Saturday, 28 January 2012


The city formally commemorates Holocaust Memorial Day this evening. The event is jointly sponsored by Leicester Council of Faiths, the Schools Development Support Agency (SDSA), the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester and Leicester City Council. 

The annual commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day officially falls on 27 January, which was yesterday - a Friday. Since the Jewish community plays such a prominent part in this annual occasion, it would be daft to hold it on a day on which they'd be unable to take part.

Leicester's Holocaust Memorial Day has obtained funding from the Big Lottery's Awards For All scheme this year, which has allowed preparations for the event and the commemoration itself this evening to step up a gear.

There are 140 people attending this evening, in what is a new venue for this event: Embrace Arts at the University of Leicester's Richard Attenborough Centre.

The programme is introduced by Tony Nelson (Chair of Leicester Holocaust Memorial Day Committee and Treasurer of Leicester Council of Faiths - and my line manager). Tony welcomes special guests, including Cllr Robert Wan, Lord Mayor of Leicester; Lady Gretton, Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire; and The Right Revd. Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester. Apologies were received from Sir Peter Soulsby, Mayor of Leicester.

Charlie Neale and Joe Flavell from English Martyrs Catholic School, Laura Whitehouse and Craig Heffernan from Beauchamp College speak on their experiences of the Holocaust Educational Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz Project, then answer questions. 

Now, normally when I hear anyone introduced as a "Performance Poet" my eyes dart to the nearest exit (and in my previous incarnation as a Creative Writing tutor, I've had to do that plenty of times). But this evening, I'm glad to say, Leah Thorn is definitely the exception that proves the rule. She makes a wonderful contribution - touching, moving and uplifting, engaging and involving - occasionally bringing us up short with moments of insight or revelation. She's accompanied on a variety of musical instruments by her partner, Arike. Leah has spent time in five Leicester schools working with pupils, coaching them in writing their own poetry about appropriate themes for Holocaust Memorial Day which are relevant to their own experience (later in the week, the Leicester Mercury gives good coverage to this part of the project). The poems have been collected in a booklet, entitled "SPEAKUPSPEAKOUT: Holocaust Memorial Day Poetry Collection 2012", which is distributed free of charge to attendees here this evening. Here's Leah's introduction to the booklet:
I arrived in Leicester on the 4th of December 2011 to lead a week of poetry in workshops in Leicester schools for Holocaust Memorial Day 2012. I was to work in a boys' secondary school, some primary schools and I was excited to meet the young people. I was also curious. How would we get on? In a period of a few hours, would it be possible to create a safety and an atmosphere in which young people could share honestly their thoughts and feelings about genocide?
My mother was a Holocaust survivor and when she learned of my work with non-Jews on the subject of the Holocaust, she tellingly asked, "Do they listen? Do they care?" Thinking of the young people I met during my week in Leicester, my answer is a resounding "YES!"
The young people, aged ten to fifteen, cared a lot. Whether we were looking at bullying as the first step to genocide, or at the role of the bystander, or at metaphors for the Holocaust, they were attentive, thoughtful - and full of poetic ideas. They surprised themselves with their achievements, and I appreciated the warmth with which they welcome me and listened to my poetry and my stories. The poems they created are a powerful testimony to their talent and to their sensitivity.

As well as Leah reading some of the children's poems, she mixes in some of her own, reflecting her family's recollections of the Holocaust. A few of the children are welcomed onstage to read their contributions. The Leicester schools with which Leah worked were:

The Holocaust is a choking sound,
a shattering sound around the whole world;
the screeching sound of a blackboard being scratched
and a building crashing down.
The Holocaust is dark silver, the colour of upset,
the blue of tears and the sleepy pink of smoke.
It is a journey stuck in freezing snow.

It stings and pinches skin. It is a bruise.
The Holocaust is a draught up your arm,
a spider creeping up your sleeve.
The Holocaust is rough on the tongue, like sharp metal.
The Holocaust is a game of Hide'n'Seek.
It is an explosion of destruction.
The Holocaust lives in an abandoned castle
with boarded up windows.
It is a ripped-up teddy bear
with its stitching dropped.
It is a rocking horse, rocking backwards and forwards.
It is a heart full of ice.
It says to me, "Everywhere I go,
everything nice dies."
The Holocaust lives in a dark, mysterious forest,
in the cold with dust.

(group poem by Year 6 pupils, Queensmead Primary School)

Next in this evening's programme there's a more formal musical interlude (two Chopin Preludes) by Markian Lachmann from English Martyrs at the piano.

Siobhan Begley presents certificates to the young people who have participated in the Speak Up, Speak out! project, in memory of her late husband, Paul Winstone.

Professor Aubrey Newman (Past Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester) addresses briefly this year's theme: "Speak Up, Speak Out!"

In the photo above (left to right): Tony Nelson, Juliet Martin (SDSA), Leah Thorn, Arike, Cllr Manjula Sood.

Some thoughts on "monitoring" are appropriate here: at the last few commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day, I've put out the forms required by Leicester City Council as part of their monitoring regime on the seats before anyone turns up. And whoever's been chairing the meeting has waved the forms from the front and asked attendees to complete them before leaving. Knowing how much store our various monitoring officers at City Council set by these forms, I'm always anxious to ensure as many of these forms as possible are completed and collected. I've had occasional comments - verbal or in writing - from attendees that this may be seen as a bit obtrusive. This evening I wasn't able to leave the monitoring forms on the seats before the meeting began, but lay them out on chairs and tables in the cafe, so that attendees can complete them during the reception after the formal part of the programme.

This time however, I'm slapped in the face by the irony of asking people to declare disability, religion and sexual orientation at an event, commemorating victims of the holocaust and of genocide who were persecuted, tortured victimised and done to death for possessing characteristics in those three areas that deviated from some arbitrary norm. Inside 20 minutes I go from (politely) butting into conversations round the tables, encouraging everyone to fill out the forms and explaining why we need them to do so, to going round collecting the unfilled forms and binning them. I have a conversation later with Rev. David Clarke about this and he offers to write supporting comments on one of the forms and sign it.

1 comment:

  1. This was a well organised event in a good venue. I was present, and have been to most of the Holocaust Memorial Day events in Leicester over the past few years. The Holocaust was one of the most disgraceful episodes in human history and it's hard to believe that it happened only 10 years before I was born. I've not yet been to Auschwitz but I've visited the Yad Vashim holocaust museum in Jerusalem and being there was an experience I'll never forget. I was particularly reminded of it when Aubrey Newman pointed out how long it would take to count the 6million Jews who perished during the Holocaust, as at Yad Vashim they are in the process of naming all the Chldren (over a million) who died, and this naming had started before my visit - in 1994! We MUST continue to remember the Holocaust.