Archive for category Genocide

The Power of Words: Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

In my first HMD blog, six years ago, I talked about how, in preparation for genocide, the power of words is used to dehumanise the intended victims:

The perpetrators of genocide don’t start by taking lives.  First they take everything else – name, livelihood, home, dignity, humanity.  For it to be possible for society to collude in this, the victims have to become less than human – cockroaches, perhaps, or lice.   Or less, even, than that – one of the most powerful Holocaust documents  is a memo, addressing technical problems with vehicle stability.  As one reads it, it takes a while before the nature of the destabilising ‘load’ becomes apparent: this load has a tendency to rush towards the light, which causes problems in getting the doors closed.  This load may also scream.

That’s why we must call out such language when it is applied to refugees, immigrants, or any group of ‘others’, whenever we hear it and whoever is using it.

“How many Romanians are in? How many Polish are in?” she splutters in the midst of a diatribe about the NHS, over-crowded prisons and illegal immigration. “They are congregating like cockroaches into our major city centres, which are unable to deal with the crime that they bring.”

This quote featured in a 2007 interview with a well-known television writer.   The interviewer, who herself was Polish, didn’t challenge her, partly, I suspect, through shock.  Much more recently (in 2015) a notorious ‘newspaper’ columnist, speaking of the deaths of up to 700 migrants in a Mediterranean shipwreck, said:

“These migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb.”

This characterisation of people as less than human, as vermin, as a “virus” (as she did elsewhere in the article) irresistibly recalls the darkest events in history. It is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan media of 1994, when the radio went from statements such as “You have to kill the Tutsis, they’re cockroaches” to, shortly afterwards, instructions on how to do so, and what knives to use. (Zoe Williams, The Guardian)

Perhaps neither the TV writer nor the notorious columnist was familiar with the use of the term ‘cockroaches’ in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I don’t know.  But surely anyone, however ill-informed, should baulk at describing other human beings in such terms?

It is no joke when people start talking like this. We are not “giving her what she wants” when we make manifest our disgust. It is not a free speech issue. I’m not saying gag her: I’m saying fight her. Articulate the fellowship, the human empathy, that makes these deaths important. Stop talking about how many children were among the dead, as though only children matter. Start talking about everybody’s life as cherishable, irrespective of anything they might produce.(Zoe Williams, The Guardian)

For the sake of the future, we have to oppose, vocally and vociferously, those who use the language of genocide whether through ignorance or with deliberation.

But it’s equally important, as Zoe Williams says, to articulate human empathy, to talk about the lives of others as cherishable.  And that includes those who are lost to us, who were murdered because they were seen as less than human.

I have reservations about fictionalising the Holocaust, when there are so very many first-hand stories yet to be told, and when there are still – always – those who claim that the whole thing is a fiction.  But then I recall the TV series Holocaust, broadcast in the late 1970s.


For all its faults – and it had many – and for all the opprobrium that it attracted, from critics and from Holocaust survivors such as Elie Wiesel, it served a tremendously important function.   For many viewers it was a shock – it was for me, and I thought I was well-informed – and in Germany especially so.  Despite all of the efforts post-war to educate and inform, it was this fictionalised account, not the documentary footage of the liberation of the camps, that really made many people understand.  They saw  people like themselves, living lives not unlike theirs, and then they saw what was done to them.  In the course of the Holocaust mini-series, the Weiss family experienced Kristallnacht, Aktion T4, the Warsaw Ghetto, Theresienstadt, Babi Yar, Auschwitz and Sobibor. Wiesel argued that this was a mistake, that ‘the story of one child, the destiny of one victim, the reverberations of one outcry would be more effective’.

What then is the answer? How is one to tell a tale that cannot be—but must be—told? How is one to protect the memory of the victims? How are we to oppose the killers’ hopes and their accomplices’ endeavors to kill the dead for the second time? What will happen when the last survivor is gone? I don’t know. All I know is that the witness does not recognize himself in this film.

The Holocaust must be remembered. But not as a show

Clive James was more positive, although he acknowledged that no character existed except to make a point, or to illustrate a particular aspect of Holocaust history, and that (crucially) the script was clunky (‘the use of language was never better than adequate. As in all hack writing, the dialogue showed no sense of period. Prodigies of set-dressing were undone by a phrase’).  However, he concluded:

There is no hope that the boundless horror of Nazi Germany can be transmitted entire to the generations that will succeed us. There is a limit to what we can absorb of other people’s experience. There is also a limit to how guilty we should feel about being unable to remember. Santayana was probably wrong when he said that those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. Those who remember are condemned to relive it too. Besides, freedoms are not guaranteed by historians and philosophers, but by a broad consent among the common people about what constitutes decent behaviour. Decency means nothing if it is not vulgarised. Nor can the truth be passed on without being simplified. The most we can hope for is that it shall not be travestied. Holocaust avoided that.

If Wiesel is right, and it is both impossible and vital to tell these stories, it is a task to be undertaken with trepidation.  There are so few survivors now, so few still here and able to give their own accounts.  But the way we tell their stories must honour the witnesses, the living and those who did not survive.  It must be truthful, not just in terms of getting the facts right (details matter, when those details are disputed by those who would wish to assign the Holocaust to the category of fiction or myth), but in terms of creating people who ‘ring true’, and enabling us to invest in their lives and in their fate.

In Louise Doughty’s devastating and powerful novel of the Roma Holocaust, Fires in the Dark, she draws us in to the world of the Coppersmith Roma in 1920s Bohemia, into their rich and complex culture, into the lives of one family, Josef and Anna, their new son Emil, and the kumpania to which they belong.  We see even then the beginning of the assault upon their culture, with the introduction of laws that require them to be registered and fingerprinted and to inform the authorities of their routes and destinations.  And if we know anything at all of European 20th century history, we know this will not be the end of it.

