St Andrean recalls Holocaust horror

Flora Selwyn examines one of the ceramic shoes.
Flora Selwyn examines one of the ceramic shoes.

A WELL-known St Andrews woman, who survived the Holocaust during World War Two, has unveiled a special artwork commemorating the victims.

Mrs Flora Selwyn officially opened a collaborative art installation at Dundee High School in recognition of International Holocaust Day 2012.

Entitled ‘Holocaust,’ the powerful and extremely moving collective art piece at the school’s war memorial was created by all first and second-year pupils.

The display is highly evocative, reflective of the haunting exhibition of the room of a vast quantity of victims’ shoes which are on public display in enormous heaps at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp in Poland. Many of the victims were young children.

Mrs Selwyn, born in Vienna in 1934, spent time with pupils relating her very personal experiences of World War Two and the Holocaust.

One of her first memories is of a group of Nazi soldiers breaking into her family home, ransacking the house and taking her father, a middle class Polish businessman, captive.  She was four years old.

Mrs Selwyn said: “I have been extremely impressed with what I have seen and heard today.

‘‘The pupils have all worked very hard on this topic and learnt an important lesson from history.

‘‘The Holocaust presents a harrowing story indeed, and I often think about my relatives and family friends who were not as fortunate as I was.

‘‘However, one hopes that, in educating our young people, a seed falls on fertile land which will help prevent such terrible acts from happening again. The symbol of the shoes is not just one of tragedy but also of hope; a sign that people may walk out of the past and onto a better future.”

The children’s installation, which began on a small scale, has grown in size over the past 10 days to symbolise how the repression and persecution escalated, culminating in 200 hand-crafted ceramic shoes. Visually shocking, the creation of each individual shoe reveals the story of individual human beings, many of whom were small children.

Second-year pupil Miranda Cook, from Strathkinnes, said: “It was really emotional making the shoes when you considered that the people who would have worn them had died under such terrible circumstances.

‘‘It is important to remember this heart-breaking event, to remember every life lost and to hope that it never happens again.”

Stefan Baldacchino, from Anstruther, added: “We have worked on all types of shoes, from workmen’s boots to expensive ladies’ high heels to babies’ booties.

‘‘It has been difficult to think that whole families and whole communities would have been wiped out in one go. We must never forget what happened during the Holocaust.”

Working with art and history departments, pupils have taken a cross-curricular focus of World War Two.

As part of this, they have been learning about the atrocities which took place at the concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany during this period.

Sometimes referred to as the “Death Factory,” Auschwitz was set up in May 1940 in Oswiecim, Poland and the conservative estimate is 2.1 to 2.5 million victims, although the actual number is believed to have been a great deal higher.

George Mackenzie, head of art, told the Citizen: “The pupils responded extremely well to a difficult and harrowing topic and, with their mature attitude and engagement with the project, have been a credit to the school.

‘‘Their hard work is commendable and they have provided fellow pupils, staff and visitors to the school with an ideal opportunity to recognise International Holocaust Day.”

School rector, Dr John Halliday, said: “We are delighted that Mrs Selwyn was able to join us and formally open this artwork.

‘‘The staff and pupils wish to thank her for providing us with the benefit of her personal insights and experiences during what must have been a very difficult time for her as a child living through World War Two.’’

The ‘Holocaust’ art installation is on display from now until the end of February.