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Defending democracy? The protests against Werner Krauss in West Berlin, 1950

Proteste gegen Werner Krauss

In December 1950, chaotic scenes at a theatre in West Berlin made headlines in Germany and abroad. While Werner Krauss  an actor who had featured in Jud Süβ, the Third Reich’s most infamous antisemitic film – performed in Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, students and Jewish residents demonstrated against his presence. For three days, protesters clashed with police officers outside and repeatedly disrupted the play’s performances inside the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, eventually securing its early cancellation.

The demonstrations against Werner Krauss, which took place seventy years ago this month, have been largely forgotten. Yet they raised central questions for early West German society, which, following the transfer of power from Allied occupation, now had to manage its own affairs. What constituted acceptable protest, and when did acts of dissent undermine the new democratic order? Should those who had been complicit in Nazi propaganda have any place in public life? And what responsibilities did Germans have towards Jews living in the country, after the atrocities of the Holocaust?

Krauss had risen to prominence before the Third Reich, starring notably in the 1920 silent movie The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. While many actors left Germany after the Nazis’ seizure of power, Krauss stayed. He went on to play four different characters in Jud Süβ, a film commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and viewed by 20 million Germans between its release in 1940 and 1943.[1]

Jud Süβ, which depicted the eighteenth-century Jewish court advisor Joseph Süβ Oppenheimer as a corrupt, depraved conspirator, aimed to justify the exclusion of Jews from German society. Although Krauss claimed during his post-war denazification trials that Goebbels had coerced him into taking part in the film, the final verdict in 1948 declared that Krauss had been a ‘follower’ (Mitläufer) of the Nazi regime.[2]

The judgement nevertheless allowed Krauss to resume his acting career, and, after moving to Austria, Krauss returned to German theatre stages in 1950 for the Vienna Burgtheater’s touring production of John Gabriel Borkman.[3]

The play was initially performed in several West German cities without incident. West Berlin, however, was different. The city was still a transit station for large numbers of Eastern European Jewish refugees, most of whom were awaiting emigration to Palestine. These refugees had already taken to the streets in 1949, in response to antisemitic tendencies in the newly-released British film Oliver Twist.[4]

Opposition to Krauss’s arrival also came from German-Jewish community leaders and West Berlin’s two universities, where students planned a demonstration for the play’s evening premiere. On December 8, more than five thousand students, Jewish refugees, and other protesters gathered outside the theatre, with chants and placards demanding that Werner Krauss ‘go home’.[5]

Numerous protesters attempted to penetrate the police line guarding the theatre. The police used batons and water cannons to push back the crowd, while some demonstrators hurled stones. A handful of officers and civilians were taken to hospital, and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that ‘dozens more were mauled and bruised’.[6]

Inside the theatre, demonstrators who held tickets for the play disrupted the first act. As they were ejected from the building, the performance was initially called off. The support for Werner Krauss among other theatregoers, however, was evident when the play eventually resumed. As Krauss appeared for the second act, he was greeted with loud applause.[7]  

Disturbances continued for the next two days, however, with Jewish leaders and Berlin’s students insisting that protests would not stop until the run was cancelled. After Krauss expressed his aversion to the thought that he would be the cause of further violence, the Burgtheater called off its remaining performances.[8]

The protests provoked outraged reactions among West Berliners. Letters to Ernst Reuter, the city’s mayor, expressed various anti-Jewish sentiments. Since Reuter had declared that the time had come to forgive Krauss, several of the letters condemned Jews’ alleged inherent vengefulness – a long-standing antisemitic conception – with one citizen claiming that ‘Jews cannot forgive’.[9]

Not only did these letters make little or no mention of the Holocaust: their sweeping assertions also ignored other viewpoints among Berlin’s protesting Jews. Some demonstrators, who saw Krauss’s apparent lack of contrition as the main problem, outlined circumstances under which they would accept his return to public life. Gerhard Löwenthal, a Jewish student, later recalled telling mayor Reuter that the demonstrations would stop at once if Krauss apologised on stage for his involvement in Jud Süβ.[10]

A poster for Jud Süß, 1940. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.

