HMDT Blog: Understanding the human experience – by Andy Lawrence

For Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) 2020, Andy Lawrence, who teaches history at Hampton School in Middlesex, and leads their Holocaust and genocide education programme, held a workshop for learners at HM Young Offenders Institution Feltham. In this blog he explains how the workshop enabled learners to understand the human experiences behind the facts and figures of the Holocaust and genocides.

HMDT Blog: Understanding the human experience – by Andy Lawrence

The complex, intricate and hugely powerful human stories of the Holocaust and other genocides are at the heart of what makes Holocaust Memorial Day so meaningful to so many people of diverse backgrounds. Commemoration can only be meaningful if it is based on knowledge and understanding. If not, commemoration becomes trivial and shallow.

I was fortunate to spend a day with the learners at HM Young Offenders Institution Feltham. My visit had been organised with Tracie Mccarthy, Novus Education Manager at HMYOI Feltham B and provides classes for learners aged 18-21. Supported by Simon Wilson-Hughes, Diana McCann and their colleagues from the superb education team it was a privilege to work with the learners to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

The learners first explored the story of Leon, Else and Barney Greenman. Many could draw parallels with Leon’s life – a man who was brought up in London and enjoyed music and boxing too. What happened to the Greenman family and, in particular, why the Nazis murdered two year old Barney left the group full of questions.

Next the learners were confronted by pictures of a set of individuals. The names of the people which included Reinhard Heydrich, Leopold Socha, Irma Grese, Kurt Gerstein meant little to the group…but they were asked to make an instant assessment of whether the individual was a perpetrator or rescuer based simply on how the face of the character ‘looked’. The photo of Heydrich showed him in a touching family scene on the beach, Socha’s piercing eyes stared out of a mugshot, Grese’s glamourous studio shot and Gerstein appeared in an SS uniform. The learners were surprised to hear that Heydrich had been one of the chief architects of the Holocaust, that Socha – a burglar in Lwow – sheltered Jewish families, Grese was a notorious concentration camp guard and that Gerstein attempted to alert the world to the truth of the Holocaust despite being a member of the SS. Clearly, the learners concluded, it is hard to judge a book by its cover. Similarly, the young men used the evidence in front of them to infer that ordinary people, when put in extreme situations or groups, are capable of acts of great courage…and also of great evil.

January 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many of the learners had heard about the camp but, like most young people, were unsure about the precise history of the camp and the people who were deported there. Using a range of mini-biographies they were able to gain an insight into the human stories that are often masked by the terrible statistics of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The learners were interested in the story of Tunisian boxing champion Victor Perez, Hungarian footballer Árpád Weisz, Croatian PE teacher Ivana Hirschmann and Scottish missionary Jane Haining, who were all deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Nedžad Avdić

Later in the session the learners had the opportunity to discuss the experiences of Nedžad Avdić. Nedžad survived the Srebrenica genocide when he was just a teenager. The young men were surprised to hear that the atrocity took place just 25 years ago and on European soil. Similarly, they were shocked to hear that Nedžad and his family were targeted simply because they were Muslims.

The learners who I met were engaged, sharp and eager to discuss the issues that their new knowledge raised. They had very many questions about the history of the Holocaust and respectfully discussed the stories of those who perished. In learning more about the complex and very human story of the Shoah, the young men who I met at HMYOI Feltham marked Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 in a very meaningful way.

Tracie McCarthy, Education Manager said:

It was a pleasure to welcome Andy Lawrence to HMP Feltham to speak with our students and share his knowledge about the Holocaust. These students don’t often get to study this type of subject, as we mostly focus on Functional and employability skills in our classrooms. The feedback from the other teachers and students was very complimentary of Andy, the students really gained a lot of understanding and engaged very well with the subject, showing respect and compassion with the lives of those affected by the Holocaust.

 


The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.