By: Barnabas Balint
“I feel that whilst I can [remember it], other people must know what it was like so that hopefully it will not happen again… But, it will happen, and is happening.” – Henri Obstfeld, at the University of Exeter, January 17th 2018.
Holocaust survivors like Henri teach us that what happened during the Holocaust is not confined to history–understanding the experiences of refugees from the Second World War is pivotal for considering events in our times and our role within them.
For the last two years at the University of Exeter, I’ve run a conference for students year 10 and above, invited from various state and independent schools from across Devon and the South West, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. The conference combines information about contemporary genocides with information about the Holocaust. For example, in one session, we presented a video about a Darfuri refugee. In another, we listened to the experiences of a Holocaust survivor who made his home in the UK after the Holocaust. We then invited students to engage with seminars conducted by academics from the University, and allotted time for discussion and reflection on the contemporary relevance of these individuals’ experiences. Having left the conference with a deeper understanding of the Holocaust than before, students felt horrified that such events could exist but hopeful for the future and determined to challenge racism, discrimination, and hatred within their own communities.
“A thought provoking insight into Modern History, with lessons to be learned about standing up for the persecuted.” – a student from Exeter School
Introducing Contemporary Relevance
One of the key challenges with this conference was how to introduce students to the idea that the lessons learned from the Holocaust have significant contemporary relevance. At school they had learned about the Holocaust within the context of a history lesson, as an historical event. The conference however, as one student noted in their reflection, was ‘different to the way they teach it to us at school’. The difference with this conference was the focus on individual experiences and reflection on contemporary genocides, presented clearly by two resources used at the beginning: a booklet and a video. These enabled students to understand more fully the reality of persecution that, sadly, continues to exist today.
When students arrived, they received a booklet outlining Gregory Stanton’s ‘Ten Stages of Genocide’ alongside details about the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution, and subsequent genocides in Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda and Darfur. The message, from the start, was clear: what they would learn about is not an isolated incident in a distant past; it is about an issue ongoing in the present.
The Power of a Single Story
While their introduction to the day was broad, the sessions that follow were deeply personal. Students watched this video from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust of Susan Pollack as she sits in front of a camera recalling a story of persecution and violence. She begins her story as follows:
“It started with ordinary people being stopped at random and questioned. And before long it was happening to people I knew. We soon worked out, they were being targeted because of their race…I was taken to a camp, and the conditions were appalling… I knew I had to get out. I managed to escape. I ran and ran…”
At the end of the video, it is revealed that this narrative was not her own story, but the story of 32 year old Darfuri refugee Abdulsalam. But as a refugee herself from the 1940’s, she shares his story, a refugee who like herself sought refuge in the UK, as if it was her own. The students were moved by the timeless nature of the story that they heard, and were struck by the parallels between the persecution of Jews like Susan Pollack during the Second World War and that of Abdulsalam, and those like him, who experience persecution today.
Understanding the Personal Impact of Seeking Refuge
We heard from Holocaust survivor Henri Obstfeld who, smuggled into hiding in the Netherlands as a small boy, recalled his experiences from a child’s perspective. The process of seeking refuge became more personal and human through Henri’s words as he recounted deeply intimate anecdotes of homesickness, loneliness, and uncertainty. Henri’s testimony challenged students to consider the personal feelings of a young child separated from his parents in a wartime environment. Indeed, reflecting on his experiences, students considered what they’d heard with reference to their own lives. Horrified, saddened, and shocked, students were unable to imagine a world without their own friends, family, and everyday normalities.
“I feel that I’m seeing it in a different way – different to the way they teach it to us in school; we don’t get to hear people’s personal experiences.” – a student from St Peter’s School, Exeter
With many contemporary narratives of migration focused on impersonal figures and statistics, Henri’s individual and relatable testimony went a long way in developing a tangible and comprehensive awareness of the lives of refugees. Students commented that they had gained a new perspective on the past and the world around them, recognizing the individual, not the group.
After hearing from Henri, students attended seminars from University of Exeter academics, which contextualized his personal history. These seminars also invited students to consider how this history is represented today and how it impacts and relates to modern policy and opinion: in culture, memorialization, and political rhetoric. Students left with a feeling of hope and determination that, by learning from the past, the horrors that Henri experienced should not be repeated.
“It horrifies me that human beings can do this to others, but I’m hopeful we’ll learn from History and nothing like it will happen again.” – a student from St Peter’s School, Exeter
Learning from the Past to Build a Better Future
In 2018, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day was ‘The Power of Words’. Engaging with this concept, students considered the power of their own words for creating an inclusive and tolerant community. In one seminar, for example, students looked at newspapers past and present to analyse rhetoric regarding refugees, looking at how it is repeated throughout history. Acutely aware of the impact of words on the lives of a refugee from Henri’s testimony, students left encouraged to pay closer attention to the words they use.
“It is painful to even attempt to imagine, but vitally important that we continue to share stories so that they cannot be buried or ignored.” – a student from the University of Exeter
At the end of the day, students came together to discuss what they had learned and to consider how they could make a difference in their own communities. They wrote on a reflections board, pledging to live the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides in their own lives.
A day that appeared, at first glance, to be about the past, had turned out to be very much about the present and the future. Check out the video below to hear some reflections about the day!
- How can we work in our own communities to build a safer and more inclusive society?
- How can personal testimonies, like Henri’s, help us get a better understanding of the experiences of refugees?
Barnabas Balint is an undergraduate History student at the University of Exeter. He has been volunteering for both the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Holocaust Educational Trust for several years, as a member of the HMDT Youth Board and a HET Regional Ambassador. For the past three years, he has organised Holocaust Memorial Conferences at both the University of Exeter and the Sixth Form College, Farnborough for the benefit of students from local schools.