The question of what constituted ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ action was another recurring theme in the debates, with individuals on both sides claiming to defend the new political order. For Löwenthal, a departure from the Nazi past was a precondition for the success of West German democracy. Yet, as one newspaper acknowledged, theatregoers considered that they had ‘democratically’ expressed their wish to forgive Krauss.[11]

The protesters’ disruptive actions were labelled by opponents as a recourse to Nazi-era ‘SA methods’ which undermined the rule of law.[12] Sympathisers, however, contended that the real threat to democracy lay in police violence and the re-emergence of overt antisemitism. The Volksblatt remarked that, while officers’ batons struck Jewish victims of the Nazis, those at the theatre who shouted ‘Jews out!’ had gone unpunished.[13]

Werner Krauss did not perform again in Berlin until 1953: when he returned, the protests were not renewed. The following year, he was awarded West Germany’s Order of Merit. Krauss’ return to respectability before his death in 1959 could be taken as an example of what some historians have described as a ‘failure to address the issues raised by the Nazi period’. Such scholars argue that a continuation of authoritarian values and a desire for political and economic stability resulted in an indifference among most West Germans, lasting until the 1960s, to questions of ‘democratisation’.[14]

The backlash against Krauss in 1950, however, reveals fierce debates at an early stage about the requirements for democratic renewal. While some Germans considered it necessary to draw a line under the past, others demanded that those who had worked with the Nazis apologise for their actions, or be barred from public life. Attitudes to protest also diverged: whereas demonstrators considered themselves to be carrying out a democratic duty, opponents saw them as violent troublemakers infringing other citizens’ freedoms. 

Such discussions continued into 1951 and 1952, as further demonstrations accompanied the screening of new films by Veit Harlan, the director of Jud Süβ. As these events, too, approach their seventieth anniversaries, it is time to reconsider the supposedly sleepy, ‘consensus-based’ early years of West Germany’s existence.

Rory Hanna is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. His doctoral research project focuses on student protest and activism in West Germany between 1949 and 1967.

Cover image: protesters against Werner Krauss, demonstrating with placards and torches in front of the Theater am Kurfürstendamm in West Berlin, 10 December 1950. Photographer: Associated Press. Source: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, http://www.bildarchivaustria.at/Preview/353430.jpg


[1] Susan Tegel, ‘Review Essay: Jud Süss’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 25:1 (2005), p. 156; Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion. Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife (Cambridge, Mass.: 2007), p. 154.

[2] Wolff A. Greinert, Werner Krauss. Schauspieler in seiner Zeit, 1884 bis 1959 (Vienna, 2009), pp. 273, 303.

[3] Ibid., p. 313.

[4] ‘Tumulte gegen den Film “Oliver Twist”’, Der Sozialdemokrat, 21 February 1949, p. 3.

[5] Landesarchiv Berlin (hereafter LAB) B Rep. 020, Nr. 7861, ‘Polizei-Inspektion Charlottenburg, den 9.12.1950, Betr.: Demonstrationen anlässlich des Gastspiels des Burgtheater-Ensemble mit Werner Krauss im „Theater am Kurfuerstendamm“, p. 1; ‘Tumulte am Kurfürstendamm‘, Telegraf, 9 December 1950, p. 1.

[6] ‘Das Schuldkonto des Herrn Krauss’, Volksblatt, 9 December 1950, p. 1; ‘Jews in Berlin Fight Police in Row Over Actor’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 9 December 1950, p. 7. 

[7] ‘Berliners Storm a Theatre’, Manchester Guardian, 9 December 1950, p. 5.

[8] ‘Ein Erfolg der Jüdischen Gemeinde’, Kurier, 12 December 1950, p. 2; ‘Das Ende des Krauss-Gastspiels’, Telegraf, 13 December 1950, p. 1.

[9] ‘Vergeben können’, Der Abend, 8 December 1950, p. 2; LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, anonymous letter from ‘ein Lichterfelder Einwohner’, 13 December 1950. On the history of antisemitic conceptions of Jewish ‘retributive justice’, see Trond Berg Eriksen et al, Judenhass: Die Geschichte des Antisemitismus von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart (Göttingen, 2019), p. 117.

