'We want to keep our father's story alive': A new generation is taking Holocaust stories into classrooms
It was an accident that alerted Motek Grzmot's saviours to his presence. An accidental groan. Unconscious, slumped atop a cart, all but buried under a mound of corpses, Grzmot's battered body was destined to join a thousand others in the mass graves of postwar Europe. And then he groaned. Without realising it, he had saved himself. The Danish troops around him heard his cry and removed him from the pile – a pile headed directly for burial – before placing him on another vehicle, this one headed to a nearby hospital.
Grzmot survived that journey. He arrived at a ward near Theresienstadt, in the Czech Republic, where he remained for three months. Eventually, he was flown to Windermere, Cumbria, renamed Monty Graham, and taught to speak English. He became one of many Holocaust victims to be dispatched to work that land, in an attempt to recover health, wealth and peace of mind. Later, he moved to Bedford and trained as a type apprentice, meeting the woman who would become his wife on a trip to Bournemouth. Married in 1952, Mr and Mrs Graham lived happily together, with their four children: Kelvin, Lorraine, David, Helen. "Building a family was always important to him," reflects Helen Gordon, the youngest of Graham's children. "He always felt that he no longer had his own."
It wasn't ever thus. When, in 1926, Graham was born, he did have a family. He had a mother, a father and, after a while, two younger brothers, Zelek and Benek. The five of them lived in Sosnowiec, a populous industrial town in southern Poland. Things were happy. They were normal. Until, that is, the day before Graham was due to attend his Bar mitzvah. That's when he and his family were rounded up by invading Nazi troops, and forced to move to a nearby ghetto.
"They were separated," explains Gordon. "He, his father and his middle brother were taken to one area, his mother and younger bother to another. His mother would wait by the fence dividing them and they would take food and blankets." Then, one day, she didn't: along with her youngest son, she was taken to Auschwitz and never heard from again. It wasn't long before the rest of the family split. Clambering over the ghetto fence to get food, Graham's remaining brother was shot. Eventually, his father followed his mother to Auschwitz. Finally, so did Graham.
And then, slowly, his luck began to turn. Stocky and strong, Graham was spared the gas chamber in favour of a life spent shifting limestone at Heydebreck labour camp. He concentrated on conserving his energy. When mealtime came around, he would linger at the back of the queue, ensuring that his portion of soup came filled with the heavy chunks lingering at the bottom of the pot. He salvaged meat from a dead horse, eating it raw. When he was moved again – this time to Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany – he befriended the camp dentist, who would let him hide in his surgery cabinet during inmate lineups.
Graham's final hurdle came in January of 1945. Along with dozens of others, he was forced to commence a "death march". Throughout January and February Gordon walked, stumbling in the snow, desperately trying to keep pace. The end of the march vanished from his memory; the next thing he knew he was in hospital, having been saved from the grave by that passing soldier.
This story, with all its peaks and troughs and parables of human suffering, was almost lost to the world. Graham, say his daughters, never felt confident enough to tell it. They would get scraps of recollection, brief glimpses into their father's history, but never the full story. Until recently, even the most rudimentary of details had yet to leave the family. Now the opposite is to happen. Helen Gordon, along with her sister Lorraine Kingsley, is soon to begin telling her father's story at schools around the country. It's part of a recent drive by the Holocaust Educational Trust to get more of the "second generation" into classrooms.
"Nothing compares to hearing a Holocaust survivor talking about their experience," explains the Trust's chief executive, Karen Pollock. "Even in the most disruptive environments, you can hear a pin drop. Children engage on a higher level – it offers a kind of culmination of their studies." It's a sentiment that chimes perfectly with the theme of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day, "Untold Stories." The problem, as Pollock rightly points out, is to address the fact that, eventually, there will be no more survivors left to tell their stories first-hand. "It's a sad reality. Already we're seeing volunteers become less able. It's a question we have been struggling with for some time. As an organisation, we have a duty to do something."
The result has been the second generation project, a programme that has required a rigorous level of training for all involved. Both Gordon and Kingsley have teaching backgrounds – indeed Gordon still teaches today. Still, before they can start their tour of secondary schools, they have to undergo specialised tutoring at the hands of the Trust's experts. "There are several stages we've gone through," says Pollock. "There are the basic mechanics of public speaking – whether that's a matter of projecting your voice, or whatever. There's the making sure that everything is factually correct, and that our speakers are in a position to answer any questions that might be thrown at them. And we wanted to encourage them less to recount their parents' story as to explain how they heard it – making that connection, from the point of view of the children listening, is very important."
The result was a series of workshops between May and October, as well as various one-to-one sessions. All of the women, says Pollock, have come to the Trust as volunteers, rather than recruits; for some years a so-called Second Generation Committee has been active within the HET, and it is from there that the trainee speakers have emerged.
At the moment, those involved are hesitant to hail themselves as a sure-fire solution to the witness problem. It is, in the words of Pollock, very much "a pilot scheme".
"We have to take things one step at a time," she cautions. "We're not trying to hold the second generation up as a replacement for the survivors – but it's one way of solving a problem. We talk about living history becoming just history – well, that is what we are trying to prevent."
Ultimately, Pollock, Gordon, Kingsley et al hope that the school tours will prevent tales like that of Graham's fading from memory. That is a risk of which Gordon is all too aware. "Once, it was Holocaust Memorial Day and I asked a class of students if they knew what day it was. When they couldn't guess, I gave them a clue, saying it started with an 'H'. The only person to take a guess suggested that it was 'Hovercraft Day'." Without these stories, she points out, there's little way to learn from our mistakes and move on. "Really, I want the children to appreciate the hardship that people went through – millions of Jews, blacks, disabled people – and to see that education can end evils. I want them to understand that no matter what ethnic background, what religion, what culture we are, we are all human. That's what I want them to understand."
Teaching the holocaust
Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, with free events taking place around the country.
Untold Stories Film Programme
Rich Mix Cineman, Bethnal Green, 6.30pm
To book, call 020 7613 7498.
Scottish National Holocaust Memorial Day
Craigroyston Community High School, Edinburgh, 7.30pm
Wales's National Holocaust Memorial Day Service
City Hall, Cardiff, 1pm
To book, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Remembering Anne Frank
Ulster Museum, Belfast, 1pm
Call 028 9044 0051 for information
The Holocaust Education Development programme offers Continuing Professional Development programmes in Holocaust education, free of charge. www.hedp.org.uk
Holocaust Educational Trust's website can be found at www.het.org.uk
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