Shropshire Council

Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

Messages of hope and peace

The Shropshire Council approach towards commemorating the Holocaust and other genocides is very much about messages of hope and peace, that will grow through the children of the county, and through the planting with them of a memorial cherry tree orchard of remembrance across our county.

The national theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 27 January 2021 is “be the light in the darkness”.

Our press release for the week in which HMD itself falls encourages people to follow the national HMD Trust lead and light a candle at home on the evening of HMD. It also publicises the South Shropshire Interfaith Forum online event to be held that evening, and features key dates and highlights of the material below.

The plans for 2021

Cherry tree planting

We began planting our orchard with a first cherry tree at Mereside School in Shrewsbury in 2015. Each year, we choose a different primary school in a different location of the county, with whose children we plant a cherry tree and hold an interfaith service in which we talk about the theme for that year. We also return to Mereside, who for this year are organising a memorial event at their tree, involving the lighting of candles in jars decorated by the children.

This year, due to the pandemic and the ongoing lockdown, we have changed our tree-planting plans around in terms of timings, taking the opportunity to mark further key dates with regard not only to the Holocaust and those who survived and those who did not, but also to the more recent genocide in Srebrenica in 1995.

We have two cherry trees for 2021, one of which will be planted in the north east at our chosen school for that area, as we continue to grow our cherry tree orchard across the whole county. The school is Longlands primary school in Market Drayton. This follows on from the planting in 2020 of two trees at two rural federated schools in the south west, Onny and Lydbury North.

The second tree will be planted in the locality of Shirehall in central Shrewsbury, to remain as a focal point after a projected move from there by council officers during the next three years.

Both of the 2021 trees have been kindly donated by the Council tree team, through the Community Tree Scheme, and will be planted by John Blessington, the County Arboriculturalist. The ceremonies will involve Council officers, including the Gypsy Liaison Officer, and the reading of the Shropshire interfaith prayer first read out in 2015.

There will then be fourteen trees altogether, with flowers and fruits on the first trees already, and more to come from the younger trees as they grow and flourish in the care of local schoolchildren and local communities.

As we cannot plant safely with children on the actual day, the trees will now be planted on Friday 26 February, which marks the date that the first Roma and Sinti transport arrived in Auschwitz.

Of the 23,000 who arrived at the concentration camp, around 20,000 were murdered. This date will demonstrate recognition of the suffering of this minority grouping, which is a significant grouping in Shropshire.

On Friday 15 April there will be a tree dressing ceremony at Shirehall, marking the liberation by British troops, including those from Shropshire, of the BergenBelsen concentration camp. We will seek to involve the interfaith forums and Mereside school as our lead school, and to have armed forces representation.

On Friday 9 July, we will have a tree dressing ceremony at Longlands School, as the closest date to 11 July, when the genocide started in Srebrenica, and a date on which we fervently hope schools will be fully operational. This will involve the interfaith forums and also the local councillor.

Online resources and gallery

We have created a narrative to use as an online gallery, around liberation, to go with the information that we will publish about the 2021 events, and the theme of being a light in the darkness.

Shropshire Archives have researched local records and uncovered some extremely useful and moving information to give a Shropshire perspective to the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen by British troops.

This is focussed upon:

  • a picture of the 4th Battalion from June 1945, taken a couple of months after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Soldiers involved in the liberation are almost certainly pictured here.
  • an eye witness account from Douglas Jones, a soldier from the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, who entered the camp; and
  • a bilingual statement, in English and German, setting out in no uncertain terms exactly what it was like at the concentration camp, for those who might still be in doubt about the atrocities that had been carried out there

This material is reproduced and shared with kind permission, courtesy of “Soldiers of Shropshire Museum”.

Turning to local support for Jewish refugee children during the Second World War, the Archives Service have found the following information:

  • A copperplate image containing the minutes of the Mayor of Shrewsbury’s Committee for Jewish Refugee Children (detailing support and fundraising activities).
  • Records relating to Bunce Court School for German Jewish refugee children, at what is now Trench Hall, near Wem. We have pictures of the founder Anna Essinger and her two sisters, another of the cook, Gretl Heidt, and another of the children, playing safe from harm. The photo of the three sisters shows (left to right) Bertha Kahn, Paula Essinger and Anna Essinger.
  • Further documents talking about Anna Essinger’s experiences in Germany, and the setting up and running of the school during the war years. The school was evacuated from Kent to Trench Hall as a safe location during the war.

