An Argument that Must Not Abate

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Anti-lockdown sticker, Camden, 2021. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

The debate over Dirk Moses’s German Catechism has led to a vigorous and interesting debate online in the last few weeks. The New Fascism Syllabus website has hosted a range of perspectives and responses, and scholars such as Neil Gregor have posted responses on their own blog sites. Doubtless someone, somewhere, is securing a book contract for the edited volume. And of course Twitter has lent itself to pithy and witty interventions, whether or not anyone was listening.

In which spirit, this is, as billed, the intervention in the German Catechism debate for which nobody has been waiting – but that in itself perhaps undermines the argument that the “gatekeepers” which Moses talks about are as effective as he suggests. The problem with which all of the world grapples, after all, is that the right to free speech creates neither a duty to publish nor an obligation to listen. Though as Jennifer Evans and Tiffany Florvil have pointed out, the debate has been conducted largely between and among white men of a certain age and socioeconomic status, ignoring the work of women and people of colour (and often both) in establishing, maintaining and hosting the debates themselves, while also employing arguments that have been currency outside that bubble for some time. The work of Anna Hajkova and Zoe Waxman, for example, in addressing challenging areas of research to do with sexual identities and sexual violence in the Holocaust, illustrates the difficulty of overcoming (in Waxman’s words) “opposition to feminist scholarship and thus to the very study of gender and the Holocaust itself rather than on any meaningful dialogue with the content of the research.” One might perhaps suggest that the debate at least began as a scrap among the gatekeepers themselves rather than those trying to get in.

(Disclaimer: I am hardly a break from the norm in several of the personal respects listed above, though as an independent scholar I do not have the status of many interlocutors. I will however, rigorously and professionally conduct meaningful Holocaust Education for your synagogue, community centre, youth movement, wedding or bar mitzvah.)

My own position is fairly straightforward. Moses is right to call out and protest unreflexive and inauthentic commemoration and research which does not take seriously the continuities and intersectionalities in the Holocaust. The fact that the Holocaust constituted the implementation of colonial warfare and ethnic cleansing against Europeans is an important and vital part of understanding the events. David Olusoga and Casper Erichsen (in The Kaiser’s Holocaust) used the figure of Heinrich Goering (father of the more famous Hermann) to illustrate this, noting that “While the father, whose prospective victims were black Africans, fits our view of a colonialist, the son does not. Yet the Nazis’ war in the East was one of imperial expansion, settler colonialism and racial genocide.”

Hitler himself in Mein Kampf set his purpose as “[drawing] a line under the foreign policy of pre-war Germany” and “putting a stop to the colonial and trade policy of the pre-war period and passing over to the territorial policy of the future” – by which he meant “the East”. What has been missing is the voices and likeness of the victims from which Hitler turned away. David Olusoga further illustrated – through the figure of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck – in The World’s War (2014) how the First World War in Africa “far from being a meaningless side show in Europe’s war […] became the last phase of the Scramble for Africa.”

Nonetheless, Michael Berkowitz, in his introductions to the recently republished pamphlets by Alfred Wiener, The Fatherland and the Jews, passes over reference to “the Educational Service of the Lettow-Vorbeck Brigade”, noting that they “expressly advocated pogroms and public hangings of Jews” to buttress his claim that Wiener was “completely reasonable in leaving Hitler out of the picture”. Lettow-Vorbeck was (as Olusoga puts it) a “colonial specialist” having participated in the suppression of the ‘Boxer’ rebellion in China and the genocide of the Nama in South West Africa. The existence of a brigade named after him tells us much about the role of colonial mentalities in 1920s ex-soldier communities, yet here it is barely a footnote. The parallel debate about whether the recent “apology” for genocide in Namibia is sufficient or even genuine has perhaps been rather drowned out by the disputes about attitudes to memorialising the Holocaust.

At the same time, the fact that this debate is even taking place represents progress. A characteristically trenchant and engaging intervention from Neil Gregor is also right to remind readers that progress has been made, a point reinforced by Bill Niven. Historical understanding, by its nature, has to proceed at its own pace. There was, after all, a time in which Raul Hilberg was marginalised for pursuing research into the “machinery of destruction” which was set up to annihilate European Jewry. That European scholars have preferred to research topics in which they could retain some clear moral standing is understandable, though the work of scholars to recover and link this to the repression of colonial peoples and patriarchal attitudes to the history of gender and sexual identity should of course be encouraged. There is in some quarters possibly a desire to keep the debate on territory which the interlocutors are comfortable – though both Gregor and Niven have clear track records in both conducting and encouraging research “against the grain”.

The core problem here is the acceptance that time moves in one direction and that historical understanding is highly contingent. The literary scholar Lawrence Langer has recently published a collection of articles under the title The Afterdeath of the Holocaust. As well as commenting on core texts in Holocaust Studies, the articles also explore Langer’s own engagement with the subject of the Holocaust since the 1950s. He returns frequently – one might say almost obsessively – to his desire to avoid “redemptive” memory of the Holocaust. He insists that the Holocaust must be “a landscape of the imagination we never inhabited where solace perished along with the victims whose remnants lie scattered beneath its surface” and reiterates his opposition to “misguided” attempts “to find ways of coping with such desolation by striving to wrest some minimal meaning from the atrocity of mass murder.”

I am set to review Langer in more detail elsewhere, and I will use that space to detail the contradictions he entangles himself in there. But what comes through his writing is twofold: firstly, a profound sense of the lasting shock he experienced in his first encounters with the Holocaust; and secondly his clear frustration that the Holocaust has become normalised, in some important regards through his own work. The influence of his work on Holocaust testimony has been profound, as described by Noah Shenker in Reframing Holocaust Testimony (2015). Shenker notes that the Fortunoff Archive (informed in large part by Langer) has an “aversion to redemptive closure in testimonies” which means it can “miss those moments when a witness actually expresses some semblance of redemption.” It feels a lot like Langer is opposed to any kind of recovery or coping. Which is a heavy burden to live with, if true, for both survivors and subsequent generations.

Art Spiegelman, MAUS.

In Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, “Artie” asks his survivor therapist to explain how Auschwitz was. “BOO!” he replies “It felt a little like that. But ALWAYS.” For the individual encountering the Holocaust for the first time, it is still a lot like that, but it is also part of a “Holocaust metanarrative”. As Donald Bloxham and Tony Kushner put it, “the bundle of ideas and preconceptions handed down under the label ‘Holocaust’ that shapes the contours and parameters of our understanding of the subject.” There is no going back – and as Robert Jan van Pelt realised when starting his expert report in defence of Deborah Lipstadt against David Irving, that is a good thing. Deniers have to work against the Holocaust as historical and social fact: nobody really comes to it with an open mind in the sense of doubting it happened. As can be seen from the COVID conspiracy theory sticker which illustrates this post, the premise of the Holocaust has been very widely accepted. But this must not be allowed to solidify completely into slogans and parrot-like repetitions of formulaic ideas. As Moses reminds us, there is a duty on us to ensure that the contours and parameters of the subject mentioned by Bloxham and Kushner are debated, expanded and made more complex by the arrival of new and challenging research, and in a complex and diverse social milieu.

