In the immediate aftermath of an intense four day trip to Jerusalem for the 10th International Conference on Holocaust Education at Yad Vashem, representatives of The Fed’s My Voice Manchester Project confessed to feeling “overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand”.

Juliette and Hila at the opening ceremony at Yad Vashem

Juliette Pearce, manager of the charity’s north Manchester Volunteer Services and Hila Kaye, My Voice Manchester, Project Leader, spent four days learning, listening, networking and teaching at the Yad Vashem Conference, from June 25th to 28th, 2018.

My Voice, a heritage-lottery funded project, captures the life-stories of Holocaust survivors and refugees and, unlike testimony projects, focuses principally both on their lives before the Holocaust, and later rebuilt literally from the ashes, here in the UK. The stories celebrate the contributions made to the Jewish and wider society by their tellers and give hope to others facing persecution in the present day.

Following a visit to The Fed onKristallnacht, November 2017, by the Director General of Yad Vashem, Dorit Novak, during which she was presented with a set of the first nine life-story books produced by the project, Juliette and Hila were specially invited to the conference.

There, they mingled with delegates from over 50 nations and met with the Richelle Budd-Caplan, Director of the European Department the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, to discuss development and refinement of the project, with a view to using the My Voice books as integral educational resources in schools and colleges in the UK.

“You cannot imagine how proud and privileged we are to know that our home-grown Manchester project, which took seed in a social care volunteer service, is talking about partnering Yad Vashem in national – and who knows, international – Holocaust Education,” commented Hila.

Continuing she explained,

“My Voice’s original aim, through volunteer befriending, was to help survivors and refugees capture their memories, to be able to share them, first of all, with their families and friends.

They were intended as treasured family keepsakes, but it became obvious from the stories which emerged that there is a wider value for the authors’ adopted communities. They are part of the heritage of our amazing city of Manchester and on top of this, telling their stories gives people the most amazing sense of their own unique value.”

“But now the significance of these books has transcended their original aim and local historical value: one of the key themes of the conference was how to face the challenge of a world without survivors. How do we continue to keep their messages alive in a way that will engage and educate future generations of young people? In not so many years there will be no survivors left, or those that remain are likely to have lost their ability to remember or communicate their memories – that is the stark reality.”

Juliette continued,

“The conference highlighted the need to identify future resources of Holocaust education from primary sources. This was underlined in a stand-out lecture by Dr. Stephen Smith, who is the Executive Director, USC of the Shoah Foundation, USA. He spoke about “A World Without Survivors: Different Approaches” and demonstrated an astonishing technical solution – the use of holograms of survivors that you can actually talk to, and which answer you back! Basically the ‘interviewer’ who would be a young person in a school or college situation can ask a question into microphone.  Using voice recognition software their speech is converted into text. Then the computer searches the archives of the survivor’s individually recorded story and pin-points the most relevant responses. The result is a totally natural conversation! It is unbelievable”.

“Our books are yet another means of ‘talking’ in a real and immediate way to young people, which is why Yad Vashem is so interested in our project. Our books sit alongside this technology.”

“But time is running out. The responsibility for us is immense. We need to complete the books for people who have already come forward but also reach others who haven’t yet been offered the opportunity. The importance of their messages was never greater or more relevant.

The conference attracted over 350 delegates, mostly educators, from all over the world, including Japan, China and Macedonia, and was opened by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, Chief Rabbi and of Tel Aviv and Yafo (previously the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel) and himself a survivor.

Rabbi Lau emphasised the need to use personal stories as educational tools to evoke empathy and a real understanding of the Holocaust. He said that in the past, mistakes had been made by relying too much on historical facts and numbers which people do not relate to.

Day two of the conference coincided with Prince William’s visit to the world-renowned museum and although delegates were not able to meet him, Juliette and Hila took their own tour immediately following in his footsteps

On the final day, the entire conference was addressed by Chariman of the Yad Vashem Directorate Aver Shalev, who had personally escorted the Duke of Cambridge on his visit.

Hila reported how he told the audience that he knew he had done his job well on seeing how moved the Prince was, and hearing him comment to the effect that he wanted to ensure that his children one day came on a similar visit.