“We are all different, but still have much in common.”

“After our presentations we’ll ask everyone to get together and make a shelter – a sanctuary – from the twigs we’ve brought back from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park,” says Kim to the circle of Poles, Serbs, Italians, Syrians, Ukrainians and more.

This is the return leg of the European tour by 6 million+ that I wrote about earlier this year. The Kirklees-based charity has partnered with groups in Poland, Italy and Serbia to remember the Holocaust and other genocides and make connections with present day events.

Now some from those groups are visiting rainy West Yorkshire for a few days and together planning activities for next year’s Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). We’ve been invited to host tonight’s event in ‘Brigantia’, Creative Scene’s pop up studio space in Dewsbury.

“In a while we’ll be joined by our invited guests,” explains project co-ordinator Kim Strickson, “some of whom are refugees themselves now living in our community.”

The circle breaks up to give everyone time to prepare. Two huge ‘Weeping Sister’ puppets made for last year’s HMD event are carefully unpacked.

“Poor Kitty, her nose looks a bit bashed,” says Joanne who, with her daughter Iris, helped to make the puppets. “She needs some tlc.”

Each of the participants have been asked to make a ‘creative response’ to their involvement in the project. And it’s some of these responses which are being presented tonight.

“I’ve made a tree from buttons,” says Kate, a volunteer guide at Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland, “which was inspired by the workshop Kim and her team brought to us.

“The roots represent the shared history that we can’t forget and the branches represent a new generation, new friendships and new futures. All the buttons are different – we are all different – but we still have much in common.”

As the local guests arrive, introductions are made and conversations spring up naturally in shared languages.

“There’s a big conversation going on between our four countries,” says Kim by way of introduction. “What leads to genocide? How can we all take responsibility for avoiding it? How do we treat people who are escaping persecution and seeking sanctuary in our own countries? It’s about all of that.

“We’re trying to do it creatively and so we’re going to share a few of those responses with you tonight.”

Joanne bounces to the front to tell of her and her daughter’s experiences of helping to make the Kitty figure last year. “Iris then invited Kim into her school – Batley Girls – to talk about the project and now the school is going to get involved in Holocaust Memorial Day next year, so that’s a result.”

After we’ve watched a moving video of last year’s HMD event the group take turns to introduce each other’s contributions.

“This is Naomi’s response to a visit to the concentration camps,” says Assef, holding up a textile piece which Naomi rotates the right way up.

“That visit had a profound effect on me and I found this piece difficult to do,” explains the Yorkshire-based textile artist, before introducing Assef.

“He’s a Syrian refugee who’s lived with his family in Poland for the last four years where he teaches Philosophy. He’s an excellent musician and tonight will play a piece he’s written, based on the sounds of war in Syria.”

We next hear about Kate’s button tree and see an extract of a film made in Reggo Emilia, Italy presented by Dzvina; Stefan plays the Roma national anthem on his violin before introducing Raf from the UK group, who’s made exquisite, tiny, felted shoes, having seen the shoes in the Polish concentration camp.

The European visitors will be back in West Yorkshire in January when their artwork will contribute towards the HMD activities. In the meantime another two Weeping Sisters – representing Kurdish and Roma atrocities – will be made. Joanne and Iris are keen to help out and, no doubt, more connections and friendships will follow.

“If any of you are interested in helping make the puppets,” says Kim, “please do let us know. We’d love for you to be involved.

“Our final activity has been inspired by the Alfredo Jaar exhibition we saw at the Sculpture Park. He’s used 100 trees to represent sanctuary but also isolation in our world.”

Next everyone – every nation, every religion – gets stuck in together with the twigs and tape. It’s good to see.

Standing in someone else’s shoes

… continued from Parveen makes a discovery

They share their office block with the Open University, a theatre and a cinema – Despicable Me 3 is showing this week.

Stanka Parać, the head of Subotica’s Local Democracy Agency, welcomes us for our final session with our hosts and members of the Roma community.

While craft materials are laid out on the table I ask Miloš what he thought of the previous day. “It was very inspiring,” he says genuinely. “It wasn’t just talking. You could see actual objects which helped visualise what you were learning. There were no dry words.”

