The year’s final Holocaust education day came to a close at Belsize Square Synagogue as survivors lit candles together with pupils from Chace Community School in Enfield. During the ceremony Rabbi Stuart Altshuler reminded the students that, despite any differences, what everyone had in common was their humanity – and it was vital to remember those who had suffered in the past.
More than 100 Year 10 pupils, aged 14 and 15, attended the education day at the synagogue. The community has been organising these sessions for the past 15 years and has seen a sharp increase in interest from schools. “There is a lot more awareness of the Holocaust,” said Henny Levin, the day’s organiser, who has welcomed more than 900 students to the programme this year. The Belsize Square Synagogue was founded in 1939 by refugees from Germany and many Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren are members. “We are a Holocaust community and we have all these survivors on hand to tell their stories,” Henny added.
Most of the pupils from Chace had a limited knowledge of Jewish history and religion. On this occasion, Rabbi Altshuler asked if anyone had been to a synagogue and no one raised their hand. Henny and the organisers took the time to show items such as a Torah scroll and the shofar used during Rosh Hashanah and explained the rituals of Chanukah and Shabbat. “At the beginning of each sessions, we teach the students a little bit about Jewish religious life so it adds to the flavour of their time here,” Henny said. “If you know something you can understand it and cope with it much better.”
The following session was taken by Hilary Solomon, whose father Herbert was part of the Kindertransport. She showed an image of his identity card – pointing to a red “J” in the corner and to the word “Israel” written into his name. She asked how the pupils would like to be identified in this way – and received a resounding “no” in response. Discussing antisemitism in Germany before the Second World War and the current rise of far-right politicians in Europe, Hilary drew their attention to the parallels between Nazi policies and some of the reactions to today’s refugee crisis. A session on bullying, learning about empathy and the fate of Anne Frank was followed by students splitting off into smaller groups to hear the stories of Holocaust survivors.
“Students cover the Holocaust in history lessons and in assemblies but they saw it as an issue only affecting Jewish people. I think this day helped them to realise the bigger impact and how much upheaval people had in their lives,” said Melanie Nathan, Head of RE at the school and part of the Belsize Square community. “I think the most important thing they learnt was that people are still affected by the losses of the past. The survivor talks are particularly valuable – connecting the history to real people is so important.”
All fidgeting came to an end as a group listened to Lucy Hyman, 83, recount her story of living through the Holocaust as a little girl. Originally from Lodz in Poland, she survived on false papers while hiding among Poles. She evaded the Gestapo but was eventually caught and interrogated. “I only started talking about it last year because I couldn’t before, it was too hard. It was suggested to me by a friend because I was the last of the witnesses, the last generation. But I’m glad I’ve done it, and I’ll do it again,” she said after the session.
“It was really touching to hear Lucy’s story, to imagine what it must have been like for her. We learn about this stuff at school but to hear her tell her story really brought it to life,” said Paul, one of the pupils.
“It’s been a really interesting day, there was a lot of information that we’ve not dealt with before,” added Camilla, another pupil. “We learnt about scrolls and about all the different traditions – that was really exciting. It expands your knowledge about what the world is like. Today also showed that we are all similar and that we should have more respect for each other. You need to learn about the history so that it doesn’t happen again.”
“Working in smaller groups means that the students take away different impressions, which they can then compare, so it keeps the conversation going,” Henny explained. “It’s vital because we know what happens when communities stop mixing – and today it’s more important to remember this than ever before.”