Words of ambivalence for Holocaust Memorial Day at Goldsmiths, University of London – David Hirsh

I don’t like Holocaust Memorial Day

I am conflicted and ambivalent about HMD

I don’t want to hear speeches by Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.  I don’t want to hear about how Vladimir Putin is using the event as an opportunity to fight with the President of Poland.

I don’t want to see Prince Charles in a Kippa.

I don’t want to see footballers putting out videos on facebook.

But why not?

Leaders should remember.

Footballers can educate. In fact the footballers video was very good.

Prince Charles should wear a kippa.

I’m ambivalent.

When a  Berlin rabbi was asked about what sort of memorial the German state should build, he replied: “That is a matter for Germany. We know how to remember our dead.”

I am afraid on HMD, because I know that every year there are people who will mobilize the memory of the Holocaust against living Jews.

I am afraid on HMD that people who feel competitive with Jews about the Holocaust will themselves initiate competition with Jews about the Holocaust, by accusing Jews of being competitive about the Holocaust.

Sometimes the Holocaust is taught only as a universal lesson for mankind as a whole.

But Auschwitz was not a learning experience.

And still, it is true that the Holocaust taught us one reason why we should oppose racism; it showed us one possible manifestation or endpoint of antisemitism. And antisemitism is a racism, it is like other racisms. In some ways.

But I’m afraid that sometimes the specificities of the Holocaust are completely lost, as this complex set of events is hollowed out and simplified to find a single lesson for us all.

The Holocaust was also an event in Jewish history. It wasn’t about mankind, it was about Jews.

Oh, do I sound competitive, already? Am I doing what I just accused others of doing?

I don’t like HMD.

The attempted, significantly successful, annihilation of the world’s Jews was about Jews.

Of course others too were targeted too.

Roma, LGBTQ people, and other ‘enemies of the people’ were herded into the gas and into the pits too.

But it was the antisemitic notion of ‘The Jews’ which was key to Nazism.

The eradication of ‘The Jews’ was of pre-eminent importance to the Nazi project. It was the Nazis who put the Jews first. It was the Nazis who were obsessed by Jews.

So universal lessons about racism? Yes.

Jewish lessons about Jewish self-defence and self-preservation? Yes too.

But also non-Jewish lessons about the centrality of the specific phenomenon of antisemitism.  Yes.

Antisemitism isn’t only a danger to Jews. Antisemitism is the form of appearance of anti-democratic politics.

Antisemitism is a way of giving emotional content to the abstract idea of ‘enemies of the people’.

The cosmopolitans, the metropolitans, the elites, the establishment, the media, liberals, finance capital, the people of nowhere (as opposed to the people of somewhere), the people who engineer the weakening of our society for their own gain, the cultural Marxists, the Zionist imperialists, the people who betray our values, the people who betray the common good for their selfish interest, the people who pretend to be in favour of liberty and justice but who in reality work for their own communal enrichment.

These are all tempting populist narratives; they are all familiar in our time.

What happened to non-Jewish Germans who stood up against antisemitism in the early days of Nazism?

They were often told that the days of the Jews being special were over.

They were told that they would be better off looking after the German working class, than the over-achieving, metropolitans from the big cities, who have had it too good for too long.

And I was afraid to stand up and say any of this, here at Goldsmiths.

I had resolved to tell only personal and family stories.

I was going to tell you about my mum, who escaped from Germany as an 8 year old girl, with her mum and dad, and her sister; I was going to tell you how she never considered herself to be a victim but only to be lucky; and how that itself was a kind of denial that structured my own childhood; a childhood designed with great care and effort to be safe and privileged. And which of course, created this ambivalent me.

I was going to tell you about how my mum’s grandad’s shop in the Bavarian town of Eichstadt was picketed by National Socialists with the slogan: “Don’t buy from the Jews”.

I was going to tell you how Jews respond to being boycotted.

I was going to tell you about Fela, Fishel and Rushka, three of my mum’s cousins, who, out of an extended family of hundreds, survived the concentration camps.

I was going to tell you how Fishel, profoundly alone in the ruins of Europe, having survived the concentration camp system or four years, received a letter, through the Red Cross, from my grandad in Golders Green, telling him that two of his sisters were still alive.

I was going to tell you how Fishel, as he told me this story in Haifa, welled up with tears as he quoted my Grandad in that letter: “You are not alone. You do not need to worry about anything more. I will look after you now”.

I was going to tell you how when I picked up Fishel at Brussels Airport in 2001 to come to my wedding, the first thing he saw as we drove out of the car park was a Swastika = Star of David, painted on the wall. And he knew they meant him.

I was going to tell you about How Fishel’s wife told me about her brother, who fled East from Poland to Russia; and how he survived the whole war in the Russian army; and how, when he found a boat to Palestine, they asked him what he could do. And he said he couldn’t do anything, he was a soldier. And within two weeks of landing in Palestine, he was dead, strafed by a British Imperial Spitfire.

I was going to tell you what winning looks like.

For Fishel, for Fela and for Rushka, and for my mum too, it meant dying in your 80s or 90s, in a warm bed, surrounded by children and grandchildren who loved you, in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Netanya or Barnet.

And how I could go on. I could tell more stories, make more uncomfortable claims and analogies, I could row back from them, I could ram them home.

My PhD was about crimes against humanity, I didn’t even know that I was working through my own story by researching genocide and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.  And by working out how it would never happen again but how it happens again.

I got used to thinking about this stuff analytically and without great sadness.

But of course every now and then one is overwhelmed by emotion.

This HMD was worth it for me because I saw one photograph on facebook.

It was a mother and a father and a boy. The mother and the boy were beaming, smiling brightly. The father looked a bit like my grandfather.

And my “friend” on facebook, somebody I don’t know, wrote that their dad came to England on the kindertransport and his parents, who he left behind, were murdered.

I could now tell you how ambivalent I am about kindertransport. It was British immigration laws, not the Nazis, that prevented the parents from coming. The parents said goodbye and put their children on the train.

But I won’t.  I’ll just tell you what I wrote on facebook:

“I’m usually unmoveable. But this moved me lots. It always surprises me when that happens.

There was no need to murder these people. They look nice.”

3 Responses to “Words of ambivalence for Holocaust Memorial Day at Goldsmiths, University of London – David Hirsh”

  1. Howard Wollman Says:

    Really moving piece, David. Thank you.

  2. Catherine Haynes Says:

    I read the seemingly flat text three times. The first time I was moved by he facts and how the author wrote about facts and not a people. The second time I read it I was moved because it was so forgiving. The third time I read it and realised how full it was of the people who are missed and that I must read it again.

  3. David Hirsh Says:

    Thank you. That’s beautiful.

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