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Wednesday, 28 January 2015
Year 12 pupils Alexandra Hopkinson and Sarah Ibberson organised a special assembly to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, which is held on or around the 27th of January each year. This followed their trip to Auschwitz as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz project.
The girls arranged for every pupil to be given an electric tea-light and the name of an individual Holocaust victim to remember during the assembly. Students wrote the victim’s name as well as their own name on a sticker and attached it to their tea-light, which they then switched on before processing into the Great Hall. Sixth Form volunteers collected the memorial lights and placed them on the stage, creating a temporary memorial of over a thousand lights.
The focus of the assembly was on the individual victims of the Holocaust, particularly those from the town of Auschwitz as these were the names allocated to pupils. This made for a particularly poignant occasion, as the 27th of January 2015 was also the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camp.
History teacher Mr Owen provided an introduction and context for the assembly, reminding pupils that 1.5 million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. He explained a little about Sarah and Alexandra’s experience with the Lessons from Auschwitz project before handing over to the girls.
Alexandra spoke about their trip to Poland, which all took place on the 5th of November 2014 with a 3am start. On arrival in Auschwitz, they were immediately reminded of the disaster with a visit to the graveyard. They then travelled to the concentration camp, following in the footsteps of the millions of victims. She commented that it seemed impossible to imagine from textbooks that people had no idea of the true purpose of this place; but seeing it as the victims did on their first arrival brought home the idea that places like Auschwitz looked like holiday camps from the outside. This was one of the ideas that she found hardest to come to terms with.
She also spoke about the eerie silence throughout the camp, despite the hundreds of visitors, and the poignancy of seeing victims’ belongings set out on display in the barracks. However, one of the most moving sights was the seven tonnes of human hair, completely filling one of the rooms, and providing a reminder of the barbaric, inhumane events that occurred on that site seventy years before.
She said in the assembly, “It was a privilege to experience our day trip to Poland.”
Sarah said of the trip, “Towards the end of the day, a closing ceremony was held where tea-lights were placed on the train track. We found this really powerful and wanted to recreate this moment at the assembly.”
This inspired the tea-light display in the Great Hall, which remained in the hall all day to allow pupils to pay their respects to the six million victims and spend a moment of reflection.
Sarah spoke further about the memorial service at which Rabbi Shaw, who accompanied the young people on the trip to Poland, told the story of one of the victims – who was one of his relatives. This brought home that these were real people and emphasized the fact that the Holocaust affected so many.
In light of this, she read out the story of Zigi Shipper, one of the survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was shipped to the concentration camp in 1944, at the age of fourteen. She spoke about his personal experience of the camp, including being sent on a Death March to the German naval town of Neustadt. It was there that he was finally liberated in May 1945, but Sarah continued with what happened afterwards: his hospitalisation for three months due to overeating following a period of malnutrition, and his eventual reunion with his mother in England in 1947. A detailed account of Zigi’s life can be read here.
This was just one very moving story among millions.
After the assembly, pupils were kindly requested to enter the name of the victim they were allocated into the Yad Vashem Central Database of Victims’ Names. Using this database, pupils could spend a few minutes reading information about the victim; these individual stories help to personalise the six million victims of the Holocaust. The tea-lights will be redistributed to allow pupils to take them home and discuss with friends and family the story of their victim, thus continuing the memorial.
The girls spoke about perspective in the assembly, and seeing the tea-light memorial on the stage in the Great Hall provided this to the Girls’ Division pupils. It created a very moving spectacle that had no doubt given the girls a great deal to think about on this solemn occasion.
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