Much later, Josef, dying of a fever in a camp, reflects on the nature of loss:

How strange a thing it is, he thought, the way you comfort yourself when it comes to loss.  You turn away from it, show it your back, face and embrace what you still have.  When we had to sell our gold I thought, ah well, we can always buy more gold, as long as we have the wagon and the horses and can still travel, then we will be fine.  Then they stopped us travelling and burnt our wagon and I thought, well, we still have one horse and we can build a cart, and we have a roof over our heads.  Then we had to flee our roof and I thought, we still have good clothes and boots, so many people don’t have boots any more.  Then they took the bundles from us as we stood in line on Registration Day and I thought, well, we have the clothes we stand up in.  When we got here, they took those.  They even took the hair from my head. I thought, at least we are together in the same camp.  So many people have been separated from their families.  Now my family are kept from me, even though they are a few metres away . … It is just me, just my body and my soul and that is all that I have. … If I cannot even move my limbs, let alone raise my body to relieve myself with dignity, then I cannot really call my body my own either.  All I have left are my thoughts – and breath, each small breath that comes so shallow and strange into my lungs.  (Fires in the Dark, pp. 311-312)

We do not need to share Josef’s (or Louise Doughty’s) Roma heritage to feel empathy, to recognise the humanity here.  Within this one passage we follow and feel that inexorable progress from a bureaucratic attack on the Roma way of life (‘The implementation of Law 117 … to curb the nuisance caused by so-called Gypsies and other Travelling Persons and Vagabonds’) to the man alone and reduced to ‘the next small breath’.


There are many first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, from those who survived and from those who did not, but very few from its Roma victims.  The destruction of whole communities, and with them of customs, and dialects, and names and histories, means that creative works of imagination are vital, to bring them back to life for us.  And so what Louise Doughty does here is of profound value.  Richard Rorty, in a passage which Doughty quotes at the beginning of her novel, talks about how human solidarity might be achieved:

It is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people. Such increased sensitivity makes it more difficult to marginalize people different from ourselves by thinking, “They do not feel it as we would,” or “There must always be suffering, so why not let them suffer?” This process of coming to see other human beings as “one of us” rather than as “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of redescription of what we ourselves are like. This is a task not for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel.  (Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge UP, 1989), p. xiv)

The power of words, used to increase sensitivity to others, to extend our sympathies, as George Eliot put it.

“Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne – The American Notebooks)

Words have immense power to hurt or to heal, to damn or to save.  And when we say of a novel or a play that it’s ‘only a story’ we are forgetting that.  Those that have the skill to create or recreate a world, to draw people in whom we can believe, to give those people words to move and engage us, their ‘stories’ can shake us from our facile assumptions and prejudices, and can arm us against those who want to make us hate ‘them’.

We need those words, now more than ever.

Reflect on the fact that this has happened:
These words I commend to you:
Inscribe them on your heart

(Primo Levi, If this is a Man)



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On the walls of Paris

First time I went to Paris, I started noticing the plaques.  I expected them to be the equivalent of our blue plaques, famous bloke (or occasionally woman) was born/lived/died/did something famous here.  Instead they were, as often as not, recording the fact that someone whose name is not otherwise known fell here, during the Liberation of the city from its Nazi occupiers.  Or that someone whose name is not otherwise known lived here until they were deported by the French police and handed over to the Nazi occupiers, because they were Jewish.  I became mildly obsessed.  Without a camera phone at that time (it was that long ago) and having gone out unarmed with notebooks, I searched when we got home for information and found an amazing website which aimed to record all such plaques, with a photograph and a brief note about the person or event commemorated.  Sadly, that has disappeared now.

So when we went back, I set myself the task of photographing every WWII related plaque that we passed on our travels, and finding out what I could about the background.  What follows is an account of what we found – it captures only so very few of the commemorative markers, only those which happened to be on the routes we chose for our walks, those which we spotted, unobscured by scaffolding or parked vans, those which I could get close enough to photograph.

But even so, they tell a rich and fascinating story.

Day 1

10th arrondissement

school plaque passage des recollets

Ecole élémentaire Récollets, 19 passage des Récollets

The plaque is generic, one of many installed in the early 2000s at schools some of whose pupils had been deported during the Occupation.  It makes specific reference to the number of schoolchildren deported from the 10th arrondissement, but nothing about this school in particular.   These plaques represent the sea change that took place following President Jacques Chirac’s public recognition in 1995 of France’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II.   The photograph was taken on the day that Marine le Pen made a press statement denying that responsibility.   More of that anon.

Day 2

6th arrondissement

Starting at the rue de Sevres, in search of the childhood residence of Michel Butor, we found instead the plaque commemorating Marc Bloch, noted French historian.

marc bloch

Bloch joined the Resistance in 1942, was captured in Lyon by Vichy police in 1944 and turned over to the Gestapo. He was tortured and interrogated by Klaus Barbie.   Ten days after D Day, he was taken with around 28 Resistance prisoners to a meadow near Saint Didier de Formans, where they were executed by firing squad.

5th arrondissement

paris plaque bounin

62 blvd St Michel

Pierre Bounin was a member of one of the independent cavalry brigades, known as Spahi (from the Turkish word for horseman), which saw active service in France in 1940 and one of which subsequently joined forces with the Free French.  This mechanised regiment served in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and was part of the French forces that liberated Paris in August 1944.  This area saw intense fighting to liberate the city, and Bounin is just one of the combattants commemorated.

At 60 blvd St Michel, 24 year old  Jean Montvallier-Boulogne was killed, on the same day as Bounin.  The wall behind his plaque is pitted with bullet holes from the bombardment of the city in 1918, and from the fighting in 1944.

paris plaque montvallier boulogne

On rue St Jacques, another generic school plaque:

school plaque rue st jaques

On to the Pont des Arts:

paris plaque lecompte boinet

Jacques Lecompte-Boinet was a Compagnon de la Liberation Fondateur and headed the movement Ceux de la Resistance. The Pont des Arts was the location for clandestine meetings with comrades who, like him, risked torture and death.   Here Vercors passed on to him publications from the Editions de minuit, intended for General de Gaulle.

