The Holocaust and the Inner City: Experiences of a local anti-racism initiative



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The Holocaust and the Inner City: Experiences of a local anti-racism initiative

Eve Rosenhaft (University of Liverpool), in cooperation with Paul Adams (University of Liverpool) and John McCarthy (TRG / Enterprise South Liverpool Academy)

Draft for oral presentation – not to be cited without permission of the author.

This paper arises out of my own experience with delivering Holocaust education to schoolchildren in Liverpool, in the context of a local anti-racism initiative (TRG) that involved a visit to the Auschwitz Memorial. I report on interviews held with the students which were designed to identify how what they saw in Auschwitz fitted with the elements of Holocaust education that had been developed in Liverpool and tailored to local concerns. I will set out the nature of TRG and the place of Holocaust education in its work, before discussing the outcome of the interviews. These broadly confirmed the value of the Auschwitz visit for consolidating students’ knowledge and understanding of the relevance of the Holocaust to current anti-racist struggles. But some variations in the response of individual students have provoked me to think again about how we understand where these young people – and the people to whom we direct human rights education more generally – are coming from, literally as well as in terms of their mental horizons.

In my own case, engagement with the TRG project arose out of a combination of interests. As an academic historian I have done primary research on the Nazi persecution of Sinti and Roma (‘Gypsies’) and of Blacks, and in the course of a summer as researcher at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum I had occasion to observe and consider one way in which those events have been memorialised and didacticised. My personal engagement was further shaped by the fact that I grew up in the civil rights movement in the United States, and arrived in Liverpool during the summer of the Toxteth Riots of 1981. Paul Adams and John McCarthy, my co-presenters, have longer and deeper roots in the Liverpool community and its struggles for social justice and have been involved from the beginning with the anti-racism project which I’ll be talking about (the Tackling Racism / Promoting Diversity Group, or TRG). We share a curiosity – to some extent a scepticism – about the relevance of the Holocaust as presented in the available educational packages to the needs of young people who face everyday racism in an English city. In a very preliminary approach to the question, we interviewed nine young people who had had experience of visiting Krakow and Auschwitz in the context of their involvement with TRG.

The Tackling Racism – Promoting Diversity Group (TRG) was organised in late 2005 to respond to a spate of incidents of racist violence that took place among pupils at a secondary school in South Liverpool, and since then persistent outbreaks of mutual hostility and violence arising out of ethnic and territorial affiliations among young people have provided new targets and constituencies. TRG operates by creating safe spaces in which students can explore their own identities, learn about others people’s identities and engage with the consequences of everyday and official racism both in their own world and in other places and times. It also provides opportunities for students to practise transferable skills and develop leadership capacity. Adult volunteers take responsibility for the logistical management, identifying sources of funding and delivering materials for workshops, and the project benefits from the support of a number of local institutions and benefactors. But the core principle is that TRG should be run by the young people themselves; one of the young people we interviewed for this paper, now in her second year at university, has been president of the group for three years. TRG sessions are designed to engage the participants in active learning and reflection about social processes of inclusion and exclusion – so the wider politics of place, race and racism - and draw on as wide as possible a range of materials, knowledge and local expertise. A characteristic and very successful project was working with a professional photographer and digital media to ‘populate’ the iconic Liverpool cityscapes of F. Chambré Hardman with ‘real people’.

Holocaust education has become part of this project in two contexts (as I see it). First, it is in keeping with the general thrust of the project, which aims to make students aware of the struggle for equality and social justice as a global one. For obvious reasons, black history is a key theme in the work of TRG, and includes awareness of the American civil rights movement and the history of Atlantic slavery. The second reason is more circumstantial: Where possible, the project aims to take young people out of the local situation by arranging field trips and exchanges, and when Unionlearn funding for travel became available in 2007 the organisers agreed that it would be worthwhile to develop the theme of racism in continental Europe and its consequences. Accordingly, in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 groups of students visited Auschwitz. The programme for the three-and-a-half-day visit is as follows: The group arrives late afternoon in Krakow and is housed in a hotel in the city. On the first full day they visit Jewish and Holocaust-related sites in the town of Krakow, including the old Jewish quarter and synagogue, Ghetto Heroes Square and the Museum of Krakow under Nazi Occupation sited in the Schindler factory; they have dinner in a Jewish restaurant. On the second day they take a guided tour of Auschwitz and Birkenau, followed by a meal in a city centre restaurant with traditional Polish music and dancing. They depart in the late afternoon of the fourth day. The visit provides opportunities both for the students to spend time on their own in Krakow – often in shopping for souvenirs – and for organised sessions for de-briefing and reflection on what they have seen.

