Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) was remembered at the University of Northampton on Wednesday 23 January. Traditionally it is on 27 January, which was a Sunday this year. The afternoon began with the ceremonial laying of the stones outside of the Bird of Transformation monument in front of the Senate Building at the new Waterside Campus. The congregation then moved to the Morley Room, to listen to the guest speakers, and this year I was included among them.
The theme for this year was ‘Torn from Home’, and the presentations reflected this aspect. John Josephs from the Northampton Hebrew Congregation spoke about the importance of keeping the Holocaust, and other genocides, in the memory of the current and future generations.
Julie Gottlieb (Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield) presented the keynote speech on ‘Gender and the ‘Jews’ War: Women, Anti-Semitism and Anti-War Campaigns in Britain, 1938-1940’. The talk was very informative as the focus around women’s involvement in the far-right is a relatively unexplored topic. Through the lens of gender, it provided an alternative perspective. Dan Jones stepped in at the last minute and gave a speech about the far right with a geographical zoning in on the local area. All presentations were expertly delivered, insightful and were received with gratuitous applause.
The presentation that I gave was on the ‘Kindertransport’. The reason why this topic was chosen was to bring awareness to other aspects of the Holocaust that people don’t immediately think of. Most think about concentration or death camps, or single events such as Kristallnacht that targeted Jewry and left mass destruction over a very short period of time. As children and adolescents were taken away from their family, they too were torn from home.
It was a British driven operation that began in 1938 and lasted until 1939, and saw ten thousand children rescued from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia and transported to Britain using the train and boat system. Upon arrival in Britain, the system that the earlier kinders experienced was very different to those who arrived in 1939.
The children were picked by their host families. This was then altered to children being assigned. New identities were assimilated, which included having to adapt to a new religion. The Telegraph wrote an article about this on 26 May 2013, which included stories such as that of Mrs Jacobs, who tells of trips to the cinema that was specifically put on for the refugees. This reminds us of how much the small acts made a difference to these refugees, and the positive impact that taking up permanent residence in Britain had on these children. In a contemporary context, it would be hard for those to comprehend what the Kindertransport went through, as society and politics in 2019 are to an extent, very different.
More research is needed about the operation, especially the impact that it had upon the families and children, but it is apparent that the effects are individualistic. Historians such as Rebekka Gopfret commented that the individuals do not assimilate themselves with the victims of the Holocaust because society, and by extension their own consciousness, have deemed that only those liberated from the extermination camps, are the ‘real survivors’.
However, the children were separated from their parents immediately and although some maintained contact through letters, by 1939 any hope of reunion was quashed by the onset of the Second World War. By 1942, the cessation of letters left many questions unanswered for the senders. This was bound to have a substantial effect on the children and many had to come to terms after the war had ended, that they may not see their parents or their native homes again. They had to adapt to a new way of life that for most, became permanent. This feeds into the emotional factor.
As Edith Milton wrote in her biography, she does not remember the journey, only that it was full of children and weeping adults; she does not remember her mother being there, but she presumes she was. This highlights that possibly, due to the traumatic events and separation from their parents, the children have blocked out parts of the event.
Various manifestations arose out the children’s experiences. Poetry was an outlet, which forms a larger collection of literature from Holocaust survivors and makes their story more accessible to the general public. They can express their emotions and try to understand the psychological trauma they experienced.
There have also been plays written, such as Kindertransport. Diane Samuels in the prelude to this play includes five personal accounts from Kindertransport children. This reiterated that the play was based on true accounts, but that the format of the play means that once again, the topic becomes accessible to the wider public. It makes a difficult subject easier to digest. It can promote discussion and it can also be in a less emotionally charged environment, unlike a face-to-face interview.
Oral testimonies are useful ways for both the interviewee to tell their story and validate their feelings, and the interviewer to gain insight and knowledge into the experiences. Some caution is needed when using these as historical sources, as there can be periods of no memory and every person’s experience is unique, but they can be useful tools nevertheless.
In essence, Holocaust Memorial Day serves to ensure that atrocities that have happened in the past do not get repeated. Survivors of that generation are declining in numbers, and by discussing these events it puts the issue in the forefront of later generation’s minds.
By creating awareness, the signs can be recognized and action taken to stop genocides or persecution from being widespread to a national level. Never again.
By Kay Montero, a second year History student