Listening to the lessons of history

I am passionate about the importance of history in the school curriculum.  Humankind has a depressing tendency to make the same mistakes time after time, so it is crucial that children are exposed to history and given the opportunity to literally learn the lessons of the past.

Each year, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, we hold a ‘Josef Behrmann’ lecture – named for a former pupil in the School’s Jewish boarding house who survived 14 concentration camps during World War II. This year’s lecture, entitled Is Holocaust Memorial Day important in the 21st Century?, was given by Ruth Barnett, a Kindertransport refugee from Nazi Germany.

Her moving testimony connected Perse pupils to a time when parents and children had to contend with the horrors of genocide.  Ruth explained how her parents had to decide whether to keep their four year old daughter (Ruth) and seven year old son (Martin) in Germany, or send them on a Kindertransport train to foster families in England.  There can be few more difficult decisions than this, but perhaps one was Ruth’s dilemma ten years later when her mother – of whom she had no real memory – arrived in England to collect her from her foster family.  Should she stay or should she go?  Brought up on a diet of wartime propaganda, Ruth was not keen to leave the familiarity of her foster home to return to Germany; ultimately it required a court order for the repatriation to take place.

Ruth openly shared the deeper issues behind her life story.  She reflected on the importance of identity and her own angst about being classified as a “stateless” person.  Was she German, English or Jewish?  Without a clear sense of identity we lack the roots to weather emotional storms and are prey to doubts and insecurity.

She talked of the importance of love, stability and trust in childhood.  As with many things in war-time Britain, these were rationed in Ruth’s case.  Her parents’ decision to send her away, albeit for her own safety, and her move through three foster families, led to a deep suspicion of adults and a defensive mind-set.  It took her years to recover.

Yet Ruth believes she is one of the lucky ones: the ten thousand Kindertransport children who escaped Nazi Germany.  She knows that a million and a half other children were less fortunate and perished in the holocaust.  Ruth has a survivor’s duty to make the most of her life in recognition of those whose time on earth came to a very premature end.

Ruth’s messages for the Perse audience were clear.  We are all different yet equal.  Differences can be discussed and debated but should be respected.  No one group is better than another, and progress occurs when we put aside our differences and work together.  Intolerance of all kinds is wrong; the holocaust was not just an atrocity against the Jews, it was an attack on gypsies, disabled people, homosexuals, political opponents and anybody who threatened the Nazi ideal.

This plea for tolerance, dialogue and understanding remains as relevant and pressing as it was then.  Unfortunately the human race never seems too far from conflict and carnage, and whether in the Ukraine, in the Middle East or here at home, we need to remember the lessons history can teach us about how to build a better future, if we will but listen.

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