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Treading Where They Trod

A personal journey for International Holocaust Memorial Day (27 January 2015)

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)

Aims

To explore students’ understanding of and responses to the Holocaust (SEAL theme: Empathy).

Preparation and materials

  • You will need a leader and a reader.
  • Have available the YouTube video Gurs Trip and the means to show it during the assembly (available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=160x3Dxdf4w), playing from 50 seconds into the video and stopping at 4.39 minutes. It is 3.49 minutes long.
  • If possible, also have available the introductory credits for the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are? (check copyright).
  • The text to be read by the reader is taken from the memoirs of Rabbi Ernst Steckelmacher and his wife, Vera.
  • Have available the song ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ by Joe South and the means to play it at the end of the assembly.

Assembly

Leader Who do you think you are?

Play the introductory credits from the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, if using.

The person you are today is partially the result of the genes and experiences, the family history, you've inherited from your parents, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. This TV series helps celebrities to investigate their own heritage, to find out more about those family members – their experiences, personalities and where they lived. It often makes for very moving viewing.

Ruby Steckelmacher, a young English girl, decided to do the same and find out about her own great grandparents. She was moved to do this when she read the memoirs of her great grandmother, which started by relating what happened when they were living in Germany in 1933.

Reader Rabbi Dr Steckelmacher lived in Bad Durkheim, which is in Wurtemburg, Germany, with his wife, Vera, and two children at the beginning of the Nazi regime. Right from the start, he suffered anti-Semitic persecution. When, at the beginning of 1933, he had to choose a secondary school for his ten-year-old son, Walter, he took the strong advice of the two headmasters there and refrained from sending him to either school. Instead, he found a place for him in the Jewish Boarding School in Herrlingen, near Ulm.

This school was led by Mrs Anna Essinger, who had moved to the United States during the First World War. In 1918, she returned to Germany, where she helped the Quakers to organize a school meals service in Southern Germany. Through close contact with the Quakers and, with the help of two Jewish personalities, Lord Samuel and Professor Bentwich, she was able in 1933 to move the new Herrlingen boarding school to Kent, in England.

Dr Steckelmacher put his son Walter, who was a good pupil and well liked at school, on to the first children’s transport to England, on condition that his 12-year-old sister, Lotte, would also be accepted by the school. Lotte followed her brother in November 1933 from Frankfurt. Their parents visited them regularly in England until August 1938, after which time it was no longer possible. They thought it their duty to stay in Germany.

Leader Ernst and Vera were eventually interned and sent to the Gurs concentration camp in France. There they suffered separation, starvation, illness and hardship, like many millions of other Jewish victims of the Nazi regime.

Ruby decided that she wanted to visit Gurs, to tread the same ground her great grandparents had trodden. This short film is about that visit.

Play the YouTube video Gurs Trip.

Time for reflection

Leader Have your parents ever taken you to the place where they grew up or went on holiday? What did it feel like to walk the streets they walked when they were your age, to swing on the swings they swung on, to eat fish and chips from the same shop they bought theirs from years ago?

It gives you an insight into their lives. It may help you to think of them differently, to empathize with them, understand how they became the people they are today.

Ruby Steckelmacher walked where her great grandparents had walked. Her great grandparents, though, were starving. They were beaten. Sickness was rife in the camp. Conditions were inhuman, with overcrowding, inadequate toilets and poor hygiene. Families were separated, sometimes never to see each other again.

The experience for Ruby must have been very difficult, very emotional. Treading where they had trodden would have almost brought into physical contact with the suffering they experienced at the hands of other human beings simply because they were Jewish.

The 27 January is International Holocaust Memorial Day. On this day, we're encouraged to imagine the horrendous events that took place in Europe during the Second World War when the Nazis attempted to eradicate a whole nation, as well as remove men, women and children with mental and physical disabilities, homosexuals, Roma and any other groups they felt were socially unacceptable. We're encouraged to, like Ruby, tread where those persecuted people trod and allow the horror of that experience to teach us.

Pause.

We're also encouraged to walk in other shoes – or should it be boots? The commander of the camp, guards, cooks, administrators were also people, just like our parents and grandparents. We're encouraged to also remember that in us all there's a touch of prejudice, cruelty, a desire to control. We may not create concentration camps, but by our gossip, criticism, exclusion, we can create an environment of persecution right here in school. It's the same drink, just in a smaller bottle.

Holocaust Memorial Day is a day not merely for historical reflection but also a day for looking at ourselves, what we think, say and do now. It's a day for us to choose to act differently towards one another.

Prayer
Dear Lord,
Thank you for the courage of men, women and children who tried to make life bearable in camps such as Gurs.
When we are tempted to judge the captors, remind us of the cruelty we're capable of.
Help us to create in this school a community where all are accepted, no one is excluded.
Amen.

Music

‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ by Joe South 

Publication date: January 2015   (Vol.17 No.1)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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