[10] Gerhard Löwenthal, Ich bin geblieben. Erinnerungen (Munich, 1987), pp. 202-203.

[11] Ibid., p. 203; ‘Die Unruhen am Kurfürstendamm’, Tagesspiegel, 9 December 1950, p. 2.

[12] LAB B Rep 002, Nr. 3428, letter from Adolf Vollmer to Friedrich Luft (editor of Die Neue Zeitung‘s Feuilleton section), 12 December 1950.

[13] ‘Problematisches Gastrecht’, Volksblatt, 11 December 1950, p. 2.

[14] Nick Thomas, Protest Movements in 1960s West Germany. A Social History of Dissent and Democracy (Oxford, 2003), p. 13; Moritz Scheibe, ‘Auf der Suche nach der demokratischen Gesellschaft’, in Ulrich Herbert (ed.), Wandlungsprozesse in Westdeutschland. Belastung, Integration, Liberalisierung, 1945-1980 (Göttingen, 2002), pp. 245-247.

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Donald Trump and Masculinity as Motivator

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In October 2016, Donald Trump created an unprecedentedly hostile-feeling presidential debate by following his opponent, Hilary Clinton, around the stage, looming over her and scowling as she spoke.  For many women watching the debate, the image of a large, unqualified candidate hovering behind an accomplished stateswoman as she attempted to speak knowledgeably to her audience was a familiar intimidation tactic. Using his height, imposing posture, scowling visage, and bravado, Trump projected aggressive power, playing on assumptions and biases about gender. Earlier, Trump had also attacked the masculinity of Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s competitor in the race for the Democratic nomination. Trump claimed that Bernie was weak for allowing protestors to interrupt his speaking engagements, specifically when he let two women speak in front of him at his own rally.

As a historian of Jewish masculinity, watching the candidates announce in 2015 I did not think I would have any particular professional insight into the 2016 election or the following four years of Trump’s presidency. I was not expecting the combination of absurd obstreperousness and flagrant antisemitism of Donald Trump and his supporters, which made me feel I was living in a stress dream trapped inside my own historical manuscript. Trump demonstrates, in the image he projects to the public, the most heavy-handed displays of white masculinity imaginable. In addition, his attacks on his opponents are pointedly gendered, implying weakness and femininity in contrast to his own projected virility and bravado. And this approach appeals to his support base, consisting of both men and women, who cringe at new and more expansive views of gender and its role in American society.

Throughout Trump’s political rise, I was researching a book on Jewish masculinity in America in the twentieth century.  One of my core arguments is that Jews have attempted to acculturate in American society by changing the perceived image of Jewish men to better embody the American masculine ideals cultivated over the previous centuries. Despite these efforts, differences in perception of levels of manliness lingered. The most notable change in these perceptions has been growing since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as Jewish Americans embrace (and at times, revel in) the reflected manliness of Jewish military victories in the Middle East. This is particularly the case of American Jews coming of age during or born after the Six Day War in 1967.  Bernie Sanders, however, embodies the more classic, continuing perceived difference in masculinity which has been maintained between Jewish and white American men throughout the twentieth century. A New York Jew, Sanders participated with many other young Jews in the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, and considers his Judaism a link to a past of oppression, far more than a path to Zionism and Israeli strength. Sanders, as a child of the Holocaust survivor generation (though his father left Poland before Hitler invaded) identifies with a Jewish past that feels connected to a long history of oppression and recognizes the need to support other oppressed peoples. 