Before going on the trip, students attend preparation workshops in which they are introduced to the historical background and encouraged to access and discuss films, texts and images (both authentic and fictional) that represent aspects of the Holocaust experience. Adults contributing to the workshops have included John Halligan from Unionlearn and local activists like Tony Lloyd from the Anthony Walker Foundation as well as myself and in 2011 some of my upper-year undergraduates. The message the students get is a complex (or mixed) one, as those of us who design the workshops strive to combine simple awareness of the enormity of the events and some understanding of their causes and consequences, while foregrounding the issues of personal responsibility which we agree constitute the key ‘lesson’ in the context of TRG. Thus the classic statement of Pastor Niemöller – repeated as ever in a number of more or less accurate variants – is a leitmotiv of presentations to and by students. We all seek ways of bringing this story ‘home’ to Liverpool kids. When John McCarthy asked me to offer something, I made a point of trying to help the young people see both the victims AND the perpetrators as people like them. This meant in practice shifting the emphasis away from the mass murder of the Jews and onto ‘other victims’ – Blacks, ‘Gypsies’, the disabled, homosexuals – and the continuum of Nazi racist practices that began with discrimination, separation and sterilisation at home. Discrimination against ‘Gypsies’ and Travellers in the UK and Europe links the Holocaust and the present day, and the murder of 16-year-old Traveller Johnny Delaney in 2003 and the screening in the UK of a television series - Big Fat Gypsy Weddings – which explored contemporary Traveller and Gypsy culture in terms of a community under siege underlined the local relevance of the topic, so the 2011 workshops highlighted the situation of Roma in Auschwitz.

In the light of all this, certain questions arise about the appropriateness of making a visit to Krakow and Auschwitz the climax of this element of the TRG project: What do we make of the emphasis on Jews (and to a lesser extent non-Jewish Poles) as the subjects of this story which continues to attach to Auschwitz as an icon and might be reinforced by the Krakow tours and visits? How appropriate to our ethical and political agenda is the vision of passive suffering that is necessarily delivered in the physical fabric of the internment and extermination camp and the preserved traces of the dead? At the same time as we wonder whether our kids will see themselves in this moment of the past, we are suspicious of unreflected empathy with the victims, and concerned that our own treatment of the subject often leaves little room to explore the possibilities and reality of active resistance. Is there a danger that the introduction to pre-Holocaust Jewish life and to Polish traditions that frames the Auschwitz visit will just have an exoticising effect? Are we training our students to join a ‘generation of historical tourists’?1

We held interviews in July of 2011 which were designed to elicit what students thought about the visit to Auschwitz and what impact both the trip and the preparatory workshops might have had on their personal orientation to questions of racism and discrimination. The intervieweesincluded 5 young women and 4 young men, aged between 13 and 19, with varying periods of contact with TRG. All had made the Auschwitz trip at least once. Their ethnic identities varied; only one indicated in the course of the interview (and not when initially asked) that there had been Jews in his family (see table below).

The interviews were carried out by myself and four postgraduates, all of whom had previously been involved in TRG and knew the interviewees. We followed a protocol that involved asking the students about their background or identity and their history with TRG. We asked them whether they had ever been the victim of racism or had held racist attitudes themselves. We then asked them to reflect on what they had learned from the preparation workshops about the Holocaust, especially in terms of who the victims, perpetrators and opponents of Nazi policy were. Questions about the Polish trip itself asked what overall message they had got from the trip about victims, perpetrators and resisters; what the most and least effective aspects of the Auschwitz memorial were; whether the Krakow-based events fitted with the Auschwitz experience; and how they thought other members of the group had been affected by the Auschwitz visit. For this section of the interviews, we asked the 13- and 14-year-olds to bring in pictures or souvenirs that they had collected on the visit, as a focus for conversation. In the event these featured in only one of the recorded interviews, but the results were interesting. Each session ended with an open-ended invitation to the younger interviewees to say what they had learned about racism from the visit and whether and why they would recommend it to their friends; the older interviewees were invited to comment explicitly on the relevance of the Holocaust in 2011, especially for kids growing up in Liverpool, and on whether knowing about the Holocaust can help them to fight racism and violence in everyday life.2