“We’d like you to think of the characters from the stories you heard yesterday,” begins Kim once the group is settled. “And to make a small figure for us to hold in our hands and think about a message they might give us.”

There’s barely elbow room around the table which adds an intimacy of cooperation as scissors, tape and balls of wool are passed around.

“Who are you making?” I ask as I walk around the table with my tape recorder.

“I’m making Muhamet,” says Filip. “His story from yesterday really inspired me.”

“My grandmother,” says Rejhana.

“I’m making my grandfather,” says Miloš.

“Who are you making Dušica?”

“I’m not sure yet,” she says. “I think it may be an older woman I know of who survived Auschwitz.”

Half an hour later a dozen or more small figures from wooden clothes pegs, wire and scraps of material are complete. “And now attach a message that your figure might have for us all,” says Kim.

After the final messages have been shared Chris and Kim bring the session, and our trip, to a close by outlining the next steps.

Our visit here is just the beginning,” says Chris. “We’re inviting participants from each of the countries we’ve visited – Poland, Italy and Serbia – to come to Yorkshire in October. We’ll share our stories and create new work together.

“And then we’ll ask you to come back again in January – all your costs will be met – so we can present our creative work at Holocaust Memorial Day. The international theme this next year is the power of words.”

It’s been tiring but hugely rewarding for our small team this week. Early tomorrow we set off back across the border to fly home from Budapest. As we walk back to our hotel – in the hope the water is now back on – I ask Joanne and Parveen to reflect on the last week.

“I knew I’d be out of my comfort zone,” says Joanne, “but it’s been a real privilege to meet  new people and hear some very personal stories. I like to think I’ve got a good sense of justice, and this has made me more aware of everything that’s still going on in the world.”

“And we’ve been reflecting on things together, haven’t we?” says Parveen. “It’s been good to have someone to share it all with.

“As well as discovering my own connection with the Roma community I’ll take away something that Stanka said to us today. She talked about integration versus interaction.”

“What did she mean?” I ask.

“When a host community welcomes newcomers they expect them to assimilate into that community,” explains Parveen. “Whereas perhaps what we should aspire to is an exchange of ideas and cultures between us that we all benefit from.”

“And what memory will stay with you, Joanne?”

“Yesterday Sanja’s daughter drew me a picture. On it she’d written the word, love. For me that crystallised everything we’ve been talking about. If our young people will keep that feeling of love that’s all we need isn’t it?

“Perfect,” I say.

Parveen makes a discovery

continued from Spreading a creative response to oppression across Europe

There’s consternation in the hotel this morning. The water supply for the whole city is to be switched off this evening until 6pm tomorrow for emergency repairs. Not everyone in our group is happy.

Today the market next to the Roma office is buzzing. We’ve arrived a little early for our workshop so we can take a look. Joanne goes in search of dry shampoo but comes back with chocolate.

Our session kicks off with a short talk from Stevan about the work of the Edukatiuni Centrar Roma, supporting and advocating for the local Roma community. “To make change we need to partner with other mainstream organisations,” he says.

“We’d like to show you some of the work we’ve been doing in Yorkshire,” says Chris, preparing his laptop, “and then tell you some snippets of the stories we’ve heard from survivors who live in our community.”

The lights are switched off. “The film you’re about to see shows some giant puppets that me and Joanne and her daughter Iris helped to make,” says Parveen. “Next year we’ll be working with the Hungarian community in Kirklees to make a Hungarian Roma figure.”

We watch the Holocaust Memorial Day event from last January where local schoolchildren work with survivors to re-enact their stories.

“How did the young people react?” asks Filip as the credits fade.

“Very positively,” says Kim. “They knew nothing of the issues and wept when they heard Fatima’s first hand account of gassing in Iraq. They asked her what they could do, how they could make a difference. ‘Just tell my story to others,’ she told them.”

At lunch Parveen helps Rejhana and Nada prepare an impressive spread of salads, fruit and traditional pita pastry.

“I’ve just made a discovery,” Parveen tells me as we’re eating. “I’ve learnt that the Roma migrated originally from India over 2,000 years ago.

“Rejhana showed me a video on her phone. She dances to the same songs that we do and she loves the same Bollywood actors as us! The style of dancing and the dress is so similar… I hadn’t made that connection before.”