Lecompte-Boinet initially joined the Mouvement de Liberation Nationale, which became Combat.  Subsequently he set up Ceux de la Résistance with Pierre Arrighi.  He was involved in the first meeting of the Conseil national de la Résistance (CNR), 27 May 1943, then left for London in October, from where he travelled to Algiers, returning to France in February 1944.   He had a distinguished diplomatic career after the war, and died in November 1974.

paris plaque vercors

Just round the corner is the plaque commemorating Vercors himself – real name Jean Bruller – who wrote Le Silence de la mer, one of the key texts of the literary resistance.  It was written in 1941 and published secretly in 1942, the first publication of the Editions de minuit, which Bruller co-founded. Their publications were distributed via clandestine networks, hand to hand.  Along with Vercors, they published works by Francois Mauriac, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, and after the war established a reputation for publishing new writers such as Michel Butor.

7th arrondissement

Further along the banks of the Seine, the role of the former Gare d’Orsay (now the Musée d’Orsay), as a reception point for those who had escaped or been liberated from concentration camps and forced labour camps is commemorated.

gare dorsay

The other major reception point was the Hotel Lutetia, which had been the HQ of the Abwehr during the Occupation, and here the photographs of those who had been deported were displayed, as family members waited in hope of finding those they had lost, and returning deportees waited in hope of finding that someone was looking for them.  The survivors of the death camps took longer to come home, often requiring months of medical treatment before they were fit to travel.  Their reception was traumatic, for them and for those waiting for them. 

Day 3

13th arrondissement

Another railway station, this time the Gare d’Austerlitz.

gare dausterlitz plaque

This was not a place of welcome but a place of despatch.  From here, cattle trucks took men, women and children rounded up in Paris to the internment camps of Pithiviers and Beane-la-Rolande, from where most of them were subsequently transported to Auschwitz.

Francois Mauriac, in his clandestine Editions de minuit publication under the pseudonym Forez, Le Cahier noir (1943), wrote of what his wife saw here:

At what other moment in history have the gates of the prison camps closed on so many innocents, at what other epoque have children been dragged away from their mothers and crammed into cattle trucks, as witnessed one sombre morning at the Gare d’Austerlitz?

We were here not only for this bit of history, but for the links to W G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, the topic of a separate blog.

ave des gobelins vel dhiv

On the avenue des Gobelins, the deportations from the 13th arrondissement following the Vel d’Hiv round-ups are specifically commemorated.  This is quite clear – the round-ups were carried out by ‘la police de l’état francais’.  When the Armistice was signed, and Marshall Pétain took on the role of head of state, the vast majority of the French, however much they mourned the defeat, accepted that this was now France.  Private citizens and public institutions treated it as such, with at least initially only a small number refusing to accept the authority of the Vichy regime and throwing in their lot with de Gaulle and/or the nascent Resistance.  When it came to anti-semitic legislation, Vichy was ahead of its new masters, and as far as the round-ups of Jews are concerned, whilst the Nazis are responsible for the ultimate destination, Auschwitz, those arrested on 16 July 1942 saw only French police until they were on the way to extermination.  French police drew up the lists, French police organised the buses and blocked the ends of the streets where their targets lived.  French police hammered on the doors in the early hours, and forced the residents to pack swiftly and abandon their homes and most of what they owned.  French police transported single adults straight to the internment camps, and families to the stadium, the Velodrome d’hiver.  French police guarded them there until they in turn were transferred to the internment camps, and guarded them there too, separating men from women and parents from children until the trucks took them away.

So, inevitably, to Marine le Pen.  Her entirely cynical denial of French responsibility is shameful.  Le Monde‘s editorial is a perfectly balanced and crystal clear response:

In affirming on Sunday 9 April … that ‘France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv’, Marine le Pen has crossed a line: that of the national consensus on the reading of some of the most painful episodes in the history of France, the deportation of French Jews under the German occupation. …

In declaring, at the 1995 commemoration of the event, that ‘France, on that day, did something irreparable’, Jacques Chirac, then President of the Republic, marked a definitive new reading of the deportation of the Jews.  The moment had come to recognise clearly the responsiblity of the collaborationist French state … First ministers Lionel Jospin and Jean Pierre Raffarin confirmed his judgement.  President Sarkozy judged that there was ‘nothing to retract and nothing to add to this fine statement’.  Later, President Francois Hollande, in turn, denounced ‘a crime commited in France for France’.

In rejecting this consensus, Marine le Pen claims to be following in the footsteps of General de Gaulle.  On Sunday, to justify her statement, she referred to a ruling from August 1944, published in Algiers by de Gaulle’s provisional government and intended to remove all legality from the Vichy regime.  But we are no longer in 1944, nor even in 1981, and Marine le Pen is not Charles de Gaulle, whose heritage was embodied far better by Chirac than by her.  We are in 2017.  Nearly 3/4 of a century has passed since the Liberation, at least three generations, tens of thousands of pages of history have been written, debated, analysed and taught.  The ‘national story’ which [le Pen] wants to promote is anachronistic and sickening.  It is based not on a refusal to repent, but on a refusal to recognise an indispensable truth about the nation’s history.  Incidentally, Mme le Pen jeopardises (but that’s her problem) years of trying to de-demonise her party, which led her to exclude her own father, unfortunately famous as the man who called the gas chambers a ‘detail’.

Marine le Pen affirmed that ‘France is mentally abused’ by those who teach this critical view.  No, Mme le Pen, what abuses France is a version of history which leads it back to the denial of the post-war period.  In 1995, Jacques Chirac called for ‘vigilance’.  The FN candidate shows that he was right.

