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Three performers onstage in front of a letter extract projected on the wall

Holocaust Memorial Day 2023

On Sun 22 January, City Varieties Music Hall will once again host the civic remembrance event for Holocaust Memorial Day. Learning & Engagement Officer Ashley Pekri reflects on last year’s event and discusses plans for this year.

Written by Ashley Pekri


What is Holocaust Memorial Day?

Holocaust Memorial Day is held every year on the 27th January and is a day that commemorates the millions of lives lost and destroyed by the Holocaust. It also gives us a chance to reflect on why it happened and how we can avoid such an event ever taking place again. This said, it is also a day that reminds us of the genocides that have taken place since the Holocaust in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, serving as an important reminder that mankind is still very much capable of making the same mistakes.

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Holocaust Memorial Day 2022

On Sun 23 January 2022, City Varieties Music Hall was asked to hold Leeds City Council’s civic remembrance event for Holocaust Memorial Day. The event consisted of performances that commemorated those persecuted in the Holocaust and other genocides. Survivors or surviving members of families that were lost to the Holocaust also had the chance to speak in what was a very sobering and inspirational message to be passed on to future generations.

Imogen Hinchliffe (Learning and Engagement Administrator (now Officer)), Sophie-Suttle Marshall, Natasha Hudson (both ex-members of our Leeds Actors In Training programme), and I created a 20 minute performance inspired by Emanuel Ringleblum who secretly compiled a historical archive inside the Warsaw Ghetto in 1939. The archive was named ‘Oneg Shabbat’ or ‘Joy of the Sabbath’ and consisted of documents, drawings, sweet wrappers, tickets, ration cards, items from the underground press and even theatre posters. It saved literature: poems, plays, songs, and stories. The archive was kept in 10 metal tin boxes and three milk churns which were buried in the ghetto. All were recovered after the war, apart from one milk churn.

Three women kneeling on the floor in blue lighting. The middle one holds a baby.

Imogen Hinchliffe, Natasha Hudson and Sophie Suttle-Marshall in their performance inspired by the missing milk churn. Holocaust Memorial Day 2022.

I took a great deal of inspiration from this story, and after months of research on the archive and trips to Holocaust North in Huddersfield, I decided that we would make a performance paying homage to the missing milk churn and the memories/stories inside that have never been told; giving a focus to lesser-known stories from the Holocaust. As well as visiting the exhibition, we were also granted special access to rooms in which we could rehearse on-site, and were shown objects that once belonged to Holocaust victims and learned about the legacy those objects now have.

Ashley Pekri looking at a screen full of images

Ashley Pekri visiting Holocaust North to research the performance.

While Holocaust Memorial Day is often considered to be an event for the Jewish community and other persecuted groups such as the Roma, Tutsi, LGBTQIA+ communities, through this experience I realised that Holocaust Memorial Day is an event that truly benefits everyone, even those who have never been part of a persecuted group. The Holocaust has left a powerful, devastating legacy within the Jewish community, through stories passed down through generations, but it is the responsibility of everyone, especially those groups that have never faced such adversity, to be educated on what happened and how, to ensure things like it never happen again.

Three performers onstage in front of a letter extract projected on the wall

Imogen Hinchliffe, Natasha Hudson and Sophie Suttle-Marshall with an excerpt from Emanuel Ringleblum's diary. Holocause Memorial Day 2022.

Holocaust Memorial Day 2023

Every year, a different theme is given for the day to explore certain topics in more depth and give those who take part the chance to learn something new. This year the topic is ‘Ordinary People’. The theme suggests that genocide is facilitated by ordinary people by ignoring the persecuted, oppressed and murdered. Ordinary people joined the murderous regimes, through adopting the harmful propaganda used to make other ordinary people their victims. Ordinary people were also rescuers, going to extreme lengths to stand up against the oppressors. Ordinary people make their own choices.

Based on last year’s experience and the theme for this year, I have written a short play in the style of Theatre in Education, designed to challenge young people on some of the thoughts and behaviours which led to the holocaust and other genocides. It also suggests that young people could benefit from an education on the topic all year round through theatre, rather than only paying attention on Holocaust Memorial Day itself. This way, the performance doesn’t have to be a one-off commemorative piece. Along with the people that make this commemorative event possible, the performance can also have a legacy, something that is important to the steering committee and organisers of the event.

Three people sat in chairs reading scripts.

The cast of From The Top at the first read-through for Holocaust Memorial Day 2023.

The show is called From the Top and is a 20-minute performance based on the graphic novel Irmina by Barbara Yelin. Set in a neighbourhood where a family has been removed from their home and its contents auctioned off in the street outside, the performance will begin in a rehearsal room, where the local theatre group and their director made up of ‘ordinary’ members of the community have been given the task to create a show explaining to children why this is ‘ordinary’. While the director wants to create a propaganda-filled performance where the idea of auctioning this family’s belongings should be celebrated, one by one, the theatre group begin to disagree and challenge their director and each other to ultimately decipher what should be considered  ‘ordinary’, and what message we should convey to our children.

As I want the performance to be as relatable as possible, I have decided to not specify the oppressed group, to suggest that this could happen to anyone and it shouldn’t matter who.

An extract from the cartoon Irmina depicting a woman telling her child the Jews are their misfortune

A page from graphic novel Irmina by Barbara Yelin.

Leeds Heritage Theatres Engagement Fund

Every year, we work with over 10,000 young people across the city, in schools, youth groups and other sessions to help them build skills, confidence and pride through our creative learning and engagement programme. All donations to this fund will help us to continue our work and reach more people across the Leeds City Region.

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