Education is vital for a healthy society. For children, school is a huge part of their lives. However, for those children affected by the Holocaust, whether as refugees or internees in camps and ghettos, their education was forever interrupted.
Starting School in the 1930s
Over the past week as children across Britain have gone back to school (many after the interruption of the Covid-19 pandemic), parents up and down the country have been taking countless pictures of children dressed in their school uniform ready for their first day. Just as Rudi Leavor’s parents were doing in 1932, on his first day at school in Berlin, Germany.
Rudi is holding two ‘Schultüte’ or school cone; it is traditional in Germany for school children to be given a cone full of sweets as they start school, especially as the thought of attending school for the next 13 years needs to be ‘sweetened’. Rudi recalled: “I had about a mile walk everyday. I was very happy at school. I was there for four years.” Rudi’s education was interrupted when his family had to flee Germany for the safety of Britain following escalating antisemitic discrimination in 1937.
After settling in Bradford, Rudi attended Bradford Grammar School. Although it was initially difficult due to the language barrier, he settled and received a good education. He later followed in his father’s footsteps and became a dentist.
School is often described by many as ‘the best days of your life’ and for many Holocaust survivors, their early days in school contain many happy memories. For Trude Silman, school meant being able to see her friends, “I remember one girl particularly, she was the daughter of a baker, and I used to love going to play at her house because of the lovely smell of the bakery, she used to come to our house.”
For Iby Knill, school was a place where she could absorb information and learn, “When, I really loved school because it was the place where I could get questions answered, and I was always full of questions.”
Changing Circumstances After 1933
After the Nazis came to power in 1933, school began to change for Jewish children as many were expelled or had to move to private, all Jewish schools (a new law on 25 April 1933 limited the number of Jewish students in any one public school to no more than 5 percent of the total school population). Children who remained in German schools had to salute the Nazi flag each morning and were given antisemitic textbooks with stereotypical images of Jewish people. Jewish children were also often picked on during lessons, particularly when discussing the racial features of Jewish people.
But some teachers tried to protect their Jewish students, as in the case of Heinz Skyte: “Well grammar school went on, there was I don’t know what the percentage was, fair sprinkling of Jewish pupils, but it diminished. Some emigrated early on, some changed to the Jewish secondary school, there was a Jewish secondary school in Fuerth and some went there voluntarily, and by about 1935 two years later there were 3 of us left in the class and there was an episode when one of the Hitler Youth leaders who was in the class came to us with a couple of pals and said to us ‘it’s time you three left, we don’t want Jews here’. The pupils, not the teachers. So we went home, discussed it with our parents, we also discussed it with some of our school mates who were not blatant Nazis and everybody says, ignore them, forget about it, stay where you are, and that’s what we did, we stayed on.”
For others, the beginning of the Third Reich meant the end of their education in Germany. Edith Goldberg only attended school a handful of times: “And I started going to Hebrew school when I was 5 (years old), but it only lasted a few weeks because all that finished. My father took me on the motorbike to the nearest town, which was Rockenhausen. I think we went around 3 or 4 times. I got as far as learning the Jewish alphabet, that’s as much teaching as I got over there.”
School became an unsafe place for Jewish children and after the war started in 1939, it became increasingly dangerous.
An Education Interrupted
Whether children fled to safety as refugees or experienced the horrors of concentration camps, their education was interrupted. For Trude, reaching Britain didn’t bring about immediate stability; she lived in several places around the country and attended several schools. However, school was important for Trude as she wished to go to medical school when she was older. Trude worked hard, even attending a boys’ school so that she could access laboratory equipment. Trude was also fortunate to have a teacher who took the time to teach her English. Not all child refugees were as lucky.
Val Ginsburg was a boy from Lithuania in the 1930s, who had loved school and dreamt of becoming a pilot or an architect. But the Holocaust took away his opportunity to learn. By age 19, Val was imprisoned first in the Kaunas Ghetto and then later sent to Dachau. Upon liberation, Val was severely ill but was able to regain his health and made a new life in England after the war. In Britain, Val worked in the textile trade in the North until retirement. But the Holocaust had taken away not only Val’s family, friends and country, but the opportunity to have an education: “I was training to be an architect. In fact I wanted to be a pilot. I was learning to fly gliders and I was building model aeroplanes, I was full of avionics but it didn’t work out, I enrolled to study architecture and that’s where I had to interrupt my university education when the Germans marched in.”
An Education Regained?
Many survivors after the Holocaust focused on creating new lives, finding jobs and having families. Others decided to also pursue the education that was interrupted and taken from them. Iby Knill, despite surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau and a death march, later created a new life in Britain. Education was always important to Iby and she had several careers. She earned a BA in 1973, and an MA in 2002 (at the age of 79!).
Many survivors relished the chance to restart and continue their education once they were settled in their new lives. As we begin the new school year, we can consider ourselves quite lucky to have that stable access to education, from which to build our lives.