At 137 blvd de l’Hopital, previous inhabitants are commemorated; ten of whom (ranging in age from 9 months to 58) were deported and murdered because they were Jews, and another who was shot as a resistant in 1944:

137 blvd de lhopital

3rd arrondissement.  We’re now in Le Marais.

lycee victor hugo

Two more school plaques, commemorating over 500 children from the 3rd, many of whom attended the Lycée Victor Hugo or the Ecole de filles de la rue de Sévigné (now the Atelier des Beaux-arts).

ecole des beaux arts

On the rue Perrée, two plaques commemorate members of the union of merchants of the Carreau du Temple who died for France.

Day 4

7th arrondissement

After visiting the Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation, housed within the Musée de l’Armée, which tells the story of occupation, deportation, resistance and finally liberation, we paid our respects at avenue Elysée Reclus, near the Eiffel Tower, home of Hélène Berr.  I’ve written often about Hélène, whose journal, not published until 2008, is one of the most powerful documents of the Occupation.


helene berr

In my 2012 Holocaust Memorial Day blog, I wrote this:

She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne.   She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise.  She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy.   It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen.   She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated.    Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers.   Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.

Near the Champ de Mars, on avenue de la Bourdonnais, the place where  the ‘national insurrection’ of 19-25 August 1944 was planned.


Jean Alexandre Melchior de Vogüé (Vaillant),  Alfred Antoine Malleret (Joinville), Raymond Massiet (Dufresne).  All three survived the war.

Day 5

4th arrondissement

We began at the Mémorial de la Shoah.  I had braced myself for this, knowing the terrible history that would be illustrated there.  Nonetheless, seeing the Wall of Names, I felt the air being sucked from my lungs, realising that I was seeing in that moment only a fragment, only some of the names from only one of the years.

wall of names 1

Further in, another sharp intake of breath, another moment where the experience of seeing what I knew I was going to see, the photographs of some of the children deported to extermination camps, overwhelmed me.

The Memorial is a powerful experience.  It cannot but move you.  And in order that one does not give in to despair about humanity, one leaves the Memorial for the Allée des Justes, and another list of names, this time of those who have been recognised for their actions during those dark years, actions which jeopardised their own lives in order to help Jewish friends, colleagues, neighbours and total strangers.

At 23 rue des Ecouffes, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, a family memorial.


This family could be a symbol of the French Resistance.  Jewish and Communist, they paid a heavy price.

Rosalie Engros was arrested in August 1942, and deported a month later, to Auschwitz.  She was 51.  Isaac Engros was murdered at Auschwitz in February 1944, aged 54. They had three sons. Marcel, arrested on 6 May 1942 and shot at Mont Valerien, aged 25. Lucien, arrested and tortured in May 1942, shot 22 August 1942, aged 22, along with a dozen other resistants. Andre, part of the FTP-MOI group of young Jewish resistants, arrested July 1943, tortured and shot 1 October 1943 at Mont-Valerien, aged 16.

3rd arrondissement:

lycee turgot

Another school plaque, this time for the Lycée Turgot, on the rue de Turbigo.

On to the rue Meslay, where Yves Toudic is commemorated.  He was shot by the Brigade Speciale, a French police unit specialising in tracking down “internal enemies” (i.e. resistants), dissidents, escaped prisoners, Jews and those evading the STO. They worked in direct collaboration with the German civil, secret and military police.

paris plaque toudic

Toudic was 43 when he was killed.  Son of a labourer, he was a militant communist and resistant.  From September 1940 he was in charge of the Comités populaires du Batiment for the Paris region, and continued in that role until he was shot by the Brigade Speciale, at the time of the 14 July demonstration in the place de la République, which he helped to organise.

10th arrondissement:


jean sulpice

Rue René Boulanger.  Another young resistant shot down during the battles to liberate the city.  I can find nothing about Jean Sulpice, partly because he has a contemporary namesake, a chef.  He was 25 when he died.

On the facade of the Bourse du travail, 3 rue du Château-d’Eau, a plaque commemorates the recapturing of the building by ‘the workers of Paris’.

bourse du travail


I missed so many.  And there is so much more I want to know about those whose names appear here, for posterity.  There’s not only the history of the occupation engraved on the walls of Paris, but the history of how it was understood and interpreted and communicated.  From the stone plaques marking the spots where resisters fell, installed soon after the liberation, to the much more recent black marble plaques acknowledging how Jewish children disappeared from Paris schools, as they and their families were rounded up and deported.

Paris has of course a rich history outside of those four dark and terrible years.  We saw some of it, beautiful buildings and great art.  But it seems ever more pertinent to explore what happened in one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan and cultured cities of Europe when an occupying power tapped into and found a rich spring of anti-semitism and more generalised xenophobia, and found willing, even enthusiastic partners in their great project to wipe out the Jewish race.  Most of those who participated did not know (at least, not for sure) what would be the fate of those they helped to deport.  It seems, though, that they didn’t actually care – once the Jews were no longer France’s problem, they had no interest in what would happen to them.  We dwell on this not to bad-mouth the French – this happened not only in France but across Europe, and it can happen anywhere, if the right conditions prevail.

We must remember, we must understand, and we must be vigilant.












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How can life go on?


Every year, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, we honour those murdered in the Holocaust.  But not just The Holocaust.  It takes nothing from the unique place that event holds in our history to honour too those murdered in genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur, Armenia. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust does this – and it draws upon the testimonies of survivors of some of the more recent genocides to bring home to us that the pious utterance ‘never again’ has been little more than a pious utterance.

If in my own writing about genocide I focus on the Holocaust, there are a number of reasons for that.  Firstly, my areas of research relate to the Shoah, most particularly in France.   Secondly, because of where and when the Holocaust took place, because of its long build-up and its duration, we have vast volumes of testimony, not only from survivors (and from those who did not survive but left behind diaries nonetheless) but from perpretrators and bystanders.  We have diaries and letters, but also memos and legal documents and reports and photographs and films.   There is thus a vast archive of material on which  we can draw in our ongoing attempts to understand what happened, how and why, far more than in any of the other genocides of the last century.

