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Last Updated: Monday, 8 December, 2003, 18:27 GMT
Face to face with the Holocaust
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff

What was the most frightening moment in the concentration camps? Did you ever forget to wear a yellow star? Do you still hate the Nazis?

It's not often that schoolchildren are given the chance to put questions directly to people who have lived through events they are studying in the classroom.

Steven Frank
Steven Frank tells pupils of his childhood in Nazi concentration camps

But Steven Frank, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, is giving pupils the opportunity to ask him about his experiences in three different camps during almost five years of persecution and captivity.

Mr Frank, who for decades told almost no one that he had been in a concentration camp, is now visiting schools to talk to young people about what he had seen with his own eyes.

He is acutely aware that he is one of a "diminishing band" of Holocaust survivors - and he wants to pass on his first-hand experiences, as an act of witness for those who did not survive and with the aim of making youngsters think about the consequences of intolerance.

For these school pupils, born in an era of mass affluence - and whose political memories barely stretch back as far as John Major's premiership - it is a huge leap of the imagination to hear Mr Frank's account of imprisonment, starvation and terror.

But when he visits Wood Green School in Witney, Oxfordshire, he has a rapt audience of young teenagers, as he tells them about his childhood under the Nazis.

It's a very grim story, but told with great restraint and understatement, that involves and holds the attention of its young audience.

Discrimination

When the Second World War ended, he was a nine year old in the Theresienstadt ghetto in what was then Czechoslovakia - and out of 15,000 children held there, only 93 survived to be liberated by the Soviet army.

Yellow star
Steven Frank shows pupils the yellow star he was forced to wear by the Nazis

Mr Frank was born in the Netherlands. He was five years old when the Nazis occupied his home town of Amsterdam, but he says he still remembers the sound of their jackboots in the street.

Before the Jewish population in the Netherlands was detained (and fewer than one in 10 survived the war), he remembers the gradual ratcheting up of anti-Semitic discrimination.

"I was suddenly different from all my other friends. I was no longer allowed to play in the park, my father could not take public transport to work, I couldn't go into the swimming pool or the zoo."

Jewish people were forced to wear a yellow star whenever they were in public - and he still has the faded star he wore during these years.

This star, with all its evocative associations, intrigued the pupils, who wanted to know whether people really did wear them all the time. Steven Frank says there was little chance of forgetting to, when the punishment was likely to be death.

Mauled

Looking at such tangible evidence as the yellow star helps to make the events of the Holocaust more real for these youngsters - and it is the individual stories that provide the greatest resonance.

Deborah Padfield
Deborah Padfield says that pupils are encouraged to think about their own beliefs

When he is asked about what scared him most, he says that when he was held in a transit camp, he played too close to the perimeter fence, and a guard dog was deliberately set on him.

"I can still hear the guards laughing," he tells pupils, as he remembers the savage mauling from the guard dog, and the guards' enjoyment of this moment of recreational cruelty against a child.

And he remembers the suffocating foulness of a 39-hour train journey in a cattle truck, being moved between camps, barely able to breath in a lightless, airless carriage, which he says reeked with vomit, urine and fear.

For anyone looking for a glimpse of hope for human nature, he says that in his years in concentration camps, he saw no evidence of any kindness or compassion from the guards, even towards children.

Learning about the Holocaust is part of the school curriculum - and there have been plenty of films and television programmes about the subject. But he says that what is hardest to convey is the unremitting sense of hunger, the gnawing fear of being sent to death camps such as Auschwitz and the appalling prevalence of disease.

In almost every class he visits at the school, there are questions about whether camp inmates tried to escape. And he tries to explain that the prisoners were in such a terrible physical condition, with malnutrition, dysentery, hepatitis and typhus, that simply staying alive each day was a challenge in itself.

Starvation

Sitting in the warmth of an Oxfordshire classroom, it's hard to take in the conditions faced by inmates - as he describes the shape of distended stomachs of starving children, who were set to work shifting the ashes of those who had died.

Steven Frank, Wood Green School
Pupils produced art work and wrote poetry based on what they had heard

Pupils were also interested in why some people survived. And he says that there were two consistent factors: luck and a steely, self-preserving instinct. If anyone lost hope, they would die, he says.

In his own case, his survival owed much to his mother's job in the hospital laundry, which allowed her to gather scraps of bread which she brought to her sons in a tin saucepan - and he shows the pupils this heirloom, which his mother kept after her liberation.

Those that did survive faced the psychological legacy of their experiences. He says he can still hear the screams of families deliberately being removed from each other.

"When children had lost their homes and their parents, the only thing that they might have left to hold onto was a brother or a sister," he says.

And when the Nazi camp authorities took these children away from each other, he says their howls of despair have remained with him all his life.

His own father, who had secretly worked with the Dutch resistance, had been arrested, tortured and killed while they were still in Amsterdam. His last memory of him is saying goodbye as he left for work in the morning.

But he says there were other survivors who have even more disturbed and disturbing memories. This could also apply to those who had not even been imprisoned by the Nazis. He knew of another Dutch Jew who spent the entire occupation hidden between two walls, three feet apart.

Genocide

Even though this is a distant era for these pupils, they were clearly keen to understand how such events could have happened, wanting to know the reasons for the hatred the Nazis showed against people such as Mr Frank and his family.

But their questions also showed how difficult it is for today's teenagers to grasp the extent of the conditions in a camp where more than 99% of child inmates died.

A girl asked whether inmates were allowed to bring their pets with them - another boy wanted to know what kind of drinks were available.

But Mr Frank says that talking to pupils, and showing them the consequences of hatred, is a way of making them examine their own beliefs and prejudices.

For many years, after he came to live in Britain after the war, he did not want to talk about his experiences, wanting to "fit in" with everyone else around him.

But as time passed, he became aware of the need to share his memories and to warn against the type of discrimination that could lead to such an attempted genocide.

And he says he uses his experiences to make pupils re-consider their attitudes towards immigrants and asylum seekers.

Humanise

"Through my story they have seen an example of what hatred and intolerance can lead to - and I hope that they will reflect on what they've heard. And perhaps if ever they face a similar situation, they might think of that old man who spoke at their school and they will say 'This is wrong'."

"Going into schools in this way means that another generation of pupils can be better informed," he says.

Deborah Padfield, head of religious education at the school, says Mr Frank's visit will make a strong impression on pupils.

"Meeting him makes it much more real - it's something that they will remember."

She also says that meeting someone who is such an articulate and approachable figure helps to humanise the whole subject and it challenges the pupils to think about their own beliefs.

With such a vivid example of prejudice, it is a way into the ethical questions that children will face in their own lives, she says.

It is also hoped that when there are no more survivors of the Holocaust, such visits will have passed on the story to another generation.




SEE ALSO:
Holocaust Day 'a wake up call'
27 Jan 02  |  Scotland
Thousands gather for Holocaust Day
27 Jan 02  |  England
Why have a National Holocaust day?
25 Jan 00  |  UK News


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