By contrast, younger generations of American Jews, like Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, identify more with the international image of Israeli strength and self-protection than with the history of oppression which defined earlier generations. As a staunch defender of Israel, Trump himself courts Evangelical Christians, helping to cement Israeli-American relations while damaging Arab-American relations in the process, as well as, according to the Evangelicals, assisting to usher in the End of Days.[1]  He praises Israel for its toughness, its defense, and its aggression.  Trump himself is not anyone’s definition of the American masculine ideal.  He is out of shape, non-athletic, avoided military service, and lacks dignity, humility, and generosity—necessary components of most iterations of ideal American manhood.  And yet he is praised by supporters, largely white working-class men, which is the demographic segment of society perhaps most outspoken about what a man should be.  According to a feature from the American Psychiatric Association, white, middle-class masculine ideology is “built on a set of gender norms that endorses features such as toughness, dominance, self-reliance, heterosexual behaviors, restriction of emotional expression and the avoidance of traditionally feminine attitudes and behaviors.”  Admittedly, Trump indeed exhibits some of these behaviors, but he does so to their unmanly extreme.  His dominance becomes bullying, his self-reliance becomes isolationist, and his overt heterosexuality makes him an aggressive sexual predator. Why his support base of white men, confident and proud in their definition of masculinity, do not find his heavy-handed donning of their ideals (like a sort of white-heterosexual-drag) insulting is one of the most mysterious aspects of his support.

Playing to his base, who do, in fact, revel in his manifested hyper-masculinity, Trump attacks his adversaries one by one, giving them childish nicknames like a schoolyard bully.  He has dubbed opponents “Wild” Bill Clinton, “Cheatin’ Obama,” “Sleepy Joe” Biden, Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren, “little” Adam Schiff, “mini” Michael Bloomberg, “cryin’” Chuck Shumer, and “little” Jeff Zucker.  The last four, all diminutive/emasculating titles, are used to refer to Jews.  These nicknames jump out at me, as part of a continuing tradition of emasculating Jewish men.  It is only when Trump is speaking directly to groups of Jews that he abandons the attack on their manhood, though he certainly isn’t flattering.  In fact, when he is speaking about Israel, or to American Jews who support Israel, he assumes the hypermasculinity associated with the Jewish state. Trump told a room full of American Zionists in Hollywood, for example, that he knew Jews in business, and that they were “brutal killers, not nice people at all.”

Trump’s insults aside, it is worth recognizing that his rhetoric is not merely sexist or chauvinist, that his disrespect for women is not the core of his sexist language. Rather, he is on a constant mission to prove his masculinity, his vitality, his rigor, his strength, and even his physical manhood. If we take it for granted that one of Trump’s largest motivations for his unprepared statements and insults is his desperate need to prove his masculinity, his actions make fractionally more sense, even if they are still shocking and inscrutable. His rhetoric also serves as a reminder to those of us who follow such things, that in spite of his support for Israel and praise of Israeli hyper-masculine identity and politics, the kneejerk return to emasculating language when insulting or rebuffing a Jewish male opponent is ever-present.

Miriam Eve Mora is a historian of American Immigration and Ethnicity, Jewish America, Gender, the Holocaust, and Genocide. You can find her on Twitter @MiriamEveMora

Cover image: Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore (29 October 2016)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Donald_Trump_(30354612000).jpg


[1] For more on the Evangelical connection, see Till Kingdom Come, a new documentary by Maya Zinshtein. https://www.docnyc.net/film/til-kingdom-come/?fbclid=IwAR0L-Q5d5qsZX04m-WZHBabzagkBrw_P4rRjcQu3Dt4SAGMheYwsIToAyR4

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It Happened Here: The Annihilation of the Jews of the Amsterdam Rivierenbuurt, 1940-1945

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To this day, the Dutch have been unable to achieve closure concerning how the Germans were able to kill, with such relative ease, between seventy and eighty per cent of the country’s 140,500 Jews during their Second World War Occupation of the Netherlands. This proportion was by far the highest in western Europe. Many varied and complex subsidiary questions involving perpetrators, victims, bystanders and survivors still remain unexplored. Moreover, very little published research, if any, in the historiography of the persecution, has so far investigated how the urban design of a particular local neighbourhood might perhaps have contributed to theannihilation of its Jews.  

Much attention has rightly focussed on the more than sixty per cent of the country’s Jews who lived in Amsterdam, However, inherent elements of the built environment, capable of analysis by the application of interdisciplinary approaches, have been largely disregarded as potentially significant factors in this field that might otherwise contribute to the wider debate. 

A pertinent example of such an area is the Rivierenbuurt (Rivers District), a tranquil suburb a few kilometres to the south of the historic centre of Amsterdam, erected in the 1920s and 1930s and occupying only 140 hectares, a negligible 0.003 per cent of the landmass of the entire Netherlands. 