Ultimately, however, the tendency will always be to simplicity. Jay Winter and Antoine Prost have described how in the aftermath of World War 1, there was a conviction that the experience of combat could not be communicated, and could only be understood by those who were there. Yet a century later, the memory of the conflict is conducted largely through symbols which are easily recognised and understood: the poppy, some key photographs, pieces of poetry and other writing. If we tried to remember every crime committed by Europe in the modern age, we would have no space for any other activity, so we create ways of accessing the appropriate feeling when it is appropriate. Following Barthes, events become languages in which we speak of other things as well as themselves. Yet, as the work of David Olusoga, Santanu Das and many others illustrates, these moments of accessing the symbols of memory can also be occasions on which fresh thinking and energy can invest them with new meaning. In 2014-15 I was teaching an A-level class about India in the First World War and was able to use Olusoga and Das to talk about the conflict in a way which empowered students as agents of memory and change. The challenge of doing so for the Holocaust is the next stage: arguments such as these will recur, cynics may wonder (as Ian Kershaw noted of the 1980s Historikerstreit) whether they generate more heat than light. But as long as we strive to include as many voices as we can, and incorporate as many conflicting and challenging histories as possible, they will not abate – thank goodness.

Where were you when…?

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A plane flies over Tate Modern, Bankside, London. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, June 2020.

The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 is a significant milestone, in the paradoxical way that the ordinary turning of the calendar somehow is both mundane and mysterious. Many of us will be asking “Where were you when…?” this week and next week, in an effort to locate ourselves and each other in relation to the event itself and the “normal” world that we left behind without knowing it on the night of 10 September, 2001. It is an attempt to find the rhythm of life without the assumption that such things could happen.

Telling the stories of ruptures is problematic. As Alan Mintz has written, “a destructive event becomes a catastrophe when it convulses or vitiates shared assumption”, so we can no longer trust either the tale or the teller. The tale is not yet formed, and the teller does not yet know what to say. We lose what Barthes called our mythology – the language in which we speak – just as another is being tragically born. I remember hearing the sentence “A plane has hit the World Trade Centre” that afternoon (I was living in Krakow at the time) and thought: how terrible, what an awful accident. In the days before smartphones, it was not until I returned home to find the footage on television that I understood. Like many others, I had thought it was an accident: the tram home in the coolness of a Polish autumn had been quiet: the world seemed on its rails.

As the reality sank in, however, the trauma started to complicate things further. We often say “I was traumatised” or even “I am traumatised” but neither construction does it justice – it is truer to say “I am being traumatised” but there is never time to form that thought. The moment of impact is, by definition, not described, even when it is replayed endlessly, over and over again, making the viewer beg for the pause button or, better yet, rewind. “It’s like something from a movie” was something I heard a lot in the following days and weeks.

The interrupted quality of the most valuable kinds of witnessing means that even in investigating, there is trauma, as we know the witness may have said more, thought more: but we cannot know. Instead the screen crashes to black, the tape clicks off, the diary ends. First-person witnessing always promises an ending which, if not happy, at least holds some promise of continuity. We know, picking up a published memoir, that the witness survives. This is what makes films like The Pianist watchable – we know, though the artefact’s very existence, that the story did not end on the last page – it is equally why the most shocking part of the diary of Anne Frank is the insertion of the editors: “ANNE’S DIARY ENDS HERE”. The tragedy is that she could not finish her story, a symbol for many others whose stories had barely started.

Alongside this, the witnesses have to begin incorporating the previously impossible into their awareness, redrawing the frontiers of possibility and probability. Primo Levi, in a quote I often refer to, described how the liberators of Auschwitz struggled to recognise what had happened as something that could happen, that belonged in “the world of things that exist”. In trauma, we are confronted with things that just moments earlier were unthinkable, precisely when our minds lose the ability to do more than record because the routines and operating assumptions of our world are upside-down. We see people throwing themselves from a burning building and numbly watch, trying to make sense of what will not make sense. Things of which, to be honest, there is no sense to make. It is happening, live and on-camera, and we have no choice but to sit on the sofa, strapped into history as it carries us who knows where. And yet our understanding may far outstrip those on the scene.

A couple of weeks ago, we watched the fall of Kabul, completing an arc which began its upward drive on that day twenty years ago. And the experience of that day allowed us to see terrible things more clearly: Afghans falling from their desperate handholds on a departing cargo plane, their twisting and flailing bodies a contrast to the almost balletic grace of the jumpers from the towers.

The photo of “The Falling Man” captures the duality of all traumatic testimony: that it describes both what happened, and what it is like to have experienced it. For the only experience that we can access, come even close to, is that of the onlookers whose only decision is what to allow into the lens of history, helpless as the thought hundreds of metres above turns into action that can only be witnessed, never truly understood.

As the event unfolds, the shift in metalanguages accelerates. Comparisons and analogies are sought, however hackneyed, however inadequate, to convey something of the unthinkable in terms that have already been thought, relating it back to their own lives and preoccupations. A few weeks later, my MA adviser commented on a draft of my dissertation, saying “You know, this is the end for a certain conception of Auschwitz.”

But for most, the early period is a time of confusion. As Muska Dastageer, a university lecturer in Kabul, tweeted on 19 August: “You feel like a speck of dust in some uncontrollable convulsion of history. It is not true, of course. There was a causal chain, decisions, failures. But that is how you feel. And from this shaking ground, it is hard to speak.” One strategy is to take pieces from the wreckage, hoping the specks of dust resolve themselves into a whole that can be understood. But that wholeness comes from without the storm, as we see what the others saw.

Slowly, however, dust does settle, creating the first symbols out of what comes to hand, as people try to position themselves and sift their memories as rescue workers sift ashes. Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel MAUS, found himself both the child of survivors (of the Holocaust) and the parent of a survivor (his daughter’s school, within Ground Zero, became a triage centre). Commissioned to design a cover for the New Yorker magazine, he later described himself as “reeling on that faultline where World History and Personal History collide” – realising that the “indescribable” smell of burning flesh his father had described in Auschwitz was now a sense memory for him too. Otherwise, the image of “the looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporised” was the essential image as he tried to “sort out the fragments of what I’d experienced from the media images that threatened to engulf what I actually saw.” His eventual design was black, the silhouettes of the towers picked out in a deeper ebony, “in the shadow of no towers.” The legacy of trauma is ongoing, and sometimes all the more indelible for being invisible.

Symbols are created with dizzying speed, to try and provide an ending, or at least a way station to recovery, triage for the mind. I remember the way the twisted metal silhouette whose disintegration so transfixed Spiegelman was suddenly everywhere: on television, in newspapers, on the covers of magazines. A shorthand of ruin, a stage-set for a president to proclaim the invincibility of the American spirit as it smouldered, it was woven into the fabric of everyday life, as hard to remove as the stench of smoke from clothes. The way the essence of the image was distilled from photograph to graphic reminded me of the way the terror and complexity of Auschwitz is reduced to the symbol of the Birkenau gate and rail tracks: simplifying and smoothing the roughness of the real into the manageable symbol.

But symbols allow healing, of a kind. The Polish poet Andrzej Bursa of how “Inside Auschwitz’s barren rib-cage/ Through which the setting sun flowed/ Like blood/We journalists wandered around looking/ into the black holes of crematoria”. The ruins can be viewed, studied, understood – even if this can be “Blasphemously objective”, it presupposes that there was life afterward, even if only of a kind. The “ribs” of the towers are now museum pieces.

