In anticipation of Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, pupils hear a survivor's tale
Six commemorative candles are being lit to symbolise the six million victims of the Holocaust. They are being lit by two senior pupils, two school chaplains, the headteacher and Holocaust survivor Eva Clarke, who has just addressed a senior assembly of 450 pupils at Larbert High in Falkirk.
Eva was born soon after her mother arrived at Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, on April 29, 1945, a few days before it was liberated by the Americans and the day after the guards had blown up the gas chambers in a last-ditch effort to cover up their atrocities. She is probably the last child born captive in a Nazi death camp and certainly one of the very few to have survived.
Eva has been speaking of her family history, of her German- Jewish grandfather who was blinded in the trenches of the First World War and who received the Iron Cross, the highest German military honour; of her father's escape from Berlin to Prague in 1933 when Hitler came to power; of her parents' meeting and marriage; their three years in the Theresienstadt ghetto camp; her father's death in Auschwitz-Birkenau with 14 other members of the family; and how her mother followed her husband there, yet somehow survived.
Commemorative poems are read by pupils: Martin Niemoller's First They Came, and Pavel Friedman's The Butterfly. Thoughts and prayers are offered by the chaplains. The headteacher talks of "the dignity of difference", the theme of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day. Music plays as haunting images of the Holocaust appear on the stage screen.
Eva Clarke sits, her head bowed. She is taking a moment, going in to herself. It seems intrusive even to look at her. She is preparing to take questions from the school senate. The silence is absolute.
"Why do you think it's important to tell your story?"
"To commemorate the millions who died, to tell you my family's story and to enable us all to learn the lessons of the Holocaust in spite of more recent genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur - and to counter racism wherever it occurs."
"Can you forgive what happened to your family?"
"It's not my place. All who could properly forgive are dead. My mother, who is 90 years old, would never speak to a German of the war generation, though she would never do or wish them harm, and she holds nothing against younger Germans."
"What are your thoughts on Holocaust deniers?"
"I find the denial incredible because there is so much evidence, especially evidence presented by the Germans. Holocaust denial is one reason I do these talks."
This two-hour memorial assembly is part of Larbert High's preparation for others which will follow Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. The event has been professionally filmed and DVDs will be distributed throughout the local authority and shown to every year group assembly in the school, which has a strong commitment to equality and fairness.
"Bringing Eva here reinforces that the Holocaust is not some piece of ancient history," says headteacher Neal McGowan.
"As global citizens it will be up to our pupils, the next generation, to challenge racism and sectarianism and to prevent anything like this happening again."
S6 pupil Nicole Anderson says the event has widened her view and given her an insight into the Holocaust, "I've learned from a survivor and not a textbook".
What surprised her and got to her most was how Eva's mother survived the different camps: "I know I'd like now to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau to commemorate the victims. I don't know why. I just know I should."
John Thow, another sixth former, found Eva's visit "very moving and thought-provoking". Because he has been involved through the school senate in helping to organise and participate in it, he says it will remain "one of the biggest and most memorable events in my life here as a pupil."
For Holocaust Memorial Day information, teaching packs and resources: www.hmd.org.uk
EVA CLARKE'S STORY
"I started giving these talks in 2000 by chance. I'd been asked to speak at a secondary school in Cambridge after a screening of Life is Beautiful. The teachers seemed to assume I did it regularly, so I thought - why not? I got in touch with the Holocaust Educational Trust who said 'We're in the process of advertising in The TES for people to train as Holocaust teachers', so my interest was very welcome.
I'd worked in FE in administration, not in teaching, and subsequently I worked in the Holocaust Educational Trust office for three years. I've given more than 50 talks in the past year. It's emotionally draining.
Sometimes I cry, but I never know when it'll happen. I tell the story of my family because a story is what captures all people. I've spoken to old age pensioners, to church groups, the British Legion and, twice last year, to junior British army officers in Germany, which created a certain frisson.
I speak mostly to secondary pupils, occasionally to upper primary. If I'm approached by a primary, I first suggest they get a survivor from the Kindertransport (Jewish children brought to Britain from Nazi Germany in the 1930s), as children relate to that story. Younger children do take these things in.
My mother told me our story bit by bit, the Holocaust memories interspersed with other family memories. She knew instinctively what to tell me and when. I was seven years old when she said 'You have two daddies. One died in the war.' She then heard me say to the boy next door 'I've got two daddies and you've only got one!' She said that overhearing this made her realise the truth wouldn't hurt me. You should know things about yourself from an early age because it's part of you, who you are.
Telling my story is only part of what happens at such events. The better prepared the students are, the bigger the impact. I think most are absorbed, but what teacher knows the effect they are having on the students? And I'm not even a teacher."
Photograph by Alan Peebles