A walk through the Rivierenbuurt in 2020 barely discloses connections with its tragic past. This is unexpected, when it is understood that 13,000 individuals, out of its Jewish population of 17,000, were removed by the Germans and murdered in the death camps of eastern Europe. While Jews from many other parts of Amsterdam, and elsewhere in the country, also lost their lives in this way, the Rivierenbuurt stands out because its Jewish population represented one in nine (19.5 per cent) of the Dutch Jews. 

Certainly, the Germans were well aware of the Rivierenbuurt’s disproportionately large Jewish population from the outset of the Occupation. This awareness took on a greater relevance after February 1941, when a ghettowas imposed in the Jodenhoek (‘Jewish Corner’), the traditional centre of Jewish settlement of Amsterdam. While this ghetto had been based on the principles of eastern European paradigms, it proved to be untenable because the Germans could not seal in its Jewish population, due to the high proportion of non-Jews living there who needed to continue to interact with the rest of the city.

Thus, by the middle of 1941, the Germans alighted upon an alternative approach that could help achieve their aim by harnessing existing local conditions as they pertained specifically to Amsterdam. Henceforth, three discrete Jodenwijken (‘Jewish Districts’), took the place of the ghetto, of which the Rivierenbuurt was by far the largest.

The Germans called this model of containment a ‘lockeres Ghetto’ (slack ghetto), an unenclosed district that allowed resident non-Jews, and Jews, to continue to live alongside each other. In consequence, the physical barriers of the ghetto were rendered superfluous, thereby allowing the Rivierenbuurt to remain open and accessible. Instead, the activities and movements of Jews were controlled by means of an extraordinarily wide range of persecutory measures, of which personal registration, restricted employment, travel permits and the wearing of the ‘Jewish Star’ for identification purposes were but a few.

If the Germans did not explicitly recognize the advantages of the spatial conditions that already existed in the Rivierenbuurt before the mass deportations of the Jews began in July 1942, they soon exploited their benefits. Able to round up their Jewish victims in efficient operations with minimal resources, they could send them rapidly to local assembly points and for onward transportation to almost certain death in the extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibór. This was achieved, in the first instance, by being able to deploy police during razzias (raids for rounding up Jews) along the grand avenues of the Rivierenbuurt, the design of which was clearly derived from authoritarian precedents, as seen in Paris, St. Petersburg or Imperial Rome (see photo below). Secondly, the boundaries of the Rivierenbuurt delineated by the River Amstel and canals were capable of being cut off from the surrounding city by raising the bridges, as occurred, for example, without warning, in a major dawn razzia on 20 June 1943. Thirdly, the regimented grid-like planning of the secondary side streets created a net during razzias, the mesh of which could be enlarged or reduced in size as required to isolate specific localities where Jews lived. 

Rooseveltlaan [south end], Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 16 September 2016

In other circumstances, inherent flaws in the progressive architectural design would also have been taken for granted by their designers and residents, yet were capable of disclosing further opportunities for the Germans. This came about because four and five storey residential blocks with long frontages, designed for sustaining intensive housing densities, extended from one street corner to another. Each of these contained tightly packed clusters of spacious apartments in which large numbers of people were billeted when the Germans forced Jews from all parts of the country to move to the Rivierenbuurt, which, in effect, rendered it a large detention camp in all but name, pending their future deportation to the camps. Furthermore, awkward and narrow, steep staircases, accessed by open, communal entrance archways, led from the street to upper floors without alternative escape routes. Panicked Jews were trapped and could not escape being caught (see photo below).

Access staircase at Roerstraat 15 and 17, Rivierenbuurt
Source: David Kann, 26 October 2007

The buildings, streets and waterways of the Rivierenbuurt might have appeared well-ordered and beneficial for the well-being of their residents in peacetime. However, despite the local death rate being similar to the rest of the country, it is evident that the existing built environment of the district could be readily subverted by the Germans for more efficient means of conducting their persecution of its Jews. In the end, when theRivierenbuurt was finally liberated on the last day of the war in Europe on 8 May 1945, almost no Jews survived, apart from the very few that had managed to hide.