The challenge of the next catastrophes will be that they will not come roaring out of a cloudless sky, raining death with vicious suddenness. It will not be, as Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, but something which we will have to make an effort to hear. News will come slowly, confusingly, in scattered reports of disease, in sudden silences from remote settlements, in the repetition of “once-in-a-generation” events. It is announcing itself now, in a microscopic virus that brings nations to their knees, in sea levels that only reach their deadly new point of advance for a few moments of a turning tide, in air that is imperceptibly less easy to breathe, even in the increasing intensity with which fools insist it is not happening, that all is well, that the sky is not falling.

But if we do not do something, the question the children will ask will not be “Where were you when…? but “Why did you not…?” And we will have no answer, because the task of making sense of now was often hard enough, and the future is unknown. But in moments of silence, as we measure the distance from the certain tragedies of the past, we can perhaps stop and ask what has changed, what is changing, what could change before the next anniversary arrives, unbidden, unexpected and yet completely anticipated. Listen carefully for the storm beginning: all we can do is wait for loud noises, hollowly consoled that if we can hear them, we have escaped the first stage, at least for now.

For Julian Bessa, an accidental survivor, and Dr Syed Tabatabai, who works to save the world from both Covid and itself, and narrates its complications in stunning prose poems. Eyewitness accounts of 9/11 are taken from The Only Plane in The Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff. The lines from ‘Auschwitz – Excursion’ by Andrzej Bursa come from Killing Auntie & other work, translated by Wiesiek Powaga.

We Know Now

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Auschwitz-II Birkenau, July 2015. Photo: Jaime Ashworth.

Among the most compelling of the exhibits at the Auschwitz Museum are the aerial photographs of the Auschwitz, Birkenau and Monowitz Camps taken by Allied reconnaissance in 1944 and early 1945. The images show the camps during some of their busiest – and bloodiest – periods of operation. If sufficiently magnified, it is possible to see groups of people walking from the trains to the crematoria and gas chambers. We can count the openings in the ceilings of the gas chambers of Crematoria II and III through which pellets of Zyklon-B were introduced. Visitors often leave, encouraged by their guides, with the sense that the world knew what was happening and remained silent.

A detail from an aerial photograph taken in August 1944. The red circle highlights the opening in the roof of the gas chamber of Crematorium II. The blue circle shows a group of deportees approaching the crematorium compound.

In fact, the truth is more complex. The images were taken using film cameras set to take constant exposures over many miles. The “target” of the surveillance was the chemical factory at Monowitz: built by prisoners in the adjoining Auschwitz III camp, the factory was built by the chemical combine IG Farben to produce synthetic rubber. At the confluence of the Vistula and Sola rivers, and located in a coal-mining region, the site was tailor-made for such a plant. The availability of cheap labour – the SS charged a fee to use prisoner labour – meant that the project could be completed relatively quickly and on a short budget. Although the Bunawerke factory never produced any Buna (synthetic rubber) it was a strategic target. In fact, it was bombed four times: twice in August 1944, once in September, and once in December.

The bombing of Monowitz is one of the most contentious episodes in the history of WW2. Why, critics ask, could the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps not have been bombed as well? In fact, stray bombs from one of the raids did fall on Birkenau, as recorded by survivor testimonies. A conference was organised at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in the late 1990s, with a volume of proceedings published in 2000. A short summary of a complex debate breaks down as follows:

Firstly, knowledge of Auschwitz was both plentiful and of questionable accuracy. Reports by escaped prisoners such as Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler made clear that mass murder was being carried out. But rumours of death by electrocution or burning were not accurate, and their estimates of numbers were (understandably) excessive. To prisoners caught up in hell, the constant stream of arrivals and the smoking chimneys must have made it impossible to say for certain more than that a very large number of people were being killed. Even perpetrators were unsure of the numbers. At Nuremberg, Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, estimated that the dead in the camp totalled around 3,000,000. Research conducted in Poland in the early 1990s, however, demonstrated conclusively that approximately 1,500,000 people were deported to the camp, and of those around 1,100,000 were killed. But in 1944, at the closing stages of the war, the facts were unclear and resources at a premium. Auschwitz was at the very edge of operational range, and required a dangerous mission back and forth across Germany.

Secondly, there is the question of technological capability. The key idea here is Circular Error Probable: the likelihood of a given bomb hitting within a reasonable range of its target. Accustomed to footage of munitions that can virtually turn corners to match traffic lights, we forget that in 1944 a bomb was simply explosives set to blow up when it completed its vertical drop. To hit the crematoria, or the railway lines, or any other target, was difficult. The controversial Allied strategy of bombing German cities was employed because the technology made precision difficult unless flying by day – which increased the risk to aircrew. And this is before any thought is given to the likely cost in prisoner lives of any full-scale raids on the camp. Survivors may say that they would have welcomed it – but I am glad they are here to tell the story, rather than blown to smithereens by Allied bombs.

Thirdly, the intellectual framework did not exist to really comprehend what was in the images, even if someone had looked. It had not, as Primo Levi wrote, yet “been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist”. There was plentiful information about the Holocaust in both the popular press and the corridors of power, but it was not acted upon in the most basic way. It was not accepted as fact that the German intention was to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Assertions that it was, in the minds of decision-makers, belonged in newspaper headlines and lurid magazine articles, not the formulation of policy. A significant measure of antisemitism also contributed. Surely, some argued, this was just Jewish imagination at work, a persecution complex caught up in the war? In August 1942, Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress sent a telegram to Sidney Silverman MP, the WJC representative in London:

The Riegner Telegram (UK National Archives FO371/30917)

The ensuing five-day correspondence among officials acknowledged “numerous reports of large scale massacres of Jews” but focused on attempting to verify Riegner’s identity (“Eastern Dept. have no knowledge of Mr Riegner”) and ended with the following remark:

I do not see how we can hold up this message much longer, although I fear it may provoke embarrassing repercussions. Naturally we have no information bearing on this story.

Later in 1942, the activist Rev. James Parkes despaired that “The continued silence of the government in relation to the massacres is evidence of the strength in places of power of reactionary forces – from whom we have nothing to hope.”

But how then can we explain the pictures? Surely these images show that we knew exactly what was happening? There it is, in black and white, neatly labelled.

In fact, this is misleading. As I said above, the photographs were taken on huge rolls of film, covering many miles. The images of Auschwitz and Birkenau were at the end of these reels, after the “target” images of Monowitz. During the war, they were overlooked because analysts were not detailed to look. The images we are familiar with were only produced in the 1970s, when two CIA analysts named Dino A. Brugioni and Robert G. Poirier examined the images and conducted a retrospective analysis, uncovering many of the details that strike the visitor or viewer today. As they said in their report:

Extract from Dino A. Brugioni and Robert G. Poirier, “The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex” (CIA, 1979)

In a variety of ways therefore, both technical and historical, not only were the images not looked at until the 1970s, they could not have been looked at earlier. The report also served another purpose than historical reconstruction. The pointed reference to the CIA’s photo-reconnaissance capability was meant to be understood most directly in Moscow: the clear message being that Russian military installations could be spotted, analysed and potentially destroyed.

