Remembering Rwanda @werememberwanda

According to an HMDT report, over 80% of school children have never heard about the Rwanda genocide.

Andrew Lawrence, a Fellow of the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Education has worked with his students at St John’s School, Leatherhead in an effort to bring this to the attention of schools and students. The end product was this brilliant 10 minute film produced by the students, which can be used in schools to develop students’ understanding of genocide, how it can happen within our own living memories and in any part of the world. The film is informative and moving and encourages an examination of the role of the international community when tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide unfold.

The film succeeds on all levels and also serves as a lesson as to what students can achieve with creative leadership and motivation.

For more information on the film and its making, visit the Centre for Holocaust Education’s website

St Johns’ students continue to be involved in raising awareness of the Rwanda genocide in the year of its twentieth anniversary.

students are involved in a project that aims to raise awareness about the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. – See more at:
students are involved in a project that aims to raise awareness about the twentieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. – See more at:
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The little things…

This evening marks the beginning of Yom HaShoah – the Remembrance Day for the Holocaust in Israel. Needless to say, in Israel there is a somewhat different emphasis in how the Holocaust is remembered and taught.
There are still approximately 193,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, an incredibly high number, and each one has a story to tell, whether or not they have actually told it. The television is awash with documentaries, films, and segments on news programmes that focus on these stories in the days leading up to Yom HaShoah.

This morning on the Channel 10 news a journalist brought in a ring that was made in Auschwitz from a spoon. It was one of a pair and whereas on of the rings had been kept by a survivor, the whereabouts of the second had remained unknown for many years. The ring had two prisoner numbers inscribed on it and the presenters spoke of the implications of a love affair that may have taken place in Auschwitz against all the odds. It struck me that not only was such a relationship seemingly impossible, but that the manufacture of the rings from spoons, items almost as valuable as the bowls that inmates would need in order to be able to eat, was also highly symbolic of the incredible perseverance and resilience needed to survive in and after Auschwitz.

Small silver bracelet made from five links depicting life in the Lodz ghetto

Small silver bracelet made from five links depicting life in the Lodz ghetto

Watching the story led me to a discussion about how small and seemingly innocuous objects can have the most significant impact on students as they realize the individual and personal human side of what is often taught as an immense tragedy filled with huge numbers. I remembered a small silver bracelet I saw in Yad Vashem 7 years ago that had been made as a birthday present by one inhabitant for another in the Lodz Ghetto. We would all make a much greater impression on our students if we focus on the smaller, more intimate stories.

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Today is Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day – in Israel. Israel is a country that has a unique relationship with the Holocaust and unlike the UK, where HMD falls on January 27th (the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Allied forces) Yom HaShoah was initially supposed to fall on 14th Nisan (in the lunar Hebrew calendar) as the Hebrew date of the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. But, as this date coincides with the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover), the date was changed to the 27th of Nisan, which is eight days before Yom Ha’atzma’ut, or Israeli Independence Day.
Yom HaShoah has been a national day of remembrance in Israel since in 1953, when it was inaugurated by a law signed by the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

Yad Vashem (trans. The Hand and the Name) is the Holocaust Martyr’s and Heroes’ Rememberance Authority and Museum in Israel. It has an excellent website in numerous languages that I would strongly recommend to all educators. However, today I will simply encourage you to take a look at this testimony. And remember.

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Seventy years on…

The article I have posted below is one that I wrote for Shabbat Shalom, the half-yearly synagogue newsletter for the Etz Chaim Synagogue in Leeds, where my parents were members. I wrote it with the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) in mind as it has significant themes of survival and liberation at its core and made me think of acts of resistance that I knew had taken place during the Holocaust. The  act of resistance that I focused on in the article was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – partly because it is such a well known example of resistance, but also because it was one that began on the eve of Pesach in 1943 and so this year’s festival was the 70th anniversary of the uprising.

I have decided to reproduce the article here as I think it would be interesting for educators and readers. In particular I think it may be an interesting topic to examine in a cross-curricular way through both History and RS. However, today I discovered an additional reason to publish this article on the blog and that is that sadly, on Sunday, one of the last survivors of the uprising, Peretz Hochman, died aged 85 (Read his full obituary here). Peretz’s attitude to rebuilding his own life as well as that of his people was truly amazing and I’d like to dedicate this blog post to his memory.

“we suffered so much in the Diaspora that we now have to celebrate our independence by singing and merriment”

The original Warsaw Ghetto Uprising article from Shabbat Shalom (Spring 2013)

Seventy years on…

Seventy years ago, the Jewish people witnessed another miraculous occurrence as a group of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto fought for their own freedom from tyranny and slavery at the hands of the Nazis.

