A royal arrival (Lawfully Chic)

On the afternoon that I visited the Museum of London, there were signs up reminding that it was 99 years since the First World War was declared. In 1913, of course, Britain’s monarch was one King George V, the current Queen’s grandmother, who ruled until 1936.Nearly a century later and everyone is talking about the next monarch who will bear that name. No matter that he’s just a few weeks old, we want to know everything about young George Alexander Louis: what he’s wearing, who is visiting him, what nicknames he’ll be known by. And to mark the historic birth of our future king (Republican aspirations of overthrow aside), the Museum of London has put on a tiny slip of a display looking back at the young prince’s predecessors.The exhibit includes a pleasantly coherent family tree that traces the royals as far back as King James I, the royal who succeeded the first Queen Elizabeth (although it’s not all encompassing; interestingly, although the Queen Mother appears next to King George VI as his consort, Wallis Simpson – whose love inspired Edward to abdicate and changed the path of British history – is conspicuously absent). In a stroke of fun, they have also listed how these long-dead monarchs are related to baby George, so we learn, say, that Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, who died in 1772 and was married to Frederick, Prince of Wales, would have been his eight times great grandmother.

Among the few (as I said, this is only a baby-sized exhibition, barely a wall’s worth of memorabilia) items on display are shoes from the mid-19th century, worn by Queen Victoria’s offspring. Prince Albert Edward’s tiny black boots are there, in an impeccable condition that suggests the young royal was not permitted to engage in much outdoor play. Meanwhile only one of Prince Leopold’s shoes is on show, leading you to speculate what the punishment might have been for a royal who misplaced his possessions.

There’s also a dress and cap worn by the future King Edward as a baby in the early 1840s, when his mother had been on the throne just four years. The dress is embroidered with three sets of ostrich feathers, which apparently signify that the wearer is one day to inherit the throne. And there’s an uncomfortable looking cap worn in infancy by the future King Charles I. Although slightly stained, it’s in fairly good shape considering it dates back to 1600.

If nothing else, this is a touching reminder that even our great statesmen and women were babes in arms once, dressed in fussy outfits by their adoring parents. Kate and Wills, being the trendy sort, might choose to dress their son in more modern garb, but it’s curious to think that in a few centuries little George’s Boden jackets or baby Hunter wellies could be displayed in a glass case at a museum.

Given the brevity of the display, I wouldn’t recommend making the trip just for this, but it’s certainly worth stopping off at en route to one of the museum’s other summer shows (among them the fascinating London Cycles, which looks at the capital on two-wheels, and another exhibition that celebrates 90 years of the Radio Times by showcasing its most memorable covers). And if you got a spare 15 minutes in the area, it’s well worth taking a peek. Young eyes will be fascinated by the royal timeline and may even be driven to find out more about these doughty kings and queens; the rest of us will recall that for all the talk of an unprecedented media circus around George’s arrival, curiosity about the royals has been part of our country’s heritage for a long time.

A Royal Arrival, free display, 28 June – October 2013, The Museum of London

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Justin Bieber could teach kids a thing or two about history (Independent)

When it comes to the thorny question of education, there are plenty of points of view around, with Michael Gove urging more rigour and the teaching unions staunchly opposing his plans.

But left or right-wing, one thing we’d expect everyone to be united on is that a teenage pop star probably doesn’t make the best history teacher.

Yet thanks to Justin Bieber’s arguably inappropriate guestbook comment, this week some of Britain’s youngsters may have had their first exposure to the Holocaust and to teenage diarist Anne Frank.

His fans certainly think that’s the case. “Reading tweets I saw that other teens my age and some who were even older had no clue who Anne was, which really surprised me,” says Leah, 15, whose Twitter handle even has “Bieber” in it. “If he and other celebrities begin to mention more icons like Anne then it will help.”

“Justin is someone people look up to, so they may want to find out more,” adds avowed Belieber Emily, 16.

Given that Justin is unlikely to follow his tour of The Anne Frank House with a trip to the Somme – “where did they plug their ipods in?” – or start quoting Shakespeare on Twitter, we can leave the rights and wrongs of his tribute to one side. But the incident raises the question of role models, and whether it is worrying that many teenagers would rather look up to Jessie J or Harry Styles than Anne Frank.

“On the whole their role models are celebrities or sports stars,” says secondary school religious studies teacher Simon. “Most of them have a few who they see as somebody to look up to – who they are rather obsessed with and drool over.”

But other teachers point out that pupils often consciously choose not to follow the crowd, and say we should give them more credit. “In my college it’s more about Beyonce, Nicki Minaj and Kendrick Lamar,” says history A Level teacher Andrew. “Some idolise them uncritically, others just appreciate their films or music but recognise their fallibility.”

“My pupils talk about celebrities a lot, often expressing admiration,” says Josh, a secondary school science teacher. “However, do not underestimate their ability to decide make their own opinion of what is worth following. With boys and footballers – they are just as likely to view them negatively as positively.”

Simon used Bieber’s gaffe to start a discussion about the surrounding issues in a Monday lesson. As a football fan, he finds it can be useful for pupils to “know that you are interested in things they are interested – teachers who can’t sometimes struggle relating to the kids.”

Although he wouldn’t generally cite a specific celebrity, he would introduce a topic with “an analogy with something in their cultural realm.”

“Some of them were talking about football violence today [after clashes at the FA Cup semi finals],” he adds. “If something in the media tickles their interest they are much more likely to talk about it than If I say ‘let’s discuss racism.”

“If in my case Justin was to tweet about an issue, I know that the next morning my friends and I would be discussing it,” says Leah. “If Justin and other celebrities did mention Anne and other icons from history then they would definitely get people’s attention.”

