Deborah Cicurel joins an audience of pupils at Hampstead School as Harry Bibring, who arrived in Britain on the kindertransport, hosts a compelling discussion on the future of Holocaust education.
Harry Bibring, 89, sits in a classroom in Hampstead School surrounded by students, journalists and a photographer.
Not the tiniest bit fazed, Harry tells his story: how he lived through Kristallnacht, how he was sent to the UK via the kindertransport, how his mother was gassed in 1942 yet he didn’t find out until the end of the war.
It is heartbreaking, terrifying, yet it is the sad reality of Harry’s early life.
But this isn’t one of the usual visits Austrian-born Harry pays to schools hundreds of times a year, in which he tells his story in vivid detail.
This visit is different. There are only six sixthform students in the room, chosen by their history teacher to candidly discuss the nature of Holocaust education with Harry.
Three boys, Arjun, Ben and Darden, and three girls, Leema, Fiona and Jemima, listen quietly while Harry recounts his story, and laugh when he opens his story by joking: “We won’t sit a test”.
Harry has clearly done this thousands of times before: he’s engaging, interesting and knows how to get the teens talking. He is one of around 50 Holocaust survivors who speak in schools almost every day of the academic year thanks to the Holocaust Education Trust.
HET doesn’t only educate via talks, but also aims to take schoolchildren away to Auschwitz with a survivor so they can learn more about the war first-hand. Ben and Jemima, two teenagers who sit in this class, visited Auschwitz only months before this meeting, and it has clearly had a profound effect on them.
“What was the Holocaust?” is Harry’s first question.
Polish-born Darden responds: “The Holocaust was the persecution of Jewish people and eradication of Jews from Europe,” he says eloquently.
This session, it immediately becomes clear, is not going to be a one-sided talk. Harry, as well as the HET members who have accompanied him, has a deep interest in what this diverse group of teenagers thinks about Holocaust studies – and they are not the only ones.
The Anne Frank Trust goes into schools for two week periods and uses the power of Anne’s diary and the history of the Holocaust to lead workshops about human rights and contemporary issues, tying in both old and new societal issues to encourage young people to have respect for others, culminating in a Holocaust survivor coming in as a guest speaker. In the past, the LJCC, too, coordinated Holocaust survivors going into schools, although as marketing director Mandy King tells me, it has merged with HET, which coordinates the school visits, while the LJCC provide enrichment programmes for the survivors.
“The reality is there aren’t that many survivors left who can go into schools,” says Mandy. “Many are over 90. In 10 years’ time there won’t be many people able to do it.”
That’s why, she explains, it’s good to be have “one organisation coordinating the talks and one organisation providing a bit of fun”.
Back at Hampstead School, Harry’s next question is: “When should the Holocaust be taught in schools?”
Is it too disturbing to tell 10-year-olds about gas chambers and death marches? The teens don’t think so, surprisingly thinking primary schoolchildren could deal with it better than teenagers.
Ben says of his first Holocaust lesson in year nine: “The teaching was fine, but I had a rather immature class which couldn’t handle it.”
Jemima, articulate and sporting a pink hairstyle, agrees. “I remember the pictures in the textbooks,” she says. “I remember being disturbed but I also remember my class not being respectful of the gravity of the situation.” But how could people laugh in such a lesson, one is compelled to ask?
Ben says: “Many people’s natural reaction is humour to deal with a hard situation. My class were throwing paper planes, giggling… I think it’s them shutting themselves off and saying ‘I don’t want to think about this’.”
Jemima adds: “It’s also got a lot to do with not wanting to come across as emotional in school. If you cry in a lesson you’re going to get picked on. People don’t want to show emotion because it makes them seem weak.” There’s no question, however, that this group unanimously finds the Holocaust to be of paramount importance, with each constantly reiterating the value of it being taught in schools.
As Arjun put it: “The most important part of learning about the Holocaust are the events leading up to it because it makes you understand how something so terrible could have happened.”
Another opinion the teenagers are all united on is that meeting Holocaust survivors helped to give them a stronger understanding of the war. Leema says: “It hits a lot closer to home.” Jemima agrees: “It’s a lot more memorable when you hear first-hand stories from a survivor.”
At this point, Harry somewhat morbidly interjects: “Some of us disappear. Give me another three years, but I’m heading to the same place. How can we prepare for this? Is the recording of my talks of any value? Would you have got the same experience from a DVD?” Even the tech-obsessed teens aren’t sure about the value of DVDs. As Jemima says, “It’s not that you don’t believe it’s real, but when you see it in real life… it’s there in front of you.”
Harry asks: “Would it be better if families of survivors spoke about what happened to their parents?” Leema nods. “That would be better. I wouldn’t remember things in a DVD but if someone spoke to me about it that would stay with me longer…” she says. “When it’s a relative, it makes it easier to place yourself in that position.”
Looking at Harry and his passion for Holocaust education, it is terrifying to think that in a matter of years, we will rely solely on the families of survivors for these testimonies. Yet also terrifying is another statistic that Harry, ever the realist, points out: fewer than a third of schools ask Holocaust survivors to come to talk to their students, despite the obvious value in it.
He asks the students why they think learning about the Holocaust is so important. Arjun says: “Lack of education is how it happened in the first place.” Jemima says: “Anti-Semitism isn’t dead, fascism isn’t dead.” Ben says: “We need to study Europe in the 1930s to see that there are steps along the way and to prevent them in the future.” Yet it is Fiona, the quietest of the class, who gives the most simple, but poignant, answer. “If they stop teaching it, it’s more likely for it to happen again.”