This year when we celebrate Pesach, we will read a story from the Hagadah that tells us how – with the leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron – we were freed from the yoke of slavery in Egypt. During this commemoration and celebration, I am reminded of a much more recent attempt to secure Jewish freedom which sees its 70th anniversary this year – the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

In the spring of 1943, a group of young Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were making the last preparations for what they were convinced would be their final stand against the Nazi war machine that had the destruction of all Polish and European Jewry as its aim.

The Warsaw ghetto had been the largest ghetto in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. It had been established in October 1940 and at its peak contained around 450,000 Jews, primarily from Warsaw and its environs, in an area of 1.3 square miles. Living conditions had steadily deteriorated as the effects of war and occupation, overcrowding and starvation took their toll. During 1942 many of the ghetto’s inhabitants, particularly those unable to work, were deported to Treblinka extermination camp and by 1943 there were no more than 60,000 Jews left in the ghetto. The remaining Jews were split between those who believed that by working for the German war machine they would be able to save themselves (or perhaps ‘ride out’ the war) and those who believed that resisting the Nazi attempts to dehumanise and murder them was the only way to emerge with dignity from their situation.

ZOB – the Jewish Fighting Organisation – included young Jews from many different political and social backgrounds. The young leader, Mordechai Anielewicz came from the Hashomer Hazair Zionist youth movement, Antek (Yitzhak) Zuckerman came from Dror Hehalutz and others came from the non-Zionist Bund movement. ZOB had connections with the Polish Home Army that helped it acquire weapons and from the beginning of 1943 it overcame its differences to work together with the Betar youth movement’s Jewish Military Union (ZWW) against the Germans. Together these groups built bunkers and other places of hiding in and under the ghetto, smuggled arms and made crude weapons with which they hoped to derail or delay the process of deportation when it resumed.

Their preparations came to fruition on Erev Pesach 19th April 1943, when the German forces under the command of SS General Jurgen Stroop began the planned liquidation of the ghetto. Stroop had organised a filmmaker to be present to record the final days of Warsaw Jewry ‘for posterity’ – little did he suspect that the photographer would record the largest single act of resistance against the Nazis on Polish soil to date.

ZOB and ZWW together defended their bunkers and fought hard against the vastly superior German weaponry. They had caught Stroop and his men completely by surprise and this enabled them to maintain their resistance for much longer than they had originally anticipated. Stroop was forced to call in reinforcements after losing twelve of his men on the first day of fighting and by day three, he turned to the drastic strategy of burning the ghetto to the ground, building by building and street by street in order to flush the Jews out, whether they were in hiding or resisting. As the ghetto was being reduced to rubble, the resistors carried on the fight albeit in smaller groups and individually. Anielewicz was killed in an attack on the ZOB command bunker on 8th May and little more than a week later, after a month of resistance, fighting and destruction, Stroop declared the ghetto liquidated.

Although most inhabitants of the ghetto were killed or captured by Stroop’s men and the ghetto itself completely destroyed, the uprising has become the ultimate symbol of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. It is widely regarded to have been the single most successful act of resistance by Jews during the Holocaust. Not only did a small group of Jews disrupt the German efforts to liquidate the ghetto, they were a strong symbol of hope and humanity for Jews in other ghettos as well as for their fellow Poles.

The memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw Two memorials were made, one of which stands in Warsaw and the other at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem Photograph (c) Zoë Yacoub 2007

The memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Warsaw
Two memorials were made, one of which stands in Warsaw and the other at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem
Photograph (c) Zoë Yacoub 2007

Pesach is of course a festival of liberation, and the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto did not manage to liberate themselves in the conventional sense. They did however die with the dignity they wished for and they were free in the sense that they chose their own destiny in circumstances which made it almost impossible to do so. And although Moses, who led the children of Israel out of slavery, never lived to see the Promised Land, a handful of those who survived the Holocaust did just that. Antek Zuckerman and his wife Zivia who had fought alongside him in Warsaw were among those who formed Kibbutz Lohamei haGetaot in the newly formed State of Israel in 1949.

Classroom resource:

Jewish Resistance – The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and research tasks. This is an interactive ICT lesson that can be used for KS3 or KS4. Can also be used as basis for independent research/project work.

Further reading/references:

Jurgen Stroop’s photographs from April-May 1943 are online at:

Kibbutz Lohamei haGetaot (Ghetto Fighters’ Kibbutz) –

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Anschluss Anniversary Event – London

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany on 12th March 1938, the London Jewish Cultural Centre is showing the photographic exhibition ‘Double Exposure: Jewish Refugees from Austria in Britain’. The exhibition is accompanied by a film, which follows the lives of the men and women depicted in the portraits and explores their double exposure to the cultures of Britain and Austria.

Sunday 7 April, 4.30pm. £10 in advance (£12 on the door):


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Talk at the Weiner Library – the Protestant Churches and the Holocaust

Compliant or Confrontational?

