What it means to be descended from Holocaust survivors

This is a short piece on Holocaust Memorial Day, and what it means to be descended from Holocaust survivors. Many, many people could write a story like this, but this one is mine. All parts of my family lost people in the war. My grandfather, though, lost pretty much his whole family. They were in Krakow, in Poland, and only he and one brother survived. His first wife, his baby daughter, his parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews all died. To understand the immediacy, that’s my mum’s half-sister, grandparents, her whole extended family. All gone before she was even born. Recently, I’ve been trying to find out about them. It’s really

Britain doesn’t need another Holocaust memorial

David Cameron announced five years ago that he was establishing a “Holocaust Commission”. The purpose? To “investigate what more needs to be done to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting [Holocaust] memorial and the educational resources needed for generations to come.” Out of this Commission came a Holocaust Memorial Foundation; and out of this Foundation – technically an Advisory Board to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government – a breathtaking proposal has been issued: to construct within Victoria Tower Gardens (next to the Houses of Parliament) a gigantic edifice incorporating a learning resource centre to honour Jewish and other victims of the Nazi Holocaust, such as Roma,

Antisemitism for dummies

Some people might argue that Deborah Lipstadt has given us the book we desperately need from the author best equipped to write it. After all, in just the past few weeks the dumpster fire over the Labour party’s hand-ling of anti-Semitism burst into acrid flame again over general secretary Jenny Formby’s release of Labour’s record in responding to the problem — 673 complaints, 96 members suspended, 12 expelled. Labour’s failure to act decisively against anti-Semitism was also cited by most of the nine MPs who left the party. Meanwhile, in Lipstadt’s own country, Ilhan Omar, one of two Muslim-American women recently elected to congress, was condemned by House Speaker Nancy

A pawn in a deadly game

On 7 November 1938, the 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan walked into the German embassy in Paris. Claiming to have secret papers, he was shown into the office of an embassy secretary, Ernst vom Rath. Drawing a tiny revolver — the price tag still attached from that morning’s purchase —  he fired five shots, shouting: ‘You’re a filthy Kraut, and in the name of 12,000 Jews, here is your document.’ Two of the bullets struck Vom Rath, who died two days later. The previous month, close to 18,000 Polish German Jews had been dumped by train on the Polish border. Among those  rounded up in Hanover for the Aktion were Grynszpan’s family:

Squabbling over Kafka

Benjamin Balint’s Kafka’s Last Trial is a legal and philosophical black comedy of the first water, complete, like all the best adventure stories, with a physical treasure to be won or lost. Balint lays out with cool, collected passion the full absurdity of the 2011 court struggle which climaxed when a couple of boxes of aged, yellowing jottings, upon which an elderly Tel Aviv lady had allegedly allowed her cats to sit for many years, were taken under armed guard, besieged by writs and counter-writs, to the highest court in Israel. Until 1973, you see, these boxes had belonged to Max Brod, best friend of Franz Kafka, the legendary Nostradamus

Life, death and everything in between

The most striking and difficult aspect of this novel is its incredible scale. How can a reviewer best discuss an enterprise containing a vast survey of life in Germany, Britain and the United States and the transformations of these societies from the end of the 19th century to the 1980s? Two volumes cover the experience of age and youth, the rise of the Nazis in Mecklenburg, the second world war, life and death in a small German town, the evolution of East German communities and the emergence of a Soviet state after the war. The New York Times appears in more or less every chapter, as the conveyer of the

A world apart | 4 October 2018

The most inspiring voice on radio this week belongs to Hetty Werkendam, or rather to her 15-year-old self as she talked to the BBC correspondent Patrick Gordon Walker in April 1945. He was with the British soldiers who entered the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and witnessed the horrors of that scene: dead bodies in piles with no one to bury them, living people lying beneath them too weak to move, or using them as pillows. Hetty was one of several children interviewed by Gordon Walker, her voice so strong and resolute and light in spirit, in spite of all that she had seen and experienced. Talking now, aged 88, to Mike

Mind over matter | 23 August 2018

The return of Sue MacGregor’s long-running Radio 4 series The Reunion (produced by Eve Streeter) is a welcome reminder of just how good radio can be at taking us inside an experience while at the same time opening our minds to things we should know about. First there is MacGregor herself, such a vibrant, resonant voice, never too fast or too slow. Then there is her understanding of how to communicate. Each week she gives a short resumé of how and why the people she has gathered in the studio were first brought together, summarising complicated events in such a concise but clear way, giving all we need to know

For today’s young, the holocaust is ancient history – which poses huge danger

The first news about the Nazi annihilation camps began to spread in the crucial year of 1942. They were vague pieces of information, yet in agreement with each other: they delineated a massacre of such vast proportions, of such extreme cruelty and such intricate motivation that the public was inclined to reject them because of their very enormity. It is significant that the culprits themselves foresaw this rejection well in advance: many survivors (among others, Simon Weisenthal in the last pages of The Murderers Are Among Us) remember that the SS militiamen enjoyed cynically admonishing the prisoners: ‘However this war may end, we have won the war against you; none

The art of deception | 9 November 2017

Enric Marco has had a remarkable life. A prominent Catalan union activist, a brave resistance fighter in the Spanish Civil War, a charismatic Nazi concentration camp survivor, and more. In January 2005 he addressed the Spanish parliament to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. He is, everyone agrees, an extraordinary man. Heroic, almost. The thing is, his extraordinary, heroic biography is at least partly a lie. But which parts? In The Impostor, the novelist Javier Cercas seeks to disentangle Marco’s lies from those small provable truths supporting them. Cercas is reluctant at first (troubled by Primo Levi’s ‘to understand is almost to justify’); but Marco himself is