Why is this important today? A BuzzFeed article prompted these reflections: an article about the treatment of the Uighurs in China. BuzzFeed used commercial technology to identify 268 sites, and was able to confirm that 92 of these are detention centres using documents, eyewitness testimony and academic research. Authorities in the region termed the claims of persecution as “a groundless lie”: “the issue concerning Xinjiang is by no means about human rights, religion or ethnicity, but about combating violent terrorism and separatism”. Some of these sites are sufficient to hold 10,000 people. The testimonies of those who have emerged from the camps to tell the tale are horrendous.

One of the detention sites identified by BuzzFeed.

This month, an open letter was sent to the government by more than 70 faith leaders, calling on the UK government “to investigate these crimes, hold those responsible to account and establish a path towards the restoration of human dignity.” The letter invoked the Holocaust, once more demanding that “Never Again” finally – this time – have some meaning.

In 1945, Primo Levi wrote that his liberators were oppressed by the evidence of the crime, “the shame the Germans did not know, that the just man feels at another man’s crime.” But this crime in many ways had only just been introduced into the “world of things that exist”. The legal measures of the late 1940s, the Genocide Convention and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, were landmarks, acknowledging for the first time that rights are human and transnational, that mass death is wrong, and that leaders cannot hide behind the state to evade responsibility. James Fawcett, one of the British contributors to these laws (and grandfather of our current Prime Minister), said in 1961 that their purpose was to ensure that “Sharpeville, Angola, Tibet, are all matters of international concern, though they happen within the jurisdiction of a particular state.” That these lessons were learnt while mired in the hypocrisy and crime of Empire does not detract from the imaginative, moral, ethical and philosophical leap they were.

But that leap was made for us. Now we know. Now, it is other words from Primo Levi that we must remember, before we once more say “Never Again”: “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” It is happening again: once more, as Levi wrote, the lords of death are waiting by the trains. It is our job to try and stop them leaving the station. Knowing is not enough: now we must act.

Between the Peak and the Abyss: Conspiracy and Superstition

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Albert Camus wrote The Plague in 1947, as an allegory of French society under German occupation. Reading from 2020, however, it also describes with some accuracy the social impact of an actual epidemic. The sense of time suspended, of activity deferred, of relationships interrupted: “As it was a case of marking time, many hundreds of thousands of people were still kicking their heels for endless weeks […] nothing more important happened than this great marking of time.”

And into this space come comparisons, analogies and theories, to fill the empty time and make sense of the chaos and disruption, invented by the mendacious to manipulate the confused. Camus lists the different types and it is impossible not to recognise the stories in the newspapers that blow down our streets, their relevance superseded by new developments.

Some predictions were based on bizarre calculations involving the number of the year, the number of deaths and the number of months already spent under the plague. Others established comparisons with the great plagues of history, bringing out the similarities (which these prophecies called ‘constants’) and, by means of no less peculiar calculations, claimed to extract information relative to the present outbreak. But the ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation. Nostradamus and Saint Odile were thus consulted daily and never in vain. What remained common to all the prophecies was that, in the last resort, they were reassuring. The plague, however, was not.

I wrote a while ago about the parallel infodemic coursing through society, as we all struggle to make sense of the senseless, to order the chaotic. Graphs, charts, dashboards, bulletins, maps, timelines: every manner of device intended to help synthesise and distill the rush of events into orderly narrative and discrete data sets. And as Camus said, these are reassuring: not because of their content but because of their form. A viral contagion can be truly controlled only on the page or the screen: every graphic contributes to our sense that because the situation can be described, it can be (or is being) managed. Every rumour, false hope or faked accusation contributes to a sense that the sky is falling.

For this reason, it is unsurprising that conspiracy theories have been part of the year. In March and April, telephone engineers were assaulted and mobile masts set on fire by people who believed the virus was connected to the 5G network upgrade. Paradoxically, they also think that the electronic media is a good place to promote this: I suspect these people are (because things are their opposite) the most fevered users of electronic devices. They seem to patrol the virtual world as they might have once walked the streets, howling about Armageddon and inveighing against the shadows.

I have seen the low-tech versions too, though. Walking through a locked-down Kentish Town, I saw a flyer pushed through the letterbox of a charity shop, its quality print daring the reader to dismiss it for the ravings it contained. I have seen other slogans and warnings, scrawled on signs and bus shelters, painted on doors. They are the inevitable detritus spawned by confusion and despair. And just as surely as the maps of where the virus has taken the greatest toll, they are indicators of deprivation: warnings and fears given venom by resentment. They are the signs (as in Camus) of “those who are looking for reasons and who are afraid.”

In such a context, it was inevitable that antisemitic conspiracy theories should have a resurgence. The Community Security Trust has published a report on the antisemitic tropes and canards revivified by the pandemic. From positing a Jewish conspiracy behind the virus, to using the virus to celebrating Jewish deaths, to using the virus to kill Jews, all the classic elements of the oldest hatred are present. Whether from the right (QAnon) or the left (AntiVaxx) the elements are tiresomely predictable, and make it hard to tell one from the other. As Robert Eaglestone has observed about varieties of Holocaust denial: “these distinctions are rarely fixed, as they demand too much consistency from the world of bigotry and false argument that these people inhabit.”

A survey of the Twitter feed of Piers Corbyn, a notable member of the conspiratorial elite, shows the usual distinctions of politics breaking down. Combining the family pastimes of preaching to the choir and never changing his mind, he at once quotes Toby Young and his band of right-wing “Lockdown Sceptics”, argues that Black Lives Matter is a conspiracy funded by big business, claims that man-made climate change is a myth, and that vaccines are designed to control us; and that George Soros, “Rockefeller” or Bill Gates is behind it all.

The left-wing “commentator” Kerry-Anne Mendoza yesterday peddled a more belt-and-braces version of the way the Holocaust can be folded into these discourses of hatred. Not as a conspiracy theory, but just as a lazy juxtaposition. As though the death camps were a punchline rather than an atrocity.

Similarly, the mural Freedom for Humanity by the artist Mear One has been doing the rounds in meme form. This is an image even Piers Corbyn’s brother Jeremy belatedly acknowledged as “deeply disturbing and anti-Semitic” – some years after invoking “Rockerfeller’s” [sic] attack on Diego de Rivera in its defence. Like Mein Kampf, (a major source text for Jewish conspiracy theories) these ideas always find Jews responsible for the evils of the day, placing grimly-eroticised spectres and fantasies of “Jewish influence” where the facts should go.

Into this volatile mixture of paranoia, half-truth and pure fantasy, the FBI yesterday decided to publish its records on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the antisemitic conspiracy ur-text, without commentary or qualification. When I last checked, the material had been retweeted 16,700 times. By comparison, its belated clarifications (below) had barely been noticed. A lie is, as ever, twice round the world before the truth gets its boots on.

The resurgence of conspiracy theories and panic in a period of intense anxiety and confusion is not a surprise. If you want a funny and informative introduction to why this is the case, follow Marlon Solomon (@supergutman) whose monologue “A Lizard’s Tale” is a chilling and hilarious primer in the back-and forth between claim and counter-claim. Dave Rich (@daverich1) noted in an article published earlier this year that “if it is true that Jews play a central role in conspiracy theories, it is also true that the concept of a conspiracy plays a central role in the history of antisemitism”. Conspiracies and antisemitism are linked by methodology, purpose and personnel.

