Packing the baggage of history
Vera Gissing was 10 years old when her parents kissed her goodbye for the last time as they put her on a train that took her from Czechoslovakia to England just before the Second World War.
She was part of the British-launched Kindertransport scheme, which rescued hundreds of Eastern European children before the war. If she had stayed behind, she would have been murdered along with the rest of her family and most of Czech Jewry.
But the story that she told the Year 5 children at Godolphin Junior School in Slough did not dwell on the death and destruction that they left behind.
Instead, it was a story about the agonising choices of how to pack her whole life into one small suitcase and how to keep her memories, language and culture alive. She talked, too, about how she coped with feeling alienated when she first arrived and how she learned to make adjustments as a young stranger in the land that became her home.
Her young audience in Berkshire was the same age as she was when she left her home with a suitcase crammed full of memories, clothing, food and books. Although few, if any, Godolphin children had ever heard such a story, they took in Vera Gissing's account, absorbed it, understood on some level or another the loneliness, the fear and the sense of being on the outside. As 97 per cent of Godolphin juniors are Asian and Muslim, they know something about alienation and holding on to a culture that is not shared by or understood by the majority of the population.
Gissing's visit was one part of a cross-curricular project on the Kindertransport in two junior schools organised by Berkshire education department's equality services and funded by Southern Arts. Fitting into key stage 2 history covering Britain from 1930 to 1950, the project incorporates literature, a photographic exhibition on the Kindertransport, Jewish music, a drama workshop and a design and technology component.
The combination of activities has been designed, in the words of the project's architect Sharon Fleming, "to give pupils opportunities to respond to the Holocaust, racism and anti-Semitism through the arts and also to raise issues of Jewish culture." Not coincidentally, it also fits in with the aims of the European Year Against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia. It is the second year of a wider two-year project on different aspects of Jewish history and culture involving four schools in Reading and two in Slough. "I'm trying to give a balanced view, one that shows that Judaism isn't all about the Holocaust and death," says Sharon Fleming.
In one of the final activities of the project, artist Rosie White spent an afternoon in each of the two schools on a Making a Suitcase project. Equipped with nothing more than cardboard boxes, scissors, tape and bits of paper, the children were asked to construct suitcases and think about what they would put in them if they, like Vera Gissing, had to pack their belongings at short notice. White brought in her own cardboard box suitcase to show the children what she valued most. A devout Christian, she had packed a crucifix, a Bible and a picture of Jesus along with photographs, childhood toys, sea shells and a book.
The Godolphin children were singularly unfazed by Rosie's Christian symbols being incorporated into a project about Jews. They were too busy working out fiddly considerations such as how to make a case that would actually open and where to put a handle. But they all talked animatedly about what they would put inside their suitcases. Navdeep said: "I'll be putting in things to remind me of my memories. I'll put in a comb, photos of my family, a diary and sketchbook and I'll hide sweets in it, too. And watches."
Puja was thinking more of separation than of sweets and watches. "I'll put in things that will remind me of my friendships. Like something from the first day I met my best friends."
The suitcases will be strengthened with papier mache under the guidance of class teachers, all of whom have participated in an in-service session on the Kindertransport run by the education department of the Jewish Museum in London. Section 11 teacher, Carol Singh, points out the flexibility of the project: "It relates as much to personal and social education as to history and English, generating discussions on issues around bullying, friendships and tolerating differences."
For Sharon Fleming, the project as a whole is essentially "about making links between different cultures. The children are learning about different ethnic minority groups' experience ."