David Torn on the impact that the horrors of the Holocaust have on his students ― and on him.

“Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” Edmund Burke.

For more than six weeks now year 9 has been learning about the Holocaust and, as is the norm in our school, we took a trip to the Imperial War Museum the week before half-term. 

It usually runs smoothly with the students visiting exhibitions on the First and Second World Wars before contemplating the Holocaust experience. I use the word contemplating because it is indeed very much a spiritual experience and one that, for many students, really ignites their interest in history.

For any of you have visited the exhibition, you will know about the various horrors on show, such as the Zyklon B gas pellets or the table on which many Nazi experiments were carried out. But what moved many of my students was a poem written by a Jewish girl, Marisia, who was friends with a Catholic girl, Dosia. 

The sheer beauty and humanity of the poem and sketches was what caught my students’ attention, alongside the visible nightmares on show. The message was about the future and looking back on days of friendship and innocence. 

However, the real impact came when the students received a talk from one of the museum’s educators. She talked to us about the years of Nazi persecution before reading from a book about a girl who went into hiding. 

At the end of the reading she said to us: “That little girl is sitting in front of you now and my name is Cirla Lewis, a survivor of the Holocaust.”

You could have heard a pin drop and I am not ashamed to say that I, too, had a lump in my throat. To be told the story by someone who was nine at the end of the war and actually experienced it was something I could not have competed with in the classroom. Learning from example was an extraordinarily powerful way for my students to begin to come to grips with the Holocaust.

Needless to say in the following lesson my students requested that they be able to write to Cirla themselves to express the impact that she had had on them. And though some only wrote short pieces as opposed to the two or three pages that others wrote, their sentiments were all very similar.

One student actually confessed: “Before I came to the museum I did not care about the Holocaust because I wasn’t there, but as soon as I heard your story I could see there was something miraculous about you.”

The students will now have a follow up visit by one of our regular speakers and another survivor of the Holocaust, Rudi Oppenheimer, during which a bench will be dedicated to his continuing work with our school.

We often hear the word “impact” mentioned in schools today. The impact of these types of experiences are difficult to measure, but are among the most valuable ones a student can have. Often we have past students coming back recounting their memories of the day they met a Holocaust survivor and it is clear that the impact has been sizeable.

For my own part, the learning journey continues when I will accompany our year 10 students on a visit to Berlin in two weeks’ time when we will come face-to-face with a concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, as well as visiting the building in which the Final Solution was agreed upon. 

I will then be travelling to Poland with another school that I work with in July. There we will be visiting Auschwitz among other places. 

For these students as well as myself the real impact of education will be felt, and though this is something they may not be able to take into the examination room, their experiences will no doubt play some part in shaping the individuals they become.

Being a classroom teacher remains the greatest privilege that we can have in this profession as we have the opportunity to impact on the lives of those we teach. It is really important that we never forget the reasons why we entered the classroom in the first place and look to continually build upon the experiences that both our students can gain as well as ones for ourselves.

  • David Torn is a professional tutor at St Edward’s School in Essex. He is a former Teacher of the Year for London and co-author of Brilliant Secondary School Teacher.


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