There but for fortune

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Successive third years and I usually read Friedrich and the play of The Diary of Anne Frank, and by coincidence the most recent group completed the latter about the time of the Holocaust commemoration. Two pupils noticed that the Edinburgh exhibition on Anne Frank had been targeted by vandals, while others - a Turkish girl and a Glasgow Asian pupil - seemed upset by both the fictional and the current events.

Perhaps the experiences echoed their own lives, perhaps just the power of the story affected them. I can remember as an adolescent seeing The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and feeling intensely moved. Films like Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice or Life is Beautiful may have had a similar impact on later generations. The history curriculum of one German gymnasium I know included a compulsory visit to Dachau for pupils, a physical journey as well as an imaginative one.

Last month a film about the kindertransport was followed by the personal appearance of a retired Edinburgh nurse who spoke about her experiences leaving Berlin for Britain in 1938. With dignity she explained how her own children had difficulty in talking with her about the past, perhaps because they had seen the effect on her own life, and were fearful of further resonances on theirs. She remembered one teachr who spoke to the Jewish children after restrictions were imposed: "As long as I am your teacher no harm will come to you." All too soon that teacher was removed.

In our own school we have certainly had children recently whose personal experiences - of grandparents killed in front of them, of fearful flights from their homes, of hostility in their supposed "safe haven" of Glasgow - had been profound and traumatising.

Last summer, en route for Prague, we had time in the Gare de l'Est in Paris. The children of victims of Drancy (the deportation camp outside the city) and of the death camps, had mounted an exhibition in memory of child victims of the persecution. Here, on the concourse of this vaulting station were individual photographs of children who were killed - one clutching a toy lamb on wheels, one sitting at a piano, one in his best jacket and slicked-down hair.

Two days later, Prague, in high summer, and the Jewish cemetery was besieged by thousands of tourists, trampling over graves, pushing through gateways, video cameras whirring. We turned away at the indignity.

Each must remember in his own way, but the haunting faces from the station live on, and by remembering, perhaps we can challenge in our times any resurgence, whenever it should reappear.


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