Two Holocaust survivors visit Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College

By - Tuesday 12th July, 2016

Liberty Martin reports on a powerful talk, and a disturbing message, for Croydon pupils

Berlin’s Holocaust memorial.
Photo by Christopher John SSF, used under Creative Commons licence.

Year 9 pupils at Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College for Girls saw history come to life when two Holocaust survivors visited their school on Thursday 9th June. Husband and wife Peter and Marianne Summerfield visited NMBEC to share their experiences of the Holocaust with a group studying the topic.

The visit was arranged by sixth form history students Rubab Mirza and Weronika Florczak. These two year twelve pupils are ambassadors from the Lessons from Auschwitz programme by the Holocaust Educational Trust, and spent a day in Poland visiting Auschwitz and learning about the Holocaust so they could spread their knowledge to other young people. It was Rubab and Weronika’s idea to have NMBEC’s first talk from Holocaust survivors.

The couple shared the journeys of their lives with the pupils, from their childhoods in Berlin to their grandchildren. Peter was born in Berlin and watched the isolation of Jews from German society as a young boy. Marianne, on the other hand, grew up in Breslau in Germany, which is now Wroclaw in Poland, where she saw the anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime escalate until her father was arrested and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp after Kristallnacht.

The family escaped Germany in 1939, just hours before the country’s borders closed

Both Holocaust survivors managed to escape Germany on the basis of luck. Marianne’s mother had blonde hair and blue eyes, so using her Aryan appearance she managed to persuade a Nazi guard to release her husband. After losing his profession as a lawyer, Marianne’s father worked in a starch factory which had connections to England, allowing the family to get a sponsorship and move there. Peter’s family was meant to leave Germany by train on a Wednesday to live with a distant family member, however after reading the news, Peter’s grandmother warned them to go on the Saturday. The family left hours before Germany’s borders closed, and four days before the war began. “[These were] all key matters that, if they were different, we wouldn’t be here today”, Peter notes.

As child refugees with only a few items as remnants of their former lives, Marianne and Peter were eager to integrate into British culture. They spent the rest of their childhoods in England and went to school here, and Marianne became a teacher and opened up a chain of nursery schools while Peter went to Oxford University to become a lawyer after serving for two years in the British army. The couple met when Marianne taught Peter’s son at school and have been married for forty-three years with five children and twelve grandchildren.

The pair recounted their lives to an attentive audience. In a letter written to the couple, one pupil said: “Words can’t describe how moved I was hearing these Holocaust survivors’ stories. I can only imagine how they must’ve felt; the strength they had to talk about such an emotional experience – and to continue, was amazingly strong of them”. Another attendee wrote: “Their experiences were inspiring and made me feel grateful. It also made me feel like I had a choice and could help stop issues. I respect the couple a lot”.

People didn’t take Hitler very seriously at first… just like they didn’t take Trump very seriously

However, Peter and Marianne haven’t always felt comfortable sharing their testimonies. Peter remembers, “[I] never spoke about it until about 20 years ago after I saw Schindler’s List… I thought to myself well, here is a film that shows what it was like in Germany at that time and I’ve got a story to tell, [so] why shouldn’t I tell it?”. Soon after the couple decided to dedicate time sharing their testimonies together to educate others about the Holocaust. Marianne says, “I thought: hang on, if Peter can do it, I can do it, and it’s something we can do together”.

The couple feel a personal duty to educate young people about prejudice and genocide, drawing parallels between current worldwide affairs and 1930s Nazi Germany. “People didn’t take Hitler very seriously to begin with – just like they didn’t take Trump very seriously”, Peter tells. “I think that it’s dangerous now, for example in Austria [Norbert] Hofer [only] just failed. So it is dangerous because they are not just anti-Semitic, [they are] anti-[people of colour], anti-Muslim…”. Marianne joins in solemnly with agreement: “Anti-black, anti-everything”.

“Never again”, says Peter. “Don’t stand by”, adds Marianne

When asked what message they want to leave, the two Holocaust survivor’s answers are direct and instantaneous: “Never again”, Peter says, just before Marianne adds: “Don’t stand by”. At the end of their testimony, Marianne made sure to pass on a quote by Edmund Burke to the pupils: “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing”.

Nevertheless, Peter and Marianne were pleased with the awareness shown by the students at NMBEC. Prior to the visit, the pupils made textbooks about the history of anti-Semitism, pre-war Germany and the Holocaust as their history class assessment. Peter says: “What we were impressed by was how much you’d already learnt – and those books we saw, I said, they really need to be shown to more people”. Marianne agrees, “I think this is one of the best schools we’ve ever been to. I really do”. The couple tour Germany and England to share their testimony, and visit between fifteen to twenty schools a year. They have visited Croydon previously, when they spoke at the Whitgift School.

Sarah Thompson, the teacher who coordinated the textbook project, was immensely proud of the girls. “The fact that they [Peter and Marianne] were impressed by it makes me realise why I’m teaching… And when we can show it to people who have experienced the history that we’re learning about it feels like it’s coming full circle”.

Liberty Martin

Liberty Martin

Born and raised in Croydon with a rich Jamaican heritage, Liberty Martin is a keen aspiring journalist and writer. After winning the Guardian’s Young Reporter of the Year for Years 10 and 11 in 2014, she’s hungry for a good story and wants to travel and learn about the world around her. Always interested in a topical debate, Liberty’s constantly reading online blogs and news websites to keep up-to-date with the latest news. She’s obsessed with chips slathered in vinegar, elephants, Frank Ocean and wants an extensive library of books in her future home. At school Liberty is studying English Literature, Spanish and History at A Level and sings in her school choir.

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