In the midst of German life

5th May 1995 at 01:00
Tact mingled with tragedy as British Forces pupils laid a wreath in Belsen. Jennie Brookman reports. "This place gives me the creeps," said 13-year-old Cheryl Downes, looking out over the bleak Bergen-Belsen memorial gardens, once home to Nazi Germany's notorious concentration camp.

Her classmates from Gloucester School agreed. A bitter wind and hundreds of floral wreaths left from the previous day's official ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the camp, added to the eeriness.

The British school party was one of thousands who had come in recent weeks to pay their respects to the 100,000 people, mostly Jews and Soviet soldiers, who died there by execution, starvation or disease.

But these pupils did not have to travel as far as most visitors - just four kilometres by school bus. Gloucester School is part of the Hohne British Forces garrison in Luneburg Heath, Lower Saxony. Run by the Department for Education it has 400 pupils aged 11 to 16, mainly the children of servicemen.

It is a little piece of England inside Germany, right down to the scruffy black and white uniform and the chips and custard served for lunch. But living in the shadow of one of the most appalling events in modern history, and being part of a military base which exists as a result of the War, has lent a special meaning to the commemorations.

"This has been very sensitive for us," said headteacher Alan Pedder. "Many of our children have a German mother and wrestle with complicated feelings. Their families live in the surrounding communities and we have German support staff here. We don't want to go giving the impression that the German people they know have done anything wrong."

So at the school's memorial service on Thursday, Mr Pedder chose his words carefully. "We must remember that concentration camps were not invented in Germany and that long after Bergen-Belsen was destroyed other camps remain in different parts of the world, most recently in Bosnia," he said.

The service concentrated on the effects of war on individual lives rather than historical facts and figures, with readings, for example, from the diaries of Anne Frank who died at Belsen and is buried in one of the mass graves.

And pupils will not be having a day off next Monday - the British military authorities said it would be insensitive to their German hosts. Instead Gloucester School was today taking part in Europatag (Europe Day) with local German schools.

This need for delicacy was brought home to deputy headteacher Chris Henderson when the trip to the memorial gardens was delayed by a German member of support staff anxious to point out that the village communities bordering Belsen had nothing to do with the concentration camp which was run by the SS.

But the events have also been a great opportunity for the pupils, said Mr Henderson, who teaches history and geography.

"We have history on our doorstep. It brings it alive for them."

The 1945 battle of Essel, in which British troops defeated one of the last remaining pockets of resistance in Germany, is used by the school as a GCSE case study. "The children can actually walk the path that the commandos took. They visit the memorial to the Germans who died there and see for themselves that they were just boys and older men, 16-year-olds and 70-year-olds. There was no one left to fight by then."

And after the memorial service, pupils met a Belsen survivor, a Polish Jew now living in Australia. "I knew I had to get out of there or die. They didn't waste any bullets on us," he said, explaining how he was so reduced to skin and bone that he did not recognise his own body.

"How did you get out?" asked 16-year-old Daniel Ribton, breaking his school friends' stunned silence. The survivor said he was lucky that, despite being thin, he was full face and so was considered healthy enough to work in a munitions factory. A few words which spoke more than many textbooks.

Before the school ceremony, many pupils had complained that yesterday's service had been boring. "What's it got to do with us, we weren't even born?" summed up the mood of some.

However, on the way back from laying their wreath in Belsen gardens, animated discussion broke out in the back of the bus. "It's sick to think they just dumped men, women and children together in one mass grave," said one.

And then: "We should remember it but we shouldn't bring it up in a bad way," said Danny Jauncey, aged 12. "People make the Germans out to be bad, but it was only a few of them who did this."

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