But nor, it should be underlined, do these theories and fantasies restrict themselves to antisemitism. As documented by the charity TellMama, COVID-19 has prompted attacks and libels on Muslim communities. Stonewall documents the impact of the pandemic on LGBT individuals and communities. As so often, the events of this year show that hatred knows few distinctions and appeals to no logic other than the belief that since the individual is powerless in the face of events, those events must be controlled by the powerful. And since there is nothing more powerful than that which provokes fear, the two must be identical. “It is very tiring to be a plague victim,” wrote Camus, “but it is still more tiring not to want to be one.” And given time to brood, the most illogical solutions acquire the clarity of mathematical proofs. But for the conspiracist, as for their cousin, the perfect Orwellian product of totalitarianism, if the right person says it, 2+2=5.

So what can we do against this tide of reckless hate and thoughtless invective? As Camus recognised, the purpose of these ravings is to provide reassurance against the unpredictable and invisible workings of fate. And like his hero (and unreliable narrator) Rieux, we have to recognise that the answers are not glamorous: “this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.” We carry on, we do our best, we remember that common humanity and common confusion are often the same thing, and we do our jobs, however small, to make the world better.

A Tragedy of Errors

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Autumn leaves on a social distancing sign in Alexandra Palace, London. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, August 2020. More of my photography can now be seen at http://www.framingthemoment.gallery

The chaotic and careless handling of this summer’s exam results has illustrated (along with so much else), the rank inequality of our society and the almost comatose carelessness of our government. If you want expert and incisive analysis on this particular tragedy of errors, then you should follow either (but ideally both) @debrakidd or @teacherhead on Twitter and read their recent posts (they also have WordPress sites – see links below). The piece by Tom Sherrington in particular is a rare sighting on the internet: measured and thoughtful reconsideration of a view in light of developments. Debra Kidd offers a passionate analysis of why the disaster really wasn’t much different from business as usual, and why therefore it needs to change.

I don’t have the standing to criticise either of them, nor would I wish to. Their insights and advice have been inspiring and helpful in my journey as an educator. On this occasion, though, their writing and thinking has prompted a few thoughts in response.

Firstly, the piece by Tom Sherrington. As he makes frequent reference to in the piece, he assumed that common sense would prevail, or at least be applied at some point. This is an alluring thought but, since “They can’t be that stupid, can they?” has been close to infallible as a predictor of this government’s actions, perhaps slightly misplaced.

Sherrington’s uncharacteristic lapse is understandable: my brother’s drum practice this week may have knocked him off his game. (I’m not joking: see my Twitter for the exchange.) Also, as a highly intelligent and informed expert, his expectation that basic common sense would be applied was, well, reasonable. It turns out, of course, that not only was common sense and expertise apparently not sought, it wasn’t applied when literally delivered to those who needed to act on it. See the devastating critique of the OFQUAL algorithm by Dr Huy Duong, submitted in evidence to Parliament earlier this year, here.

Two meta-thoughts. First, when the historians of the future come to write the history of 2020, there may be a debate about the degree to which ministers listened to expert advice from SAGE. I would suggest that the decision to ignore Dr Duong’s analysis may be instructive in understanding the governing culture. This government, despite being presented with progressively more complex problems, is still “tired of experts” and only allows them a voice if they are docile. The disappearance from view of openly dissenting scientists from the daily press briefings if they ventured opinions in line with medical training, published law and common sense, is a chilling insight into the degree to which the government cannot brook dissent. For professors of medicine and public health committed to the public good, outward conformity may be an acceptable (if high) price to pay for ensuring they retain some purchase on events, but it is not a choice they should be asked to make.

Secondly, I wonder if a meta-understanding of our current plight is also bound up with the notion of common sense. It is certainly bound up with the sense that panic is always an inappropriate reaction and that everything is manageable. But, if quickly mastered, panic is a very useful indication that events are either imminently or actually out of control. Someone who doesn’t panic a little in the face of a global pandemic or blighting a generation’s life-chances perhaps has yet to fully get their arms around the problem. As Basil Fawlty responds when told by Polly not to panic: “What else is there to do?!”

I’m not suggesting, by the way, that Fawlty Towers is a model for responsible government. Governments led by chancers, sociopaths and inadequates (though the vogue in global leadership) rarely make good decisions. The chronically dissociated always think in terms of brutality, and those struggling to win approval care more about appearance than outcome.

In Debra Kidd’s case, my objection is slightly more technical. She suggests that a return to modular exams and AS levels would have averted this crisis. This is true, but the price of a cohort with (some) concrete results this year would be a cohort next year with nothing: after all, their AS levels would have to have been cancelled and calculated by algorithm – along with next year’s results, which are unlikely to escape the effects of COVID. The government response has been to multiply problems rather than solve them, but another “peacetime” solution would have had different problems. The basic problem with exams as currently constituted is that they are in general simply a final chance for students to prove spreadsheets wrong. When that final chance was removed, disaster was always a strong possibility.

More broadly, the consequences of AS levels were not all positive. I would suggest that the stress of three consecutive years of important assessments contributed materially to the sharp rise in mental health problems among British young people in the first fifteen years of this century. I am also not sure that increased testing is an answer to a failure of grading. But her central point about the negligence and cruelty of the current system is inarguable.

We need – as in so many areas – a more interesting and comprehensive rethink than endlessly switching between linear and modular qualifications. I’d like to see, in my own subject of History, a more actively collaborative externally marked coursework process. But everyone has a wishlist.

Whatever the repercussions of #alevels2020, I hope that both Tom Sherrington and Debra Kidd are among the experts who lead that process of change. Hopefully with a very different government, committed to finding sensible, informed answers to the problems that COVID exposes with such grim regularity.

Meme Fever

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Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2020.

The era of COVID-19 has seen two processes of contagion. The first is, of course, the disease itself, with its terrible toll on individuals, communities and nations. The second, however, is what the WHO and others have termed an infodemic: defined very precisely a couple of weeks ago by a working group.

An infodemic is an overabundance of information—some accurate and some not—that occurs during an epidemic. In a similar manner to an epidemic, it spreads between humans via digital and physical information systems. It makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it. (Tangcharoensathien et al., 2020)

I’m working on a more detailed piece about the infodemic, to go alongside a collection of my photos from this year. In the meantime, however, I’ve been looking at the memes shared in my social media echo chambers. Sometimes they make me laugh but as a class of discourse they make me profoundly uneasy.

Memes are directly compared to viruses by the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski in his book, The Rules of Contagion (2020). He notes the problems posed by “simplistic anecdotes and ineffective solutions” for disease control and begins the book with an account of how he (accidentally) caused “a small outbreak of misinformation.”

The irony is that memes are simplistic anecdotes masquerading as panaceas. Like viruses, memes have no function but their own reproduction with no regard for the health of the host. Matters are further complicated by the fact that social media offer a perfect environment for them to thrive. Back in the day, “Frankie Says” was a meme, but it’s harder to edit a t-shirt than it is to share something online. One meme in particular recently caught my eye.

