'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.

England

Untold Stories Film Programme

Rich Mix Cineman, Bethnal Green, 6.30pm

To book, call 020 7613 7498.

Scotland

Scottish National Holocaust Memorial Day

Craigroyston Community High School, Edinburgh, 7.30pm

iain.Richardson@scotland.gsi.gov.uk

Wales

Wales's National Holocaust Memorial Day Service

City Hall, Cardiff, 1pm

To book, email: pad@wales.gsi.gov.uk

Northern Ireland

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

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game Of Thrones
Uh-oh, winter is coming. Ouch, my eyes! Ygritte’s a goner. Lysa’s a goner. Tywin’s a goner. Look, a dragon
tvSpoiler warning: The British actor says viewers have 'not seen the last' of his character
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave long-running series
Sport
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
The Etihad Stadium, home of Manchester City
premier leaguePlus updates from Everton vs Palace
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleFirst memoir extracts show she 'felt pressured' into going out with the Sex Pistols manager
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late
Sport
Lewis Hamilton in action during the Singapore Grand Prix
Formula OneNico Rosberg retires after 14 laps
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: 'Time Heist' sees a darker side to Peter Capaldi's Doctor
News
peopleActress tells men: 'It's your issue too'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teaching Assistant required in ...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam