Holocaust Memorial Day - Don't Stand By

Published on 08 February 2016

Holocaust Memorial Day - Don't Stand By

The annual performance marking the liberation of Auschwitz this year reflected the theme ‘Don’t Stand By’ whilst demonstrating the parallels between the refugee crisis in 1938 and the current Syrian crisis. Members of the History and Geography department delivered a series of special assemblies telling the stories of individuals whose lives were affected by the Holocaust, and the current Syrian conflict.

This piece of drama began with Mrs Hart portraying the conflict of emotions felt by a Syrian refugee whose optimism at finding shelter in Europe was short lived. Samira escaped Syria following the death of her husband who had joined rebel fighters, knowing that to stay would mean torture and death. This character reflected upon the ‘lessons unlearnt’ from the Second World War and the hostility refugees have encountered since arriving in the continent which many had hoped would provide sanctuary.

Samira’s monologue provided the context for a stark reminder of the resistance faced by German-Jews in the late 1930s seeking refuge within western democracies. Gisela, played by Mrs Akers-Jarvis, had felt elated when an SS ship called St Louis provided an opportunity to escape persecution from Hitler’s increasingly anti-Semitic policies in 1938. The National Socialist state had long aimed to encourage Jews to follow a policy of ‘emigration’; prior to 1939 German Jews were encouraged to leave the country. Whilst significant numbers did leave, half a million remained in Germany – many simply didn’t have the funds or the opportunity to go elsewhere.

The passengers aboard SS St Louis were turned away from Cuba, America and Canada before being ordered to return to Europe. Each government insisted that the plight of the people aboard simply wasn’t their problem. Some, including Gisela, were allowed to disembark and seek protection in Britain; however most were forced to return to Germany where they ended up in ghettos and eventually the camps. As the policy of ‘emigration’ had failed the Nazi leadership took a more final solution.  The vast majority who returned to Germany were executed.

Mr Cooksey played a character who refused to stand by. Despite having no personal connection to the Jewish people suffering in Czechoslovakia, Nicholas Winton sought to secure safe transport and asylum for Jewish children. He spent many months organising the necessary visas and sponsorship for the British government to agree to their migration. Winton successfully organised the safe transit of 7 trains from Prague and saved the lives of 669 children as a result. The outbreak of war prevented a final train with 250 children from leaving the country and as such Winton’s achievement was always tarnished with the deep regret from knowing this sentenced these children to death in the camps.

The performance was designed to stimulate discussion around the whole idea of refuge, responsibility and radicalisation. Why might one man stand by whilst another actively seek to help? Why are others so willing to commit crimes in the name of ideology? Irma Grese was a young German who became a notorious guard at Auschwitz. Grese was indoctrinated from an early age by the Nazis; she became a willing and vital cog in the Nazi machine. Her decisions were driven, not by an instinct to be evil, but to feel valued and important after a difficult start in life.  The reality of this is reflected well in Hannah Arendt’s writing; “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Grese was executed after being found guilty of war crimes in Germany.

Germany has led the way in handling the current crisis by providing a haven for a higher number of refugees than any other European country. The role of a charity worker, played by Mr Bodo, was designed to evidence the commitment of many young people in Germany to help alleviate the crisis and provide  humanitarian relief. History allows us to learn from the mistakes of the past. This year’s theme clearly provides us with a very contemporary significance for the lessons learnt from the Holocaust. We hope the performance this year challenged those of you who might choose to stand by, and asked you to reflect on what you could do in order to make a difference. 

Mrs Quinn

Team Leader of History