This meme is part of longer and bigger debates about education, race and identity. I do not claim any priority for this meme’s importance other than the fact I’ve spent my adult life teaching and learning about the Holocaust and for that reason find it deeply problematic, educationally and philosophically. My experience allows me to locate the sources of my ire because I have expertise: itself a suggestion that the reduction of history to lessons without content is not very practical. But I digress.

Firstly, the idea that the second and third parts of the statement can be accomplished without the first is problematic. Without the murder of six million Jews being remembered, the second statement makes no sense: what is the “it” that was required? And in the third statement, the “history repeating itself” is the murder of six million Jews that apparently the author thinks is optional to remember.

Second, and much more problematic, is the weasel formulation of the first statement. If the word “only” or “just” were added, the sentiment might make more sense (though as I’ve just explained I don’t think it really does). But as written it comes very close not to suggesting that education cannot be reduced to simply memorising (which of course is true and something that all good teachers work hard to ensure) but that education equals not remembering the murder of six million Jews.

This ambiguity is difficult because with a negative reading of an oddly formed sentence, the meme seems to be suggesting that instead of anchoring our understanding of the world to historical facts and debates, it should instead come from belief in an unstated mechanism that led “ordinary Germans” to be “convinced that it was required”. Setting aside the complex historical debate about degrees of knowledge, cooperation, acceptance and resistance this dismisses (the author of the meme can’t be bothered so why should I?), the implication is that children should be “educated” in some unstated monocausal view. Another word for this is indoctrination.

One of the key aspects of indoctrination is ignoring facts in the interests of clarity: such as, for example, downplaying the importance of the victim group of “what happened”. The sleight-of-hand with which this example severs meaning from content (thus rendering it meaningless) is the primary source of my anger.

Ironically, the indoctrinated have historically been very bad at spotting the writing on the wall because, well, they were indoctrinated to believe it wasn’t important. Such a process seems to have taken place very imperfectly in Nazi Germany, chiefly because the Third Reich only lasted twelve years. The debate about why and how this happened, which the author of this meme either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about, is ongoing. But the desire to present children with “lessons” without evidence is certainly among the phenomena involved: along with ensuring that the benefits of oppression and murder were widely shared, and that perpetrators were placed in stressful, confusing situations with alcohol to dull the senses when reality could no longer be explained but simply avoided. But reiterating the nature of that reality is crucial, educationally, because without it, the question “Why is this important?” is hard to really answer.

Because, finally, let’s not forget that forgetting victims is only in the interests of the perpetrators. Himmler termed the murder of European Jewry “a glorious page in our history that can never be written”. Hitler asked “Who now remembers the Armenians?” This meme asks us to forget the Jews and replace them with an amorphous “victim” group that makes the “lessons” meaningless. The Nazis oppressed and murdered a whole range of groups and individuals, but to try and remove their primary victim group is an assault on memory and an abuse of education. Subject (the Nazis) verb (murdered) and object (six million Jews) are all required for any conclusions to have any relevance. This is true, by the way, in teaching anybody about anything. The nature of the offence is a fundamental part of teaching to understand the past and (hopefully) avoid its repetition.

This is just one meme in an ocean of memes. As in Hamlet’s soliloquy, it is tempting to think we can “take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them.” But this is a metaphor for futility. We are adrift and lost: what we can do (all we can do, perhaps) is sound out the ideas beneath the surface of individual examples in the hope we will find solid ground underneath.

Three Stories: Reflections on Lessons from Auschwitz

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Working as a Freelance Educator on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project is probably the most rewarding and important thing I do. When COVID-19 interrupted all our lives, I was part of the way through an exceptionally busy term with two visits completed and two to come. While this letter is addressed to one group in particular (with whom I was hoping to do a follow-up seminar) it is also meant for all the groups I’ve worked with.

The main gate to Auschwitz II-Birkenau, March 2020. Photo: Jaime Ashworth

Dear Group Five,

First, let me say that you were lovely. Bright, curious, open to learning new things, as groups so often are. It’s just one of the reasons I love working as an Educator on the project. But you had something else in addition: an emotional grasp of what the trip meant that I’ve only rarely encountered and a willingness to share that with me and each other that was beautiful and inspiring to work with.

I am, quite simply, gutted that I haven’t been able to complete my sections of your LFA journey. I was looking forward to hearing your reflections and insights and getting a glimpse of your next steps. I don’t think anyone knows when or how that may happen – though I’m sure the logistics team that do everything to manage the seminars and trips are working to answer that question. In advance of that possibility I want to share some ideas about the possibilities and challenges that lie ahead in your next steps. 

On a personal level I am wary of the idea of lessons. Michael Marrus, a distinguished scholar of the Holocaust and its history, wrote in his memoir that lessons are problematic, often telling us more about the person drawing the lesson than the past itself. I agree. But if we don’t try to draw lessons all we are left with is horror. So we have to strike a balance.

Certainly the idea that we can easily draw inspirational lessons is to be approached with caution. After hearing the testimony of Steven Frank, you identified that the most important factor in his survival was luck. Yes, he was young and healthy. Yes, he was resilient. Yes, he enjoyed the support of a parent who was also spared. But so did many others. As we are discovering, there is by definition no logic to catastrophe. Kings and beggars, villains and saints – all perished, the remainder saved only by capricious chance. As Primo Levi reminded us in his final book, The Drowned and the Saved:

We, the survivors, are not only a tiny but also an anomalous minority. We are those who, through prevarication, skill or luck, never touched bottom. Those who have, and who have seen the face of the Gorgon, did not return, or returned wordless.

Shortly after finishing the book, Levi died, falling down the lift shaft of his apartment building in Turin. There is a debate about whether he fell or jumped. I’m not sure it matters: he had spent a lifetime contesting the verdict on himself he had pronounced in the camp, convicted in his own mind by the fact of his survival. He had acted as best he could, but remained concerned that this had still been at the cost of others’ survival. As the Polish writer (and Auschwitz inmate) Tadeusz Borowski described so well, the camp experience involved everyone in the crime. One could not emerge from it without, however inadvertently, being tarnished. Because if you survived, someone else hadn’t. This is why understandings of survivors now focus more on shame than guilt. Guilt might be contested, shame enters the skin, as indelible as a tattoo.

Lessons need to be approached carefully, mindful of the facts and their complexity. Perhaps the only lesson that really matters is to see humanity and potential in everyone. That’s why the emphasis is on rehumanising the victims: because you can’t see the humanity in a statistic. But you might glimpse it in a market square or the site of a synagogue. Or in the objects brought by deportees, proclaiming their faith in the simple belief that life would go on, with prayers to be said, meals to be cooked and teeth to be brushed. And the reassurance of house keys in their pocket.

And what of the perpetrators? Should we see them as human? The Polish epigram Ludzie ludziom zgotowali ten los, coined by the writer Zofia Nałkowska while investigating Nazi crimes, is often translated as “man prepared this fate for man”. Which I suppose has a certain cadence in English. But in fact it is literally “People prepared this fate for people.” The first translation may look better carved in a stone tablet but it detaches the actors from their actions. People did this: people like you, people like me. And as Jonathan Littell notes in his novel The Kindly Ones:

If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person.

