Wednesday, 24 September 2014

'Never again' - Helping the next generation to understand the Holocaust

It's been 100 years since the war 'to end all wars', and just over 70 since the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children shocked the world into declaring 'never again'. 

Guest blogger David Lawson describes how he does his bit to support the next generation in keeping that promise, using the story of a young Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust.

Eva Erben was born in 1930 in Czechoslovakia and now lives in Ashkelon, Israel.  Her life as a young girl from 8 to 14 years old was spent in Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and on a death march. I have written her life story – with her help and encouragement - and it has been published.

It is quite a short book, written very simply as if told by Eva as a young girl as she experienced events. It has been read by adults and children, literally from age 8 to 80. They all comment that the text is very under-stated but has a very powerful emotional impact.  It is easy to read and hard to forget.  I say this not because I am a brilliant writer but because Eva’s story, as she tells it, is powerful and under-stated.  The story more or less wrote itself.

I have spoken to many groups, from Rotarians and Church groups to schools, about Eva’s life and my involvement in it but it is the school groups that I wish to write about and to explain how some of my hidden preconceptions were, happily, shattered.

Never too young
My first talk was to Year 8 in a Jewish school and I was not surprised that the students could relate to the story and its implications and that we had a very lively discussion terminated only by the end of the school day.  But then I was invited to talk to Year 5-6 in a North of England primary school.  I refused, firm in my view that the children were too young to appreciate the story.  However, the class teacher insisted and explained that the school had successfully studied World War I and II and the Holocaust for many years and that my talk would be welcomed.  The school was about one mile from where I was born and that more than anything persuaded me to accept the invitation.

So I arrived at the inner-city school, in quite a deprived area, ready to talk to about 40 children. Some of them were recent immigrants and were not fluent in English.  One was statemented and had a carer with her. And all of them appeared to me to be too young for what I was about to tell them.  My talk was due to start at 1 o'clock and I expected to be well on my way home within half an hour.  Two hours later, with no break, the class teacher called a halt as I had to leave to catch my train!  The interest and involvement were intense and the discussion lively with all the children taking part, asking quite searching questions both about Eva and the Holocaust and about how I came to write the story.

I spoke at a school in Bradford, with a large majority of Muslim children (all of whom spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent) and a school in Cornwall and in each case, the interest in, and the emotional response to, the story was remarkable. One school invited me back to talk about the problems I experienced in writing the story!

What is clear is that children are much more receptive and mature in their reaction than I had imagined. They can and do easily relate to Eva’s story because she was their age when it happened and her story is written and told as if she was there as a young girl telling it. Although it is not a direct first-hand telling as Eva is not there herself, it is as close to that as is possible. It is easier for the children to relate to someone who is present, talking directly to them, and who knows and has spoken to Eva than it would be to a third party or even a teacher.

Why do children need to know about the Holocaust?
There is, of course, more to the talk than simply describing the events, horrifying though they are. The conclusion of the talk is to explain why I spend my time talking to schools (I am not paid!) and why Eva herself still goes to talk to schools in Israel, the Czech Republic and Germany, despite being now 83 years old.  

There are four reasons or key lessons, in increasing importance:
  1. To bear witness to what actually happened.
  2. To explain that genocides start with small matters, minor discriminations, bullying etc.  Everyone, including the children, can and should resist and prevent such things.
  3. At the same time, there is usually propaganda that such and such a group of people are different, not as good as us and are somehow evil or undesirable and should be excluded.  We must all be alert to such pernicious propaganda and counter it.
  4. Each life is precious.  Each of us has only one life and we must all make the most of it.
The story is specific and particular to Eva and the Holocaust but the lessons are universal. Given recent events in Syria, Iraq and many other places, the lessons are needed now as much as they ever were.  Humanity has learned nothing, apparently, from history. However, at least in the schools I have spoken to, the lessons seem to be accepted, understood and appreciated.

- David Lawson

Would you like David to visit your school? He's happy to speak to primary and secondary schools free of charge (though he does ask that schools cover his travel expenses). 

If you would like more information, or to book David for a talk, please contact Imaginative Minds by email at or by telephone at 0121 224 7599. 

See here for more information on Escape Story. Individual copies cost £8.99 each, but can also be bought in bulk for discounted prices.

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Interested in teaching the Holocaust? Check out this blog post featuring a range of useful websites and resources for teaching about conflict and genocide.

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