Year 9 made the Mount School’s annual visit to the National Holocaust Memorial Centre on a lovely sunny May Day. By complete chance, and for the first time, we were the only school group there. What a privilege to have the full attention of the Centre staff and friends all day as we considered what choices led to the Holocaust.
After our film introduction, the girls asked lots of questions in the museum. The beautiful and peaceful gardens enabled us all to make a deeper connection with the reality for people like us just born at a different time. Our guide skilfully used stories to build the students’ understanding of the complexity of the choices facing a large range of people caught up in the Holocaust. This year we heard the survivor testimony of Steven Frank.
Steven was born in Amsterdam in 1935. His father was a doctor who was one of the pioneers of the appendix operation. His paternal grandmother had been one of the first female town councillors in the Netherlands. His mother was from a British and Dutch family of professional musicians. She grew up in Eastbourne and London. Her father published World War One hits such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’. When his mother was sent to a finishing school in Amsterdam, she met her husband, Steven’s father. They married and had three boys.
Steven was keen to stress to students how much rested on the decision by the Dutch civil service to collaborate with the German occupation authorities. Most Dutch Jews died. He contrasted that decision with the refusal to cooperate of the Danish civil service. Most Danish Jews survived. Steven still has quite a lot of his paperwork, and it was chilling to see the identity card that was issued to him in 1941 and his yellow star. As a small child, he had to get used to children from his class suddenly not being there one day.
His father was a lawyer, who joined in the Dutch resistance and worked hard to try to help people with learning difficulties, as well as fellow Jews. He was one of the founders of Dutch legal aid. One morning in October 1942 he went to work as normal and Steven never saw him again. He was arrested, tortured and then deported to Auschwitz, where he was gassed on arrival in January 1943. Friends had bravely campaigned for his release and the importance of staunch friendship is something Steven wants to impress on young people.
These same friends managed to engineer for Steven, his mother and two brothers to be put into a camp in the Netherlands, rather than being sent to the East. He was in Barneveld with some of the leading names of the Netherlands, who also happened to be Jewish. Fear, not guards, kept people there. Being shipped to Westerbork Transit Camp a few months later was a very different experience. It was drab and overcrowded and fearful. One day, eight year old Steven was mauled by an Alsatian dog set on him by guards. Every week shipments left for the east. He spoke movingly of the man he had come to regard as a grandfather, a great Anglophile, who was killed in an RAF raid, and of the man who left him to tend his tomatoes when he heard of his deportation. Steven still grows tomatoes and says he still thinks of the man in the camp who first taught him how to grow them.
In September 1944 the family were deported to Theresienstadt. He spent 39 hours in a cattle truck and still remembers the stench. Once there, his mother worked in the laundry and the boys were put in the Dutch orphanage. They were hungry, with just one meal a day. Deportations happened all the time and the guards deliberately separated siblings who had survived together to this point, sending one to be deported and leaving another. Typhus was rife. His mother would get extra food in the laundry, save it and bring it to feed her boys in the orphanage. Her courage and resourcefulness meant that her three boys were among the only 93 children from 15,000 who survived to be liberated.
After a month under Red Cross care, Steven, his two brothers and his mother were literally dropped off at Croydon airport by British pilots en route from Czechoslovakia to Manchester. That was how he arrived in the U.K. With no primary education, he did not do well at school, but studied later to take a Chemistry degree from the University of London and become a water engineer.
The girls listened attentively and asked perceptive questions, including about the effect on him today. His answer… to want to be the first to stand up for a person in need as he has been one.
There was much to think about. Girls said they felt shocked, but also more knowledgeable after spending a day at the Centre. Hopefully the impact of choices by all of us is something they will now be able to think about more deeply.