Behind The Barbed Wire

16th January 2015

On 27 January – marked annually as Holocaust Memorial Day – it will be 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. Jennifer Lipman finds out how memories and experiences are being preserved and shared, and local survivors talk to Optima about their own histories.

Many years after she was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, Gena Turgel was preparing to speak at a school near London. Waiting in the staff-room, she got talking to a woman who was there for a job interview. “She asked what I lecture on, so I said the Holocaust. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘tell me, did they have special food for you in the camps?’ I was absolutely astonished. Did I have kosher food? We didn’t have a piece of bread.”

Turgel laughs, marvelling at being asked this by a woman in her thirties, a prospective teacher no less. But as she acknowledges, such ignorance is also worrying. Seventy years after the Holocaust, the big question is this: will people continue to remember what the Nazis did, especially after there are no survivors left to talk about it?

To answer that, last year David Cameron established a Commission on the Holocaust, due to report this month and designed to “provide a blueprint for the next decade, with practical ways to keep the stories alive. “Everyone is aware how urgent this is,” explains Helen Cook from the Prime Minister’s Office. “Hearing from survivors really is the best way to educate people. And they are petrified that the story dies with them.”

Is it alarmist to suggest that we in the UK will one day forget the horrors of Auschwitz? After all, it’s a sign of how seriously the matter is taken that the Commission has cross-party support. English children already study the Holocaust as part of the curriculum, and there are scores of dedicated charities and museums, not least Steven Spielberg’s mission to record as many survivor accounts as possible. Holocaust Memorial Day [HMD], adopted in 2005 by the UN, is widely observed; in 2013, emphasises Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, there were more than 2,400 activities involving people of all ages.

Yet memories fade. “People have so much to take on board in daily life,” points out Susan from Hertfordshire, whose father escaped Nazi Germany. She worries that in 20 years “it will just be fitted in with other genocides and people won’t understand how much more severe it was”.

Already, Holocaust awareness is not as it should be. “We were going into schools and they didn’t know anything about it,” explains Ben Freeman, co-founder of education project From Yesterday For Tomorrow. “We had to create a lesson giving pupils the basic facts.”

Unsurprisingly, the race is on to gather testimony before it’s too late. “These are still challenged by some but the collective body of evidence they present is critical,” says Michael Newman, Chief Executive of the Stanmore-based Association of Jewish Refugees.

Yet watching a video can never be as powerful as hearing, in person, about Auschwitz from someone who was there. As Susan asks, how many people will listen to these recordings after the next decade? And she is unconvinced that the children of survivors can step in. “How many schools would be prepared to have them? I don’t think it’ll have the same effect – it’ll be diluted.” In any case, cautions Olivia, we can’t be prescriptive about what second-generation survivors do about their parents’ experiences, or even assume they are in a position to share. “Some survivors have not wanted to tell their children about their past.”

What’s clear is that in future, Holocaust education will have to take a different form, from interactive approaches like testimony filmed with pre-recorded answers so students can ask their own questions, or HMD’s Moving Portraits project, a collection of images showing genocide survivors with a meaningful possession. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, experts have devised numerous ‘outside-the-box’ methods, using music and poetry. “The survivors can tell it better than we can,” says Ben. “So the thing is we use [recorded] testimony but try to complement it.”

His view is that having to rethink how to approach Holocaust education could open doors. “Not every student is a history student, and although it’s important to understand the basics, if we want people to connect with the Holocaust we need to think about ways to present it,” he says. FYFT focuses on lessons that can be learnt from the Nazis as well - of course - as the facts. “We show the story of how prejudice progresses,” says Ben. “You think people how can possibly connect with the Holocaust - the gas chambers, the numbers - but we do because we’re people. It’s a question of what are we capable of?”

His project, like many these days, looks beyond 1945 to the fact that ‘never again’ so quickly failed. HMD commemorates genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. “Although the Holocaust was unprecedented, genocides have taken place again,” says Olivia. “It helps show that we need to be continually vigilant.”

Yet some worry this approach could dilute the significance of the Holocaust, making it just another tragedy from history. “Each episode of mass murder was unique, so to lump them altogether is wrong,” says Michael. “They can be studied alongside each other, but it’s important to remember there were separate reasons for each.”

Yet others disagree. As Olivia says, the Holocaust is very clearly at the centre of HMD, which commemorates the specific crime of genocide, not ‘all war’. And there is a strong argument that relating it to more recent events is key in ensuring the stories continue to be told. “It’s about the way you frame it,” says Ben. “There is a way to commemorate the uniqueness of the Holocaust while also connecting it to other things.”

Ultimately, they may disagree on the specifics, but nobody involved in Holocaust education questions the scale of the challenge ahead, nor that, without survivors, refuting Holocaust denial will be harder. “Survivors’ testimonies have been questioned in the past,” says Michael. “But the absence of survivors presenting their stories in the first person will encourage revisionists. This is one of the biggest concerns.”

“One of our lessons is about denial, and the fact that it is possible to deny prejudice in order to further it,” adds Ben. “Anything we can do to educate people to allow them to understand the Holocaust happened, both for itself but also to understand what people are capable of, is immensely important.”

Ben, in his 20s, does not worry that we will stop talking about the Holocaust. But reflecting on the poppies marking the First World War centenary at the Tower of London, he notes that the test will be what happens 100 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, when all the survivors are long gone.

In the meantime, all we can do is keep telling these stories. “We should never apologise for teaching the Holocaust,” says Ben. “People say ‘you’ve always worked on this’. Well, there’s a reason for that.”

Three local people explain why they share their Holocaust experiences
Freddie Knoller, 94, Barnet

Born in Vienna, Freddie fled in 1938, later joining the French Resistance. He was sent to Drancy Transit Camp, then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, then on a Death March. He was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

My mission is to tell children what happened to me, so hopefully they will tell their children. For 35 years I didn’t talk to anybody. My family said why don’t you tell us about Auschwitz, we know you were there from the number on your arm. I wanted to forget, but they said what are we going to tell our grandchildren? Somehow it made sense and from that evening I started telling my story.

I’m happy I did because before I had nightmares, but as soon as I did, these stopped. I worry what will happen when we are not here anymore; this is why I do anything possible to keep it in public knowledge. The more we speak the more people will not forget.

Zigi Shipper, 85, Bushey
Born in Lodz, Zigi was sent to the ghetto in 1940, then later to Auschwitz, a concentration camp near Danzig, and on a Death March. He was liberated by the British in May 1945.

Why tell my story? People should know what happened because of prejudice and hatred.

Many times people ask me about deniers. I say I’m 84, I never belonged to a political party, I don’t get paid, don’t you think I would rather be with my wife at home or seeing my grandchildren? You’ve no idea how much I get out of it, whether I’m speaking to the prime minister or to anyone. I feel I’m doing something good. We can’t do much for the past but we can for the future.

Gena Turgel, 91, Stanmore
Born in Cracow, Gena was sent to Plaszov, then to Auschwitz, then on a Death March, before Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen. Gena’s future husband Norman was among the camp’s liberators.

When my husband was alive we used to speak together and he talked about his impressions when he entered Belsen. People were very affected to hear our stories at the same time. It is an emotional and physical strain, but I see it as my task and I do it because I appreciate life and am able to make a small contribution.

It is essential to educate young people; they’ve got to learn about it in order not to allow it to happen again. I think the new generation do take it in. It is difficult for them to comprehend, but I can see the reaction, the tears falling down their cheek, and the letters I get afterwards. The feedback is tremendous; I feel I have achieved something.

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