MORE than 100 students sat in silence to listen to one man’s story of survival against the odds.
Holocaust survivor Josef Perl was recalling his extraordinary life for a large sixth-form group at Billericay School.
They eagerly gathered to hear his the story of his heartbreaking journey during the Second World War.
Mr Perl, 78, has spent the past 20 years visiting schools and sharing his experiences as a way of encouraging young people.
As a boy, Mr Perl witnessed the murder of his mother, four of his sisters and several other family members.
He was ferried between several Nazi concentration camps, including the Auschwitz death camp, where he negotiated the thin line between life and execution on a daily basis.
The teenagers’ horrified reactions were clear on their faces as Mr Perl took their minds back to the very different world he inhabited as a boy.
After his speech, questions flew thick and fast from students keen to learn.
This will be one of the last talks Mr Perl will deliver in a school. After telling his terrible tale to thousands over the past two decades he has finally decided to retire.
Mr Perl says has has seen speaking to children as a vital way to make sure the Holocaust is never repeated.
He explains: “If we don’t learn from history, how have we got any future?
“I feel privileged I’m able to speak to these children, because they are our future. They have to make the world better for themselves and for their children.
“I feel confident the children I talk to can change the world, because of how they express their feelings with such confidence.”
Many children write to him after his visits, he says. They seem keen to make sure he knows the impact his talks have made on their lives.
Pupils at Billericay agree sharing Mr Perl’s experience was important to them.
David Pressman, 16, and Charlotte Ward, 17, heard the talk two days before they were due to visit Auschwitz on a school trip.
Charlotte says: “It’s important people like Mr Perl can come to schools and speak, because it’s a personal experience, not just looking at facts and figures in a book. It puts everything into perspective and prepares you for when you visit Auschwitz.”
David adds: “You just can’t imagine going through the things he went through. It changes the statistics into feelings and opinions.
“We still need to learn from the past, because we are the future and we need to try to change the world for the better.”
Fellow student Liam Hynes, 16, was clearly deeply moved by the speech.
He says: “After he spoke to us you realised life was completely different then, “When we heard how he saw his mum and sister killed, it was terrible.
“He was really brave to carry on with his life after seeing that.
“It teaches you everyone should be treated fairly, so nothing like that can ever happen again.”
This may have been one of the last speeches Mr Perl will give, Billericay School is determined to continue giving pupils first-hand accounts of historical events.
Lesley Pike, a sixth-form administrator says: “It’s really important students get this opportunity The students appreciate this.
“Some of them have said they might be the last generation to hear from somebody first-hand. In the future, it’s going to be videotapes.”