On Monday 25th March, the Weiner Library will hold a talk on the Protestant Churches and the Holocaust.

Dr Christian Staffa, theologian and former director of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace will discuss this issue in conversation with Canon Dr Giles Fraser, theologian and former Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The event is free but booking in advance is recommended – see the Weiner Library website for details

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Lithuania’s story

The Holocaust Education Trust is running a teachers’ CPD in Lithuania in early April. As someone who visited the country 5 years ago with  the IWM Fellowship, I couldn’t recommend this opportunity enough to teachers who want to enrich their own understanding of the Holocaust as well as their teaching.

As I did in 2007, the four-day HET course will take in Vilnius and Kaunas, two cities which had significant Jewish populations before the war. Vilnius was known as the Jerusalem of Europe and was the home of the respected rabbi the Vilna Gaon as well as a thriving Yiddish culture of theatre, politics, newspapers and education. The pre-war population numbered somewhere in the region of 160,00, leaping to 250,000 by 1941 as Jews fled east out of Nazi-occupied Poland. As a result of ghettoisation, deportation and the actions of the Einsatzgruppen and local militias, Lithuania suffered one of the highest victim rates in Europe – about 90% perished in just three years.

My own family has some history in the region although they had arrived in England decades before the outbreak of the war. The city I grew up in (Leeds) had a substantial Jewish community, many of whom had originally hailed from Lithuania (a large synagogue in the city was called the New Vilna Synagogue) and so when I visited the country in 2007, I had many expectations of an overwhelming emotional response to what I would see, hear and experience there.

Simonas Dovidavicius - historian and Director of the Sugihara Museum as well as an amazing guide.

Simonas Dovidavicius – historian and Director of the Sugihara Museum as well as an amazing guide.
(c) Zoë Yacoub 2007

The visit to Lithuania included a tour of the Jewish sites and ghetto in Vilnius, including the synagogue which, I’m very happy to say, is still functioning as a community synagogue, albeit to a vastly reduced number of Lithuanian Jews. We were very lucky indeed to have an excellent guide in the form of Simonas Dovidavičius, a Lithuanian Jew whose mother survived the Holocaust with the help of Christian neighbours. Simonas is incredibly knowledgeable about the events of the Nazi occupation and spoke eloquently and at length about all aspects of life for Lithuanian Jews in this period, answering all our questions in depth.

Lithuania is still some way behind Poland is recognising it’s wartime history and particularly the Jewish element. Nonetheless, there are plaques in the ghetto area and a Jewish Cultural Centre as well as a few other significant sites of interest such as Ponar and the home of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat who rescued thousands of Jews by giving them visas to Singapore, before he was recalled to Japan by the government there.


Memorial at the Ninth Fort (IX Fort), Kaunas
Photograph (c) Zoe Yacoub 2007

In Kaunas (Kovno) we visited the Ninth Fort, part of a centuries-old fortress complex that surrounds the city. It was here that tens of thousands Jews from the ghetto in Kovno were imprisoned and subsequently murdered. Later, Jews from much further afield were brought here to be killed by the SS. A memorial site has been in place here since 1958 but it is striking that there is no mention of the Jewish victims. It is typical however of the Soviet-era memorial that victim sub-groups would not be individually commemorated but instead all came under the heading of ‘victims of fascism’ or ‘victims of Nazism’.

Throughout my visit to Lithuania, I couldn’t help but think back to a fascinating point that had been discussed on the fellowship in London the previous summer, when Christer Mattsson had talked to us about the notion of “the void” that the Holocaust had left in Europe. The country felt, in many ways, to be empty and I couldn’t help but feel the desolation that the Holocaust had left in its wake. Walking around areas that had once been home to large, vibrant, diverse Jewish communities but that were now empty had an eerie feel.

In the ghetto: the view towards what was once a Yiddish theatre in Vilna

In the ghetto: the view towards what was once a Yiddish theatre in Vilna
(c) Zoë Yacoub 2007

The history of Lithuania is a key part of the history of the Holocaust, and one that I feel Lithuanians themselves are only just beginning to come to terms with. The post war Soviet takeover of the country has undeniably influenced the way in which the Holocaust and the suffering of the Jews has been viewed. It is nonetheless a part of the Holocaust story that poses many interesting questions for teachers and students alike and there is a wealth of material that can be used to illustrate the key issues. I have developed some discussion prompts/inspiration based on the events that took place at Ponar in 1941, and will be adding more Lithuania-focused resources in the near future- watch this space!


Ponary (Einsatzgruppen) (Power Point) – can be used as a starter task or to promote discussion for a more critical examination of the events (Einsatzgruppen, Lithuania, 1941) or the limitations of evidence. Download Ponary (Einstzgruppen)  resource with additional notes and links  here

The Final Solution in the Baltic States from Yad Vashem website – here

Lithuania page from United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum – here

Sugihara House

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