All of the interviewees showed themselves knowledgeable and articulate about key aspects of the Holocaust and also about how the events of the Holocaust (in the widest sense) relate to problems of racism. Each of them was able to talk about that knowledge as relevant to their own situation, explicitly or implicitly, though in surprisingly different ways. Not all of them were able to distinguish what they had learned on the Polish visit, or what they had seen in Auschwitz, from what they had learned before. This was in part a tribute to the effectiveness of the TRG workshops. All the young people agreed that the workshops had both added significantly to any knowledge they might have gained in school and had helped to prepare them psychologically for the visit to Auschwitz. Jack, whose first visit to Auschwitz had been with a different organisation, emphasised how much more he had gained from the second visit against the background of the TRG workshops. In general, the older students were better able to reflect critically on what they had seen (or not seen) specifically on the Polish visit, and this was particularly true if they had made the trip twice.

The overall outcome, in the face of our sceptical hypothesis, was that the visit to Auschwitz had made a positive contribution not only to their understanding of the events of the Holocaust but to their thinking about racism and the possibilities for fighting it. It had consolidated some of their ideas, added detail and nuance to their factual knowledge, and not least provided them with evidence that they could use to counter racism in everyday life. Most commented not only on its impact on them but on the positive effect on other members of the group; two of the older students reported an earlier occasion which has passed into TRG lore, when three particularly ‘hard’ youths were taken on the tour and returned shaken and chastened.

Where I was looking for contradictions – between the complex messages of the workshops and the singularity of Auschwitz, or between the touristic elements of the encounter with Krakow and the serious message of the camp – the interviews bespoke the capacity of the young people themselves to absorb contradictory elements into their account of the overall experience. Thomas was the only one to comment on the pleasures of being in a picturesque town where the chocolate was excellent and the square was full of pigeons; but he was also the one who compiled an album of photos from the camp and Schindler’s factory as evidence of the serious purpose and outcome of the visit. Both Paul and Jack commented that members of the TRG group had been the object of racist stares and gestures in Krakow, and reflected on the persistence of racism there in spite of the wartime experience and the closeness of Auschwitz itself.



More generally, the way the young spectators wilfully interacted with what they were seeing stood out as a key to understanding what they gained specifically from the Auschwitz visit. At the most basic, and in some ways ineffable, level, they were agreed that being there had both an emotional and an evidentiary impact beyond their own expectations. Paul said, ‘You wouldn’t believe it unless you actually see it.’ Jack spoke for others when he said ‘I wasn’t expecting to feel as much as I did.’ Asked about what aspect of the memorial had made the greatest impact, the older students emphasised the sheer size and scope of it, all the more impressive for being empty and largely silent now. Younger ones fixed on the evidence of terrible living conditions (the cramped barracks in Birkenau) or projected the horrors of death in the gas chamber (real or imagined scratch-marks in the concrete). Five of them cited the material objects on display in the museum in Auschwitz I: the piles of hair as an index of the human lives destroyed, the luggage and personal belongings indicating ‘cruel irony’ (Marzena) of the hope of survival and return. The responses to questions designed to probe the differences between what they had learned about victims, perpetrators and resisters with TRG and what was on offer in Auschwitz showed the students appropriating the museum exhibits in different ways to answer their own interests or understanding. A simple example of this is that on the 2011 visit the TRG group made a point of including the Roma exhibition in their tour and prompting the guide on this point. (I should add that those who had been more than once observed both that the qualities and engagement of the tour guide make a difference to the experience, and that the radio technology recently introduced, which allows guides to speak remotely and directly to their own groups, is a great improvement.) A different kind of interaction is evident in Lucy’s observations; she found evidence in the museum exhibits that confirmed her own complex knowledge and understanding. Thus, while the piles of hair and luggage and spectacles testify most obviously to the fate of the Jews murdered on arrival, she saw the variety of victims and victim experiences in the multiplicity of prisoner badges on display. When asked about what the exhibition had to say about perpetrators, and whether they might have been people like herself, she remembered the guide’s few sentences about the kapos and reflected on the pressure they might have been under. And when asked the same question in relation to resistance, she remembered the destruction of one of the gas chambers by prisoners using smuggled explosives in 1944, and remarked that as the child of liberal Polish professionals she would probably have been an active opponent as well as a victim of Nazism. In the event, then, those who reflected on this question generally felt that the Auschwitz visit had broadened their understanding of who might have been a victim or perpetrator. I think this has less to do with the information on offer than with the capacity of the location itself to bring latent understanding to life, though that doesn’t mean that changes to the museum offerings themselves are without importance.

