I lived in ignorance of Jews or the terrible events of the Holocaust until well into my 30’s. As a child growing up in Bristol, I never encountered a Jew or learnt about the Jewish faith or the Second World War at school. The only Jew I sort of knew was Jesus, and in my Sunday School pictures, he had long blonde hair, no beard and of course, was almost 2,000 years old.
My parents both served in WW2. My Dad was in the army and stationed in Egypt for 5 years. My Mum was in the Women’s Royal Air Force and stationed in the West Country. The Holocasut never came up in those ‘what did you do in the war?’ conversations we had with our parents back then. After I visited the camps in Poland last March, just before my Mum died, I told her about the trip. She said “we never knew about any of this at the time. There was nothing in the papers, on the radio.”
When I began my first teaching post a Year 9 literature set text was ‘Friedrich’ by Hans Peter Richter. This novel, first written in German, that I taught, was my first introduction to the experiences of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. Friedrich Schneider is a young Jewish boy growing up in an apartment house in Germany, with the narrator as his neighbour and friend. The narrator tells of the persecution of the Jews through Friedrich’s eyes. Friedrich is forced to switch to a Jewish school and is thrown out of swimming pools and cinemas. An angry mob goes to his house and kills his mother. His father is sacked and has an emotional breakdown. Friedrich finds a girlfriend, Helga, whom he likes, but soon he must stop seeing her, or she will be sent to a concentration camp.
Friedrich and his father are forced to do whatever they can to make money to survive. Friedrich helps his father hide a rabbi in their house, but soon Friedrich’s father and the rabbi are arrested. Friedrich, who was not home when the police came, now must live in hiding. Herr Resch, their former Landlord, returns to their house after an air raid and notices Friedrich on the step, apparently unconscious. Herr Resch decides to get rid of him by kicking him, and they realize that Friedrich is dead, killed by shrapnel. Resch then remarks that Friedrich has died a better death than was expected.
This was not an easy read for my 13-14 year olds or me. It was a novel, I had no idea how believable the story was. However, alongside, we also read ‘Ann Frank’s Diary’ and this true account of a young Jewish girl in hiding who died in a concentration camp, began to give me a glimpse of the horrors of the Holocaust. Enough of a glimpse for me to imagine the unimaginable. There I wanted to leave my limited experience.
Years later, in Manchester, Mayor Jane Black, invited me to take part in a civic trip: Journey to Poland, a three-day-tour through the camps. Every nerve in my body said no. I had had opportunities to visit before. But this time I said yes. Saying yes, did not make it any easier. On the trip last March were Jews and non Jews from all over Bury and beyond. Some knew each other but each person’s exerience was unique to them. Some shared these, wrote about them and took pictures. I couldn’t do any of these things.
My way of coping with the horrors of the Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau extermination camps, was to retreat into myself. The 800 Jewish children from an orphanage in Tarnow, who were marched to a clearing in the nearby Buczyna forest and and silenced, I could not speak of. Just reading aloud the name, so near to mine, given to me: Truda Fink, daughter of Kuba and Resia, born in Lvov, Poland, murdered in Lvov at the age of 10, was more than enough.
I later found Truda’s name in the room-sized memorial book of the dead in the Auschwitz museum. Unspeakable horror. But unless we do speak history will simply go on repeating itself. I know our legacy is to ensure that children do not grow up ignorant or fearful but embracing our common humanity.