Keeping in touch with the past
Warwick School, founded 914, as noted on the gate facing out to Myton Road.
It is somewhat jarring to see a three digit year in any context outside the Classics Department, and quite something to think that we can trace our founding back to Queen Aethelflaed of Mercia in the tenth century. Our links to the past are seen everywhere, from the statues of Edward the Confessor – another founder of the school in an alternative version of history – and the Portcullis motif which links us to the school’s refounding by Henry VIII in 1545. When we look back across town from the top of the new Sixth Form Centre we see the twelfth century church of St Mary’s and Warwick Castle, home of the Kingmaker in the Wars of the Roses.
Buildings and statues give us one kind of connection to the past, but some of the most profound links with history come from the people who have lived through it and can tell their tales. The Oppenheimer brothers were a profound example of this. From 1998-2018, Paul and Rudi came to our school and shared with thousands of boys the incredible story of their survival in Nazi-occupied Holland from the invasion in 1940 until their liberation in 1945. When Paul died in 2007, Rudi carried on the story and I was fortunate enough to hear his final talk to Warwickians back in September. Many parents will remember their sons coming home and telling them about this talk.
Paul and Rudi would have been contemporaries of Anne Frank in Amsterdam – although they didn’t know her, they later discovered that she had lived very close to them in that secret attic room. Rudi would explain how the restrictions on Jews in the city grew month by month. Eventually, in 1943, the Oppenheimer family were deported to the Bergen-Belsen camp. Thanks to the fortunate circumstance of their sister, Eve, having been born in the UK, each member of the family was classified as an “exchange Jew” – who could potentially be traded for interned Germans in Britain. As such, they were spared the very worst treatment meted out to others in the camp, but nonetheless their parents both became ill and died during their internment. Paul and Rudi eventually were evacuated on the last train from the camp and into the hands of their Russian liberators. The boys were reunited with their sister who had been held separately and made for London where they were taken in by their uncle. In their later years Paul and Rudi made it their mission of speaking to schools across the country. When Rudi gave his testimony, you saw it through the eyes of that child. In 2001, they even took a large party of Warwick boys back to all the sites associated with their early lives under the Nazis. It was a never to be forgotten experience for all involved.
Rudi sadly died last week and Mr Jefferies has told me how many boys had been affected by this news – over the years many generations of Warwick boys have read Paul’s memoirs about his family’s experiences in which his and Rudi’s experiences are so powerfully told. Six million deaths were attributed to the Holocaust – such numbers are impossible to comprehend. Understanding one family’s story brings home the reality of the tragedy.