The question ‘Did you think they were like you?’ is at the centre of our pedagogical concern. As I have suggested, it was put to each of the interviewees in relation to what they knew about victims, perpetrators and resisters at each learning stage (before TRG, after the workshops, after the Polish visit). As Lucy’s comments show, the question triggered a range of responses which varied not least in their interpretation of what ‘like me’ might mean. These point to the ways in which the students personalised the material provided in the workshops and visit – and bring us back to the question of what the Holocaust means to these kids in this place.

Interestingly, the younger interviewees enumerated some victim groups – gays, Travellers, the disabled, Jews, political prisoners who were manifestly different from themselves – and then concluded that they were ‘like us’ in the sense that they were ‘ordinary people’ or ‘all human beings’ even if different. Kobe mentioned that he has ‘Jewish mates who are exactly like me but with their own religion’. Mary could see the perpetrators, too, as ‘ordinary people’ who ‘didn’t understand what they were making other people go through’.

For each of the three who had experienced racism themselves because of the colour of their skin – Kobe, Thomas and Devi – the fact that they didn’t need historical examples to understand the cost of racism informed their comments. Kobe was one of three young people who when asked about those who had opposed Hitler thought first of the combatant powers in World War II, but he added a new wrinkle: Having originally thought it was just the United States and Great Britain, he had since learned about African-American and British colonial troops who had fought against Germany. This reflects his work on a Black history project, though he still didn’t see the opponents of Nazism as ‘like us’. But his general conclusions about what he learned from Auschwitz placed his own experience of being the object of racism at the centre. In three distinct iterations he made the point that not only Black people are victims of racism: ‘It’s not just “coz I’m Black”. Everybody’s different in their own way.’ Anybody could be a victim, and ‘it could be a lot worse’.

I wondered whether a similar sense that racism is what Black people suffer in white society lay behind Thomas’ reluctance to characterise what happened in the Holocaust as ‘racism’. He preferred to call it discrimination: ‘You have to discriminate before you can be racist. They discriminated against their race because they were Jews.’ Thomas made clear that his encounter with everyday racism was both personal and vicarious: ‘I wanted to stop racism because I knew a lot of kids that felt violated and started scarring themselves – no-one deserves that.’ He was the only one of our interviewees who brought pictures along, and his selection bespoke an intense personal engagement with the material. One of the pictures was a photograph of a photograph of a mother and child being forcibly separated. Why had he chosen it? It reflects the innocence of the victims: ‘If that was me and my mum...’ How does it make him feel? ‘We should try and make a difference so something like this won’t happen again.’ The second photo was of the swastika decoration embedded in the floor of one of the buildings: He took the picture ‘because you could step on it to show you don’t want no Nazis no more’, ‘When I look at the picture,’ he said, ‘I feel like we should be able to make a change’ - but it inspires mixed feelings because ‘you stamp all over them, but it doesn’t make a difference because they killed so many people’. This note of fatalism is present in some of his other remarks, too: Of the photograph of the mother and child, he said, ‘It’s not so special because a lot of it goes on in the world.’

In fact, for Thomas and Devi being visibly Black was not the only experiential equipment they had for processing what they had learnt. Both triangulated ‘Holocaust’ and ‘racism’ with events outside of Europe. Thomas talked twice about children being ‘taken out of school’ by the Nazis to fight; in an echo of more distant but more recent conflicts he used the term ‘child soldiers’. While he chose not to make this explicit in the interview, Thomas is an immigrant from Nigeria whose family’s early experiences of racist violence in Liverpool, considerably more dramatic than he revealed in the interview, were written up as teaching material for an anti-racism project before he joined TRG.