So where do we go from here? Primo Levi wrote of the shame of the liberators as they entered the camp, their eyes downcast because this had happened, that such crimes had entered the world of existing things. A sense of shame at humanity is a common response to Auschwitz even today, 75 years later. And it is both correct and just the beginning of the story. You are it’s next step.

I often tell three stories when saying goodbye to groups.

The first is by Elie Wiesel and concerns the trial of God. A trial in the barracks of Birkenau where the inmates found God either guilty or absent. But then it was time for prayers, so they prayed. Sometimes we carry on despite our conviction that things are worthless – because sometimes that’s all there is to do.

Elie Wiesel was liberated in Buchenwald, aged sixteen. He spent a lifetime trying to explain Auschwitz but often resorted to the aphorism that “The truth of Auschwitz lies in silence”. It’s another good phrase that looks very impressive carved in stone. But here’s my question: if the truth of Auschwitz lies in silence, how do we tell it? 

The final story is from the late Clive James. On a visit to Munich on assignment for the Observer in 1983, he visited Dachau. His description is characteristically both beautiful and learned.

There is a place in Virgil’s Aeneid called the broken-hearted fields. Standing in that snow-covered space I could think of no better description. Nor was there any point in reproaching oneself for being unable to shed tears: if we could truly imagine what it was like, we would die of grief.

I often think of these words when I talk to students worrying about whether their next steps will be enough or hear educators fret about whether they covered everything, whether they did justice to the facts. Of course they didn’t, because nobody can. We ask you to bear witness to Auschwitz, knowing that it’s really beyond description; because it’s the attempt that matters.

And so I suggest one final lesson from Auschwitz: it is better to speak than to remain silent. And you must trust that whatever you say will be perfect – because the alternative is saying nothing at all. The rest, as Rabbi Hillel said, is commentary: now go study. 

Wishing you safe passage and a prosperous voyage in these troubled times. 

Jaime

London, March 2020

No Exit…

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Why will the idea of “associate citizenship” of the EU not go away? In the last few months, since it became clear that the British drive to exiting the EU was unstoppable, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen positing this as some kind of answer.

I understand the appeal. In 2003, I waited with many others in a very crowded bar in Kraków to learn the result of the referendum on EU accession. I remember vividly the cheers of relief that accession would go ahead the following year. For many, that day, and the accession day itself, marked a return to Europe – if Poland had ever left. The national anthem records the March of troops in the Napoleonic wars “z ziemi Włoskiej do Polski”: from the lands of Italy to Poland. A series of events that began with the German and Russian invasions in 1939 had finally entered a new phase. One which promised to fulfil the dreams of 1989: that Poland could be a liberal democratic member of “the European club”.

In 2004, on the first day of membership, many of us watched the news reporting on Poland’s new “second capital” in Brussels. Even through the blur of a hangover (it was a very good party) I could feel the optimism.

Time has not been kind to that optimistic vision of Polish society, which will be the subject of a future piece. But it should remind us that membership of the EU can exert a powerful hold on the imagination of those denied it, and that many of those EU citizens whose future residency in the UK is now uncertain understand far better than we do why the EU is important. For us (ironically) the Polish poem of exile, Pan Tadeusz, may describe our plight:

Lithuania, my country, thou art like health; how much thou shouldst be prized only he can learn who has lost thee. To-day thy beauty in all its splendour I see and describe, for I yearn for thee.”

But we need to recognise that the EU isn’t a state. It can’t issue passports: only member states can do that, though the words “European Union” remind holders that collectivities come in different sizes. If we are to make the best of this awful mistake, we need to be clear what we are trying to hang on to.

We also need to be clear that some sort of boutique accommodation with reality for Remainers isn’t on offer. This is happening and we can’t engage with the facts if we are pursuing this kind of fantasy.

Secondly, we need to stop and think quite carefully about the idea of citizenship. Asking governments to create a lesser form of citizenship is open to abuse by issuing governments. What if the sentimental desire for Britons to try and deny the realities of this situation opened the door for them to decide that migrants and refugees could only apply for these kinds of documents? Do we want our own government to devise such a scheme?

It is an unfortunate coincidence that Britain’s exit from the EU is formalised in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day. The stripping of German citizenship from Jews was a fundamental attack on their rights, which made all the others easier to frame and justify in law. We should not be rushing to create second-class citizens, but instead insisting on the fullest citizenship for all, in the widest possible collectivity.

On Holocaust Memorial Day 2020: Stand Together

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The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2015.

Yesterday, at a ceremony hosted by the Association of Jewish Refugees at Belsize Square Synagogue, I listened to testimony from Frank Bright, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Aged 91 and frail, he began by asking the room “Can you hear me?” The plaintive yet essential nature of his question took me aback for a moment.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day asks us to #StandTogether, but what does this mean? Are we listening?

In the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on the aboutholocaust.org project for the World Jewish Congress and UNESCO. The website contains a range of questions and answers which aim to explain key concepts and key events, and which illustrate them through the life stories of individuals.

As part of this, individuals who have been familiar names have also been developed into full personalities: the humanisation of the Holocaust is more than knowing a name, it is becoming aware of who that person was. The American science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card has many views which I profoundly reject, but his description in the novel Speaker for the Dead of how we should understand the people of the past continues to be something I try and live up to:

…to understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story – what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know – and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.

To fulfil this task for the victims of the Holocaust would take centuries. The Book of Names produced by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, and kept in the Jewish Exhibition at Auschwitz, contains four million names of victims. Speaking to students, I point out that it actually commemorates three groups: those who died and whose names are recorded (Yad Vashem is taken from the Book of Isaiah and means “a monument and a name”); the space at its front where the other two million names we may never know, or even be able to guess at, should go; and the surviving family members whose pages of testimony are condensed into this vast artefact. And these are the barest of details: names, dates, place of birth, place of death (if this is even known). Their hopes, their fears, their aspirations and their regrets all went up, quite literally, in smoke. Telling some of their stories is the only way I can stand with them.

Three of the questions I have answered this year for aboutholocaust have stuck in my mind as I’ve reflected upon the idea of standing together.

Firstly, “Did you know that thousands of Jewish children left Germany without their parents to escape Nazi persecution?” The story of the Kindertransport is well-known and often used to justify a narrative of British moral superiority. The footage of the late Sir Nicholas Winton on That’s Life! in the 1980s, surrounded by the adults he saved as children, is incredibly moving. But for every child who came, many more did not, to say nothing of the parents who were forced to accept separation, usually permanent, as the price of securing their children’s safety. This week, as I sat in a room with some of them in Belsize Square, another of those children, Lord Dubs, was definitively frustrated in his campaign to ensure the safety and security of child refugees separated from their families. We must ask with whom we are standing, and why, and whether the cause of unity for its own sake is worth it. I stand with the children.

Secondly, “Why were there more Jews in Albania in 1945 than before WW2?” in 1938, the Jewish population of Albania was around 200 people. At the end of the war, it was around 1800, as Jews from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia arrived, in transit to the Americas, Turkey and Mandate Palestine. They had been kept safe by a code of toleration and hospitality called Besa, which means “to keep the promise”. As Lime Balla, one of the rescuers, described it:

We were poor – we didn’t even have a dining table – but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews.