If it takes nothing from the Shoah to talk also about these other genocides, it takes nothing from those other genocides to talk about the Shoah.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is, ‘How can life go on?’.


These days we have a better understanding of how, long after a traumatic event is apparently concluded, it is present and ongoing in the person who suffered it.  It’s become a cliché – the offer of a help line, the parachuting in of counselling services after a ‘major incident’.  That doesn’t mean that the help is provided when and where it’s most needed, or that it is always effective.

The late Jill Saward, talking about how she was able to rebuild her life after rape, said that you have to ‘bury it dead’.  But that in order to do so you have to talk it out, for as long as it takes.  If you don’t, then it may be buried, but not buried dead.

Many of those returning from the liberated camps found that their accounts were not believed, or not listened to.  Anne Sebba’s fascinating book, Les Parisiennes, has some shocking accounts of these reactions.

Ravensbruck returnee, Michele Agniel, recounted how since she could barely stand, she was given a permit to jump the queues for rationed food.

“But when I did, a man complained, so I said I had just come back from a concentration camp.  He said, ‘Mais quand même, they know how to queue in concentration camps, don’t they?’”

Denise Dufournier was regularly told that ‘they had had a jolly tough time in [Paris]’ when she tried to speak about her experiences.  Some found that family members were shocked, not by the brutality of the camps but by the fact that survivors had had to steal in order to stay alive, or that they were mainly concerned to know if their daughters had been raped, or were still marriageable.

Perhaps we should not be too quick to condemn those who failed to recognise the sufferings – past and continuing – of the deportees.  After all, anyone who has been bereaved or suffered a purely personal trauma will find that some of those who they counted as friends are too paralysed by the fear of saying the wrong thing to say anything at all.  And this was horror on a scale that few could easily imagine – the evidence was there, had been for years, but people baulked at believing it.  They still do.


At the gare de l’Est in April and May 1945, many of the survivors arrived home.  There were plenty of people to greet them, with flowers.  But the gesture suddenly seemed inappropriate, even ridiculous.

The deportees, these living shadows, these walking skeletons, with that distant, lost look in their hollow eyes, their air of being from a different world, when one saw them appear, one dared not offer flowers. (Levy & Tilly, p. 229)

At the Hotel Lutétia, families waiting and hoping posted photographs and personal details, and deportees too gathered, hoping to find that someone was waiting for them.  The photographs bore little resemblance to the people who returned, and some failed to recognise the people whose return they had awaited for so long.  For many of the Jewish survivors, no one was waiting because no one was left.

There was a gulf between the survivors of the genocide and those who, with whatever privations, had escaped arrest, across which few even attempted to reach.  By 1947, publishers no longer accepted manuscripts from the deportees, many of whom had been advised quite explicitly to desist from attempting to tell their stories.  Not all tried, of course, some took refuge in silence for years, or decades, or for ever.

But those who spoke were not heard.

There were people who understood, people who had been there too.  And so some of the deportees found solace in each other, and not only that but practical support with the painful process of resuming a life that could not simply be picked up again, as if it had just briefly been put to one side, as if you were the same person as you had been Before.

In France the Association Nationale des Anciennes Deportées et Internées de la Resistance brought together women who had been imprisoned for resistance activity.  This focus meant that although Jewish women who had been active in the Resistance and arrested for these activities could join, those who had been arrested simply for being Jewish could not.  There was thus a separate organisation, the Service Central des Deportés Israélites.  They worked to help reunite returning deportees with family members, including with children who had been hidden with non-Jewish families, and in some cases were too young to have any sense of their original identity or to easily readjust to their real families.

The separation of the returnees according to the reason for their arrest takes some interpretation.  Firstly, around half of those deported for resistance activities returned.  Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 2,500 came home.  The prominence given to the former group was therefore partly numerical.  However, it was more complex than that. In the post-Liberation settling of scores, whereby collaborators of various types were exposed and punished (officially or unofficially, justly or unjustly), those who had been deported for resistance activities were unassailable.  No one could question their patriotism or heroism.  The Jews who returned were not part of this myth of ‘resistancialisme’, as Henry Rousso called it, because they could be said to have fallen into German hands as victims.  Not only that, but their very survival raised questions of how, if the Nazi goal was to exterminate them, they had managed to return (mirroring in many cases their own questions, their own survivors’ guilt).  And of course their accounts of their ordeals shone an unwelcome light on the anti-semitism which had been there before the Occupation, and was still there after it, the anti-semitism which had in many cases led to Jews being betrayed and denounced and which now poisoned the reaction to the returnees.

How could life go on, when the enormity of what they had faced, the physical and mental tortures, the sights and sounds that could not be unseen and unheard, was unacknowledged and buried, not dead, but deep?  The survivors of genocide not only had to recover physically from the effects of starvation, exposure, brutal labour and torture, but also from the horror of knowing that they had been condemned to this not for any crime but because of their race. They had lost so many of the people they loved.  Not only this, but those who returned home  returned to the place where their neighbours and colleagues had watched them be rounded up, or beaten up, or had denounced or betrayed them, and where their apartments and belongings had long since been appropriated either by the occupying forces, or by those neighbours and colleagues. And often they were faced with the indifference, lack of understanding or even hostility of those around them.

The suicide rate amongst Holocaust survivors is reckoned to be almost three times that of the general population. Jean Améry (who had changed his name from Hanns Mayer after the war, to dissociate himself from German culture), only began writing about his experiences in the camps in 1964.  He had been initially arrested for resistance activity, but was then ‘demoted’ from political prisoner to Jew, and was imprisoned at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen Belsen.   In 1976 Améry published the book On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death. He took his own life by overdose of sleeping pills in 1978.

