Local history of the Holocaust as a ‘way in’ to broader narratives … and more

In this blogpost Andy Lawrence, Head of History at Hampton School, shares work his department have done that reveals the benefits of researching a local connection to the Holocaust. Not only has it helped integrate local history throughout KS3, it has also provided a ‘way in’ to broader narratives. By engaging the students in the research, some forgotten voices have been ‘heard’.

The title of the first-ever travelling exhibition that aims to raise awareness about the Auschwitz concentration camp is instructive: Not long Ago, Not Far Away. The title cleverly turns on its head the misconception that the place where 1.1m Jewish men women and children as well as many non-Jews was (and is) somewhere that has little to do with us. Indeed, the idea that the Holocaust happened a long while back and far away might suggest that we should not trouble ourselves teaching about it. The truth could not be further removed from that notion. Similarly, the ‘Not Long Ago, Not Far Away’ title might also inspire us to look closer to home for connections to the Holocaust that it is worth teaching our students about. If we do investigate more closely we’ll discover often rich, local histories that reveal an aspect of Britain’s response to the Holocaust that are well worth including in our schemes of work.

The Kindertransport: are we forgetting to remember?

Teaching about the Kindertransport and our local connections to it is, arguably, even more important than ever. A recent Claims Conference study worryingly showed that more than three quarters of British respondents had never heard of the Kindertransport. Why should we worry? There are several reasons to actively work to try to raise awareness of this important episode of history. The Kindertransport is an important part of our nation’s history. The Kindertransport was a British humanitarian response. It is also important that students understand the full picture of Kindertransportee experiences. Many experiences were more positive, but some children were desperately unhappy and were not treated well. Some were never able to come to terms with the decisions that led to their survival and their parents (and other family members) being left behind and later murdered, in part because they were prevented from coming to Britain. In learning about the Kindertransport students should also examine the other aspects of Britain’s response to the Holocaust, including the debates around the topic of the failure to heed and act upon the unmistakable evidence that was emerging from mainland Europe about the full extent of killing.

Uncovering a hidden history

Our local connection with the Holocaust might serve as a good example of the hidden histories that are waiting to be discovered. It all began with a chance online discovery, a dot on a digital map, simply labelled ‘Kinderhostel’, in our local town of Twickenham in Middlesex. From there I searched, with some success, the Association of Jewish Refugees database that allows a keen researcher to search for places and individuals who came to Britain as part of the Kindertransport. A search for the Twickenham Kinderhostel revealed the dates of birth and intriguing biographical details of two individuals, but no names. This was rectified when we contacted the Wiener Library who were of great help in searching their voluminous archives and records. Similarly, an appeal for information in the AJR Newsletter led to several relatives of the ‘boys’ who stayed in Lebanon Park to contact us.

The research then turned into an extra-curricular project that several students worked on for the best part of a school year. The students discovered that, in all, there were ten boys who fled Nazism just before the Second World War and came to find refuge in the Kinderhostel in Twickenham. Through their diligent work and the kindness of researchers, academics and others, the project team was able to make contact with many of the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the boys who lived in the hostel in Lebanon Park. We were also honoured to discover that one of the Kinder, Gunter Ruf, was still alive and well and residing in the USA. It was a privilege for us to send messages to Gunter and to hear back from him. The relatives of the other ‘boys’ could not have been more helpful in sharing family items. We received many photographs, school reports, travel documents from before, during and after the time that their dad / uncle / grandfather spent at the Kinderhostel. Through these our students could have those ‘authentic encounters’ with the past that UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education recommend and have made so much use of in their resources.

Now the findings of the project are proudly displayed on a wall in our History Department. Every Year 9 class uses the wall as part of our scheme of work on the Holocaust. During the period around Holocaust Memorial Day our local council uses the research to educate our local community about the local connection to the Holocaust.

An investigation into local connections to the Holocaust not only brings a great deal of value to a scheme of work about the Holocaust. It also might provide a surprising addition to the ways of integrating local history into scheme of work at KS3. These connections are valid, fruitful and meaningful.

A ‘way-in’ to ‘broader’ narratives

A study of local connections also might present colleagues with a ‘way in’ to broader narratives. In the spirit of Hugh Richards’ ‘macro-micro’ approach (Teaching History 172) and Sarah Hartsmith’s recent appeal to ‘use microhistory as a lens to illuminate the bigger picture’ our local connections present opportunities to learn about the larger narratives of the Holocaust. For instance, the sole surviving ‘boy’ who came to Twickenham and stayed in the Lebanon Park hostel was Gunter Ruf. Gunter came from the town of Herne in eastern Germany, close to the Polish border. Our research helped us make a connection with Rolf Piorr, a local historian in Herne. He, in turn, was able to provide us with a class photograph, featuring Gunter and taken in 1937. Thanks to Rolf’s meticulous research we were able to trace what happened to the vast majority of the children who were in the photograph. Some survived, many perished during the Holocaust. Their subsequent stories revealed much to our student-researchers about the nature of the Holocaust. Many of the children were deported to the Riga Ghetto and subsequently shot in the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ in 1941. Others were deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. Two escaped on the Kindertransport to England: Gunter Ruf and Erica Riesenfeld. Thanks to the magic of Twitter we were able to track down the daughter and grandchildren of Erica and put them in touch with Gunter and his family. The last time he had seen Erica was on the train that took them from Herne to England, via the Netherlands.

Local connections right across the nation

The example of the Twickenham Lebanon Park Kinderhostel is not an isolated one. We have received fantastic help from academics and expert researchers along the way. Appeals for information in the Association of Jewish Refugees newsletter have produced great responses from those eager to help and ensure that the narratives and memories are kept alive. More recently the AJR has created an interactive map that shows a great number of local connections to the Holocaust. Here’s a flavour of other Kinderhostels that we’ve found out about along the way:

Margate: Rowden Hall School was a Kinderhostel run by B’nai B’rith from 1938 to 1939. The large Edwardian premise that housed the school had been owned by the Dutch margarine magnate Jacob Van Der Bergh. See photographs of the school football team and pupils attending a Hannukah party on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.

Gloucester: Ten Jewish boys who had fled Nazism found refuge in a Kinderhostel in Alexandria Road, Gloucester. Actor Michael Zorek, son of one of the boys, has been researching the hostel. Here you can watch a short film made by the BBC about the hostel and Michael’s dad.

Bradford: After the November Pogrom the community in Bradford came together to buy and kit out a house in Parkfield Road, Manningham, a part of Bradford. The lives of twenty four boys and those who came to look after them were saved…as a recent newspaper report recounts.

So, integrating this local connection to the Holocaust into our KS3 curriculum as been a successful undertaking in more than one way. I do hope that you might consider exploring the possibilities in your local area.

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