As we welcome in the new year, a new cohort of students is being welcomed into secondary school. They are finding their way around, getting to know their new teachers, making new friends.
What they don’t realise is that by the time they are finding their way around universities and workplaces in just a few years, the world around them will have changed.
Because in the time that it takes them to pass through school, the Holocaust will very likely have moved out of living memory.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and reflect on the year just passed, I am reminded that this has been a year of loss. Holocaust survivors have passed away, including some of the titans of our history. In particular, I remember Sir Ben Helfgott MBE and Zigi Shipper BEM – both so different and unique, but leading lights in ensuring that the world would always know what happened during the darkest days in our past.
Much has been written about both, but as we approach the New Year, I wonder what conversations those students starting school this week, will miss out on. They will miss Ben telling them about the strength of his father Moshe, murdered just days before liberation. They will miss him telling the story of being offered a place at grammar school and the respect and fondness with which he spoke of his teachers. They will miss him talking about the moment he learned that his sister, Mala, was miraculously still alive. They will miss him talking with such passion about the need to improve relations between different faith communities.
They will miss the look on Zigi’s face as he recalled receiving a letter from the mother he believed to be long-dead, who told him to look down at his wrist and if there was a scar, that he was her son.
They will miss the way he physically looked down, every time. They will miss his jokes, and hearing about the friends he made on the journey – because he never took a train without making new friends.
This cohort will still hear from Holocaust survivors but they are the last generation to do so. They will hear of persecution and centuries of antisemitism before the Second World War. They will hear of loss, of separation. They will hear of young boys and girls being sent to safety, never to see their parents again. They will hear of liberation, of bravery, of rebuilding life. They will hear that antisemitism did not end with the liberation of the camps. And in the spirit of Rosh Hashanah they will hear of renewal and a sense of purpose.
As we move into 5784, our mission is to make sure these stories continue to be told, again and again, to make sure that as many students as possible hear testimony from these precious survivors, while they still can.
It is our mission to empower those who have heard from a survivor to keep retelling the story, to carry it with them – and I know these Ambassadors for the past are a source of inspiration to our survivors. It is our mission to ensure that teachers are confident and knowledgeable, that they are well-supported in their teaching, and that their students take part in memorable, powerful lessons. It is our mission to break new ground, to use new technologies to ensure this history is always taught, so that the legacy of survivors lives well beyond their lifetimes.
Because as the late Gena Turgel MBE said, ‘We (the survivors) will continue to do our bit for as long as we can, secure in the knowledge that they will continue to light a candle long after us.’
Shana tova Umetukah.
- Karen Pollock CBE, is Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust
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