I was on a Jewish youth group residential trip and must have been about 13 or 14. The caretaker of the hostel took me to one side, where no one would overhear. “I heard what your group was discussing this morning,” he said quietly, “I think you should see this.” And he showed me the tattoo on his arm. This gentle, unassuming, elderly man, now spending his time assisting school kids, had survived the camps. And though we were holding discussions, watching films and reading texts about the Holocaust as part of our informal education, Tzvi was not talking openly about his experiences.
This was nearly 30 years ago; thankfully in that time much has changed. Today many survivors regularly visit schools to bear witness and inform the next generation. Charities such as the Holocaust Centre, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the London Jewish Cultural Centre do tremendous work throughout the year on this.
In six months, thousands more adults and children will mark Holocaust Memorial Day, as they now do yearly. Yet while participation has been growing, there is more work to be done — just not necessarily with the age-group you’d expect.
Because while organisations working in this field have youth ambassadors — the HMD Trust’s youth champion speaks of being passionate about “sharing the message of HMD with other young people” — newly published research reveals that the lowest levels of awareness of the Day are among 35-to-44-year-olds. Only 14 per cent of them said they knew HMD well or even a fair amount, compared with a quarter of those younger than them.
At first glance, it seems baffling. Surely adults would be aware of the atrocities and the national day to commemorate them and subsequent genocides? But, in fact, those aged between 25 and 54 are too young to have grown up in the shadow of the Second World War, and mostly too old to have benefited from the Holocaust being added to the history curriculum. HMD itself was only established in 2000 and it is schools that run a high proportion of HMD activities.
These are the people central to the workforce, the men and women raising families and supporting local communities. These are the generations we expect to respond positively — not with a blank look — when their children come home asking about what they have learnt. But because of their work and family responsibilities, many or most are unlikely to be able to attend their local civic commemoration, or visit their local library’s HMD exhibition.
Do adults believe they already know enough?
The research, which can be seen on our website, is focused on awareness of HMD itself, not on knowledge of the Holocaust. Still, it raises important questions. Should organisations working in this field — charities, synagogues, academic institutions — turn their focus from young people to adults? Do adults believe they already know enough, or are they insufficiently confident in discussing it with their children?
So what can we do? How to ensure that we convey the importance of remembrance not just to the young, but to their parents, aunts and older cousins? HMDT has developed a template for workplace-based commemoration, to facilitate HMD activities during lunch in offices. We offer a script for small-scale events and resources such as posters to display in the foyer. Piloted this year, our aim is to distribute it widely for 2014.
And it’s working — or starting to. For HMD 2013, there were more local activities than ever (more than 2,000, up from 1,400 in 2012). HMD is becoming more embedded in British civic life, marked not only by councils and schools, but with workshops in prisons, film and discussion events, church services and interfaith activities. Ahead of HMD 2013, the media was full of relevant articles, book reviews and interviews.
Awareness is growing: of the general population, a fifth said that they “know HMD well or a fair amount”, up slightly from 2012.
At the trust, we are now planning for HMD 2014. The theme, Journeys, has now been launched by local government secretary Eric Pickles, whose department funds all our work. During HMD 2014, we will consider how journeys have been used to facilitate genocide, and also how journeys of escape enabled survivors to rebuild their lives in the UK.
We don’t need to stop telling our young people about the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and the genocides that have happened since. We must tell everyone — whatever their age.