To stand together is not just a matter of symbolism. It is to act as well, whatever our circumstances, recognising the capacity that each of us has to do something.

Finally, the work on Rabbi Leo Baeck was inspiring. The leader of German Jewry in the 1930s, Baeck chose to stay with his community, as did Rabbi Regina Jonas, a pioneering female rabbi. Both were deported to Theresienstadt, from where Jonas was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in late 1944. I searched in vain for a statement of why they chose to stand together with their community, when in both cases they had options of hiding or escape. The closest I came was the prayer written by Baeck for Yom Kippur in 1935:

Our history is the history of the grandeur of the human soul and the dignity of human life. In this day of sorrow and pain, surrounded by infamy and shame, we will turn our eyes to the days of old. From generation to generation God redeemed our fathers, and he will redeem us in the days to come. We bow our heads before God and remain upright and erect before man. We know our way and we see the road to our goal.

In short, to stand together is sometimes all we can do, recognising that we do so on a road whose ultimate destination is impossible to know. So we must hold hands as we go.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2019: Torn from Home

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The four Stolpersteine, as we left them. Photo: Jaime Ashworth, 2018.

Gunther Demnig works fast on the chilly pavement in Germany. His practiced hands prise up four cobbles from the street: a sharp crack precedes their slow easing from the ground to expose the sandy layer beneath. The stones are on the pavement beside him, gleaming in the pale winter light.

The stones are inscribed simply: names, dates, fate, as far as this can be known. The opening statement is baldly “Hier wohnt”: here lived. This is their last known address before being deported, though the building is certainly different: the city was heavily bombed. We do not know much of what happened after three of the family were deported in 1942. A postcard from the transit ghetto in Izbica in Poland, dated July 1942, was found by chance in a Berlin fleamarket in 2016. From Izbica, their destination is uncertain but was probably Sobibor: their stones now read “murdered in occupied Poland”. The exact moment of their death is unknown: there is certainly no marker for them where they perished.

The fourth stone concludes “Flucht nach England”: fled to England. This stone is for the eldest daughter of the family, who arrived in England on a domestic servant visa in August 1939, though she had never made a bed before. It is her descendants that mill around, blocking the pavement on this grey afternoon.

The arrival of the stones made the occasion seem real. Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren took turns holding the stones, wrapped in their cloths, cradling them as though they were children. Photographs are taken, tears are wiped away, if not quite shed. We have gathered here for this moment from across the world, and the sight of the names has tautened the air in a way that nobody quite expected. Reluctantly giving the stones to the ground, the family stands back as Demnig pushes the stones into place and with a practiced hand embeds them, fills the gaps with mortar and with almost a flourish wipes away the excess from the inscriptions. The stones have taken their place, not only in the city of origin of those they remember, but in a network of similar memorials across Europe.

We stop, a few words are spoken, the breath of the speakers puffing in the cold air. Four of us arrived just in time for the ceremony and our suitcases are pushed neatly against the building, an odd echo of previous journeys. More words are spoken, some prayers are said, and then we load ourselves into taxis, leaving the stones. Some take a final few images. As I get in, I take a last distant shot of the four stones, together at last in the pavement, a spray of gravel marking the place where they have been worked into the landscape.

The historian Michael Burleigh wrote in 1996 that for many, “Nazism is not a matter of academic contemplation; but rather something which explains why they have no relatives or children; why they are chronically ill or have severe psychological problems; or why they live in Britain, Canada, Israel or the USA rather than Central Europe.” This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme, “Torn from Home”, has led me to revisit those words. Burleigh intended the words as a speculation on the state of what was then thought to be a rapidly “historicising” subject, one which might over time become a more “normal” part of history. I wonder whether in fact they have become more relevant than ever. The pictures last week of Holocaust survivors weeping over the burial of victims’ ashes from the collections of the Imperial War Museum suggests that perhaps the past is not yet done with surprises.

Witnessing Gunther Demnig lay Stolpersteine for this family while surrounded by the living proof of the eldest daughter’s survival brought home the sheer randomness of historical fate. Why was this young woman spared? What did she have to give up to do so? In his novel Exit West, Mohsin Hamid wrote that “when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” For so many refugees, both then and now, this is no mere figure of speech. The only other marker of this family and its fate is on its sole survivor’s grave, far away in England, amid hedgerows and birdsong.

The journey also underlined that trauma dehomes and dispossesses those who suffer it, shunting the future into strange sidings. The sight of three women, red-haired as their grandmother was, contemplating a display in the school she attended until the racial laws forced her to leave, brought home how it could have been their school. Similarly, over lunch in the small town where the family originated, I noticed the red hair of many locals, along with the surreptitious glances, trying to decide how these faces could be both familiar and strange. In my mind, I wondered how they felt. Curious? Guilty? Sad? Anxious for this reminder of how their home had a past that perhaps threatens their sense of being at home? Living amongst the traces of horror requires either constant attention or deliberate avoidance. The memorial at the ruins of the town synagogue is lonely and neglected. One of our party tried to clear some of the grime but, realising that it was not his home to tend, gave up the attempt, his hand lingering on the stone a fraction longer than it might otherwise have done.

At the same time, the trip offered many chances to form new bonds. My partner’s mother has kept in touch with the local historian who initiated contact when the postcard from her grandparents came to light, as well as the present headmistress of her mother’s school. The bright and curious current students asked informed questions about how flight from home had shaped their fellow former student. She was a migrant, so are some of them, even though second or even third generation. Perhaps she offered hope that new beginnings can be restorative, a chance to rehome oneself. Perhaps the visit also confirmed that return and connection was an option, that doors once entered through could remain open, or at least ajar.

In these turbulent days, when it seems as though Britain is hell-bent on casting itself adrift, the visit was also a chance to reflect on the meaning of movement. My partner’s grandmother must have made a journey very like ours, through Belgium and then either France or the Netherlands. But unlike us, who showed our passports once and then tucked them away again, she had to endure the border crossings of an earlier Europe, her passport stamped with a red J, explaining to anyone who demanded her papers why she was making the journey. The philosopher Walter Benjamin committed suicide in Barcelona in 1940, convinced he was to be sent back to France and the German occupation. Free movement was not acquired cheaply, and we have neglected the multiple meanings of that “freeness”. We are so accustomed to the simplicities of the modern world that we have forgotten they are privileges, not rights, and as such incur duties.

The late Elie Wiesel wrote a story of the final Passover in Sighet, the city in Romania where he grew up. His father brought a stranger to their table, “a poor Polish Jewish refugee who had seen too often and too close the victory of death over man and his prayers.” At the point in the Seder where it is traditional to open the door for the prophet Elijah, the stranger said he would perform the task, and promptly vanished. Wiesel writes that a few weeks later he saw the stranger again, on the transport bound for Auschwitz. Wiesel concludes:

Today I know what I didn’t know then: at the end of a long trip that was to last four days and three nights he got out in a small railway station, near a peaceful little town, somewhere in Silesia, where his fiery chariot was waiting to carry him up to the skies. Isn’t that enough proof that he was the Prophet Elijah?

The tearing from home leaves jagged edges in the heart. We must remember this, and that every new arrival comes from somewhere; and ask how can we know who we are turning away?