Relais de La Mémoire: memory builds the future

46b5cb897e29ad02a2f8020e28056637Over a decade ago, Dame Allan’s took our first steps towards membership of a group of European Schools which had united to form the Relais de la Mémoire, the youth branch of Mémoire Des Deportés et Resistants de France, itself an association formed by Anciens Resistants at the end of the second world war and designed to ensure that the horrors of that conflict were not revisited on modern day Europe. As an historian I was interested; as a head, I was attracted by the fact that we would be the sole British representative. Accordingly, Dame Allan’s entered the Relais family in 2002

Abel Farnoux, founder of Relais, had contacted a member of our staff through a former pupil who was working for the British Council and my colleague enthusiastically committed to supporting Abel’s ideal, taking 4-6 pupils to each meeting of the association. The early days saw the group meeting an amazing array of high-profile politicians and diplomats; they were invited to represent our organisation at formal state events, including state funerals at Les Invalides and meeting the Minister for Defence at the Ravivage de la Flamme on November 11 at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Since then, Allanians have attended the biannual meetings of the association – in Vienna, Paris, Krakow, Berlin, Hamburg, Norden and Marseilles. We too have hosted three conferences in Newcastle.

What have we gained from it?

For our pupils, membership of Relais has provided great opportunities to practise their language skills. Of course, this can be achieved through the medium of exchanges, but Relais, with its continuing focus on human rights in the past and in the contemporary world, offers something much more – the sense of using language to promote a common purpose and explore complex questions, such as issues surrounding perpetrators and victims of torture which was the theme of our recent conference in Newcastle.

Exploration takes various forms. At its heart is the tradition of témoignage, listening to those who have important stories to tell. In Newcastle this varied between survivors of the Nazis’ Kindertransport to a refugee from the Rwandan genocide. These stories provoke discussion and form the basis for delegates to produce not only written reports, but also use the creative arts of dance, art, music and drama to respond to what they have heard. And what they hear is inspirational. This year’s keynote speaker, Richard Moore, was blinded by a rubber bullet as a 10 year old in Derry in 1972. Over 30 years later, through the work of a BBC documentary team, he met and subsequently befriended the soldier who had fired that bullet and who attended the conference with Richard in an inspirational example of forgiveness. Stéphane Hessel, a founder of Relais, regularly attended meetings until his death in 2011, a year after his pamphlet Indignez-vous had reached the top of the French best seller lists. Ambassadeur de France and signatory of the UN declaration of the Rights of Man, his willingness to devote time to Relais was both a measure of his humility and also of the fantastic opportunities Relais offers to our young people. One of the few remaining founder members still able to attend meetings and actively support the young people is Philippe Richer, also Ambassadeur de France. Ancien deporté and a diplomat, he was Ambassador to Vietnam at the time of the Vietnam War and the author of many books on Indo-China, his main area of expertise.

And for the Schools? Relais certainly requires a great deal of work – especially when hosting – and we are hugely indebted to our head of modern languages and her office support team. However, the rewards are great. Relais provides a genuinely educational opportunity for young people from across Europe to engage with subjects that really matter and in so doing to form the long lasting and significant friendships upon which Relais founders looked to build a future free from the horrors they had faced.

Dr John Hind, Principal, Dame Allan's Schools