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25 Jan | Cultural Calendar | Guest Blog

Holocaust Memorial Day

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is 'Ordinary People' in the Holocaust. I write this through the lens of my Father’s experience as one of those rescued in the Kindertransport operation set up to rescue children from Nazi occupied Europe when brutal realities about what was happening to the Jews and other groups could no longer be ignored

"Some 10 thousand children were rescued and brought to the United Kingdom against the darker background of the 6 million or so Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.   This did not happen naturally or without passive bureaucratic resistance. I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary role of the Quakers in persisting with raising the issue with the British authorities and for their work in rescue and – where possible – putting broken families back together.

The real hero for my family and my circle was Sir Nicholas Winton who acted in response to the growing emergency in Czechoslovakia after the “Peace for our time” accord between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler when Britain and France agreed to Hitler’s demand for the Sudetenland in the Munich accord. This was the region when my dad grew up in a beautiful spa town called Teplitz close to the German border. This is where the aims and ambitions of the Nazi regime collided with my family. My dad was spared the horrors of Kristallnacht as he had already sent to “safety” with an Uncle in Prague where he was later joined by his mother. She brought with her the surviving Jewish girls from the orphanage in Teplitz where she was head teacher. The family planned to emigrate but Nazi extortion on the sale of the family assets meant there was insufficient money left to buy the four exit visas needed for emigration to Palestine. The family were trapped and by that stage there was no mistaking the bleakness of the prospects. The full horror was not yet understood although concentration camps were being put together and Dachau had been holding and murdering political prisoners since 1933".

Sir Nicholas Winton

“It was the decent thing to do” 

Nicholas Winton was a young English stockbroker who witnessed the conditions in Prague when a skiing holiday was cancelled because of bad weather in the Alps.  He recognized that something must be done and initiated the Kindertransport operation which rescued some 669 children on trains leaving from Prague station. This was no mean feat as it was a race against time as they knew trains would not be allowed to leave when war broke out. Winton even set up a clandestine print shop to generate the visa documentation that he knew would not arrive officially in time. 

"My grandmother had to take tranquillizers to get her through the moment of seeing off her son. She – and the rest of the near and wider family and indeed the orphan girls were all swept up in the deportations and eventually perished in Auschwitz.

As a member of the Second Generation I’m conscious of the complexity of Survival and anti-Semitism. Much of the Holocaust Memorial Day discussion dwells on the latent anti-Semitism in Europe and there is a narrative on how ordinary people colluded with the Nazis in delivering their programme.

I think this is wrong or at least incomplete. I do not believe that ordinary people chose to embrace the murder of the 6 million but ordinary people ARE susceptible to manipulation through propaganda starting with ancient hostility from the Church, later Luther, leveraging discontent, envy, fear and prejudice and eventually, compliance through torture and brutality. Nor should it be forgotten that both State and colluders were keen to steal the considerable Jewish wealth – industrial, financial and personal which was there for the taking. Lincoln has its own grim position in mediaeval anti-Semitism as the origin of the blood libel associated with the martyrdom of Little St Hugh.

The complicity of those backward elements closest to Holocaust is not representative of the people as a whole.  It seems to me that the real motivation of the Nazi regime was clear – to eradicate the progressive and scientific culture within secular Judaism, starting with Spinoza, which collided with the mysticism and authoritarian interests of the Nazis and of course anything connected with Marxism or Socialism which had largely originated with Jewish thinkers and activists. The rise of socialism was inextricably linked with the secular Jewish intelligentsia, which dared to question the existing world order and proposed an alternative to the forms of Nationalism which had lead to the First World War. The attack on progressive (and largely Jewish) culture reached its apogee with the Book Burning which started in Berlin in 1933 at Bebelplatz, next to Humboldt University and is ironically a seat of modern revisionist and apologist teaching which trivializes the Nazi intent. As the German philosopher Heine had remarked with chilling prescience, “when people start to burn books, then in the end people are also burned”. Not only must the books and the records carrying the virus of ideas be destroyed but so too must the entire population carrying the ideas. 

Nicholas Winton remarked,  “No one learns anything, that’s the only thing History teaches us”. This might be true if historical truths are lost or a narrative reshaped for the purpose of convenience. Fake news, revisionism and holocaust denial are all part of this. Ideas are dangerous.

If there is anything to be learned from history it is that in an age of spin, fake news and historical revision we have to be scrupulously careful to hold on to evidence based interpretation as the same tensions around Nationalism and war play out in the modern world. Genocide did not end with the Holocaust.  

The most vulnerable of all are the children who are separated from family in the turmoil that follows displacement". 

Blog by Robin Young