My great, great grandfather was almost certainly a poor man. He lived, so the story goes, in a small town called Schrensk on the Polish-Russian border. Life for Jews in 19th Century Eastern Europe was not exactly a barrel of herrings. Many fled the pogroms to start a new life in Britain and the US. Over the years Schrensk changed hands several times – sometimes the Russians ruled, sometimes the Poles. Finally, the dispute was settled and it became Polish. At which point, the story goes, my great, great grandfather said,“Thank God for that. I couldn’t stand those Russian winters.”
This is almost the only thing I know about my great, great grandfather. His wit has become an emblem of good cheer in adversity. He could see the funny side. He triumphed. And our family, the heirs of that spirit, must do likewise. You can tell a lot about a family from the stories it chooses to tell about itself, the stories it chooses to remember and to pass on. And you can tell a lot about a culture from the stories it chooses to tell about itself, the stories it chooses to remember and pass on. Or not to pass on. So, for example, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone under 18 who can identify Admiral Lord Nelson from a picture. This is not because our schools don’t teach history any more or because young people can’t remember anything, it is simply because Admiral Lord Nelson is not someone who is important enough to find his way onto the National Curriculum. He is unarguably one of the top five admirals of all time.And he happens to have con- tributed enormously to the defence of Britain and to the global expansion of the British Empire. So why has this great figure been consigned to oblivion? Presumably because we do not want our children to learn about Britain’s imperial past – which was, after all, imperial and involved the subjugation of large numbers of people. Nations choose what to remember. The Sound of Music may have been a Christmas TV standard for decades in Britain but it has never been broadcast in Austria and, unless something has changed recently, the video has never been on sale there either. The reason is not because Austrians find Julie Andrews too violent or because the standard of the yodelling in the film is an offence to that great Alpine art-form, it is because the film reminds the Austrians of their enthusiastic alliance with Hitler. Von Trapp is, after all, a rebel with a cause – an aristocratic Austrian soldier who refuses to fight alongside Germany.
For the Austrians, it never happened. Ah, but it did. And so, of course, did the Holocaust. But why have we in Britain chosen to institute an annual day of remembrance? And why has the Jewish community campaigned for it so hard and invested so much? Well, the first reason is that the Jewish community wanted a Holocaust Memorial Day. America has one. With a Jewish population of under 3%. Certainly, it is no surprise that the global Jewish community should want to mark this day among themselves. It is no surprise that the Jewish community should want to ensure that the spurious claim that the Holocaust did not happen never gains any credence. And we can perhaps understand why the Jewish community would want the world to mark this day – as an act of self-defence – lest it ever happen again. Peter Novick’s argument in The Holocaust and Collective Memory is that this overt and public Jewish concern about the Holocaust is actually relatively new. Certainly, he reports that in the 50s,the holocaust ‘had had remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry.’ The change has been brought about, according to Novick, not because Jewry has woken up to the full enormity of the massacre,the change has been brought about because of the decline in the cohesion of the Jewish community itself.
As orthodox faith waned, as more and more Jewish people became cultural Jews - like Italians without the Catholicism, if you like - as more and more married Gentiles, the elements that bound Jews together became fewer and fewer. The Jewish community lacked a focal point around which it could build its sense of identity: ‘American Jewish Leadership … has chosen to centre the holocaust … as the basis of revived ethnic consciousness.’ Now of course,all communities have to choose something around which to build their sense of identity but we need to choose carefully. Memories can come to define who we think we are – they tell us not just about the past but who we are now and who we can expect to be in the future. The Jewish community is casting itself in the role of outraged victim. Here is Novick again: ‘There is a sense in which Emil Fackenheim was right to say that for Jews to forget Hitler’s victims would be to grant him a “posthumous victory.”
’But it would be an even greater posthumous victory for Hitler were we to tacitly endorse his definition of ourselves as despised pariahs by making the Holocaust the emblematic Jewish experience. As a Jew, Novick, is concerned that ultimately this focus on the holocaust will diminish his people. And I, as a person brought up Jewish, share the same concern. But I also have a concern as a Briton. Why is Britain instituting an annual Holocaust day? The Holocaust did not happen in Britain. It did not happen to British Jews. And though the Kindertransports did serve to rescue many German Jewish children, the number was still relatively small. Nor does Britain have a particularly large Jewish community – somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 depending on how you define a Jew.