David Kann is a PhD researcher in the History Department at the University of Sheffield, focussing on Het Joodsche Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly) as an instrument of persecution in the Nazi Occupied Netherlands. David is a retired architect by profession and in 2017 completed a Master’s by Research thesis at Royal Holloway College, University of London 

Cover Image: Anne Frank memorial at Merwedeplein: the Rivierenbuurt’s most famous resident lived at no. 37 (on right) until she and her family went into hiding in the centre of the city.  Source: David Kann, 15 September 2016

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Holocaust Memorial Day: A Universalising Message?

Holocaust-Memorial-MKZE

On Monday 27 January, thousands gathered across the globe to commemorate International Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, which also marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the Nazi concentration and extermination camp where European Jews and other minorities were imprisoned and murdered en masse. In Sheffield it was no different, with residents coming together for a candle lit vigil in the Winter Gardens that was well-attended by important representatives of the city, such as the Lord Mayor, as well as religious leaders from local Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities.

Every year Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK is given an accompanying theme by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and this year was no exception, the 2020 theme being ‘Stand Together’. Underlying this phrase is a message of solidarity: solidarity with Jews in the face of the global rise in antisemitic hate crime, solidarity with survivors, and solidarity with those who perished in the Holocaust – which is still subject to widespread denial and revisionism. This solidarity also allies us with the victims and survivors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, who are also commemorated on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Connecting this annual event with an overarching theme can help to direct the focus of Holocaust commemoration and make it more relevant to a contemporary audience, and to young people in particular. Symptomatic of our western liberal approach to memory making, however, these themes also have the potential to dilute or otherwise universalise the specific ‘lessons’ to be learnt from the attempted annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany over seventy-five years ago.

This concern was brought to my attention during Sheffield’s own vigil, which opened with several upbeat renditions of well-known pop songs by a primary school choir, including (to my surprise) Randy Newman’s Toy Story hit ‘You Got a Friend in Me’. Audience members clapped along and applauded the performance, which led into the evening’s scheduled readings and reflections.

It’s encouraging that so many Sheffield residents of all ages and backgrounds feel willing and able to participate in a Holocaust Memorial Day vigil, which is always welcome to all. It is also perhaps easy to understand the inclusion of songs that advocate for friendship, camaraderie and love within an event of this kind, especially for children. The problem with using a Disney-associated song about the love of two fictional characters for a commemorative Holocaust vigil is that it entirely obfuscates the identities of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

We are in danger of reducing Holocaust Memorial Day to an event defined by well-meaning but platitudinal phrases such as ‘never again’, which serve to depoliticise the antisemitic roots of the Holocaust. Memory is always political and is inextricably linked to power and identity: this means we cannot refer to the ‘people’ who died during the Holocaust, as this constitutes a generalised description of the victims of Nazi genocide who were persecuted on the basis of their religious beliefs and ethnicities. As the numbers of those who witnessed the atrocities of the Holocaust first-hand are sadly dwindling, it is more important than ever that official commemorations of the Shoah (the Jewish Holocaust) are firmly situated in their historical and political contexts.

Yet there is a degree to which the sometimes-universalising effect of Britain’s National Holocaust Memorial Day is a product of our nation’s identity-affirming motives for establishing this commemorative event in the first place. Established in 2001, Holocaust Memorial Day was designed to bring national recognition to the suffering of Jewish victims and other minorities of the Holocaust, and to critically reflect on how the past can inform our approach to religious, ethnic and racial prejudice and discrimination in the present. As Daniel Tilles and John Richardson argue, however, Britain’s Holocaust Memorial Day is just as much about emphasising what Labour MP Andrew Dismore called the ‘positive values of Britain’ as it is about commemorating victims.[1]

As such, the Holocaust has been deployed in national commemorative practice as a tool not only to advance Britain’s false superiority as liberators, but, as historians have argued, to mask the more uncomfortable aspects of Britain’s wartime past. According to Tilles and Richardson, this includes Britain’s ‘collaboration in deporting Jewish residents from the occupied Channel Islands to Nazi death camps’ as well as its little-acknowledged ‘reluctance to facilitate the escape of Jewish refugees fleeing occupied Europe’.[2]