Life after death | 2 November 2017

According to the accountants’ ledgers, DVDs are dying. Sales of those shiny discs, along with their shinier sibling the Blu-ray, amounted to £894 million last year, which is almost a fifth lower than in 2015 and less than half of what was achieved a decade ago. And last week we finally said goodbye to the postal DVD service Lovefilm, too. The explanation for this decline is the explanation for many modern declines: digital is taking over. Nowadays, downloads and streaming services make more money than the old physical formats. But accountants don’t know everything. From a different perspective, through the bloodshot eyes of a cinephile, DVDs are thriving — and

Brief encounter | 22 June 2017

How do you follow a film like Shoah? The nine-hour Holocaust documentary, released in 1985 after 11 years of work and 350 hours of interviews — with survivors and perpetrators, saviours and collaborators, historians and bystanders — is considered one of the greatest films ever made. For decades, director Claude Lanzmann kept returning to the subject, raking over the same material, finding it impossible, maybe indecent, to move on. Of the five documentaries he has made since Shoah, four were substantial footnotes to the original, extended — and often extraordinary — out-takes from the acres of unused footage. But Lanzmann did have an answer to the question of what to

Cries and whispers | 15 June 2017

There’s a moment in A Boy in Winter where a young Ukrainian policeman has to escort his town’s Jewish population to a churned-up field under the watchful eyes of his new Nazi masters. It’s November 1941 and Mykola has been told that all he has to do is relieve the Jews of their luggage and move them along. He assumes that they know what’s coming to them. In his mind, the Germans are ‘bastards’ but no worse than his former Soviet occupiers, who burned his family’s fields and grain stores as they fled eastwards. So Mykola has deserted the Red Army and joined the auxiliary police under the Germans, the

Anti-Semitism is alive and well

As the size of Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island still haunts me, I had always rejected the idea of visiting Auschwitz because I feared my tears would make the trip about me and not the victims. But thanks to persuasion from my longtime friend Richard Glynn, a former CEO of the bookies Ladbrokes, I spent most of Thursday at the camps an hour from Krakow in Poland. Nothing prepares you for Auschwitz. The stats are stark: 1.1 million victims, mainly Jewish, perhaps 230,000 of them children. If you didn’t die in the gas chamber, you would die in the field, because the SS gave prisoners so little food that

What the papers say: Why Labour must give Ken the boot

Ken Livingstone’s Labour membership card remains valid – but for how long? The former Mayor of London avoided being booted out of the party following his comments about Hitler. But he was told by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday that he faces another investigation into remarks he has made since the party’s decision to suspend him. The newspapers are unanimous: this sorry mess is doing the Labour party no favours at all. We should be grateful, suggests the Daily Telegraph that Ken Livingstone reached for another dictatorial analogy yesterday rather than his usual choice. But his suggestion that being in the disciplinary hearing deciding his future place in the Labour party was

Diary – 16 March 2017

In the NHS clinic where I work, adults who suspect they may have Asperger syndrome wait almost a year for a diagnosis. The clinic takes referrals from all over Cambridgeshire and Peterborough (a population of 860,000), but we have to see all of them in the hours of a single full-time doctor. And the clinic is not given funds to run a follow-up support service once someone has been diagnosed. These individuals struggle to socialise, are neurologically different, and are overlooked because their disability is invisible. Many have experienced bullying in childhood, underemployment in adulthood and exploitation because of their social naivety. Many are made to feel inferior despite their

Dramatic effect

It was hard to believe that Monday morning’s introduction to the Italian writer Primo Levi on Radio 4 lasted for only 15 minutes. It was so rich, multi-layered, filled with meaning. Presented by Janet Suzman, it was intended as a fanfare for the 11-part adaptation of Levi’s most original book, The Periodic Table, in which he explores the chemical elements by equating them to episodes in his own story. Levi, an Italian chemist, was captured by the Nazis as a resistance fighter and a Jew, and at first detained and later sent to Auschwitz. His science training and his knowledge of German saved him from the gas chambers; and a

Two little boys, one little toy

Rose Tremain sets the true story of Police Captain Paul Grüninger, commander of the Swiss border force in Canton Saint Gallen, at the core of this powerful novel. Grüninger helped hundreds — some sources say thousands — of Austrian Jews fleeing the Nazis in 1938–1939 to enter Switzerland illegally. After a long trial he was dismissed in disgrace, deprived of his pension and forced to pay court fees. His family was destitute and treated as traitors. He died in 1972, penniless and forgotten. Tremain’s fictional Grüninger, Erich Perle, marries a simple peasant girl, who suffers a miscarriage and cannot forgive her husband for ruining her life for the Jews. He

Laws that changed the world

One of the things Philippe Sands clearly remembers from his grandparents’ Paris apartment — a rather sombre, silent place — is the lack of family photographs. There’s a single, framed, unsmiling wedding photo, and that’s all. There is no mood of bittersweet nostalgia, there are no nods to memory or history. Where did his grandparents come from? How did they end up as these people, whom he knew only towards the end of their lives? Retrieving that history, that deliberately unremembered story, is the beginning of Sands’s task in this remarkable book. Generically speaking, the story is familiar enough. Leon Buchholtz — Sands’s grandfather — was born in what was

Filming the Final Solution

In July 1986, nine months before he died, I met the Italian author and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi at his home in Turin. He was in shirtsleeves for the interview and the concentration camp tattoo 174517 was visible on his left forearm. (‘A typical German talent for classification,’ he tartly observed.) If This is a Man, Levi’s chronicle of survival, offers a warning to those who deliver facile judgments of condemnation: only those who have survived the Nazi camps have the right to forgive or condemn. Attempts to recreate the Final Solution on screen were mostly a ‘macabre indecency’, said Levi. The 1978 Hollywood television soap opera Holocaust, starring Meryl