Tuesday 1 December 2015

House of Commons Education Committee called me to witness on Holocaust Education

This was my written submission to the Education Committee's session on Holocaust Education at the House of Commons today. I spoke more or less to this in the session:

Here's the link. I was on a panel from 10.30-11.00


I have been involved in Holocaust education in a variety of ways: making radio programmes, in many schools reading poems that are about members of my family, doing presentations to older school students about my family. I have also observed my own children’s perceptions of what they have been taught.

1. There is a difficulty about distinguishing between the Holocaust and other genocides. That’s to say, the issue is not simply one of numbers but of intention. So, as far as victims are concerned, it could be said it makes no difference: a death is a death. However, politically it is important to distinguish between brutal mass murder of people and the scientifically engineered attempt to eliminate a people from European history. This is a hard point to make to young children - perhaps impossible. It is one that can be discussed with older school students.

2. Holocaust denial is alive and well. I have faced it in colleges. Clearly, documents are circulating, things are being said that ‘the Jews’ invented the Holocaust.

3. My own view is that it is vital that the story of the Holocaust is disentangled from the story of Israel. That is another discussion to be had. The Holocaust is a story that took place between 1933 and 1945, quite independently of the story of Israel. Intertwining it, either by the Zionist narrative or by the ‘denial narrative’ is counter-productive.

4. In order to counter denial it is vital - more than vital - essential that we get every minute fact is correct and corroborated. I see books of all kinds circulating around the world of education with glaring errors eg Belsen described as an ‘extermination’ camp, 6 million Jews were gassed in Auschwitz and so on. It is also vital that teachers are directed to up-to-date sources where testimonies can be verified eg Nizkor.

5. Personal testimony is vital. I’m not sure that there is enough video of personal testimony used in schools, as teachers feel under pressure to tell the whole story. There are several key films, - ‘Shoah’, ‘Le Chagrin et le PitiĆ©’ and the BBC films of Lawrence Rees. Likewise, the testimonies that came through the courts.
We have to accept that from now on, it is becoming less and less possible to invite survivors into schools. We should be thinking in terms of the children or relatives of survivors where the family has documents and recordings of their relatives.

6. The UK was involved in the Holocaust in several ways. People came out of Poland and Germany with stories, the authorities here reacted to this. This has been documented. Antisemitism prior to the Holocaust has a long history, the UK played a role in both sustaining and combating it. The story of Guernsey reminds us of what could have happened if the Nazis had been successful in invading. In order to bring the story home, these aspects can be told.

7. There is fruitful discussion to be had around the subject of ‘What could have been done?’ The German state in 1930 was as democratic a state as any in Europe. How was it possible to dismantle this by January/February 1933 - that is, prior to the laws passed specifically against Jews? I see very little discussion around the so-called ‘Reichstag decree’ and the ‘Enabling Acts’ of that time. Democratically elected governments are capable of passing anti-democratic laws and instituting terror. I am of the strong opinion that we need to keep distinguishing between ‘the Nazis’ and ‘the Germans’. Most students have not lived under a regime of terror. We do not know what it is like to be coerced on a daily basis, whilst being subjected to daily propaganda.

8. There is fruitful discussion to be had around the subject of what do we do now? This applies to a) the rise of racist groups b) countries that appear to be on the verge of practising genocide c) refugees.

9.There is now a substantial body of fiction, poetry, cinema and TV which can be used thematically with any of this. It is not a sufficient condition for ‘Holocaust Education’ but I would argue that it is a necessary one.

10. None of this should be used to claim that one victim is more hard done by than another. A death is a death. A mass murder is a mass murder. As I stated at the outset, much of this is as much about ‘intention’ as ‘outcome’. This doesn’t make what happened worse. It affects how we view politics.