Whilst the official verdict on Primo Levi’s death as being a suicide has been disputed, that the effects of what had been done to him and what he had witnessed had continued to haunt and damage him is undisputed.  Elie Wiesel said that “Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”.

When life does go on, how is the fact of what happened in the camps accommodated within everyday existence?  The children and grandchildren of survivors have  been part of this process too, often discovering only in adulthood, and little by little, what their parents or grandparents experienced.  Eva Hoffman heard, as an adult, how her father’s sister had been betrayed by another Jew, who had hoped by that act to make themselves safe.

 ‘Let’s not talk about these things’, he says lowering his head, and I want to stop too, right now.  All this time I’ve done my father the injustice of not knowing this story, and now I can hardly bear to hear it.  This is no longer a frightening fairy tale, as it would have been in childhood.  …  Indecent not to say anything to my parents, indecent to say anything at all: pity is too small for this. … There’s no way to get this part of the story in proportion.  It could overshadow everything else, put the light of the world right out.  I need seven-league boots to travel from this to where I live.  And yet, this is what I must do.  A writer of my parents’ generation who was himself in a concentration camp once told me that the Holocaust is the standard by which we should judge the world.  But I think that the paradoxical task of my generation, caught within this awful story, is to get adjusted to the ordinary world in which we actually live, to acknowledge the reality given to us.   (Hoffman, pp. 252-3)

And Göran Rosenberg, both of whose parents had survived the camps, wrote  A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz, to tell their story, and that of the shadows they lived with in the years after.

It’s impossible to think you’ve all survived in order for the world to forget what it’s just been through and to go on as if nothing has happened.  There must be some point to the fact that you’ve survived, since the main point of the event you’ve survived was that none of you were supposed to survive, that you were all supposed to be annihilated without a trace, without leaving even a splinter of bone behind, still less a name on a death list or a death certificate.  So initially you all survive with the assurance that you are the traces that weren’t supposed to exist, and that this is your survival’s particular point.  … Why me and not the others?  Naturally it’s … an unbearable thought, which has to be pushed aside sooner or later if surviving is to turn into living.  So I think it’s initially pushed aside by the assurance that you haven’t survived for yourselves only but for the others, too; that you’re the traces that must not be eradicated, and that you therefore owe a particular duty to the life you’ve been granted, against all the odds and beyond any notion of fairness, and that through this life you must justify the fact that you’re alive while the others are dead.  (Rosenberg, pp. 278-9)

‘If surviving is to turn into living’ – that’s the heart of it.  Not all managed that transformation.

But as the survivors of the Holocaust, those who spoke and those who remain silent, slip away from us, it becomes ever more urgent to hear, and tell, and re-tell their stories.  They weren’t meant to be here, they weren’t meant to bear witness.

There are other survivors too.  On Holocaust Memorial Day we do not only remember those who emerged from the darkness of the Nazi genocide, but those who against the odds still live to speak about what happened in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in Srebenica, in Darfur.

They are ‘the traces that must not be eradicated’, for the sake of the dead, for the sake of the living, for the sake of their children and ours, for the sake of the generations to come.



Jean Amery – At the Mind’s Limits (1966)

Eva Hoffman – Lost in Translation (1989)

Claude Levy & Paul Tillard – La Grande Rafle du Vel d’Hiv (2010)

Göran Rosenberg – A Brief Stop on the Road from Auschwitz (2012)

Anne Sebba – Les Parisiennes (2016)


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8 Decades of Refugees

RW-Twitter-Cover-photo-2We may be preoccupied at present with the refugee crisis that has brought so many thousands across the Mediterranean and across Europe, displaced by war in Africa and the Middle East.  But looking back over the decades, this is really nothing new.

In 1936, refugees were escaping from flooding in Shantung, in China, and were fed and housed by the provisional government in Tsinan.


In the USA, the Dust Bowl and resulting drought forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their farms. Many migrated to California in the hope of finding better conditions. Meanwhile in Europe, the Spanish Civil War led many to flee, often heading across the border into France, which proved only a temporary haven, and in Germany Jews who had been subjected to anti-semitic legislation were taking whatever opportunities they could to leave before things got worse.  CARA (under the name of the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning) was working to find posts in British universities for academics thrown out of their posts at institutions in Germany.

1946 saw displacement on a massive scale, across most of Europe.  Germans were forcibly expelled from the territories that had been occupied during the war and now fell under the Soviet remit.

Many citizens of Eastern European countries were desperately trying to stay in the West.  And the survivors of the concentration camps were making their way to the homes they had once known, or waiting for the possibility of passage to Palestine, or the US.

In 1956 the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary led to around 200,000 people fleeing the country, initially to Austria and West Germany.


In 1966 Vietnamese were fleeing ahead of the Vietcong advance.  The New York Times reported that nearly half of the 10,000 inhabitants of the An Lao valley had chosen to leave, pleading desperately with withdrawing US troops for help.

vietnam 1966

In 1976 in Lebanon the civil war created a wave of refugees, around 900,000, or about one-fifth of the population.   On 12 August 1976, supported by Syria, Maronite forces managed to overwhelm the Palestinian and leftist militias defending the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in East Beirut, and  1,000-1,500 civilians were massacred.

In 1986 the ongoing civil war in Sri Lanka generated thousands of internally displaced people as well as refugees, mostly Tamils. Many fled to neighbouring India and western countries such as Canada, France, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Germany.

In 1996, the refugee crisis in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became increasingly unstable.  Hutu militants in the camps were now well organised, and led attacks into Rwanda and eastern Zaire.  In what became known as the First Congo War, around half a million people were herded by the militants into the border areas, and subsequently fled back into Rwanda, or further into Zaire. Tens of thousands were killed, or died of exposure or starvation.


great lakes

Ten years ago, refugees came primarily from Sudan, DRC, Somalia and CAR, as they do currently. In addition,  Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia generated significant numbers of refugees following their civil wars, and the ongoing crisis in the Great Lakes area added Burundi and Rwanda to the list.