“This afternoon we’d like to hear some of your own stories,” says Parveen after our food, “but first we’ll have a little warm-up exercise. When you’re handed this ball of ribbon tell us your name and why your parents gave you that name.”

Everyone forms a circle apart, that is, from Sanja’s ten-year-old daughter who prefers to draw, but is taking it all in. Soon everyone is connected with a criss cross of green ribbon. And again simple creativity reinforces a message.

Muhamet is the first to volunteer to tell his story. He tells of fleeing Kosova with his family in June 1999. Translated by Filip, he recounts an exodus to Montenegro, hoping to board a smugglers ship to take them to Italy, across the Adriatic Sea.

“He says they were living in parks and public spaces,” says Filip, “and, on the night they were due to board ship, the military arrived and moved them on, so they were unable to get to the port. They heard later that the ship sank that night and more than 200 people drowned. They would have been on that ship.”

Rejhana is next to share her family’s experiences of leaving Kosova when she was just ten. She and her siblings faced discrimination at their new school in Belgrade. They made no new friends. Eventually they settled in Subotica which was more welcoming. “You have to be positive,” she says, “and try not to rely on anyone.”

More creative activities follow – aspirations are written on paper ‘buttons’ and a collaborative poem is composed – and the whole time the message trickles down.

“It’s like we haven’t learnt anything,” says Filip. “In Serbia we learn one side of the story, in Croatia they learn another. In Bosnia there’s a third and in Kosovo a fourth. And in the UK they have their own version of our war. None of us know the truth.”

“This is not about what has happened in the past. It is happening right now,” says Dušica. “A lot of people are still dying. We know it’s wrong. Why is someone not doing something?”

The final story from Serbia is here.

Spreading a creative response to oppression across Europe

The border guard opens the side door of the minibus clutching all our passports. “Parveen Butt?” he asks in a strong accent, looking up at Parveen before he passes her passport back. “Joanne Hardcastle?”

I last reported on the collaboration between Creative Scene and the charity 6 million+ when friends Parveen and Joanne were helping to make huge puppets for Holocaust Memorial Day in January.

The two local women met at an arts class they both attend at Batley Girls High School. As Joanne is a mother of three girls – two with special needs – the weekly class provides a bit of ‘me time’. They’ve been friends ever since and jumped at the chance to volunteer on this trip.

Today we’re heading for Subotica in Serbia, a city smaller than Dewsbury and Batley put together. I put my tape recorder in front of Kim Strickson, the charity’s co-ordinator, and ask why.

“So far 6 million+ have done most of our work in Yorkshire, remembering the Holocaust and other genocides and connecting those events to what’s happening around the world now,” she says. “This EU project – Every Button Counts – gives us the opportunity to do that kind of work with other countries.”

The group – there’s also charity trustee and artist, Chris Squire and local artist Mandeep Samra – have flown from Reggio Emilia in Italy today where they’ve heard harrowing accounts of persecution from a diverse group of refugees.  A couple of months ago Kim and Chris visited Lublin in Poland, so this is the third leg of their European tour.

“The emphasis will be on the Roma,” says Kim as we head off the motorway, “and that will be interesting for us because we have a Hungarian Roma community in Kirklees.”

The following morning we’re met by Silvija and Filip from our hosts, the Local Democracy Agency, who take us on a walking tour of the city.

The first stop is the beautiful historic synagogue, currently being restored. “It was built in 1902 in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style, back when Subotica was home to 4,000 Jews,” says our cheerful guide, Sonja, as she passes out hard hats. “Now there are only about 400.”

The city museum – originally built as a home for a prominent Jewish family – is followed by a look inside the impressive town hall that dominates the city centre.

“It’s a living, working municipal town hall,” says Sonja leading us up a central staircase into the council chamber where we take turns to sit in the mayor’s ‘throne’.

After lunch we take two taxis out of town to a deserted indoor market complex. Outside we’re met by the president of the Roma Education Centre, Stevan Nikolic who leads us up to a small office.

“Hello, I’m Joanne,” says Joanne as we all make our introductions. Thankfully a box of name tags appears as Kim introduces the project.

“The name of our organisation comes from the number of buttons we’ve collected to represent the Holocaust and all genocides since World World Two,” she says. “Not only Jewish victims but all those who died, including Roma.”