“I find the use of ‘celebrity’ in the classroom extremely powerful. It can introduce young people to topics in a manner that parents and teachers are simply unable to,” explains Josh, “But for some students, if used as anything more than simply a ‘hook’ it can blind them to the real lesson. And there is certainly a danger when the celebrity does not know much of the world they are stumbling into, such as Bieber and the Holocaust.”

Of course, it is tricky territory; one pupil’s idol is another’s laughing stock. More than that, there’s the worry that a onetime mention will be interpreted as an endorsement of everything that celebrity does. Simon refers to one pupil, who changes her hair in response to her favourite star’s prerogative. “What if that celebrity started to self harm?” he asks.

And teen idols, from Lindsay Lohan to Miley Cyrus, are known for falling from grace – in different ways of course. Bieber might be reminding his fans about the Nazis this week, but what if he gets into a brawl tomorrow? “It can lead to certain difficult questions down the road,” says Simon.

According to Jonathan Freeman, national director of mentoring network Mosaic, the real problem is when they lack additional role models within their own lives.

“The young people with whom we work recognise very clearly that media stars rarely offer them a realistic goal to which to aspire,” he says. “Sadly, too few have examples of individuals who have achieved significant success in their careers from within their own social and family networks.”

It’s not always an option to brush a celebrity’s behaviour under the carpet, especially when pupils see that person as a role model. Teachers have to proceed with caution, but they also have to engage with what their pupils are talking about. “A good teacher will always find a way to help students relate to any subject,” says Josh. “A celebrity is simply one tool.”

And those complaining of the dumbing down of a generation would do well to remember that Anne herself had posters of her idols on her walls, as many teenagers do today.

“Is it worrying at 14?” asks Simon. “For the most part they grow out of it and realise it’s immature to see that person as a role model. I can’t imagine too many of them being obsessed with Jessie J at university.”

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Reflections on a visit to Poland, 65 years after Auschwitz was liberated

commemorating the dead at Birkenau concentration camp

 

 Today is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The concentration remains perhaps the most potent symbol of the Nazi Holocaust, the massacre that cost the lives of six million Jews and millions more communists, homosexuals and other minorities.               

In March 2007 I visited Poland with a Jewish group to trace the history of that time, to look into the past and the past of many members of my community. Below I share my experiences visiting Auschwitz, Birkenau, Madjanek and countless other sites where the Nazis carried out their genocide.           

I write this having just walked out of Birkenau concentration camp, the culmination of a four day visit to Poland.  It has been an incredible and enlightening journey for me, one that I hope many people of my generation will be able to undertake.            

 We were a group comprising of people of various ages and backgrounds; British, Australian and South African, religious and secular.  All different, yet all the same.  United by a common desire to connect with our heritage and to seek a better understanding of the atrocities of the past.            

 In the four days I have spent in Poland I have stood in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek, I have walked the streets of Warsaw and Lublin and I have heard first hand harrowing stories of lives uprooted by the Nazis.  I am exhausted, both physically, and mentally.  But even more so, in a way that I did not anticipate, I am uplifted and I am inspired.               

 Most of all, I am proud.  I walked out of Birkenau along the train tracks, where so many arrived to meet a tragic and horrific fate.  I walked straight down the middle, between the tracks, a free Jew able to choose both my literal and metaphorical steps.  For me, this was a symbol of defiance, in complete contrast to those who came in cattle trucks, stripped of every human dignity, never to make the return journey.           

 That sense of defiance has permeated my time in Poland.  I had found Warsaw, my first stop, a grey, cold, broken city, with little to recollect the vibrancy of pre-war Jewish life.  Krakow was the complete opposite, a place that they had tried to destroy, but that had survived and remained alive.            

human hair the Nazis took from the victims of the gas chambers

 

 We spent the weekend in the old district of Kazimierz, home to many of the Jews before they were exiled to the ghetto.  The weekend had coincided with the anniversary of the death of a reknowned Rebbe (religious leader), so the place was flooded with thousands of Hassidic Jews in glorious fur Shreimels, come to visit his grave and commemorate his death.             

Krakow is but a fragment of what it once was, a ghost town of empty houses and synagogues, the remaining testimony to centuries of life there.     

There are synagogues on every corner, an insight into just how vast the community once was, and it saddened me to see these places mere shadows of their former selves.  Yet, praying on Friday night in the one still active synagogue, with groups from across the world, was a poignant and inspirational experience.           

 What I have left Poland with is an overwhelimg sense of triumph and victory.  The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, and sought to obliterate every last remnant of Jewish life in Europe.  They stripped away everything the Jews had, the massive stacks of shoes and piles of hair are just one heartrending example.  But they still did not suceed. Sixty five years on, Birkenau is in ruins.             

a Polish survivor shows photos of her husband, killed 67 years ago for helping Jews

 

  Poland has brought a new admiration and appreciation of what heroism really is.  During the trip we encountered bravery in many forms, at Schindler’s factory or speaking to an elderly Polish woman whose husband was killed 67 years ago to the day for helping ghetto Jews.     

We heard stories of resistance, both spiritual, for example celebrating the festival of Succot in the camps, or the physical uprising in Warsaw.  For me, this is heroism it its finest incarnation.                

 The great Jewish scholar Maimonides said ‘each person must see themselves as if the entire world were held in balance and any deed they might do could tip the scales.     

If the Holocaust has taught us anything, it is that one person really can make a difference.  And, even more so, that we must.             

The rail tracks at Birkenau. These led many straight to the gas chambers