January 27 marked the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russian Red Army.
For the past 11 years, Vandyke Upper School has commemorated this occasion by raising awareness of an atrocity that took place only 70 years ago, within our own European community.
Vandyke students had a special assembly where they were regaled with several personal stories from the darkness of Eastern Europe during the Second World War.
Three stories were shared – three individuals who defied the dark shadow of the Nazi regime in their own small, but potent way.
Emilie Schindler, the wife of the renowned factory owner who saved 1100 Jews from the death camps, had a story equally as compelling as his. She worked tirelessly, under constant surveillance and personal risk, to preserve the lives of their Jewish factory workers, to the point where she and her husband had sold the majority of their personal effects. There was the story of Hannah Szenes, a little-known Hungarian Jew who found her poetic muse while incarcerated and tortured by the Nazis; her iconic poetry is studied by Jewish communities around the world today. Finally, the story of Leopold Socha was a study in irony: a sewer-worker funded the survival of an entire Jewish family from his own pocket, buying the silence of his fellow workers.
A school spokesman said: “The Holocaust was the attempted obliteration of a millennia-old culture, but it was also an attempt to destroy a subsection of society who were somehow ‘other’.
“The fact that so many turned their eyes from the suffering of their friends and neighbours is testament to the many emotions provoked by persecution.
“Hatred, suspicion, indifference: all born from ignorance. Ignorance is provoked by a fear of the unknown, of those who look, speak, act or pray differently. Yet, it is painfully clear to anyone who reaches out to those who are made into society’s targets, that beneath the fleshy exterior, we are made from the same organic matter.
“Shakespeare’s Shylock entreated his audience with: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?’ It seems as if, 450 years later, we still have not comprehended the meaning behind his words.
“Although Holocaust Memorial Day refers to one specific atrocity; the lessons learnt from it can be applied far more universally. The deliberate and systematic isolation of a group of people based on arbitrary factors is a primitive and brutal characteristic of human society. This ‘dark side’ of humanity can only be illuminated through education – not just the type that takes place in schools, but through our interactions at home, on the street and in the community.
“The willingness to accept, to empathise and to appreciate difference are some of the qualities which separate man from beast. Just as the strongest metals on Earth are alloys – comprised of many diverse ores – so are the strongest communities made up of those who are prepared to build bridges over the gaps that divide us.”