Drama and humanity

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Lucy Russell reads the story of a Holocaust survivor

DID YOU EVER MEET HITLER, MISS?. By Dr Trude Levi. Valentine Mitchell, pound;9.95. www.vmbooks.com.

It is the human story behind the statistics which helps pupils make sense of the Holocaust. Dr Trude Levi has given many talks in England and Germany about her experiences.

Her story is full of drama. A non-religious Hungarian Jew, she describes life before Nazi occupation in 1944, Auschwitz and Hessisch-Lichtenau (where she was a slave-worker and tried to disable flying bombs), and the death march she experienced in April 1945.

Trude's survival is not the end of the story; it took her until 1958 to gain British citizenship. The questions put to Trude by young people after her talk are the impetus for this book, which consists of three sections: why Trude chose to tell her story; her personal testimony; and (comprising roughly two thirds of the book) a vast range of questions from students and Trude's answers.

The German ambassador has recently argued that teaching the Holocaust without reference to German achievements post-1945 is giving rise to xenophobia. It is easy for pupils learning about the Holocaust to develop negative attitudes towards Germans.

Trude indicates that rather than teaching more German history the answer is to avoid stereotyping Germans. Pupils often ask her, "What do you think of the Germans nowadays?" Trude responds, "We cannot talk about 'the Germans', because not all Germans acted in the same way".

The book emphasises the importance of talking about individuals rather than generalising about faceless groups. Of Jewish women in Auschwitz Trude writes: "Some were aggressive and some were meek; some were selfish and some were caring."

Another specific difficulty in teaching the Holocaust at key stage 3 is pupils' level of maturity and ability to cope with the subject matter.

Trude found the most dehumanising experience was menstruating shortly after arriving at Auschwitz. Women had no underwear, no access to water and no way of cleaning themselves. But Trude does not talk about this to mixed groups in Year 9 because embarrassment can cause inappropriate reactions.

Trude discusses her experiences in relation to current attitudes towards asylum-seekers and raises issues for citizenship. She comments on the rigidity of the English education system compared with Germany, where she generally has more time with pupils.

For classes without the opportunity of hearing survivor testimony this is a valuable resource for pupils to use to research their questions.

Lucy Russell is researching a PhD on the Holocaust in history at Goldsmiths College, University of London The Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) can arrange for Holocaust survivors to visit schoolsTel: 020 7222 6822 www.het.org.uk

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