The 2014 Lower Sixth Lecture Series began with 92 year old Holocaust survivor, Freddie Knoller, speaking to a rapt audience about his incredible journey through World War Two with wit, humanity and startling honesty. The entire lower sixth sat transfixed as Freddie told the story of his childhood in Austria in the 1920s, through his time working for German soldiers in Paris and joining the French resistance, to the two years he spent in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen before the liberation. Many of the students hid their eyes behind their hands as Freddie recounted his experience of torture at the hands of the Gestapo, and sat open-mouthed at the conditions he encountered in the concentration camps. The most lasting impression the students will have taken away, however, was one of unrestrained enthusiasm and passion for life in the face of the most trying of circumstances. Freddie’s unwavering positivity during the lecture, but more significantly throughout his war time experiences, served to put many of our more trivial, day to day worries and concerns into stark relief.
The word “inspirational” has become so overused in recent times as to become almost meaningless but as 133 young people leaned forward in their seats, craning their necks, to see the simple, faded, but clearly visible, tattoo on Freddie’s left arm bearing the number “150713”, it was hard to find any other word more appropriate to describe the experience. Rarely have I seen so many young people, not to mention their teachers, so visibly moved by the simple telling of a story. The most impressive thing about Freddie is not the horrors he has endured, though there are many, but the personality of the man that made him able to survive them.
In typically modest fashion Freddie told us at lunch afterwards about how excited and honoured he was to have been invited to Number 10 for Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th. It was our honour and privilege to have hosted him this week, and I suspect it will be David Cameron’s honour, rather than Freddie’s, when he meets the Prime Minister next week.