in the garden

 

Jul 2003 Journal

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'One hundred years on'

Extracts from an address by Dr Stephen Smith to the Annual General Meeting of the AJR at Beth Shalom

In 2045, 100 years from the end of World War II, the Holocaust will truly be history - confined and condemned to the past and only accessed through reflection, analysis and representations. In 1945, here in Britain, we had just fought a most draining conflict and were now lumbered with joint policing and reconstruction duties on mainland Europe. Somehow we quickly lost touch with the Holocaust. It wasn't our problem; we had enough of our own.

Across several decades of confrontation there was initial shock, the process of so-called 'justice' through the Nuremberg process. Then there was silence, then slowly but surely a number of stories emerged that grabbed the headlines from the Eichmann trial to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Remembrance was the other half of amnesia, which was the predominant feature of our response to this difficult past. It was all one big damage-limitation exercise in which the past was admitted, but not confronted for what it was. We wanted to avoid the implications, both historical and moral, that came packaged with it. It was clearly easier to forget, with the semblance of remembrance, and that is precisely what we managed to craft.

But we have made progress. The facts of the Holocaust remain the same, but it is not what it was in 1945. Then we saw the victims as piles of corpses; now their humanity is recognised. Then they were victims; now you are seen as humans caught up in a dreadful struggle of life and death. So too, the Nazis have changed in our perceptions. Then they were the enemy; now they are the perpetrators of genocide and the enemies of humanity. Then they were demonised bestial killing machines; now we see their humanity too, and see a part of ourselves in their choices and their actions. Then the survivors were dishevelled outcasts and an underclass upon whom we lavished our sympathy, but not our understanding. Then they were images; now they are voices from the past who give us a glimpse into those tragic years.

So now we have a society that embraces the past more willingly, conducts its annual Holocaust Memorial Day, and includes aspects of the Holocaust in its national curriculum. So now people are listening, as organisations committed to this history and its consequences: what might the next 40 years bring?

Memory Many testimonies are now there: memoirs, films, books, photos and reflections... the legacy of survivors and refugees is without doubt one of the most documented by the victims of any atrocity at any time. They must be shown as people not as victims, as individuals not as numbers. And, most importantly, we need to give these stories longevity - to take the story beyond the life of the person and into future generations.

History Texts and documents of the Holocaust need to be preserved: diaries, letters and cryptic notes and pleas, the trials and texts of memory and fiction are all there for us to make sense of the past and orientate ourselves again. We must not turn the mass murder of the Jews into an academic exercise.

Historical sites Communities were destroyed on hundreds of sites across Europe, many of which have not even been found or marked. As individuals, institutions and governments, we should join forces to ensure that these sites are identified, marked and maintained for perpetuity.

Museums continue to play an important role too: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Imperial War Museum and Yad Vashem. We hope that Beth Shalom too, where we now teach 500 pupils a week, will continue to play a highly significant role. We plan to develop a learning centre for primary school children, in which we will tell the story of refugees and Kinder coming to this country, with a brand new permanent exhibition. When complete, we will be able to teach a further 500 pupils a week.

Education In a generation or so, children will be as aware of the Holocaust as an episode in the history of human civilisation as they are of the Industrial Revolution in economic history. That does not mean it will be demeaned; on the contrary, it may take its place in history as the important watershed it was. The danger is that it becomes only history and fails to impact upon their values and their actions.

As to what we teach, the Holocaust will increasingly be a demonstration of just how far, how depraved, how focused human beings can be in fulfilling their bent to kill. It will highlight the importance of human rights and dignity, the responsibility of nations and people towards one another, and the importance of being willing and able to act to avert disaster.

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