I’d have said that there was quite a lot of attention paid to the Holocaust; but recent surveys have shown that over 50% of German schoolchildren have never heard of Auschwitz, 20% of French people aged between 18 and 34 have never heard of the Holocaust, 41% of American adults aren’t sure what Auschwitz was, and 5% of British adults don’t believe that the Holocaust took place. Hopefully this is ignorance, rather than some sinister political forces manipulating history for their own ends, but it’s very worrying. Ignorance can easily facilitate manipulation, and is best answered by education – and it was a shame that the BBC, put this programme, showing the testimony of some of the few remaining survivors living in Britain, over on BBC 2 and head-to-head with The Voice and Les Miserables. But at least the programme was made, and shown – on Holocaust Memorial Day. On the same day, a Polish far-right group held a demonstration at Auschwitz, at the same time as the official commemorations were taking place. And all forms of hate crime seem to be on the rise.
We’re supposed to learn from history, but something’s going badly wrong somewhere.
The people interviewed, now mostly in their late 80s, had been children at the time of the Holocaust. Some had survived Auschwitz, others has survived other concentration camps. Some had been old enough, or convinced the Nazis that they were old enough, to be used for forced labour, rather than being sent to the gas chambers. Others had been at camps which weren’t actually extermination camps. One of them, the well-known cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, had been saved from the gas chambers at Auschwitz at the last minute, when a chance remark about her musical studies had led to her being given a place in the Auschwitz Women’s Orchestra, which had saved her life. One way or another, they’d all somehow survived, and come to Britain. You’d think that living through such horrific conditions would weaken your constitution, for lack of a less Victorian way of putting it, but these incredible people were all hale and hearty, and extremely eloquent.
It was very personal, and that worked really well. Statistics and pictures and film reels are effective and hard-hitting, but listening to someone’s personal story gets a message across in a way that nothing else does. The stories of loss – even more than their own horrific experiences, they were telling their stories of loss – of the ordinary families, ordinary communities, which had been destroyed, of the relatives and friends who’d been murdered.
One man had never been able to find out what had happened to his little brother. He himself had been out as part of a forced labour gang, and, one day, when he returned to his barracks, his brother and three other little boys had disappeared. He said that he knew they must have been murdered, but part of him had never quite stopped hoping that his brother was alive somewhere: you hear these occasional stories of miraculous reunions. And there was the man with the school photo of his class in Prague, taken in 1942. He’d made it his mission to find out what happened to all his classmates, and had labelled the photo with stickers – red for those killed in the Holocaust, blue for those who’d survived. There were a lot more red stickers than blue stickers.
Another man had kept trying to draw his murdered mother and sister: he had no photos of them. He’d managed to produce a likeness of his mother, but said that he couldn’t get his sister’s face down on paper, so he’d drawn an abstract picture as a representation of him. A well-known sculptor said that most of his sculptures had the face of his murdered father. His younger sister had died in a concentration camp, and their elder sister had had to take her body outside and leave it on a pile of other bodies: there was nothing else to be done. And no justice to be sought. A man remembered seeing the flames from the chimneys at Auschwitz and, having seen his mother being taken away to the gas chambers, wondering which flame was her.
Why would anyone think that people would make this up? And what is thing in Poland about trying to make it into some sort of competition? Yes, there is an issue in that not much has been written about some of the groups affected by the Holocaust – the Roma and Sinti communities, gay men, people with physical and mental disabilities, for example. More research and greater awareness is badly needed. And no-one is denying the fact that the Nazis murdered many Poles who were not Jewish. But what’s going on in Poland has a lot to do with the manipulation and misrepresentation of history, and it just shows how frighteningly easy it is for things to reach that stage. This demonstration only numbered around two hundred people, but … that’s still two hundred people.
Many of those interviewed, although not all, were the only survivors of their families, and had presumably also been separated from friends, neighbours, and anyone else from their childhoods. Most of them had married British partners, and had children and grandchildren. How does that work, when someone close to you has been through such horrific experiences, and you’ve lived an ordinary life?
