How our school paid tribute to Holocaust survivors

On Holocaust Memorial Day, one assistant head remembers Susie: the survivor who taught him, his colleagues and his pupils so much

James Hawkins

One in 20 Britons don't believe in the Holocaust, according to recent research

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a time for international reflection on the biggest global human atrocity and the subsequent genocides that have followed.

In January last year, the students of Selly Oak Trust School, a large 11-19 years special school in Birmingham, were invited to take part in an innovative project based on the gifted video testimony of a survivor of the Holocaust. This gift was shared with us by Echo Eternal, a project led by CORE Education Trust in Birmingham and championed by their CEO Adrian Packer.

The project was devised so that students across the UK could create an “echo” in response to a real survivor testimony. Working with local artists, dancers, poets, sculptors and musicians, students in 14 Birmingham schools have created a personal and genuine response that captures the essence of a survivor who lived to share their story. These films will form part of the permanent digital exhibition at the National Holocaust Memorial in Parliament Gardens, London, due to be built in 2022.

Our survivor was Susie. Her testimony had a particular focus on loss. The loss of time spent growing up with her parents, the loss of a life in her own country and most poignantly the loss of connection to her mother when she passes her a handkerchief as Susie departs on the Kinder transport. Susie still has the handkerchief today and it formed a key stimulus for our artistic response.

Susie described her younger self as “the naughty one” in her family. This immediately resonated with our young people, so used to being asked to emulate role models of exemplary behaviour. Here, instead, was someone who bucked the trend, someone who was real, someone like them, a 12-year-old girl they’d probably hang out with on social media.

This connection helped the students to dive deeper into their understanding of the human impact – after all, they felt they now knew her.

Our students connected to Susie’s testimony – making comparisons to their own lives – “she had a lovely family, like mine – I’d be sad to say goodbye too – I wonder how she felt on the train?’’

Watching and listening to Susie our students drew inspiration from her positivity. Their finished pieces show a deeply compassionate understanding, a greater connection to the loss but hand in hand with the joy of celebration for the family she went on to have. A family that may not have existed should she not have got on that train.

Before we started this project my understanding of the Holocaust mainly consisted of the headlines of events during the Second World War and the all too familiar number of Jewish people who were killed. This information came from a textbook used in a secondary school history lesson when I was 14. I remember looking at the black and white image of an emaciated figure stood at a wire fence with a short, child-friendly paragraph about the six million Jewish people who were killed. That was it. I didn’t study history for GCSE or beyond, so my Holocaust education stopped there.

All staff taking part received a day of “unpacking the Holocaust” training with University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education in January 2018. My eyes were opened wide by the powerful timeline of events in Germany leading up to the war. Recognising my own limited knowledge, I feared I was not alone. I was sadly correct.

As part of the two weeks we spent working on our sound and visual artwork led by two talented and sensitive local artists, Jo Loki and Richard Shrewsbury, students interviewed people around school about what they knew about the Holocaust.

The responses were staggering. Most adults knew little or nothing about it. Some mentioned the killing of 6 million Jewish people; the concentration camps; the trains to transport them. Nobody talked about the 10 years that preceded it; the slow trickle systematic persecution of whole sections of society because of their identified religion, ethnicity, sexuality or heritage. This was the moment that changed how I thought about the Holocaust.

As a result of Echo Eternal, our school has decided that we need to educate and inform as many people as possible about the impact of genocide and have revised our curriculum and staff development as a result. Some of the 14 schools have become beacon schools for Holocaust education, national leaders supporting other schools in learning more about it.

Echo Eternal helps connect people to the fullness of untold stories starting with real, human individuals, their families and their survival since. People connect with people best, empathy forges tangible links to real events. This project has enabled us to bravely step back in history to take a closer look ­– and it has hurt. But out of this experience we have created a legacy so that others can learn about it too.

We hope our echo will make sure Susie’s story lives on.

James Hawkins is the assistant headteacher at Selly Oak Trust School.

Echo Eternal is a commemorative arts, media and civic engagement project, which has seen 14 schools gifted one of the 112 UK Holocaust survivors' stories filmed by Natasha Kaplinsky for the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation. Launched in Birmingham on Holocaust Memorial Day January 2018, 14 schools have worked with artists to create "echoes" to ensure that these stories are forever remembered. Echo Eternal will run for a further two years across the West Midlands before being launched in London Schools in 2021 ahead of the new national memorial being built in the gardens of Parliament. All 12 films are available to view here.

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James Hawkins

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