History lessons uncover truth through fiction

Concentration camps – annihilation – anti-Semitism – internment: these are not concepts any of us wants to think about, but if we pay even lip service to George Santayana’s adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, then we recognise that knowledge is power.

History lessons uncover truth through fiction

The Year 6 students of St James' Primary at Kotara have been immersed in the period of the Nazi Holocaust in ways that are sobering, but also integrated, engaging and ultimately, uplifting.


Teacher Lucy Harvey, who earlier this year received the Monsignor Coolahan Award for Excellence in Teaching, has crafted a unit of work on the Nazi Holocaust of the last century that crosses literature, history and religion and draws comparisons with contemporary events and issues.


Her efforts culminated in the staging of a play she wrote based on John Boyne's novel for children, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Parents, grandparents, teachers and ex-students formed an appreciative audience when the play was performed at St James'.


Lucy explained, "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fictional tale of the unlikeliest of friends: Bruno, the son of a Nazi commandant and Shmuel, a Jewish concentration camp inmate. The story is set during World War II at Auschwitz (mispronounced by Bruno as Out-With) in Poland. It is a story about childhood innocence, friendship, and the importance of breaking down the fences we put up around ourselves.


"By studying The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I wanted my students to look at the Holocaust from a child's perspective so they could identify more closely with its gruesome reality," said Lucy. "I wanted them to develop empathy for the characters and think about struggles that many children experience - prejudice, injustice and intolerance in our daily lives at home, at school, in our community and around the globe."


Speaking to the students as they rehearsed, with a mixture of nervousness and excitement, it was clear that their teacher's creative approach had engaged and motivated them. Ethan Healey said, "Reading The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I've learned that it was horrible, millions of people died. We don't have to be like Martin Luther King and lose our lives for human rights, but we can stop injustice on the playground, in our homes, and make a better world for us all."


A visit to the Jewish Museum in Darlinghurst was naturally confronting but also rewarding. The students were blessed to be guided around the museum of the Holocaust and Australian Jewish history by Yvonne, a survivor of Auschwitz.


"Yvonne spoke to us of her experience at Auschwitz. At the age of 14 she arrived with her parents at the 'Gates of Hell'. After lining up for inspection at the train platform, she was separated from her mother and father. At that moment she became an orphan," explained Lucy Harvey.


"Miraculously, Yvonne survived the gas chamber herself when it malfunctioned. She and the other selected Jews in her group waited naked and shaven for 24 hours in the gas chamber as they (the Nazi soldiers) tried to fix the problem. I can't even begin to imagine what was going through her mind at this time. Eventually the prisoners were released from the chamber and taken to the dormitories. Somebody was truly watching over her that day.


"Yvonne spoke to us of many other hardships that she endured as a prisoner of Auschwitz. She left us inspired by her courage and determination to survive. Yvonne delivered a beautiful message of hope, of acceptance of all people in our world. We recognised that Yvonne has built a happy life despite the unimaginable cruelties she witnessed and experienced.


"Having survivors tell their story to our children is an invaluable resource. There will be a time, very soon, when there will be no survivors left to tell their story face to face. As teachers we can deliver all the facts but having someone speak from experience is a whole different story. We are truly blessed that survivors like Yvonne want to share their story."


Student Helayna McCloy captured well the message of the lessons Year 6 has been enthusiastically learning when she proclaimed, "Lines may divide us but hope will unite us."


You may like to visit www.sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au   


Joachim Angeli: "I learned so much…I learned there are lots of injustices happening in the world and all it takes for them to happen is for people not to stand up and stop them happening. We can't let prejudice rule our lives." 


Molly McLoughlin: "I've learned the importance of friendship and what happened in the Holocaust is still happening."


Sophie Dever: "Sometimes people are mean to other people but you have to stand up to stop that happening." 


Keely Webb: "Everybody's different, just accept them as they are."


Emily Soldis: "I believe it doesn't matter who you are or what you do, you can be anyone's friend."

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