Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Four days later the United Kingdom will leave the European Union after just over forty seven years of membership. At first glance, little appears to connect these two events, yet this is a week during which we might usefully reflect upon the themes of liberation and hope. Doing so serves to remind us of Britain’s extraordinary capacity to provide shelter and sustenance to displaced people.
For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, Holocaust education tended to focus almost exclusively upon the bleakest aspects of the concentration camps and death camps. School history books were filled with explicit images of anti-Semitism and crimes against humanity. Whilst these images bore witness a dreadful episode in the history of humankind, their use was problematic, non-consensual and, arguably, exploitative. Consequently, generations of children have grown up with an impressive understanding of the apparatus of death but little real appreciation of what, in human terms, was lost. Auschwitz-Birkenau has become emblematic of the Holocaust and iconic images such as the Selection Platform in Birkenau have come to represent the Holocaust in a manner that is both reductive and, arguably, unhelpful. It provides an additional barrier for students wishing to engage in a period of history that is as complex as it is contradictory.
Make no mistake, the history of the Holocaust is incredibly complex for it is a history characterised by absence, loss and empty spaces. This much is apparent when one visits the sites of the Warsaw Ghetto or former death camps such as Treblinka. One can contrast the treatment of Jews in Denmark, the majority of whom received safe passage to Sweden, with the actions taken by the Slovak government, who colluded with the Nazis to ensure the mass deportation of Slovakia’s Jewish population. There was little that linked the experience of Jews in the Greek island of Corfu with Jews living in shtetls across Eastern Europe other than the fact that they belonged to the same religion. Whilst Jews in Germany constituted less than 1% of the population and tended to be cosmopolitan, urbane and well-educated, Poland’s Jewish population constituted over 10% of the population and tended to be less culturally assimilated and spread out over the countryside. British police officers in the Channel Islands were instrumental in enabling deportations thus demonstrating that the distinction between perpetrator and bystander was often blurred. Similarly, there are rare examples of SS officers who acted with a kindness which may have been born out of benevolence or capricious whimsy.
What is clear, is that teaching of the Holocaust must encompass a full consideration of pre-war Jewish life. The Holocaust was not only responsible for the death of six million Jews. In its path, it swept away culture, language and identity. Rehumanizing the victims of the Holocaust is the moral responsibility of the historian. Indeed, the very word ‘victim’ is problematic insomuch as it invites one to view an individual’s life through the optic of suffering.
If we should explore pre-war Jewish life, then it is equally important to consider the experience of survivors upon liberation. Over the past ten years or so, I have had the privilege of working alongside many survivors whilst helping to deliver the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz projects. Unsurprisingly, survivors often struggled to establish themselves in the wake of all that they had suffered and lost. Emaciated and traumatised, many spent years in displaced people camps before emigrating to Israel or the United States. Typically, survivors had few if any remaining family members. I remember once listening to Kitty Hart-Moxon relate how she had spent her first Christmas in England alone on Snow Hill Station in Birmingham.
Other survivors were, comparatively, more fortunate and the group of Jewish orphans who, collectively, became known as the ‘Windermere Boys’ benefitted from spending four months in the tranquil and beautiful surroundings of the Lake District. Sam Laskier, one of the boys, survived Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. Now 92, he recently commented that,
Windermere is my first home in England. I am a citizen of a state, I am proud of it. A lot. When I show my British passport I know who I am.
On the morning of 14th August, 1945, three hundred Jewish children boarded ten Stirling bombers and took off from Prague. They landed at RAF Crosby-on-Eden near Carlisle and were then transported to the Calgarth estate near Troutbeck where they were to spend the next four months of their lives. Calgarth was an estate which had been established for those involved in the production of Sunderland flying boats in the nearby factory. Long since demolished, the settlement provided a space within which the young people could begin to engage with the next stage of their lives. The boys were not offered counselling, but they benefited from pioneering art therapy and formed strong bonds with one and other. These bonds have endured down through the years and survivors such as Harry Olmer and Ben Helfgott are still firm friends. The kindness of local people, who welcomed the boys into their community left an incredibly positive impression on these young men.
There are many episodes in British history, such as the Kindertransport, which point to the kindness of individuals . However, there are times when we could have done more to help those in need and it is always worth reflecting upon how history will judge our actions in this regard.
The contemporary lessons to be learned from reflecting upon the Holocaust are too numerous to detail here. However, I am delighted that so many of our children are resolutely committed to helping those in need and making a positive contribution to society. Perhaps they will never be challenged to provide shelter for those who have been forced to flee, but it seems obvious to me that growing up in a cosmopolitan and diverse community, underpinned by a coherent set of values, provides the best possible chance for young people to emulate the example of those Cumbrian folk who did not turn their backs when boys such as Ben Helfgott arrived in their midst.
Such kindness has very real benefits. Ben Helfgott went on to represent Britain at weightlifting in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. More recently he has been knighted for services to Holocaust Education and Remembrance. Ziggy Shipper recently celebrated his 90th Birthday and, periodically, I have had the privilege of working with him on Holocaust Educational Trust projects. He always stresses how grateful he is to the UK and heI never tires of describing his wonderment at being invited to 10 Downing Street to meet Gordon Brown. The Windermere Boys have gone a long way and they have demonstrated that, at our best, we can provide a nurturing sanctuary for those who are struggling.
So as we approach this week, let us remind each other that the ability to look after those in need is not dependent upon political union but upon human compassion.