A Series of Fortunate Coincidences – The Loughton Boys from a Curator’s Perspective
Ellis Spicer, University of Kent
I often call where I am today helping with curating the exhibition ‘a series of fortunate coincidences’, because that’s really how it manifested. References in the Martin Gilbert book on the Boys from Windermere and after to Loughton, reflections in interviews with survivors who were there all happened by chance rather than design and led me down this path. I was doing my PhD on Holocaust survivor communities in Britain at the University of Kent, I grew up in Epping Forest and went to King Harold School, I used to be an Epping Forest Youth Councillor and volunteer at the museum. I wasn’t expecting all of those spheres of my life to come together in a series of fortunate (or what I’ve come to think of as amazing) coincidences.
And at an event in the Houses of Parliament in 2018 for the Epping Forest Youth Council, which I was part of 2009-2011, I ran into Tony O’Connor, one of the museum’s staff members and shared my fascinating discovery about the history of Holocaust survivors in the UK and the history of the Epping Forest District. His reaction was gobsmacked, he mentioned how the museum were looking to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and this could be a perfect way to showcase a little-known aspect of our area’s history.
The process happened fairly quickly and an exhibition was due to open in May 2020 at Epping Forest District Museum. Research was compiled, ideas exchanged and excitement was high. But then Covid happened. And in many ways we reflect on that disruption with an air of gratitude despite all of the horrors unfolding in the world during the pandemic. So many more avenues we could explore, so many more exciting projects to do the exhibition justice and tell such an important story the best way we could.
The research process for an exhibition has been very similar to the research process for my PhD. I started out knowing what I wanted to research and the individuals/groups I needed to reach out to, and I started there with interviews with three of the four surviving Loughton boys living in the UK: Ben Helfgott, Harry Spiro and Janek Goldberger. From there, I delved into the archives of the ’45 Aid Society Journal and the Central British Fund and expanded my networks for information, looking at archived oral history and testimony for those Loughton boys no longer with us and objects from the Jewish Museum and Imperial War Museum to potentially loan.
The biggest learning curve for this former King Harold student under the tutelage of Mr Rumsey turned PhD student at Kent turned curator is the designing stage. I have learned so much more about how to communicate research, how to engage with people and how to make things look appealing. We academics often lose sight of the everyday in our research, and this exhibition has connected me back to the day-to-day life of the stories I’m privileged to tell.
It’s always been important to me to never stop learning, and this exhibition reflects this next step for me in order to meet that goal. I credit my connection to the District, it’s schools, teachers, the museum and passionate local individuals for bringing me to this point. I want to end with the many fascinating stories of our local history waiting to be discovered, and to urge all of the passionate historians out there to capture these stories and record them where possible.
The Boys: Holocaust Survivors in the Epping Forest District is open now at Epping Forest District Museum. For more information on the opening hours of the museum and how we are managing our covid safe environment please visit https://www.eppingforestdc.gov.uk/museum/