The legacy of hope

Each year the University of Wolverhampton hosts a Holocaust Memorial Lecture. The event commemorates Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 and a guest speaker is invited to share their experiences. This year the University welcomed Dr Martin Stern.

During dark times, there are often glimmers of hope. These can be simple acts of kindness or astonishing acts of bravery for the sake of others. Although a time of torture, death and horror, the Holocaust was a period when instances of human generosity and courage made a real difference to other people’s lives, giving them a reason to believe in the possibility of a future.

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2010 is ‘the legacy of hope’ and this seemed particularly relevant to this year’s University of Wolverhampton lecture. Dr Martin Stern was arrested when he was aged just five, and although he suffered extreme hardship in the concentration camps, he also experienced kindness from fellow inmates and friends.

Martin is now retired from his successful career and is involved in educating others about both good and bad behaviour during the Second  World War.

The father-of-three has published a booklet, titled Martin and Erica’s Journey, about his own experiences and that of his younger sister during the Holocaust.

He clearly feels strongly that the lessons from that period of history must not be forgotten.

“Despite the ‘never again’ resolve after the Holocaust, genocides and similar mass killings have continued ever since, whilst hate propaganda continues the preparation for others,” he says.

Martin's story

Martin was born in the Netherlands in 1938 to a Jewish architect and his non-Jewish German wife, who were refugees from Berlin. His father was forced to go into hiding following the Nazi invasion, and was eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald concentration camp, where he died. Martin was hidden by friends of his parents in Amsterdam – near the house where the young Anne Frank penned her diary during the same period.

Martin was arrested at school in 1944 and he and his one-year-old sister Erica were sent to Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands and then to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Conditions were appalling, with many Jewish people dying from starvation or disease, or deportation to an extermination camp. The vast majority of the 15,000 children who entered were gassed in Auschwitz.

But again, Martin experienced great kindness, this time from a Dutch lady, who kept him and Erica in the women’s dormitories.

Once liberated, Martin returned to the Netherlands but was refused a Jewish upbringing. Eventually he was transferred to his Jewish family in Manchester. He went to Manchester Grammar School and then to Oxford University to study Medicine, becoming a Clinical Immunologist specialising in asthma and allergies. He is married with three married children and four grand-daughters.

His lecture at the University looked at his own experiences, and the extremes of bad and good behaviour during the Holocaust, and the psychology underlying this. He also talked about the issues of educating children about genocide, which is obviously necessary but not without pitfalls. Martin also considered whether hope was justified, given that there have been more than 50 genocide-like events since the Holocaust.

He says: “Research has taught us a lot about perpetrators, rescuers and causes of genocide. Academia is a vital part of our hope but can be corrupted. University research and open academic debate play a vital role in mankind’s future.”

The Annual Memorial Day Lecture

Professor Dieter Steinert organises the Annual Memorial Day Lecture at the University. Recent speakers have included Auschwitz survivor Gabor Hirsch and Steven Frank, who, like Martin, spent time in Westerbork and Theresienstadt concentration camps.

The lecture provides an opportunity for students and staff to learn more about this period of history, and remember those who lost their lives.