liberation forces as a means of identification and protection as she travelled back to Dresden. These badges identified those wearing the items as survivors from Theresienstadt and protected people from being sought out and shot as Nazis or collaborators.


After the war

Following her return to her aunt and uncle, Irma found she was not happy in Dresden.  She joined a kibbutz in Berlin, which was established to prepare for life in Palestine. Irma lived there for a year or more.

Irma Hanner is pictured in the back row on the right with friends from the Kibbutz in Berlin in 1947.

Her aunt, however, was concerned about the prospect of war in Palestine and did not want her to go there.

Irma migrated to Australia in January 1949 to join an uncle who had moved there from London. She was eventually joined by her aunt and uncle from Dresden. On 22 December 1953 Irma married Oscar Hanner, a survivor from Poland who had been incarcerated in three Austrian concentration camps. Oscar worked as a plumber and Irma worked in a factory. They had two sons, Bernard and Robert. Oscar died tragically in an accident in 1985, aged 63.

Irma began working as a volunteer at the Melbourne Holocaust Museum (then Jewish Holocaust Centre) in 2000, later becoming a museum guide, and speaking to students about how we must fight against hate in all its deadly forms.

To watch Irma’s Eyewitness testimony, please visit our Eyewitness Project.