Less than 0.5% of our population. Nor did Britain fight Hitler to liberate the Jews. We fought Hitler to defend ourselves and initially at least to liberate Poland. So why have we agreed to make the holocaust part of our collective memory? Is this event one in which we as a nation are deeply implicated? Is this an event in which our own racism has manifested itself in such a way that we feel the horror as our own? Because if we feel it as our own then remembering it might serve to achieve the broader aims of Holocaust Day - the elimination of racism. But I doubt that many Britons feel implicated in the Holocaust - Damilola Day might be more appropriate. Or a day to commemorate the abolition of slavery. Similarly we might ask why the Imperial War Museum should choose, as its one and only annexe, a memorial not to soldiers, not to any battle but a memorial to the annihilation of a group of civilians that was essentially independent of the war, though it occurred during it. Hitler simply wanted to annihilate the Jews. He blamed them for the ills of the world. He started the job in peacetime and would probably have finished it in peacetime – at least in Austro-Germany.
In Western consciousness, the Holocaust has become the quintessential symbol of human evil. The belief is that it cannot get worse than this. Not on this scale. Here was the cool application of industrial processes to the annihilation of 6 million people. So the Statement of Commitment of the Holocaust Memorial Day committee reads thus: ‘We recognise that the Holocaust shook the foundations of modern civilisation. Its unprecedented character and horror will always hold universal meaning.’ Indeed, this may be true. But this elevation of the holocaust to the zenith of evil is dangerous.
Was it essentially any different to the racially motivated Rwandan machete massacres? Or the attempted annihilation of the Armenians? And even if so, does it help to focus our concern about racism round an event of such enormous proportion that it actually tends to distance the individual from seeing how they themselves might be either a racist or a combatant against racism.America was wiser when it chose to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. His memory serves as a focus for a reflection not only on the evil of racism but on the need to fight it and the cost of doing so. In the case of the Holocaust it is hard to get past the numbers. And this explains why Schindler’s List is without doubt the greatest film about the Holocaust – or at least the one with the most potential to prevent it happening again. It shows us how an individual can be implicated in evil and it shows us how an individual can combat it.
The BBC were wise to screen it on Holocaust Saturday. But there are deeper questions to ask about why Britain commemorated the Holocaust? Would anyone have had the nerve to say ‘no.’ Does not the very enormity of the horror force any politician’s hand? When the Queen decided not to attend the service, The Times headline read: ‘Queen spurns Holocaust Service.’ It’s a nasty word ‘spurn.’ It reeks of malevolent indifference. She should have sued. She was certainly not indifferent. And, in any event, should a tiny minority be allowed to define the collective memory of a nation? And will it help us? I suspect not. British people will have to be taught too much history for the Holocaust to ever deeply grip our consciousness and in the meantime the mechanisms by which Hitler was able to bring about the Holocaust will not be examined: the development of a blame culture: in which particular groups were scapegoated for the ills of the nation in which the rage of a population at their circumstances was turned against particular groups in which to suggest those particular groups were not to blame was to risk social exclusion and media pillory in which the media was used to create moral panics and social rage. In today’s Britain,where someone else is always to blame for whatever goes wrong: ‘those sponging refugees’, or ‘those dole-cheaters’, or ‘those teenage pregnant girls’, or the NHS, or the teachers, or the government In today’s Britain, where the media enflames moral panic about depleted uranium without fully understanding the medical science, where citizens are incited to hunt out paedophiles who are then driven to suicide,where the decadent, multi-marriage, drug-laden, baby-before-wedlock lifestyle is rarely challenged In today’s Britain, where the Queen is castigated for not attending a memorial service by the country’s newspaper of record,where a teacher can’t hug a five-year-old who’s fallen over in a playground, where our moral panic is hounding men out of the teaching profession When all this occurs, we might ask ourselves whether we need to remember not only the depth of evil to which people can sink, not only that humankind is sinful, but that a democracy can so easily be diverted into a fascistic oppressive regime by the fostering of a culture of blame by a sensationalist media. We have more in common with Nazi Germany than we might want to admit. And as the people of God, the Day we need to remind Britain of is not Holocaust Day but Easter Friday – the day when the full horror at the core of the human heart is exposed, and, for those with eyes to see, dealt with. For Jew and Gentile.