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Jewish History

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

Owen

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. You can find him on Twitter @OwenAdamJones.

[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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