2016more than 1,200 people have died of starvation and illness at an aid camp in north-east Nigeria that houses people fleeing the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, according to the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières.

It goes on, and it always will.  There will always be wars, and rumours of wars.  There will be, increasingly, natural disasters as a result of climate change.  There will be persecution and oppression and terrorism.  People will leave because they have to, because home is the mouth of a shark.  And we will have to find better ways of helping them, we must be braver, more generous, more open.  Today of all days that seems a forlorn hope.  But we must hang on to it,  nonetheless.


Migration Matters Festival

Friday 24th June

To Walk in Your Shoes, by Rachael Munro-Fawcett


The Scar Test, by Untold

“I came to England, scarred for life.”

Deaths by Rescue, by SYMAAG with Dr Simon Parker

Film & discussion on the refugee crisis.

Iftar with Open Kitchen

Food and conversation!




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One in 113

RW-Twitter-Cover-photo-2One person in 113 worldwide is displaced from home due to conflict or persecution.  That’s the highest it’s ever been.  We’re talking about forced displacement, not people choosing to leave home because they fancy a better life somewhere else.  Warsan Shire’s poem expresses this with immense power:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

The UNHCR says that Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million together accounted for more than half the refugees under its mandate worldwide. Colombia at 6.9 million, Syria at 6.6 million and Iraq at 4.4 million had the largest numbers of internally displaced people.

Commentators have often shown an uncanny ability to scan the faces of the people in the boats or waiting at border posts and determine where they have come from, and then to use these conclusions to argue that they are not ‘genuine’ refugees but economic migrants.   Better to turn to the data gathered by UNHCR.

These tell us that the countries producing the highest number of refugees are, in order,

  1. Syria
  2. Afghanistan
  3. Somalia
  4. South Sudan
  5. Sudan
  6. DRC
  7. CAR
  8. Myanmar
  9. Eritrea
  10. Colombia

One does not have to be an expert on world affairs to be aware that the majority of these countries are, and in some cases have been for many years, riven by vicious civil wars, often spilling over into neighbouring countries.  The accusation that the young males amongst the refugees should be fighting for their country is nonsensical in these chaotic and volatile situations – who should they be fighting with, or against?  An oppressive government or an extremist rebel force?   Often both official and unofficial forces bolster their fighting strength by forcing boys and young men to join them.  In Sudan and CAR there has been at least the threat of genocide, in DRC disease and famine as well horrific violence and rape on an unthinkable scale.  In addition, IS and its affiliates are active in many of these areas.

Given all that, why do we even wonder about the motivations of those who flee?

The other accusation that is often made is that ‘they’ should have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – the nearest safe place – rather than heading to Europe.  Most do.   In all, 86 per cent of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate in 2015 were in low- and middle-income countries close to situations of conflict. Worldwide, Turkey was the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refugees compared to its population than any other country.

Peace Talk Hopes Raised By Cease-fireBut in these countries, those who have fled genocide, famine, war and persecution find themselves in refugee camps.  These are, by definition if not in practice, temporary holding spaces, transitory, a stop along the road to a place to call home.  They are likely to be desperately short of food and medical supplies, sanitation is often rudimentary at best, and there is little prospect of education for the children.  Many of the countries that host most of the world’s refugees are barely able to support their own citizens.  When we say we are full or that we do not have the resources to support a pitifully tiny percentage of the desperate displaced people who need our help, we are demonstrating our own complacency and ignorance.

Here in Europe we can afford to feed, clothe, house and heal our own AND more.  The statistics tell us that we are not doing our bit, nowhere near.


cropped-cropped-Poster-2Migration Matters Festival – Thursday 23 June

Verse Matters – a Feminist Arts Event (19.30 pm) An inclusive, supportive space for poetry, spoken word, storytelling, music and comedy.  Performers include Khadijah Ibrahim, Rae Burgess and Chijioke Ojukwu.



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Don’t Stand By

What makes someone give a damn when it’s not their turn to give a damn? Giving a damn when it’s not their job, or when it’s a stranger who needs help rather than a friend or a neighbour, someone to whom they owe nothing?

The website of Yad Vashem includes the names and many stories of those who have been designated ‘Righteous amongst the Nations’.

These are people who sheltered Jews or helped them to escape during the Holocaust, often taking huge risks themselves to do so.

Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution … but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross.


Importantly, these are the people we know about. We know what they did because the people they helped to save told their stories.  But there were many, many more whose stories have not been told. Many of those who survived the Holocaust have never talked about what they experienced, and those who were children at the time may not have known who did what, who took what risks to keep them safe. The rescuers themselves have often been silent about what they did – in parts of Eastern Europe it was hardly wise to make a noise about it after the war, and others were too modest to promote themselves as heroes. It is also worth noting that some of those who chose not to stand by were themselves murdered, and some had to endure the knowledge of the fate that befell those who they had tried to save – in either case it is likely that their acts are and will remain unknown.

Nicholas Winton did not, as is sometimes reported, keep entirely silent about his work in organising transports of children out of Czechoslovakia, but he certainly wasn’t well-known for it, and it took a television programme in 1988 to bring it to worldwide attention. He is not recorded amongst the Righteous – but only because he himself was of partly Jewish ancestry. He was scrupulous in recognising that the achievement was not his alone, and his reticence may also have in part been prompted by the painful knowledge that many more children could have been saved, had the US and other nations been willing to take more of them in.

winton ID

As the number of survivors dwindles year on year, we may never know how many more of the Righteous there were.

In Poland, the epicentre of the Holocaust, over 6,500 people are recorded on  Yad Vashem’s database. This is the largest number for any of the countries listed – all the more remarkable since in Poland alone the act of saving or trying to save a Jew was punishable by death for the rescuer and their family.

