Out of the ordinary

7th February 1997 at 00:00
Reva Klein visits an exhibition on the experiences of young Holocaust survivors

A tiny exhibition in an off-the-beaten-track mus-eum tells a story that could open the door for history teachers who have problems approaching the Holocaust.

At the London Museum of Jewish Life in Finchley, an exhibition coinciding with the publication of Martin Gilbert's book, The Boys - Triumph Over Adversity (Weidenfield and Nicolson), shows in pictures, artefacts and testimonies the experiences of Jewish children who were brought to this country in 1945 after surviving the concentration camps.

When the British government declared itself willing to bring over 1,000 young Holocaust survivors immediately after the war, only 732 could be found. These young people called themselves "the boys", though there were about 80 girls among them.

The reason for so few girls was because their survival was rare: at each deportation, historian Gil- bert tells us, "almost all girls under the age of 16 were sent to the death camps". Boys, on the other hand, had more chance of survival if they were able to make themselves appear indispensable to the workings of the labour camps.

The late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, one of "the boys", only survived his arrival at Auschwitz at the age of 13 by lying about his age and declaring that he had a trade.

After surviving appalling deprivation in the camps, the 732 children who finally arrived here did so laden with enormous emotional baggage. Most did not know the fate of their families; some only received verification decades later. One of the photographs in the exhibition shows a boy writing a sign in a train window after liberation: "Wo sind unsere Elteren?" - "where are our parents?" There was also, for some, the guilt of survival.

Despite the traumas of their past and the uncertainty of their futures, the children formed tight friendships once they arrived at special reception centres in Windermere and Southampton. They reclaimed their youth, danced, sang, courted and slowly learned to look forward, with the help of each other and, later, supportive new families and friends.

For history teachers, the exhibition on "The Boys" offers an interesting angle on this most difficult chapter of modern European history. There is background showing the normal lives of these children before the war, allowing students to relate to, and empathise with, these perfectly ordinary young people who ice-skated, went dancing and did the sorts of things that young people across Europe did.

This makes the testimonies of their camp experiences all the more potent.

The Holocaust was not about faceless, miserable-looking victims. It was something in which ordinary children, young people, women and men became caught up, against their will.

The judicious selection of photographs on display brings this home, particularly those taken once the children were brought to this country. They show young people enjoying themselves, clowning around, looking like kids anywhere playing on the beach, having picnics, riding their bikes.

That they came through the other side and were able to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and find meaning and pleasure around them, is as positive a lesson as anyone can hope to find from such terrible events. Moreover, their stories offer a means of understanding a piece of history that all too often defies understanding.

The Boys is on until March 2. The London Museum of Jewish Life, 80 East End Road, Finchley, London N3 2SY. Educational programmes and visits by appointment. Tel: 0181 349 1143.

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