Roman Halter was born into a Jewish family in Poland. He was deported to the ghetto at Lodz in 1940 and later to the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Stutthoff. He later survived the allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945. He escaped a death march and managed to find refuge with a German family. After the war he returned to Poland. None of his family had survived. He eventually settled in England where he raised a family and became an architect and designer. He lives in north London with his wife.
Just as there’s no limit to suffering, there’s no limit to happiness. The scale is enormous. You can’t say that when you reach a certain point on a scale that you have achieved the absolute zenith of happiness. So really, rather than happiness, we talk about the absence of unhappiness.
In fact, in my case, because I was in such a pit of trauma the happiness only seemed right when I thought back, in retrospect. I found myself thinking of what a wonderful childhood I’d had, when the world was a saner place. Especially the warmth of the family, and how wonderful every member was.
Roman is an extremely creative person. He is an exhibited painter and has designed many buildings and stained-glass windows. He reflects on creativity and its relationship with happiness:
I think creativity and happiness and joy are very much intermixed. You can’t separate them.
Some people have a desire to be creative, and that gives them great joy. Other people have limited creativity, but everybody has something creative. Creativity is a form of joyous expression.
Francis Bacon painted images of contorted faces and blood stains. When he finished his paintings I’m sure that he stood back and felt very pleased with himself. Quite happy.
Look at Michelangelo, when he painted the Sistine Chapel, lying horizontally like that, painting these wonderful works of art. Italy wasn’t in a wonderful state then – fights here, fights somewhere else. The Pope kept on poking him in the stomach and he was afraid of him, so he decided to leave Rome, go somewhere else. But he carried on living because this creative part pushed the unhappiness out.
I used to go to King’s College chapel [in Cambridge] for evensong and listen to the wonderful singing there. These natural little angels would sing so beautifully, and one felt such joy. And also joy that if you love a certain art, it brings you happiness. You come out and you drive your bicycle quite differently, with a sort of sprint in it.
Roman’s experiences during the Second World War have clearly remained with him, but he also retains a strong sense of humour:
In places like Auschwitz, some people were still laughing and telling jokes. You would not believe this when you think about it now, but it was a release from the terrible tension and compression of the sorrow. The inmates had to do something, because otherwise they would go mad, and some did go mad.
So really in the most adverse situation you will have someone who will tell the most miserable, punny joke and carry on laughing.
I interviewed Roman at his home in London in November 2008.
In April 2009, Roman sent me a hand-written note with some further thoughts on happiness.