The opening welcome by the Centre’s Director of Programmes, Ruth-Anne Lenga, set the tone:
‘UCL’s Centre for Holocaust Education has been operating since 2008 and with 15 members of staff dedicated to helping teachers across the country improve the quality of Holocaust education in their schools, hardly a day goes past when we, the staff, are not fully conscious of the Holocaust and its importance in the education of young people. But rarely do we get the chance to collectively stop, down tools (so to speak), reflect upon and commemorate this tragic history, in our own way. But this HMD Centre staff together with Prof Becky Francis, former Director of UCL IOE and now CEO of the Education Endowment Fund, teachers and students from one of our current Beacon School cohort – Mulberry School for Girls, met to do just that. We were honoured to welcome two incredible, strong women – Mala Tribich and Susan Pollack – both survivors of the Holocaust who spoke so powerfully of their experiences and the need to stand together in memory of their murdered loved ones, but also in defiance of the hatred, rising antisemitism and other challenges that potentially so divide us today.’
Outlining the Centre’s support for Holocaust Memorial Day, Nicola Wetherall MBE introduced the national theme, ‘Stand Together’.
‘HMD2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – this is a significant milestone and is made particularly poignant by the dwindling number of survivors who are able to share their testimony – to that end, Stand Together with Susan who survived that place, and with Mala, who alongside Susan was liberated by British Forces at Bergen-Belsen, is significant. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the Genocide in Bosnia and so today, we come together to stand together to reflect and explores how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression.
Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of identity-based hostility in our society.’
Taking the opportunity to acknowledge the blog and features contributions, written for the Centre’s website and published later this week, from survivor Sir Ben Helfgott, Lord Alf Dubs and Barbara Winton, Headteacher George Croxford and the Centre’s own Dr Alice Pettigrew, Nicola gave one example of Standing Together, reading a beautiful and powerful message from Manchester Enterprise Academy, sharing how they are Standing Together in their community and how they regard our partnership with them as a Beacon School a true act of Standing Together.
Ruth-Anne took over the story, by introducing the Belsen 75 project: our government funded partnership with the Holocaust Education Trust, and supported by The National Holocaust Centre at Newark. She contextualised the screening of a specially commissioned short film – featuring both Mala and Susan – that we hope will be used in school assemblies later this spring. This was a fitting combination of both memorial and educational legacy. In keeping with today’s intimate, informal commemorations there was a moving candle lighting ceremony in memory of victims of the Holocaust.
After the memorial candles were lit by Mala, Susan and Mulberry School girls, we had an opportunity to ask questions and engage meaningfully with some powerful and complex issues. Mulberry girls asked about identity, the importance of faith, the nature of justice, forgiveness and this was a powerful learning and personal encounter. Mala spoke of her ‘ordinary, unremarkable’ pre-war life, before movingly, sharing her compelling experiences of being ‘torn from home’. Her testimony, like that of all survivors who share their stories with others, especially in schools, is a precious gift – and, as Elie Wiesel said, “When you listen to a witness, you become a witness.” –there was a palpable sense of that among the young people listening so attentively to Mala and Susan’s answers.
Returning to the Stand Together film and the 75th anniversary of the Bergen-Belsen liberation, we watched another short film. This time, snippets from an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby were shared, including the evocative moment he read an extract from his father’s famous dispatch.
To conclude, the Centre’s Executive Director, Professor Stuart Foster took the opportunity to thank Mala and Susan, and all survivors, for their powerful words in sharing their testimonies with schools and the world and to all those involved in our ceremony, thanking too the Centre’s staff and their commitment all year round. Stuart further emphasised how today’s commemoration reflected the central goals of the Centre which were: to deepen knowledge and understanding, challenge common myths and misconceptions, and educate for a more caring and compassionate society. He concluded by affirming the Centre’s commitment to “stand together” in pursuit of these crucial goals.
Empowering young people to safeguard the future by learning about the past is not just schools’ and teachers’ responsibility, it must be a wider civic and community endeavour, but each year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we at the Centre affirm our commitment to playing our part. There is much work still to do; but today this Centre pledges to support teacher and schools in that endeavour to ensure Alf, Susan and Mala’s stories, and the Holocaust is not forgotten, denied nor misunderstood.
**Centre colleagues will join The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, survivors, educators, politicians, religious and civic leaders at the HMD national ceremony in Westminster on January 27th.