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August 16, 2018

Responding to the present by remembering the past


Responding to the present by remembering the past

By Amy Williams and Hannah Wilson

The exhibition 

World Jewish Relief has recently worked with several PhD researchers and Professor Bill Niven to create a new travelling exhibition about the work of our founders (the Central British Fund) and how World Jewish Relief today is using memory of the Holocaust, especially memory of the Kindertransports, when responding to new crises. The exhibition argues that this memory should not be limited in scope rather it should challenge us to rethink Britain’s celebratory narrative of the Holocaust. Using World Jewish Relief’s work as one example the researchers have highlighted how many different organisations are using memory of the past to encourage us to act today when manmade and natural disasters strike.

Therefore, the purpose of the exhibition is to show that World Jewish Relief is a global organisation because our work has extended beyond the Jewish community to help all those in need regardless of their ethnic and religious backgrounds. The exhibition was launched at the Scottish Parliament on 15th June 2018 at the “Refugee Politics: Dilemmas and Trade-Offs Symposium” and is now currently touring to other locations around the UK.

Amy Williams – why I worked on this

“I approached World Jewish Relief in 2017 because I wanted to raise funds for the charity. I had been researching in the Metropolitan Archives, London where many of the records are kept and I had learnt a great deal about the history of the Central British Fund. But I wanted to know more about the tremendous support and care World Jewish Relief provide for refugees and those in need today. Likewise, I also wanted to understand how World Jewish Relief is remembering the Kindertransports as well as how they are using memory of this historical event to inspire us to help people today. For example, in November 2017 World Jewish Relief worked with the Association of Jewish Refugees and Hands On London to dress the Frank Meisler Kindertransport memorial outside Liverpool Street Station in red winter coats. Memory of the Kindertransports has thus prompted different organisations to act bringing awareness to the general public. Therefore, the Kindertransports were associated with the plight of refugees today and former Kinder, who understand what is was like to be a refugee, also helped during the campaign. We then had several meetings where we discussed possible funding opportunities such as taking part in a Wolf Run and holding a bake sale on campus and we also came up with the idea of holding a one day workshop with World Jewish Relief in Nottingham to reflect upon both the history and the memory of the Holocaust. The exhibition was the result of the talks given by World Jewish Relief and the wide range of topics presented by the researchers on 12th March 2018. Our scholarship fund Midlands3Cities/AHRC, soon to be Midlands4Cities, supported and funded our project.

When I spoke to my fellow researchers about producing an exhibition about World Jewish Relief I thought that it was important to highlight how the history of the Central British Fund can be placed in
 the context of British Jewry’s philanthropic work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as British Jewry has a long tradition of looking beyond domestic affairs to help others and, in doing so, they have fought for people’s rights where they have been denied. So, we decided to create an exhibition which moved chronologically from the origins of the Central British Fund, to their work before and during the Second World War, to their postwar operations, through to the work of World Jewish Relief today. We also wanted to explore both the positives and the complexities with regards to adapting to new crisis as well as how second generation are discovering their family heritage. Likewise, it was also important to point out the individual stories of survivors who were helped by the Central British Fund and who are still supported by World Jewish Relief today as well as those who volunteer for the charity”.

Hannah Wilson – bringing together the exhibition 

“Creating Responding to the present by remembering the past: A travelling exhibition for World Jewish Relief was both a meaningful and enlightening process for all involved. To begin, we held a one-day workshop at the Nottingham Conference Centre, which brought together a range of voices to look at the history and memory of the Kindertransports, post-war responses and the current international development work that World Jewish Relief provide today. This turned out to be an extremely interesting event, which included historian Mike Levy discussing the organisation’s history, and he also showed some rare footage of the first children arriving in the UK. Aneesa Riffat, curator at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, told us about the challenges of working with Holocaust survivor testimony, and Dr Andrea Hammel, Reader in German at Aberystwyth University, looked at how public opinion today is in favour of helping child refugees. There was also an opportunity for me and my fellow PhD candidates to share our research topics: the use of memory in Kindertransport memorials and popular culture, archaeology and artefacts at Sobibor death camp and child refugees under the Vichy regime. Lastly, World Jewish Relief’s Richard Verber spoke about the current work of the organisation 80 years on, including its programmes supporting vulnerable Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, and its disaster response programmes around the world including with today’s refugee crisis.

Inspired by the variety of topics presented at this workshop, we continued our research into the history and current work of World Jewish Relief. For me, this was the most interesting aspect and – in particular – being able to read the personal stories of those who received direct help from this organisation across the years. I learnt so much from this and, I would argue, that many remain unaware of the impact of the current aid that World Jewish Relief provides. Therefore, this aspect became one of the most important considerations within our exhibition. Similarly, accessing and engaging with their archives was a huge privilege. In opening these to the public (subject to request), World Jewish Relief have been able to reconnect family members with their own personal narratives and history. They have also provided information for the TV programme Who Do You Think You Are? – the most recent instance of which was aired this month and followed Judge Robert Rinder’s exploration his Jewish family history, and specifically, their experiences during the Holocaust”.

From the team

“The exhibition aims to teach people about the work of World Jewish Relief, past and present. Yet, in creating this, we also learned a great deal about the intricacies of their wartime efforts, the variety of post-war aid provided, and the continuation of international projects and relief work. It was truly an honour to give something back to this organisation, and we hope it will continue to educate and raise awareness as it travels across the country and to venues abroad. We are also extremely grateful to World Jewish Relief for allowing us access into their archives, the team were so warm and welcoming and really supported our project, and we’d like to give a special thank you to the three survivors (Hanna, Dvora and Harry) and their families who kindly shared their experiences with us. Please email Amy or Hannah if you would like a copy of the pdf version of the exhibition. Thank you!”