Chris introduces the first creative activity where everyone is invited to take six buttons from the several piles now laid out on the floor. Each button represents a member of their families and coloured matchsticks connect them together.

“This golden button is my mother,” says Rejhana. “My father’s button is bigger because he is the head of the house. These two red buttons are my sisters.”

“Now place another six buttons around them to show your friends and colleagues,” says Chris. A little later: “And another six to represent the professionals in your community that support you like teachers and doctors.”

Everyone is on their knees having fun covering the floor with patterns of buttons, each one a network of personal connections.

“The next bit is not so enjoyable,” says Chris. “It’s hard, but now take away any red buttons.”

Progressively our participants dismantle their networks as Chris asks for more buttons to be removed. It’s a simple exercise that brings home the individual pain experienced when whole societies are fractured by oppression. It affects people in different ways.

“Dušica found that very difficult,” Joanne tells me later. “When she was asked to remove her mother – a big red button – she couldn’t do it and asked me to do it for her. That made me sad too.”

The Serbian trip continues here.

“I’ve never seen that in our town before.”

I’ve dug out my thermals. The Met Office app says it feels like -7. It’s not wrong.

The Weeping Sisters are already leaning against the neo-classical façade of Huddersfield railway station as our procession gathers.

“Your ‘sister’ looks very different from when I saw her last,” I say to Joanne who is here with her daughter Iris.

“We’ve done a lot haven’t we? She looks lovely, and it’s great to see the two ‘sisters’ together. We had a rehearsal on Saturday and it was good to meet the Bosnian women who’ve been working on theirs.”

Adam from the 6million+ charity gathers us together for a briefing. “Thanks everyone for coming, it’s wonderful that you are all here. It’s a cold night but it’s better than wind and rain. Okay, this is the plan…”

For the last couple of months 6million+ has partnered with Creative Scene and local people to create these two Weeping Sisters, representing the suffering of the Holocaust and of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.

The idea is to make a massive visual impact ahead of this evening’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations at the University. Judging by the number of onlookers we’re attracting, it’s doing just that.

“They look terrific,” I say to Jasmina who is standing under Hava – our Bosnian ‘sister’ – with her own daughter, 20-year-old Melissa.

“Yes. We’re very proud of what we’ve done in such a short time,” Jasmina says.

“She’s put in such a lot of work,” says Melissa as the samba band strikes up with a mournful beat.

It’s time. Alan leads us past the taxi rank towards the bus station where our procession officially begins. “Watch that bollard,” says one of the stewards to Kitty, our Jewish ‘sister’ as we pass SpecSavers.

“It’s amazing,” says Creative Scene’s Parveen, “just watching people’s reactions. They catch sight of us, stop, and try to figure out what’s going on. They’re transfixed.”

We’re joined by the Mayor outside the Plumbers Arms who, like everyone else, whips out his mobile and takes a few snaps. A trio of singers from the University, led by lecturer Ben Spatz, sing a Jewish lament. With Medina on the accordion, a group from the Bosnian community reply with a melancholic song about estranged lovers.

And then we’re off again, across the dual carriageway and towards the shopping area.

Outside VapeSuite I put my tape recorder in front of two women who’ve just been handed one of our leaflets. “It’s for Holocaust Memorial Day,” I tell them.

“It’s really nice of them to do that,” says one.

“I’ve never seen that happen before… not in our town anyway,” says the other.

As we pass down King Street hairdressers stand with clients in their doorways, scissors in hand; restaurant staff and diners peer from their windows.

Outside Boots I say hello to a woman ladened with bags and clutching her shopping trolley. “I was on my way to the bus station,” explains Shirley, “but then I saw this. It’s very interesting. I’d rather get cold and watch this than go home. It doesn’t happen every day.”

After an hour our procession reaches the University for the main event. We’re relieved to be in the warm. “How was that?” I ask Jasmina.

“Very special,” she says, “but very cold. It reminded me of being in Croatia, after we’d fled Bosnia. It was snowing. It was so, so cold and we were sleeping outside for 23 days. It was horrible.”

As the giant figures are dismantled to negotiate the doorway I notice Shirley following behind with her shopping. Still not on her way home.