The minutes from the Mayor of Shrewsbury’s committee are written in the copperplate writing style of the time, with pages reproduced in the resource file in the online gallery as an example.

The Archives Service would be happy to assist anyone wishing to know more about these efforts, which may be seen very much as a forerunner to the support given by communities across the county to help Syrian refugee families to settle here in the present day.

The background

Shropshire is the second largest inland county in England, after Wiltshire, and is ten times the size of all the inner London Boroughs put together: with somewhat less people.

The population averages out at only one person per hectare, and we have a very scattered population of market towns and rural areas. In 2015, we looked at this in earnest, partly because one of our secondary schools, Church Stretton, were hosting one of the seventy special Anish Kapoor candles designed to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Why trees?

Secondary schools study the Holocaust and other genocides; primary school children do not. And yet if we can get these children to think about the messages of the Holocaust, in ways that are age appropriate, they can take this understanding with them as they grow.

And what could be simpler to understand, in some ways, than the planting of a tree, with all the messages of memory, nurture, resilience and endurance that this brings.

And what could be better than to plant a tree in a different location in the county every year, covering every quadrant, and growing an orchard of remembrance.

Which tree

It needed to be a flowering fruit tree, to align for us with the importance attached by the Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths to trees that will bear fruit. We managed to find a variety called the Black Oliver, which is native to the West Midlands. After help from Mr Mark Michaels from the South Shropshire Interfaith Forum, who spoke with his rabbi, the suggestion was agreed and a tree was found through the Incredible Edible scheme in operation that year.

The first tree

Our first tree was planted in Mereside in the middle of Shrewsbury in 2015. We developed an ecumenical order of service, including a prayer that we now have every year; Mr Michaels brought the candle up from Church Stretton; other members of the two interfaith forums joined in the service with us and four children from the school; and the local councillor and the portfolio holder helped the children to plant the tree.

The candle then went back to Church Stretton, and was then taken by students from that school to a final resting place at a concentration camp near Berlin.

The tree is growing beautifully, Mereside look after it with great care, and we return every year to see how it is growing.

We bought a three-wick candle used in subsequent years, indicating the interlinking of the three world faiths of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. This is in a purple bowl, which is the colour used by the HMD Trust.

The orchard

We have now planted in all four quadrants: we had a growth spurt in 2016, when we were able to offer trees to five secondary schools as well, through the Incredible Edible scheme; we planted twice in the far south, after rabbits ate the first one; we have planted in market towns and last year in two rural federated schools; and we had a real author, Natalie Cumming, in 2019, whose aunt played the violin in the Auschwitz orchestra, and whose story inspired a new piece of orchestral music in Shropshire.

The local vicar in each location delivers the Shropshire prayer, which is then said at the Mereside tree by Reverend Ken Chippindale or by another representative of the Shrewsbury Interfaith Forum.

We have changed the dates for tree measuring in inclement weather, having a ceremony at the northern most tree in high summer instead, on Anne Frank’s birthday. This was led by Imam Sohayb Peerbhai from the Craven Arms mosque, who along with Mr Michaels has been able to support us every year.

Our supporters

Each year, as the orchard grows, we continue to gain from the support of the interfaith forums and from Mereside as our first school.

We always sit down together and pool our ideas and our resources, to share with all schools and to make the most of the theme for the year and the support we get from the HMD Trust.

We now add Shropshire Archives, with pleasure and gratitude, to our grouping of active supporters.

We also now add MHLCG civil servants and Secretary of State, after a presentation made to them by Mrs Lois Dale at their annual HMD event. This provided a welcome opportunity to share what we do at local level, with a wider audience at national level.

It is good to be able to report that the Secretary of State made specific mention of Shropshire Council in his opening comments for the event, and commended us as an example of the important work that local authorities carry out to seek to ensure that the Holocaust and other genocides are never forgotten.

Final thoughts

Our joint efforts are very much focussed on helping local school children to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides and to learn about the importance of faiths working together.

In so doing, we echo the words of Mr Mark Michaels, for the South Shropshire interfaith Forum, who said in 2020 that: “As we lose the last survivors who can give a first-hand account, it becomes even more important that we continue to communicate this essential message to future generations.”

In planting these trees, our aim is to provide a fitting memorial for those who survived the Holocaust and other genocides, and for those who did not, and for our orchard to grow with the children and spread its messages of hope and of peace.

Resource pack compiled by Mrs Lois Dale, Rurality and Equalities Specialist for Shropshire Council, with assistance from Meriel Lees and Mary Mckenzie at Shropshire Archives Service.