Moreover, the designation of a day dedicated to commemorating the Holocaust is an important opportunity to remember Holocaust victims. It should, however, be viewed as part of a rigorous and ongoing critical reflection regarding the treatment of Jews as well as a chance to educate upcoming generations of the atrocities of the Third Reich. In order to better express our solidarity with Jewish victims of persecution past and present, an acknowledgement of their identities must be at the forefront of British Holocaust commemoration, as should the current reality of antisemitism that increasingly rears its ugly head in the political sphere. Holocaust Memorial Day is not a marker of western sophistication; rather, it is a reminder of the continued threats of antisemitism, racism and xenophobia to minorities.

Emily-Rose Baker is a final year PhD researcher based in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis examines postcommunist representations of Holocaust memory and dreams in central-eastern Europe, and is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). You can find Emily on Twitter @emily_baker18.

Cover Image: Holocaust memorial in Rishon LeZion, Israel, 2006. Courtesy of Zachi Evenor. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Holocaust-Memorial-MKZE.jpg, [Accessed 3 February 2020}.

[1] Daniel Tilles and John Richardson, ‘Past, Present and Future: Poland’s New Memory Law Exposes the Problematic Nature of Holocaust Remembrance’, History Today, 68:5 (2018).

[2] Ibid.

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A Great British Welcome? Unlearned lessons from the Kindertransport

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British collective memory largely recognises the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) policy as a point of national pride, believed by many to be ‘the zenith of…interwar international humanitarianism.’[1] This policy was instituted, – albeit reluctantly – by Chamberlain’s Conservative government as a reaction to the Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) of November 1938, where Jewish homes, businesses, and buildings were ransacked across Germany in an act of extreme racial hatred. The Kindertransport allowed 10,000 Jewish children to take refuge in Britain to escape the persecution of the Third Reich.

Although the policy appears noble and humanitarian on the surface, there were several caveats. Firstly, the parents of these young Jewish refugees were not permitted to accompany them. This was due to the British government’s fears of developing a ‘Jewish problem in the United Kingdom’: this supposed ‘problem’ being that too many Jewish people taking refuge in the country would lead to overpopulation and employment issues.[2] Therefore, only allowing unaccompanied children to take refuge was believed to be ‘more palatable to British public sensibilities’.[3]

Furthermore, Jewish refugees were only allowed to enter the country on the condition that their escape from racial discrimination would not be a ‘financial burden on the public’, as it would cost £50 per child to safely cross the borders and house on their arrival. In an attempt to exonerate the former government from their questionable treatment of Jewish refugees, the current government – via The National Archives’ educational entry on the Kindertransport –provide the rather tenuous excuse that ‘few households could pay the sum…required’. Instead, this comes off as little more than apologia for inaction towards racial discrimination and is akin to our current government’s own treatment of refugees in the present day.

Ultimately, it was up to Jewish organisations and benefactors to foot the bill themselves to ensure the safety of these children.[4] Support was quite limited at the start of the program, with the intake of refugees only gaining further traction from Gentile (non-Jewish) groups once they learned that the refugees ‘were not all Jewish.’[5] Those who did manage to escape via the Kindertransport were not all guaranteed hospitality and care on arrival, with many being placed in refugee camps and youth hostels. Max Dickson, a German-Jewish child of the Kindertransport, recorded his experiences in refugee camps in his memoirs: ‘[There was] No one to tuck you in and give you a hug or say “I love you”. I think many of us cried ourselves to sleep those first three months.’[6] Another Kindertransport refugee, Bob Kirk, was separated from his parents in Hanover in May 1939. Kirk, along with 200 other children on his train, were led to believe that their parents would be joining them in England once their papers had been approved: ‘My parents were so intent on not making it seem like a parting that they didn’t include anything which might suggest we wouldn’t see each other again.’ Kirk’s parents were deported to Riga in 1941 and never returned. Regular discrimination, fear, and loneliness were all part and parcel of the life of a Jewish refugee, and one may already begin to start drawing significant parallels with the poor treatment experienced by contemporary refugees.

