As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, thousands of young British people are doing all they can to ensure that their stories, and the murder of six million Jews, are never forgotten. They are among the last generations that will meet survivors and they feel a responsibility as witnesses.
They’re not doing it alone but with a charity and they say the work isn’t always sad, but often uplifting too. Around 40,000 teenagers and young adults have been through the Holocaust Educational Trust’s programmes and have become Ambassadors. History First spoke to three of them to find out more.
‘I was going to make sure that, even in the smallest way, everyone knew what happened’
Natalie Commons, 17, from Coalville, Leicestershire, first studied the Holocaust at school five years ago when a task was to research the concentration and death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“I remember thinking, how could a person even think of doing that to people? I couldn’t comprehend it. Once I’d looked at that, that was it. It was what I wanted to do. I was going to make sure that, even in the smallest way, everyone knew what happened, and that they were responsible for making sure that nothing like it ever happened again.”
Natalie threw herself into research and filled three notebooks with her findings while she was still in Year Nine. Later, before Covid, she discovered the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz Project, which takes thousands of post-16 students and teachers to the German death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland as part of a broader educational programme.
She was disappointed when the scheme was halted due to the pandemic. “Then a little while later, I remember it was a Saturday and a tweet from the Holocaust Educational Trust came up, saying that it had opened again. And I was the first one who saw it. So on a Saturday at 12 o’clock midday I emailed my history teacher and said, ‘Please apply for this, please don’t wait. I know it’s the weekend.’”
“When you’re a history person like me, and history takes up 99 per cent of your life, you can’t help but want to get involved with things like this, so I would know more — but also so I’d know how to tell other people about it and share what I’ve learned without being an annoying history geek.
A few weeks later Natalie was accepted onto the project, which was moved temporarily online due to Covid. “It was three live sessions where you did some learning and then went into groups and spoke about what you’d done and what you thought about it. And then, on the second session, there was a virtual reality tour of Auschwitz. Even though I wasn’t standing there, it still made me cry. It’s still powerful. And then on the third session we started talking about what we call our Next Steps, which is how we apply what we’ve learned and share it with everyone else.
For her Next Steps, she invited the survivor Dorit Oliver-Wolff BEM, who, as a child, survived the war in hiding in Yugoslavia and Hungary, to speak to over a thousand pupils at her school via Zoom.
She said: “You’ve got the classic stories like Anne Frank. Then you listen to people like Dorit, who I had never heard of before until I read her book and then she spoke to us. Everyone needs to realise that not all the stories are the same. They’re all different.
“A lot of the classrooms had their cameras on. And it was quite honestly the first time I’ve ever seen such a large group of people just sit and watch the screen, rather than, you know what people do in lessons, mess about. I was sitting in my bed, ill with Covid, looking at all of these students and I felt like I could leave school now and know I’ve done my bit.”
“You have to take a minute, and just process that you’ve just heard a story that not many people get the opportunity to hear, and even then, because they [survivors] are getting old and they can’t tell them forever, in a way it’s now your responsibility to make sure you carry on telling the story you just heard.”
Natalie will study history at university and intends to focus on the Holocaust, while continuing to share survivors’ stories as a HET Ambassador.
‘There were two small shoes . . . that just hit me like a tonne of bricks’
Molly Liggett, 22, recently qualified as a history and politics teacher and will use her experience as an HET Regional Ambassador for Northern Ireland to broaden Holocaust education at the grammar school where she works and across other local schools.
She first became interested in the Holocaust aged 10, when she dedicated a dance to Helen Lewis, a survivor and famous choreographer in Belfast. “When you’re ten you’re quite young, it’s hard to process a survivor’s testimony. But that always stayed with me, that dance, and carried through.
She was selected to go on the Lessons From Auschwitz programme in 2017 with three other pupils at her school who also became Ambassadors. “For me, Auschwitz is probably somewhere I wouldn’t go back to.” she said. “I think there were two small shoes at the very front of a window [looking onto piles of victims’ possessions] when I was walking through and that just hit me like a tonne of bricks because I thought of my sister and brother when I saw those shoes.
“I believe that every single person should have to go to Auschwitz. I would never go back.
“When we came back from Auschwitz we started doing our Next Steps project. So we involved our school, did school assemblies, made a [information] board in the school which is still there. And when I left school, I felt like I wanted to do a wee bit more. So when I was on a work placement in Westminster, I stayed in touch with Karen Pollock, who’s the CEO of HET. She sent a text say to call around at the office and I was offered a place on the Regional Ambassador programme and the Yad Vashem study visit.”
