More than 76 years after the defeat of Hitler, ever fewer survivors of the ghettos, concentration and extermination sites of that dreadful era are still living. Like many other survivors of Nazi ghettos and camps, I long hid my own past and finally “came out” only in the 1990s at the gentle and sensitive urging of Daniel Johnson, now founding editor of TheArticle and then op-ed editor of The Times. It is hardly surprising that I share the intent of the proposed Holocaust Memorial. In writing this piece, I specially wish to make clear my personal admiration of Lord Pickles, Ed Balls, Sir Mick Davis and Lord (Danny) Finkelstein, who have been pioneers and avid backers of the case for situating the memorial adjacent to the Houses of Parliament. Writes Michael Pinto-Duschinsky
With exceptional determination, a group of former Conservative and Labour prime ministers and other senior political figures, backed by leaders of Anglo-Jewish organizations, has achieved the project of using land adjoining the House of Lords for a Holocaust Memorial. By taking this uniquely important site, the new building will assign an equally unique prominence to the memory of the murder of six million Jews, as well as millions more gypsies, homosexuals, Slavs and others considered by Germany’s Nazi leaders as Untermenschen.
More than 76 years after the defeat of Hitler, ever fewer survivors of the ghettos, concentration and extermination sites of that dreadful era are still living. Like many other survivors of Nazi ghettos and camps, I long hid my own past and finally “came out” only in the 1990s at the gentle and sensitive urging of Daniel Johnson, now founding editor of TheArticle and then op-ed editor of The Times. It is hardly surprising that I share the intent of the proposed Holocaust Memorial. In writing this piece, I specially wish to make clear my personal admiration of Lord Pickles, Ed Balls, Sir Mick Davis and Lord (Danny) Finkelstein, who have been pioneers and avid backers of the case for situating the memorial adjacent to the Houses of Parliament.
Yet, I am far from alone in wondering what the new building will achieve. There is a risk that all of the attention given to this particular enterprise will distract from several urgent dimensions of Holocaust memory and, in particular, from initiatives to assure the personal welfare of elderly Holocaust survivors. Is it significant that the Government waited until the parliamentary recess before announcing its decision? Is it not even more noteworthy that much of the criticism of the project has come from leading, but independent, members of the Jewish community? What are we to make of the opposition expressed by arguably the most remarkable survivor of Auschwitz living in the UK today, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who owed her life to her role as cellist in the Auschwitz women’s orchestra, organized by the SS for various bizarre purposes? Her musician son went to the length of organizing a concert in Westminster to raise funds to oppose the idea of placing the Holocaust Memorial next to Parliament. Other active opponents included the leading Reform rabbi, Jonathan Romain, the doyen of Anglo-Jewish historians, Geoffrey Alderman, a group of mainly Jewish members of the House of Lords led by the committed Zionist, distinguished legal academic and former principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, Baroness (Ruth) Deech. Numerous academic scholars of the Holocaust have joined their case.
Rather than repeat and review the opposing arguments about the siting of the memorial, I will focus here on the need to ensure that crucial unfinished business from the Holocaust will not be swamped by the attention given to the building of memorials and promoting annual days of remembrance. The case for public memorial initiatives is compelling, but only if they do not assume a dominating role. After all, if it is to be effective, the struggle for historical remembrance and even at this late stage for a modicum of justice will not succeed through high profile physical structures and public events alone.
Since the decision has been taken on where the memorial is to be situated and since it appears unlikely to be overturned on appeal, I also will not consider whether or not the initiative is likely, as intended, to act as a guard against anti-Semitism.
We obviously need to look ahead to the time when we survivors will no longer be living and able to pass on our personal testimony. But it is not enough to see our value as visitors to schools and interviewees on television. Our own welfare is a prime responsibility of society at large and especially of Jewish communities. Sadly, our reasonable needs frequently have commanded less attention than remembrance buildings and demands [in themselves reasonable] to tell our stories.
It is a regular pattern that survivors repress traumas while finding spouses, bringing up children and establishing careers. There then comes a point at which past horrors well up again. Sometimes repressed suffering impacts on survivors’ children. When I was an honorary academic adviser to a group of London-based Auschwitz survivors in our ill-fated negotiations in the 1990s with the German authorities, it took years for some of them to confide experiences of nightmares and in one case of a child’s suicide. One Auschwitz survivor phones to tell of their dread of being approached by the BBC to give an interview for Holocaust Memorial Day. In many cases, survivors are not members of synagogues, may have little or no connection with Jewish bodies, or may be only part-Jewish or not attached at all to the religion for which they or their families were oppressed. Reaching out to them to provide help requires special effort.
