This year, Kingston Holocaust Memorial Day organisers were awarded the Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames’s Mayoral Community Award for their work in supporting HMD.  We spoke to organiser Judy Thwaites to find out a little more about how the programme has evolved over the years.

How did the workshops begin?
This wonderfully rewarding project began in 2006 with planning for the first workshops, which were held in January 2007.  The format was based on a programme run jointly by the two larger synagogues in Northwood and Pinner, which continue to host workshops for over 4,000 students in that area of north London.  The Kingston event began as one day of workshops and it has expanded each year in response to popular demand from schools.

What happens during the workshops?
During a two and a half hour morning workshop the students get to hear the testimony of a refugee or survivor of the Holocaust who is drawn from the members of the participating synagogues.  After viewing a short film about Germans who helped to rescue Jews during the Nazi regime, the students are divided into groups of 20 and take part in a 45 minute discussion, facilitated by trained volunteer members of the synagogues.  A variety of activities are offered giving the students the opportunity to consider how lessons from the past can be used to address contemporary issues such as discrimination and prejudice.  Each workshop ends with a candle lighting closing ceremony in which every student hands a written message to the speaker and receives a commemorative bookmark.  The speakers often keep these messages and treasure them.  In one of the activities offered in the discussion groups, students were asked to design a poster on any subject which had been talked about during the workshop. Each student also receives a copy of the free About HMD Booklet provided by HMDT at the end of the workshop.

Who's involved in running the day?
The committee of members of both synagogues, set up in our first year, still continues to meet throughout the year to evaluate the previous year’s work and prepare for the following year.  We also raise money to fund the workshops, and have had grant support from the Royal Borough of Kingston over the years to enable us to to provide useful training in facilitation skills and a visit to the Imperial War Museum for our volunteers.  In this and other ways we have benefited from the input of the Jewish Resource Centre at Roehampton University.

Two subgroups have evolved: an education group of teachers and allied professionals, retired and practising, to review the content of the workshops; and a technical group to improve the quality of our audio-visual equipment.

How did Kingston HMD mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2013?
In January 2013, during the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, over 60 volunteer members of Kingston Liberal Synagogue and Kingston, Surbiton and District Synagogue worked together for the seventh year running, hosting five and a half days of workshops at both synagogues for more than 1,000 secondary pupils and their teachers from local schools in Kingston and Elmbridge, and student teachers from Roehampton University.

What are the impact of the workshops?

The rewards of working on a voluntary project such as this are many and varied.  Not only has the project built bridges, respect and friendships within the two different Jewish communities in Kingston, Orthodox and Liberal, but it has also facilitated outreach from the Jewish community to the wider local 

community in Kingston upon Thames and in Elmbridge.  Two organisers, myself and Fleur Standring, were awarded the Royal Borough of Kingston’s Mayoral Community Award this year in recognition of our work.

We have met people in shops whose children and grandchildren have attended the workshops, who have told us about the impact that the workshops have had years later.

Students often crowd around the speakers after their talk –  mobile phones come out, photos are taken and autographs requested.  We have seen many students, as well as the adults, moved to tears.  Responses from the schools have also been extremely positive, and as a result return year after year so that students can continue to benefit from the experience.

What are your plans for the future?
Two years ago we decided to film four of our speakers, and with the help of a visiting professor of film at Roehampton and Elstree, and a post-graduate photography student from Roehampton University we were able to produce DVDs of our speakers.  We are now working on ways of incorporating the films into future workshops.

Sadly one of our speakers, Annemarie Seelig, a member of Kingston Liberal Synagogue, was too ill to take part this year and passed away in March at the age of 91.  She felt strongly that she should speak of her experiences to young people as long as she was physically able to do so.  She leaves us all, through her story, a legacy of courage, strength of character and good humour and we wish to dedicate this article to her memory. 

Most recently a synagogue in Surrey wishing to set up similar workshops in 2014 has approached us for advice and we are delighted to support this new venture.  Last but not least, we are grateful for the support of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, whose support and resources each year have been very helpful.

If you're inspired by the work of Kingston Synagogues' Holocaust Committee:

With many thanks to Judy Thwaites, Founder and Chair of the Kingston Synagogues’ Holocaust Committee
Photo: Students from Esher High at a HMD event run by Kingston Synagogues' Holocaust Committee