The AJR’s 75th Anniversary seminar at JW3 was truly inspiring. At the very least, it was a pleasure to meet Tony Grenville at last and put a face to my favourite Page One of the AJR Journal! It was good to be among so many AJR friends of long standing but it was also good that many people had come who were neither AJR members nor had been to JW3 previously.
The richness of the programme was awesome: the order and chairing of the sessions had obviously been carefully thought out. Trudy Gold’s breath-taking opening gallop through the history of the Jewish community in Germany was absolutely gripping, as her presentations always are. Together with Tony Grenville and Bea Lewkowicz outlining the history and achievements of the AJR, this was an amazing introduction. Far from ‘knowing it all’, I discovered how much I had not known and I suspect others found the same.
In the second session, we were treated to a birds-eye view of the heritage and culture of the Jewish refugees from Central Europe by two rabbis - Jonathan Wittenberg and Julia Neuberger - who moved the factual dimension of the first session into a more emotional ambiance.
After lunch, the conference moved into a more nuanced and intimate scrutiny of some of the actual journeys triggered by the refugee crisis of the 1930s-40s. The relevance to today’s refugee crisis was inescapable and was probably awoken in most people’s minds. Some potent themes that need our attention began to emerge: the dignity that was preserved within the indignity of allowing refugees who were professionals to do only menial work – compared with today’s interned refugees, who are allowed no work; the general hostility towards ‘migrants’ today, even children; and the increasing use of the fictional ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ instead of factual testimonies in schools. The most moving presentation of this panel was undoubtedly that of Peter Kurer on the role of the Quakers. This led to a discussion of the lack of acknowledgement of Quakers in Holocaust teaching and to questioning why some rescuers, such as Nicholas Winton, are rightly celebrated but many others, like Wilfrid Israel, are hardly known at all.
In the fourth session, on the contribution to Britain of the Jewish refugees, we were treated to presentations by Lord Alf Dubs, Rabbi Hugo Gryn’s daughter Naomi, Fritz Lustig, and Leo Baeck’s great-grandson James Dreyfus. It was clear that, despite tribulations and trauma, refugees who were treated decently have repaid their country of refuge handsomely. This raises the question of what we can expect from today’s asylum seekers if we don’t protect them from increasing ignorant xenophobia and sheer misplaced hatred.
Unfortunately, I had to miss the final session of the first day as it clashed with the Holocaust Education Trust’s annual dinner, to which I took as guests my granddaughter, a Teach First graduate, and her husband, a Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador from their Lessons from Auschwitz Project. This final session brought in wider contacts in partnership with the AJR: the British Academy (Lord Stern), Central British Fund (Lilian Levy), World Jewish Relief (Paul Anticoni), Council for At-Risk Academics (Stephen Wordsworth), Wiener Library (Kat Hübschmann), and Belsize Square Synagogue (Rob Nothman).
The theme of wider connections continued on the second day, which addressed the future of Holocaust education. In the first panel, Phil Lyons (National Holocaust Centre), Robert Posner (Anne Frank Trust) and Ben Barkow (Wiener Library) gave an overview of projects and material already in operation and in process which will ensure that Holocaust education continues into the future when no live witnesses are left. The three organisations and many others ensure that testimonies, artefacts and projects will continue to be available but, of course, no one can ensure how they will be used by future educators and received by future learners.
This led into the theme of the last panel session, presented as an ‘Intergenerational Conversation’. I represented the First Generation of refugees, Anita Grosz and Raymond Simonson the Second Generation, and Michael Newman the Third Generation. The fact that a Third Generation refugee now heads the AJR shows that the Jewish community will definitely keep our Holocaust legacy from being abandoned or forgotten – but is this the most we can hope for or want for the future? There are survivors of other genocides now reaching a stage of readiness who need to speak out about their journeys and legacies: Remembering Srebrenica is an organisation already sending survivors to speak in schools.
Personally, I always become concerned at Jewish events that focus on the Jewish story of the Holocaust, in which we lost six million of our European community and so many of the few survivors have given so much to their new communities. Commemorating the Jewish loss and the Jewish story is vitally important – essential but not sufficient. I sometimes experience the focus on the Jewish story, especially in schools, as a Jewish-only story, as a form of denial. A reduction to six million of the more than 60 million lives wantonly curtailed in world war is too ‘neat and tidy’ and perhaps the maximum that most minds can tolerate. It is very important that we have Yom Ha’Shoah to focus on and mourn our Jewish loss - but the Holocaust was a loss to the whole of humanity and humanity needs to learn and mourn.
As the outstanding Holocaust historian Professor Yehuda Bauer recently stated at JW3, the Holocaust is unique in being a totally unprecedented form of annihilation of a target group on an industrialised scale that has not been repeated – yet. But it could be repeated if we don’t learn from the Holocaust in its wider context of genocide and determine to prevent it. In my view, the two most urgent lessons of the Holocaust that we have not yet learned are to treat all people as equal human beings (no superior or inferior ethnic groups) and to intervene when unacceptable violence begins, instead of turning a blind eye and letting it escalate out of control. There is nothing specifically Jewish about these two lessons. Jews were not the only victims in the Holocaust. Humanity needs a much wider approach to learning about the Holocaust in the context of its predecessors in the first half of the 20th Century and continuing genocides in the second half of the 20th Century into the 21st.
In my view, commemoration and learning are vital but not sufficient without action. The learning we need to add to the way we currently commemorate and teach the Holocaust is to face and understand denial in ourselves and all around us. Denial of unacceptable injustice that we see but do not perceive all around us propels us into being ‘bystanders’ when we can and need to be active ‘upstanders’. Denial keeps us locked in the delusion that ‘There is nothing I can do about it - and, in any case, it’s just human nature and you can’t change that!’ If you believe you can have an effect, you will. We have angels as well as demons in our human nature. We need a conference on ‘Exposing Denial’.
I am left pondering on something that Alf Dubs said at the AJR seminar. When praising Nicky Winton for his rescue actions, Dubs said that Winton’s greatness was that ‘He didn’t have to do it, he chose to do it!’ I would respond to this that Winton did not have to do it from any outside pressure. The pressure was from inside himself and he had to do it because of who he was. This is something that perhaps defines rescuers. Humanity needs more people who have experienced being helped, cherished and valued and are therefore driven from inside to be concerned about others.