Many continue to perpetuate an idea of the Second World War as an almost-biblical battle between good and evil, with Britain acting as the righteous ‘saviours’ of Jews under threat from Nazism.  This approach makes for a compelling narrative but is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Contrary to popular nostalgia, the notion of British war-time humanitarianism in relation to refugees is questionable at best and offensively sanitised at worst. Whilst on the proverbial ‘right side of history’ in opposing the horrors of National Socialism, the British government was indifferent, if not outright hostile towards Jewish refugees, which is – depressingly – quite relevant to the current government’s own treatment of refugees.

In popular British culture, many prefer to select specific examples of British humanitarianism and ascribe them to the nation at large. This is clear in the case of Sir Nicholas Winton, dubbed ‘the British Oskar Schindler’ for his instrumental role in evacuating 669 children from Prague. Winton, however, was arguably the exception rather than the rule, and not representative of the British population.[7] Despite this, Theresa May used his story in her resignation speech in May 2019; May recalled that Winton, a long-time constituent of hers in Maidenhead, had given her some advice prior to his death, supposedly telling her that ‘Compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ This quote is rather unusual, as it is completely incongruous with Winton’s actions during the Second World War. Lord Alf Dubs, himself a refugee of the Kindertransport and one of the 669 saved by Winton, believed May’s words to be ‘an insult’ to Winton’s character:

What [Winton] demonstrated was not compromise. What he demonstrated was tenacity of purpose, a determination to battle with the British government, to battle with the Nazis, to do what he had to do…She’s using a man who is absolutely iconic for the wonderful things he did and the lives he saved…to justify compromise. That seems to me quite wrong, and a bit of an abuse.’

Despite May’s questionable anecdote, actions speak louder than words. A year after Winton’s death, May (alongside 293 other MPs), voted to turn away 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria.

Indifference and hostility towards refugees continues to be an issue. Of course, our politicians, pundits, and popular figures will happily deploy the Second World War, selecting instances of humanitarianism where convenient, while failing (or choosing not) to see the other parallels between past and present.

Today, politicians are increasingly taking harder lines against refugees to win votes. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently vowed to ‘crack down’ on those who ‘abused [the UK’s] hospitality’, hoping it would ‘restore public faith’ in the British immigration system. Johnson has also pledged to ‘make all immigrants speak English’, stating that ‘too often there are parts of our country…where English is not spoken by some people as their first language and that needs to be changed’.

Johnson’s and May’s attitudes clearly demonstrate that the current British establishment have learned very little, if anything, from the Kindertransport. The passing of the Kindertransport policy in 1938 was, of course, partially a positive action for the government to take; this does not mean, however, that the negative aspects should be ignored. The government should be ashamed of their role in the Kindertransport, but through the power of historical revisionism and compelling narrative, they have been sanitised and falsely idealised as being the driving force behind this humanitarian effort, instead of a roadblock against it. This has effectively given contemporary politicians a free pass to continue treating refugees with contempt, whilst still claiming the likes of Winton where convenient.

This self-congratulatory revisionism of so-called ‘British humanitarianism’ must be challenged, and those who continue to peddle such history for political gain must be held to account. Government actions, no matter how positive they may seem on the surface, should not be blindly praised without digging a little deeper first.

Owen A. Jones is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), conducting research on anti-Semitism and Jewish refugees of war during the early twentieth century. His research also examines relevant parallels to the present-day refugee crisis and Britain’s continued treatment of refugees.

[1] L. E. Brade and R. Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938–1940’, History and Memory 29.1 (2017), p. 5.

[2] B. Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 10-11.

[3] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

[4] C. Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (London, 1988), p. 142.

[5] ibid., p. 143.

[6] M. Dickson, The Memories of Max Dickson formerly Max Dobriner (Sheffield, 2010), pp. 6-7.

[7] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

Image Credit: ‘“The Children of the Kindertransport”, Hope Square, Liverpool Street Station, London.’ (Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/), available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/locosteve/15535288254/in/photostream/.

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