The invocation of a memory of ethnic conflict outside of Europe is present, too, in Devi’s comments. While poised and apparently articulate, Devi simply drew a blank on a number of questions with which her age-peers had no difficulty; when she did say something it was clearly because she was moved, and in her comments she emphasised the way in which the visit had given emotional depth to abstract knowledge. She reported that before joining TRG she had thought of the victims as ‘white’, Jewish, disabled – not like herself. For her the message of Auschwitz is ‘how far hatred can go’ and ‘If you don’t help others it will come back to you’. Echoing the words with which she had described her own encounter with racism in Liverpool, she spoke of ‘verbal abuse’ leading to genocide. A critical moment in the interview came when her self-identification as Tamil began to articulate itself; she started to cite the Sri Lankan civil war as an example of the worst excesses of racism, first hesitated over whether she should mention it, then rapidly checked herself and moved on to general ethical statements.

Thomas speaks only obliquely about what he knows about conflicts and traumas that seem to be external to both the Holocaust and Liverpool, while for Devi the knowledge of internments, killings and ethnic cleansing that are emotionally at least as close to home seems like an unwelcome intrusion into a licensed narrative. I hesitate to build too much on these two examples, particularly for an audience of educators among whom I count myself an amateur. The circumstances of the interviews may have played a part in the interviewees’ sense of what they might and should say; Thomas was interviewed by an African-American, Devi by a southern white American, both young men. But I venture to propose that the way in which extra-European connections are voiced and unvoiced here might provoke some reflection on our part about how we situate the Holocaust and its legacies in Europe in an increasingly ‘glocal’ world. In Europe and America, human rights museums like this one, or the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, make it part of their mission to raise their visitors’ consciousness about current human rights issues in distant parts of the world. But in trying to globalise histories that we understand as place-specific, we may be overlooking the extent to which that ‘global’ universe of injustice is completely local to the folks we are trying to teach. Some of these kids are in many places at once; to use a term that Zahava Doering introduced in her presentation, we may seek to furnish them with entrance narratives, but the ones they bring with them are often richer and more complex than we appreciate.




Name (alias)

Sex

Age

With TRG since / number of visits to Auschwitz

Identity (self)

Suffered from racism?

Been racist?

Mary

F

13

2008,

one visit 2011



White British

no

no

Alice

F

14

2010

one visit 2011



White British

no

no

Kobe

M

13

2010

one visit 2011



African, English and Irish

Yes - 'n*****' and physical threat

no

Thomas

M

14

2010

one visit 2011



[no ethnicity given; Black]

Yes - 'n*****' and physical threat. 'Loads of people act racist where I live; sometimes you have to fight, sometimes walk away.'

no

Paul

M

18

2007

2 visits,

2008 and 2011


British-born Chinese

Not really - guess I've been lucky

In my family the older generations are more conservative, but I was brought up in a society that was more open-minded.

Jack

M

18

2008,

2 visits


2009? and 2011

‘cloaked' [White British]

Someone shouted at me, thought I was from a different culture but I wasn't.

My area is a pretty racist one, and when I was younger (age 6-10) I fell victim to that kind of thinking, but quickly grew out of it.

Lucy

F

17

2005

2 visits 2008 and 2011



Polish

Yes, but not in a damaging way: name-calling, 'stop taking our jobs...'

We were raised to be open-minded, we are accepting of other cultures.

Devi

F

19

2005

one visit 2011 (TRG Secretary)



Sri Lankan, British, above all Tamil

‘Not as serious as for others.’ One physical attack, otherwise verbal abuse.

Yes, within the Asian community shared stereotypes of others and outsiders - but learned otherwise from TRG.

Marzena

F

19

2005

2 visits,



2007 and 2011 (TRG President)

Of Polish nationality but identifies with English as much as Polish culture

Not racism, but xenophobic remarks and stereotypes

Coming from Poland, very homogeneous in terms of culture and ethnicity, I found myself making stupid mistakes about faith as much as race - comments about people's eating habits.



1 Barnaby Nemko, ‘Are we creating a generation of “historical tourists”? Visual assessment as a means of measuring pupils’ progress in historical interpretation’, Teaching History 137 (December 2009), 32-39.

2 A model for this protocol was provided by that used by the Institute of Education (University of London) in assessing the Holocaust Educational Trust’s ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ Project: Evaluation of The Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project (London: Holocaust Educational Trust, 2010). I am grateful to Dr Richard Hill of the HET for supplying a copy of the report.

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