Stefan Szablewski may have been one of the unknown Righteous. His grandson, Marek, has spent the last few years trying to piece together a remarkable story of life in Warsaw, of survival and resistance.   This has been a significant challenge:

I realised that not only did I have a unique tale to tell, but that as an only child I was the sole keeper. My knowledge, however, was incomplete. I needed to find the missing parts of the jigsaw puzzle to verify the facts that I had, and to learn more about the bigger picture. All I had to go on were my memories of conversations, several boxes of documents, a handful of photographs and medals, a bookshelf of books about Poland, a few contacts, and three precious tapes recorded for me by my father, which told some, but not all, of the story.


What these fragments show is that Stefan’s third wife, Anna, was Jewish and that she and her daughter were kept safe during the occupation of Warsaw, living under a false identity. In addition, there are records which state that ‘he organised safe houses or accommodation for people who were hiding along with the fabrication of identity papers, and also hid resistance literature and medical supplies.’ But there’s no hard evidence – just handwritten testimonies, and the recollections of Witold, Stefan’s son. Witold himself went into the Ghetto before its destruction, smuggling messages to the Jewish Council, and did what he could to help his stepmother’s family. Both the necessary habit of secrecy about such activities, and the level of destruction in Warsaw make it very difficult to find out more, or to know with certainty what happened.  The efforts of a second or third generation now are to gather the fragments that do exist, and build as much of a story as possible.  However incomplete, however many question marks remain, these stories are vital and compelling, and a reminder that the worst of times can bring out the best in people as well as the worst.

In Rwanda, the speed and intensity of the genocide meant that the kind of acts commemorated at Yad Vashem are even less likely to be recorded, and the narratives may be disputed. We have the account of Carl Wilkens, the only American who stayed in Rwanda, against all advice, and did what he could to protect the lives of Tutsi friends, and by talking his way through roadblocks and negotiating with senior army figures (people who were heavily implicated or actively involved in orchestrating the genocide) to get supplies through and then to arrange the safety of the children in an orphanage.

Of course, the story of Rwanda is the story of a world of bystanders, and those who did stay, and did what they could, are haunted, tormented by the lives they couldn’t save and the knowledge that had the US and other nations responded to the warnings and the increasingly desperate pleas from those who were witnessing the slaughter, so many more lives could have been saved. Whilst the targets of the killing were clearly Tutsi and Hutus suspected of helping them, the murder of Belgian peacekeepers early in the genocide meant that Wilkens and others could not be certain that they would be safe, and as the militia at the roadblocks were frequently drunk and out of control, there is no doubt that they took huge risks. Hutu Rwandans who hid friends, neighbours and colleagues rather than joining in the killing, or handing them over to the mobs, were however taking much greater risks, and if discovered they were certainly killed.

The ending of the film Shooting Dogs has always bothered me.  The film shows a young Briton who was evacuated on a UN transport, leaving around 2,000 Tutsi in the compound of the Ecole Technique Officiel in Kigali, surrounded by Interahamwe militia, almost all of whom were killed as soon as the UN trucks left. In the final scenes, he is asked by a survivor why he left and he says that he left because he was afraid to die.  This is disingenuous (and not challenged by the film) – everyone in that compound was afraid to die.  He left because he could.  Wilkens’ fellow Americans, and the majority of the Europeans in Rwanda when the genocide began, left because they could. They had a choice, and – for reasons that any of us can understand – they chose to take the escape route offered to them. Reading these stories, most of us will ask ourselves, would I have left when I could? Would I have stayed and tried to help? If I’d lived in Occupied Paris, or Warsaw, would I have kept my head down, or tried to help?

If you were a gendarme, or a civil servant, or even a Wehrmacht officer, you could do your job, as defined by the occupying forces, and compile lists of Jews to be rounded up, or round them up and transport them to transit camps, and then on to cattle trucks, or carry out the murders yourself. Or you could use that position to get a warning out about an impending round-up, or produce false papers to enable Jews to escape, or take direct action to get people to safety.

It came down, as it always does, to individuals, to their ability to empathise, to see not the vilified ‘Other’ but someone like themselves, and to their sense of what is fair and right. Fear can overwhelm both, but somehow, wherever and whenever the forces of hatred are unleashed, there will be some who will refuse to stand by.

Think of Lassana Bathily, a Malian Muslim who worked in the kosher supermarket in Paris which was attacked after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. He took some of the customers to the cold store to hide, whilst the killers shot and killed Jewish customers in the shop.

salah farahThink of Salah Farah. When al-Shabab attacked the bus he was travelling on in Mandera in Kenya, the attackers tried to separate Muslims and Christians. Passengers were offered safety if they identified themselves as Muslim.  The response from many was to ask the attackers to kill all of them or leave all of them alone. Muslim women on the bus gave Christian women scarves to use as hijabs. Farah was one of those who refused the offer of safety, and he was shot. He died in hospital almost a month after the attack.

There are always some who refuse to stand by.




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Stumbling over the past in Berlin

Reblogged from Gerry’s always excellent ‘That’s How the Light Gets In’ blog –

That's How The Light Gets In


Just around the corner from the hotel where we stayed in Berlin, in cobbled and tree-lined Fasanenstrasse, I found outside number 42 eight small brass plaques embedded in the pavement. They record the deportation from this town house of eight Jewish Berliners to their deaths in the east.

The Stolpersteine at 42 Fasanenstrasse The stolpersteine at 42 Fasanenstrasse

These small brass memorials are called stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) and there are now more than 5000 of them in Berlin (plus another 38,000 in 800 towns and cities across  Europe), each one commemorating a victim of the Holocaust: whether Jew or Roma, dissident or homosexual, an individual consigned by the Nazis to prison, concentration camp or extermination camp, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide.

Stolpersteine are the creation of the Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, their name recalling the old custom in Germany for non-Jews to say, when they stumbled over a protruding stone, ‘There must…

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