SPECIAL REPORT: The Holocaust centre at the heart of a Yorkshire university campus

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SPECIAL REPORT: The Holocaust centre at the heart of a Yorkshire university campus

Michelle Rosenberg meets the passionate archivist, second-generation Holocaust survivor and Italian-British museologist leading a remarkable education centre at the University of Huddersfield

Holocaust Centre North, Pic: Michelle Rosenberg
Holocaust Centre North, Pic: Michelle Rosenberg

Against a backdrop of growing university antisemitism, arriving in west Yorkshire to see the Holocaust Centre North located front and centre on campus is a welcome breath of fresh air. 

Based at the University of Huddersfield, the museum and archive, just five years old, tells the history of the Holocaust through local stories from the north of England, based on a living archive dating from the 1880s, complete with, as it proudly tells visitors, “Cocktail shakers to correspondence, telegrams to travel documents, photographs to filmed testimonies”, providing stories of survivors and refugees who made new lives in the area.

The building sits at the heart of the campus courtyard. There are no students protesting outside of it. No flags being waved, no chanting, no jeering, no intimidation, no visible security. Simply students going about their business, with a Shoah education centre an accepted backdrop to everyday life at a multi-cultural university.

Jewish News travelled up to meet director Dr Alessandro Bucci, an Italian originally from Puglia, archivist Hari Jonkers, Tracy Craggs, head of collections and chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association (HSFA) Jenny Kagan.

Exhibition interior, Holocaust Centre North. Photo by Julie Najim

For a centre that focuses on the stories of refugees, and has 150 family collections, it seems only fitting that each person here has their own personal story to tell, a unique history that has brought them here, today, from around the world, to west Yorkshire.

Bucci, who previously worked at Manchester’s Imperial War Museum, has been with the Centre for just over four years. He estimates there are around 187 Jews in the borough of Kirklees, in which Huddersfield is a market town. There are 30 Jewish students here on campus, but he adds, “the Jewish Society doesn’t just include Jewish students. There are a lot of allies, people who care about antisemitism. They have managed to reach out to other parts of the student population”.

Credit: Photo by Julie Najim

Bucci says the Holocaust Centre is “not ignored” by students on campus, but instead “there is a lot of interest and curiosity. We have connections with most schools within the university and have worked with departments including law, history, textile, business, photography, English, fashion and education.

On average, about 2,500 students visit the Centre every year and they’re on track to reach 3,000 in 2024.

Holocaust Centre North was born in Leeds, when a group of survivors came together in the spirit of mutual support and friendship to create a safe space to talk about what happened to them. Bucci says that “each of these people knew others that they brought together. It became the Holocaust Survivor’s Friendship Association, (HSFA) which is still the legal name of our charity”.

Pic: Holocaust Centre North

With increasing interest in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides including in Rwanda and Bosnia, the group started to receive invitations from schools to give first hand testimony.

This global dimension, says Bucci, was “one of the reasons why they wanted to share their stories with schools. They developed educational aims and these became bigger and bigger, engaging more people. They wanted to tell their story and the story of the people who made new lives in the north of England”.

The resulting exhibition, created in 2017, is in great part thanks to the involvement of the late Lilian Black OBE, former chair of HSFA and the daughter of Eugene Black, a Bergen Belsen survivor, who is featured in the display. Lilian died on 29 October 2020 after contracting Coronavirus.

Item from the Bradford Jewish Refugee Hostel collection. Credit: Holocaust Centre North Archive, courtesy of the Simon Family Photo by Alex Belde

“He was her inspiration,” says Bucci. “The world needed and still needs to know. Lilian was the engine and through her connections from her home in Leeds and across West Yorkshire, a space was offered to us. The Heritage Lottery Fund offered support for the accompanying learning centre.”

It opened in October 2018, but was virtually shut down during the pandemic, after which they essentially “started from scratch, where we re-introduced ourselves to the world as Holocaust Centre North. The university really wanted us to be here and offered us the space and the flexibility to carry on with our programming. They are very generous”.

Personal papers of Elly and Ernest Millet; Credit: Holocaust Centre North Archive, courtesy of R. Millet & family. Photo by Alex Beldea

Tracy Craggs, head of collections says: “The survivors launched Holocaust Centre North as their legacy, because of their belief in the importance of Holocaust education. They, and their families, have entrusted their precious collections to us as part of that belief, safe in the knowledge that we share their vision. Those collections are accessed on a daily basis by researchers, creative practitioners and our own learning team, and it has been a privilege to be part of that development. It is extremely important for us to continue to share their stories, their photographs and documents with new audiences. Our work will carry on in their name.”

38-year old Hari Jonkers is the Centre’s Archivist from Snowdonia in north Wales. She tells Jewish News: “My mum’s dad left Prague the day before the Nazis came. He sailed down the Danube to Jerusalem before joining the Free Czechoslovak Army in 1942. My great grandma refused to leave Prague and whilst in her 70’s, ended up in Theresienstadt but survived.”

The family returned to Prague after the war but on the arrival of the Russians, decided it was time to go. In the late 1940’s they came to the UK and settled in London.

The team at Holocaust Centre North, February 2024. Pic: Michelle Rosenberg. Far right, Jenny Kagan. Second from left, Hari Jonkers and third from left Alessandro Bucci.

Jenny Kagan, chair of Holocaust Centre North is an internationally renowned artist working with her own family history. The daughter of Holocaust survivors who made new lives in West Yorkshire, Kagan says: “It’s important to keep finding new ways of telling these stories to new audiences. We have so much to learn from the experiences of those who survived the Holocaust.”

Since October 2023, the Centre has focused on connecting, contacting and offering something for Jewish communities across Yorkshire, resulting in the first Shabbat service (Liberal) that Huddersfield has seen in more than 60 years.

Shoah survivors who settled in west Yorkshire, represented in the exhibition at Holocaust Centre North.

The team do a great deal of community engagement, speak in shuls, write for publications, engage with survivor families, work with contemporary artists and recently launched a Sunday opening programme.

They believe their work feeds into “a very big national and international debate about where should organisations about Jewish history and culture be. Should they be where Jewish communities are, or where they are not?”

Lilian Black OBE, the late Chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association (HSFA), who died on 29 October 2020.

Jewish News is shown carefully selected items from the archive’s Bradford Jewish Refugee Hostel collection, donated by Gail Simon, the grandchild of refugees who got out of Berlin in 1939. They came to Bradford and became managers of a hostel for boys.

Item from the Bradford Jewish Refugee Hostel collection. Courtesy of the Simon Family. Pic: Alex Beldea, Holocaust Centre North Archive

Jonkers says: “what I found so lovely about Gail, is that she’s been carrying the stories with her for so long. Her grandparents ran the hostel and her mum was there as a girl. There are all these institutional records of hostel and for her, she felt such a weight lifted that these things had found a home with a local connection and a real sense of place. It’s less about the items and more about the people.”

Gathering the team in for a group photograph in the learning room, she says: “We are dynamic. We look at Holocaust history from the perspective of survivors and those who made a new life in the north of England. The stories of displacement, migration, loss, persecution, discrimination, death are stories that are highly relevant today.”

To find out more about Holocaust Centre North, click here.

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