Holocaust Survivors: The Real Role Models

Every year, once a year, the Holocaust Educational Trust holds an Appeal Dinner to show patrons and sponsors of the charity what has been done with the money they have raised, and plans for the future. Often, they ask Student Ambassadors to attend the event and speak on behalf of those who have taken part in the project. I was asked to this year but, sadly, I could not attend as I was away in Europe. I did, however, submit a written statement to be read aloud, especially addressed to the Holocaust survivors who I knew would be there. The following is what I submitted. I hope you will enjoy reading it.

"Good evening. May I firstly pass on my apologies at not being able to be with you in person tonight, but when contacted by the Trust, I was only too honoured to be able to submit the following to be read out at this event.

The first time I ever heard a Holocaust survivor speak was when Rudi Oppenheimer visited our school to give an assembly to our year when I was 14. Our History class had just started on the topic of the Holocaust, and here was living history, confirming that all those horrible facts and figures and frightening pictures in the textbooks were true. I sat enraptured for the duration of his talk, but was horrified when he stopped mid-sentence because of a couple of girls sat at the back of the hall, whispering and giggling. They were promptly sent out and I glared at them angrily as they made their way towards the door. How dare they speak through an account so moving, so terrifying, so unbelievable that all one could do was listen and try to comprehend this remarkable man’s experiences in silence? Perhaps, subconsciously, this was my first step in my personal determination to focus on Holocaust education, even before taking part in the Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ Project and my beginnings as a Student Ambassador; to make sure that survivors’ testimonies would, literally, always be heard.

My generation have the words ‘role model’ thrown at them constantly. Apparently, all these footballers on TV and singers on stages, who are happy to expose their world to the press, are ‘role models’. We are supposedly disgusted but intrigued when the darker side of their personal lives is revealed, and then they are criticised for not being good enough ‘role models’ to younger people.
When was it decided that those who strive for fame and wealth are meant to be the people we look up to? What do they know about the word ‘survival’? What do they know of fighting for a scrap of bread, or a place to sleep? What do they know about enduring the unthinkable for months or years; to truly persevere and to come out the other side ready to ensure such evil does not happen again?
To me, celebrities and overpaid sportsmen are not ‘role models’. It is often the more unsung heroes that should be pointed out to young people, Holocaust survivors being in the first line of acknowledgement. Since that afternoon when I was 14, I have had the absolute privilege of meeting and listening to testimonies from survivors such as Josef Perl, Kitty Hart-Moxon and Zigi Shipper to name a few. I have had anonymous survivors come up to me, hold my hands with tears in their eyes, and thank me for pledging to carry on Holocaust education and challenge the deniers. There has never been a more humbling feeling, and I am truly grateful for every experience I have had with these amazing people. Before I met a survivor, I always carried the thought that those who survived the Holocaust would be somewhat shy, wary and suspicious. On the contrary, many of them have been the warmest, friendliest people I have met so far! Meeting such ordinary people who have retained such a sense of character (and, often, humour) has really highlighted the aspect of the individual and their importance in the Holocaust to me, not just the terrifyingly high statistics and numbers we are often presented with.

I am currently studying a degree in Psychology, but I think, next year, I will turn my attention to a Masters degree in Holocaust Studies. Furthermore, I currently write and update a blog that stemmed from a week-long academic trip I took to Oswiecim to learn more about Auschwitz and how best to educate people about it. People often ask me if I am Jewish, and when I reply that I am not of any particular religion, they always look a little surprised. “But if you are not Jewish,” they say, “why are you so interested in the Holocaust?” As if being Jewish is the specific quota to educate others about such things! After reminding them that it was not only Jews who were persecuted, I mention the survivors that live in Britain today.
“Because of them,” I reply. “Because when they are gone, who will be left to carry on their legacy? When these ignorant people who sit at home, amongst all their comforts, who have never known true pain and suffering, post malicious content on the Internet and declare that the Holocaust was all a lie, who will stand up to them?” If there are only a few people in decades from now that can say, “I met those who survived the darkest chapter of history; I saw all they had endured in their eyes and was asked by them to keep the lessons of the Holocaust being taught and, hopefully, learned,” then let me be one of them.

For those survivors who are sat here tonight, let me say that my admiration for you is endless. The courage that you have to revisit those terrible times and speak about them repeatedly to ensure the younger generation know of what happened in the Holocaust is incredible, and I thank each and every one of you for sharing your testimonies so that we may learn from them and continue to banish racism, hatred and prejudice as best as we can.

Thank you."