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Oct 2005 Journal

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Mein erster Schultag

The Making a New Life Project in Leeds has been collecting photographs along with documentation from Holocaust survivors in Yorkshire. One of the common images that we are finding, from both men and women, are the treasured images of their first day at school. For me as a native Briton there is something both touching and significant about these images. They appear to associate full-time education with a celebration; to mark a transition from infancy to childhood and the learning process. Learning would always henceforth be associated with a special event and attending school with a pleasurable experience. What a contrast with school attendance in Great Britain where the first day at school merges into the cultural wallpaper of everyday life.

What a shock I experienced then when I recently read the views of a refugee from Breslau who had settled in Leeds in 1939 who had written his memoirs for his children before his death in 2002. There was no acknowledgement of any cultural significance in this event at all. He described his first day at school, in 1923, aged six years, nursing a huge Schultüte - 'fancy bribing little ones in this way to induce them to take their first steps to school unaware that, in some cases, years of misery may stretch before them.'

Was he serious? Probably not. His own education included university and becoming a college lecturer but his comments made me question the cultural significance of this event. How and when did this custom emerge? Was it restricted to Germany and Austria? What was the real status of this event for the parents?

An internet search following the first draft of this piece has revealed that the custom began in Th?ringen in 1810 to sweeten the experience. It spread through other states in Germany over the following years. Is there a link with the Jewish custom of smearing honey on the first line of the Torah for pupils in heder? How did the custom become so ubiquitous in Germany and Austria? Was it officially sanctioned?

Many survivors were denied their education. Their aspirations were checked and many were able to develop their intellectual potential only by grasping those limited opportunities offered in their new home. They certainly did not need to be bribed to strive to make use of educational opportunities. And when it came to their children making the first step on the educational treadmill there was no such inducement, if that was what it was.

If readers can suggest some answers to these questions, or have any comments to make, our team would be very pleased to hear from them.

Brett Harrison is Consultant Archivist of the Making a New Life Project. He can be contacted at b.l.harrison@leeds.ac.uk, Making a New Life Project, AHRC Centre, CATH Old Mining Building 2.08, University of Leeds LS2 9JT.
Brett Harrison

previous article:Making a New Life: Holocaust survivors in Yorkshire
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