Molly spent ten days in Israel, studying at Yad Vashem, the world holocaust remembrance centre, with HET Ambassadors from across the UK. “And when I came back I started working more heavily on lobbying politicians to get Northern Ireland on the platform a wee bit more, doing more for Holocaust remembrance. And I now sit on the committee for Holocaust Memorial Day for the Northern Ireland ceremony and I help host it.
She said that one survivor in particular had touched her heart. “That’s Walter Kammerling, who unfortunately has passed away. He came to Northern Ireland in 2017. And he had such a profound impact to me because he came on the Kindertransport and actually ended up in Millisle farm in County Down in Northern Ireland. I got to bring him to my school to share his survivor’s testimony. I did a memorial for Walter there last year.
“The reason I wanted to be able to organise it was because HET would always say we’re the witnesses of Holocaust survivors and we want to keep sharing these stories. When Walter passed away I put a social media post up and got so many responses from people right across the divide in Northern Ireland saying how Walter had touched their lives.
“Organising it online meant that so many more people could come and with Covid we wouldn’t have been able to hold something in person. For me, the most important thing was actually having his family there. A few people emailed me after the event, Walter’s family, to say they weren’t able to attend in-person ceremonies for Walter in England due to Covid restrictions. So the event I organised was the only thing that they got to attend. That was really, really important for them.”
Molly participated in the Lessons From Auschwitz programme for a second time this year, as a teacher rather than a student. The programme was online due to Covid. “I was quite emotional because my students got to take part in LFA and I actually shed a few tears because I remember being a student on that programme.”
‘It’s increasingly important because further down the line things will get whitewashed’
George Southern, a 22-year-old IT recruitment consultant in Newcastle, “stumbled into” the Lessons from Auschwitz programme while studying for his A-levels and hasn’t looked back. He was appointed a HET Regional Ambassador while studying history at Newcastle University and attended this year’s March of the Living international educational programme in Poland.
It was only after he was already heavily involved in Holocaust education, that he learned that his own great-grandfather, Albert Louis Goulding, had been one of the liberators of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945 while serving in the British Army.
“It came up because my grandma didn’t initially know about what I was doing with HET. But when she found out she told his story, which was fairly limited simply because he never spoke about it.
“It was quite harrowing for him. He was in one of the first medic teams into Bergen-Belsen. Typhoid was rife, and it was literally horrific in terms of starvation too. Unfortunately I never knew him or got his first-hand testimony. But the connection’s there and it’s solidified why it’s important to be doing what I am.”
He said: “March of the Living was one of the most overwhelming things I’ve ever done if not the most overwhelming thing. We spent five days visiting numerous camps, including Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz, and heard from different survivors within that week as well.
George found the survivors, often in their 90s, determined to share their stories, however difficult it might be for them. “Even passion is an understatement. We had Harry Olmer whose family all passed away in Belzec visit for the sixth time. And he said how horrible it is to visit, how harrowing and how much he hates it, and yet he continues to go and continues to share his story. It’s almost an obligation and duty.”
He said that arranging for survivors to speak to students was one of the most rewarding aspects of being an Ambassador. “I helped bring in [Auschwitz survivor] Arek Hersh to Newcastle University, with the Jewish Society. And knowing him and how appreciative he was — it should be the other way around, me being appreciative of him — but how appreciative he was of me being involved and helping him share his testimony, it really helps.”
He said Ambassadors were never off duty, bringing survivors’ stories and their experiences on HET’s programmes into conversations and challenging antisemitism or lazy assumptions.
“It’s the question ‘I didn’t know that you were Jewish?’, or ‘I didn’t know you had Jewish ties?’ And that’s really interesting, the assumption that for Holocaust education and learning, you’ve got to have a personal connection. So there’s that misconception that you have to have a relationship or a connection to the Holocaust in order to understand its importance.
“I didn’t know I had a personal connection with a liberator until well into my journey of being an Ambassador.”
He said that, despite hearing and sharing horrifying stories, he never found it depressing or overwhelming to be an Ambassador. “It’s rather the opposite, especially with March of the Living, it definitely felt like it’s a celebration of life. It [showed] that people can be inspiring and incredible. We’re hearing more and more about people who resisted the Nazis too, which is fantastic.”
He said HET’s work was now more important than ever. “It’s increasingly important because as we get further down the line things will get whitewashed, events will be forgotten, testimony will no longer be able to be shared firsthand, and that can lead to a rapid amount of Holocaust distortion.”
The achievement that he is most proud of as an Ambassador is having contributed to a report by Lord John Mann on antisemitism in football. “Because of its permanence and its importance within the football community. I love football and I’m a big Chelsea fan. I focused on Italian football and a bit on Croatia, so I researched and then produced a written section for the report.”