The partners seemed to cope quite well. Or maybe they just didn’t want to say much, being of the stiff upper lip generation. But the children were obviously struggling. One woman said that she’d felt resentful as a child, because her mother had been too focused on trying to rebuild her life. Another woman got frustrated with her father, whilst they were actually visiting Auschwitz, because he wasn’t expressing his emotions and he kept saying that part of the reason he was anxious was just that he was bothered about missing the coach. She obviously adored him, and she then got tearful and hugged him; but she was obviously finding it frustrating.
The children and grandchildren seemed keener on expressing emotions about what had happened. The survivors themselves said that that was something they couldn’t do.
It was interesting that several of them were involved in the arts, either as professionals or as amateurs – could that be a way of letting emotion out? Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was defiant, saying that she wasn’t going to let people see her spilling her emotions all over the place. Another woman said that she didn’t dare to cry, because, once she started crying, she’d never be able to stop. The man who went back to Auschwitz said that he was crying inside, all the time.
There certainly seemed to be a consensus that, afterwards, they’d focused on rebuilding their lives and moving forward.
And also that they hadn’t wanted to revisit the places of the past – until now. There were three return journeys. One was the visit to Auschwitz, with the man whose daughter wanted him to express his emotions more. His young granddaughter also accompanied them. One of the women said that she found it difficult to see adverts for sightseeing trips to Auschwitz – on the hotel noticeboard, along with adverts for sightseeing trips to the Wieliczka salt mines. It’s a difficult one. I suppose it has sort of become a tourist attraction, and I remember being quite shocked to see people taking photos of themselves and their travel companions there. I did take some photos of the site, but I certainly didn’t want any photos there with myself in them, and the fact that anyone did made me quite uncomfortable. But I think it’s a very educational experience, and I do think it has to be open for people to visit. There was nothing there that I found disrespectful or sensationalised. I wish I could say the same of the Warsaw Ghetto: there was a souvenir stall there which was selling things that were in extremely poor taste. Hopefully that stall’s not there any more.
Another was the visit by the man whose brother had disappeared, to consecrate memorial stones in his home town of Kassel. It was the first time that he’d actually said memorial prayers for his brother, acknowledging that his brother was gone and saying that he was at least thankful that his brother had had a few years of a happy and loving childhood. He also said that he hoped that people would stop to look at the memorial stones, but accepted that they wouldn’t. You don’t, do you? Names on park benches. Blue plaques on buildings. War memorials. Statues in city centres. But they’re there. And Kassel was acknowledging what had happening.
There are a lot of Holocaust memorials in Germany. The main one’s in Berlin. This is the main German memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, I should say: there are also memorials to other groups. They shouldn’t be separate: there should be one memorial to all the victims. But there isn’t. Anyway. It’s an odd-looking memorial – a lot of concrete blocks. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, visiting it on the third of the return trips, her visit to Germany to address the German parliament, said that she’d rather have had a garden as a memorial. But it’s there.
There was a lot of talk about “Germans”. I know that sounds like stating the obvious, but … is that a hallmark of the wartime generation? Things said or written now tend to refer to “Nazis” rather than “Germans”. Neither term is entirely accurate, when talking about the perpetrators of the Holocaust. In the immediate post-war era, every country other than Germany was presented entirely a victim, which was certainly not entirely the case. And this is part of the Polish right-wing issue again. And, conversely, all Germans were stigmatised – look at the carry-on when Bert Trautmann signed for City. I don’t know what the right term is. We haven’t really got one.
She spoke so well, saying that it’s understandable that today’s Germans do not want to identify with what happened. Why should they: it wasn’t their fault. But that it must never be forgotten. There’s a lot of talk about “never again”, but look what happened in Cambodia, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Darfur …
At the end, we saw one of the women dancing round her house. She said that she’d been denied her youth, her teenage years, so she was having them now. That was lovely. The whole programme was very watchable. Moving rather than harrowing. I don’t know what the viewing figures were, but I hope they were good. It’s just very unfortunate that the people who most needed to hear what was being said won’t have been watching.