It is very easy to demonise young people, I often hear thoughtless adults refer them as feral, running wild, out of control. Tonight in a school hall in Fairfield, in a deprived part of Liverpool, I experienced some truly inspirational contributions from young people gathering to commemorate the worst of atrocities against the human race. Contributions that made me proud to be alive, proud to have been there, proud to have experienced their passion for myself.
It was the first event in the six part programme of Kensington Remembers. Kensington Remembers is our area's contribution to Holocaust Memorial Day next Wednesday.
As the chair of Kensington Remembers I have been privileged to lead a steering group made up dedicated and committed local people for the last six months, this week our work has come to fruition.
Tonight's event was for and by young people. Last year we ran one single event over about 10 hours and it was very hard for people to keep focussed, particularly given the difficult subject matter, so this year we decided to split the event into component parts and host each on a different day.
The evening began with a contribution from 3 of the young people from the John Paul II Polish Saturday school, currently based in St Cuthberts School I believe, led by Alexandra Mrozik. (I have her contact details if you want to learn more about the Polish school, what they learn and perhaps arrange to have your child attend.)
They read some shocking and disturbing extracts from German history, about the reduction in the rights of Jews from the early 1930s through the 1940s - children being forbidden to go to school, banned from cinemas, theatres, their parents forced to close their businesses, being moved into Ghettos while their synagogues were burnt to the ground, and ultimately into death camps where they were gassed. The young people interspersed this with Polish poetry, read in Polish, with an English translation on the screen behind them, about the horrors of the journey in cattle trucks and the ultimate arrival at concentration camps.
We then watched a trailer of Homotopia's documentary Project Triangle (which we will be showing in full on Monday evening, contact me for more details), concerning the visit to Poland last September of a group of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people from Merseyside. Representatives of this group then took questions from the floor about their visit to Auschwitz where they learnt that the Nazis exterminated huge numbers of gay men, along with the Jews. (Lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people were of course also exterminated, but they fell into different categories of "undesirables". One woman was shopped to the Nazis by a neighbour who thought she must be a lesbian because she smoked.) They also talked about the good relationships that LGBT young people in Merseyside can now experience with the police, and in particular the SIGMA hate crime unit where they feel free to report any homophobic attacks and can expect full support.
The next contribution came from the young ambassadors of the Anthony Walker Foundation who also visited Auschwitz last year, in November. A short film of their visit is available on their website. We watched the film together and then the ambassadors also took questions from the floor. The Anthony Walker Foundation was set up by his family, after 18 year old Anthony was murdered in Huyton, Liverpool in a racist attack in 2005. His sister, Dominique, was filmed on the trip to the concentration camp in Poland and she explained that the foundation's campaign to eradicate race hate crimes took on a new impetus after she fully realised the threat to humanity of leaving such crimes unchecked.
We were then invited to watch a drama performance from children and young people from Edge Hill Youth Club, Liverpool, who had written their own short play highlighting anti-social behaviour, violence and racist attacks targetted at Asian shopkeepers in the Holt Road area, where they all live. The culmination of their piece, where they played several parts each, was the representation of a public meeting, called by concerned residents, to ask the community to come together to fight this invidious threat to their diverse community. As the youth council's champion, I could not have been more proud of them. That children and young people could so thoughtfully create a play, with such a powerful message was humbling and wonderful. When they too took questions from the floor, it was particularly special to hear them explain that they fully understood the devastation of hate crime (a phrase they used with confidence) because of their attendance at the youth club and the support and direction they receive their from their youth workers. If we ever needed a reason to support our youth services, it was laid out for us this evening.
Our final contribution came from the young people of Yellow House who have undertaken two trips to Auschwitz thus far and have also visited other concentration and labour camps in Poland, and the Post Office in Gdansk where the first shots of the Second World War were fired on September 1st 1939. Yellow House is an arts group based on Marmaduke Street, in Edge Hill, Liverpool who support mainly disadvantaged and isolated young people through art, culture, drama, reading, photography and film. They performed a powerful tableau and movement piece, reflecting on the daily sufferings of those who lived in the camps. When they answered questions from the floor, it was fascinating to hear from Steph who explained that she had learned that people with disabilities, like her, often did not even make it to concentration camps, they were exterminated at the sides of the rail track even as the cattle trucks were rolling. George McKane, the leader of Yellow House told the young audience that Hitler began systematically exterminating people with disabilities in the early 1930s in Germany with the full support of the state, on the grounds that they were useless to the Reich.
We ended the evening in a circle, shaking hands with each other, hugging and sharing our first names with each other - reflecting on the dehumanisation of the people in the camps by being stripped of all possessions and given a tattooed number in place of their own names and identity.
I only wish that it were possible for the cynical and the critical, those who think our young people are lost, to have seen and experienced such a powerful event. There were approximately 50 young people with their youth workers, project managers, supporters and enablers, and they all treated each other with total respect. They asked intelligent questions, contributed thoughtfully, sat quietly, studied and learnt. They shared common experiences, reflected upon the impact that the holocaust has had on them individually and in groups, the event was absolutely theirs. Wendy and I and the vast majority of other adults in the room, were merely privileged observers.
If the other five events are as powerful as this then the discussion that the steering committee will need to have about the future of Kensington Remembers will be a very easy and quick one, we must go on.