Life

Why we need to remember the truth about the Holocaust all year round

The permanent exhibition seeking to raise awareness of human rights, freedom and equality by exploring one of our darkest chapters

Trude Silman with Holocaust survivors at the Holcaust Centre North

Trude Silman (middle) with Holocaust survivors at the Holcaust Centre North

Holocaust Memorial Day falls on 27 January – the anniversary of the liberation of death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. But Holocaust Centre North (HCN), located at the University of Huddersfield, is dedicated to raising awareness of the Holocaust and its aftermath year-round.

HCN tells a global history through local stories. At the heart of the centre is an exhibition of items drawn from their extensive archive. These belong to 16 survivors who found refuge from the Nazi regime in the north of England, and trace the history of the genocide, from Europe’s political climate in the wake of the First World War through to the liberation of death camps.

But HCN also offers Holocaust memorialisation with a difference. The centre grew out of Leeds’ Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association in 1995. The association fostered mutual support to survivors living in the region, but it also looked forwards and outwards at contemporary genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.

The centre now offers numerous learning programmes for primary and secondary school students, as well as adults, on both Holocaust history and current resonances. These include classes on recognising propaganda and how to support refugees.

“Everything we teach has a contemporary relevance,” says head of learning Hannah Randall.

The exhibition also looks forwards, ending with a room that celebrates the lives that the 16 featured survivors went on to live in the north and the difference they made to their communities. The items also speak to an attitude of perseverance that pervades HCN’s work.

“A lot of the photographs that did survive were from people who came out [of Nazi-occupied territories] in 1937, ’38, ’39, when they were still able to export or take some things with them,” says archivist Hari Jonkers. Others were hidden by friends, employees or neighbours and reunited with their owners or their relatives after the end of the war.

By focusing on personal stories, the exhibition emphasises the impact of atrocities on an individual human level, helping visitors to make connections with current events. “To me, it’s all about the actual person, the actual story you can tell about them, and seeing the actual things,” Jonkers says.

One of the survivors featured is Iby Knill, author of the memoir The Woman with Nine Lives, which encapsulates HCN’s future focus. “That was a reference to this: yes, I’m a death march survivor, but I’m also a translator [and] a creative,” says CEO Dr Alessandro Bucci.

HCN’s staff also think about “how we approach the future when survivors aren’t really around anymore and the Holocaust moves from living memory to the past,” says development coordinator Andrew Key. “Once the presence of those survivors has gone, we have to imagine their experience, and use this imaginative power to try to understand and empathise.”

Alongside the learning programmes, they have found a solution in Memorial Gestures: a series of commissioned creative responses from resident artists.

Contributor Laura Fisher transformed objects such as Red Cross letters and telegrams into blankets, allowing survivors and their relatives to interact physically with their history. “People engaged really strongly with these,” says Key.

 “A lot of the survivors worked in textiles,” Fisher adds. “Many of them were very involved in textiles before they emigrated to the UK; many after, too, in very different capacities. When Holocaust refugees came to England, they were only offered work in either the coalmines, textile service or, for women, domestic service, so a lot of people took those jobs.”

The Big Issue visited on the first day of Chanukah, for which HCN hosted Kirklees’ first community candle lighting in 60 years, attended by Trude Silman – one of the 16 survivors featured in the exhibition and the former chair of the Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association.

“It’s wonderful for me to know that we have an educational unit with a memorial,” says Trude Silman, who describes Holocaust Centre North as “an asset” to the University of Huddersfield.

After fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1939, aged 10, Silman built a new life in England, later winning a scholarship to study biochemistry at Leeds University, making her one of the first women, and Leeds residents, to do so. The contribution of people like Trude resulted in HCN receiving the King’s Award for Voluntary Service at the end of last year.

Memorial days typically prompt a backwards look at our history, but as the world faces increasing division and conflict, the work of organisations like HCN is integral in ensuring that we look to the present and the future, too.

To learn more, visit hcn.org.uk.

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