Without minimizing existing welfare schemes for Holocaust survivors, it is reasonable to ask whether they have been or are sufficient. On annual days of Shoah remembrance in Israel, there have long been press reports that a quarter of the country’s survivors have been living in poverty. Among survivors in the United States, the reported situation has been similar. The generosity of material help provided by Germany, has often been exaggerated. The Federal German Republic refused during the slave labor negotiations to acknowledge any legal liability to pay former inmates of concentration camps for their labor. One German ambassador to London declared to a former slave laborer in the Buna works at Auschwitz that “strictly speaking” there had been nothing illegal in his treatment.
Accordingly, the pittances offered by the German side of the negotiations were offered on condition that the insultingly small payments of under £5,000 had to be acknowledged as “goodwill” gestures and that survivors who accepted them thereby agreed to forego any legal rights.
For one London-based survivor leader, Rudi Kennedy, the sting in the German offer was not the amount on offer — which he did not seek to accept anyway — but the refusal to acknowledge his slave labor at Auschwitz as illegal. A second dimension of insult was the German refusal even to use the term “slave” labor employed by the Allies during the Nuremberg trials. Instead, the German side convened a meeting at the former concentration camp at Buchenwald at which the selected invitees determined the correct term was to be “forced” labor. The Imperial War Museum used the same word in the title of a series of conferences titled “Beyond Camps and Forced Labor”. Objections to the euphemism met with rejection as well as academic argument by the German Historical Institute in London. Moreover, the conference agendas looked to subjects “beyond” the Nazi concentration camps, for example to such topics as food shortages among Germany’s civilians after the War — a worthy topic but not as an apparent diversion from the Holocaust. Was it appropriate that part funding had come from the German company which had reportedly profited from the sale of gold extracted from the teeth of those murdered at Auschwitz? (In face of objection, the Imperial War Museum reported later that it decided to stop accepting this funding source).
In themselves, questions such as the legality of Holocaust slave labor and the refusal to use the term “slave” labor may appear to be trivialities. Yet they have basic import in conveying German reluctance to accept responsibility and a tendency to put an historical spin on historical interpretations of the Shoah. This was seen during appearances in Oxford during a filmed dispute between Rudi Kennedy and Hans Mommsen, both of whom have since died. Mommsen has often been regarded as one of Germany’s foremost interpreters of the Holocaust. Yet when Kennedy challenged his refusal to call a spade a spade, telling him that he certainly had felt like a slave at the Buna factory at Auschwitz, Mommsen lunged at a cameraman recording the exchange. He later persuaded a German TV channel to cut the episode from a film about Kennedy’s quest for justice.
The point of relevance to the projected Holocaust Memorial is that lessons about the tragedy for youngish (Stage 3) British children and inevitably much simplified versions of events at exhibition buildings may easily neglect damaging tendencies in Holocaust research and in higher education. It has been a criticism of the £100 million Holocaust Memorial that this large sum could be spent better on funding research and teaching of the subject at university level. One reasonable, though possibly unrealistic, response might be that the money allocated for the Memorial should be additional to much needed domestic funding of high-level Holocaust teaching and research. The current problems are the shortage of such funding, leading to arguably excessive reliance on grants and facilities provided by countries wishing to influence prevailing Holocaust interpretations in British academia.
The dubious character of some — by no means all — German historiography and the questionable effects of German funding of 20th-century history in countries such as the US, UK and Israel is too large a topic to consider here, beyond restating the case in Britain for more domestic funding. There are additional aspects of Holocaust research and advocacy that have been bypassed by attention to the building of a prestigious memorial.
The UK needs to declassify more of its secret service records of the 1930s-1950s, especially those relating to use by UK intelligence of Nazis during the Cold War years. Diplomatic action should also be taken to protest against countries in the former Soviet bloc where sentences against leading Nazi collaborators have been overturned by local courts. Research at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and the World Jewish Congress has shown their alarming extent.
Though the UK has left the European Union, it still can and ought to disavow much of the “double genocide” rhetoric emerging from such countries as Czechia and Lithuania. Soviet crimes were immense; in addition, current international developments raise justified fears of Russian intentions and actions. Nevertheless, the June 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism unduly shifted blame for Europe’s 20th-century disasters away from Nazis and toward Communists. By harking back to outdated Cold War terminology of “totalitarianism”, the Prague initiative and the subsequent 2008 resolution of the European Parliament to create 23 August as an annual European Day of Remembrance of Victims of Stalinism and Nazism served effectively as a diversion from the Holocaust. The initiative owed much to the German Christian Democrats.
It is vital to ensure that future generations of children and ordinary citizens will be aware of words such as “gas chambers”, “Auschwitz” and “Babi Yar”, that they will know the approximate number of Jews and others murdered in the Holocaust. It will not be sufficient. We must realize the difficulty of preserving awareness and preventing distortion and trivialization of the singular horrors of Nazi rule. Striking symbols promise to be of value. But there will be no short cut to achieving a measure of justice and relief for victims and their families and for assuring objective, fact-based historical knowledge.
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