We know so much about the Holocaust but also so little. The recent BBC mini-series Rise of the Nazis fills in gaps. The production, directed by Julian Jones, is unusual in that it uses a mix of actors, brilliant original film footage and slightly stilted commentary from historians.
The series includes insights into life in Hitler’s bunker, terrific footage and analysis of Nuremberg and insights into Nazi murderers and their legal defences. There is extensive material on the search for Nazis who used the ‘Ratline’ to escape to Latin America.
Readers who recently read or dipped into Danny Finkelstein’s Hitler, Stalin Mum & Dad, will find the grainy, silent film of the Westerbork prison camp in Holland, way station to death camps, eerily brought to life by German footage.
The availability of vast amounts of TV, literary and historical material on the Shoah and genocide is relatively recent. The wartime Allies, while anxious to expose the evil of Nazism, also acutely were aware of a narrative they didn’t want to publicise.
Franklin D Roosevelt and Americans minimised Nazi evil for political and strategic reasons. Russian internments of Jews in Siberia was as cruel and heinous as German concentration camps.
The Jews escaping Nazism (including my own father turned back from Haifa in 1939) and the German Jewish refugees interned in the UK were treated as an enemy rather than victims.
The BBC series reminded viewers that until the NBC American TV series The Holocaust was broadcast in 1978, the events of the Shoah remained unexplored in popular Western culture. In Germany it dramatically changed the narrative as it forced new generations to confront the evil perpetrated by their parents and grandparents.
In my own Shoah-affected family the Holocaust remained a largely verboten subject for much of my younger life. My mother, from an established Anglo-Jewish family, sought to protect my refugee father from being confronted with reminders of how his parents and several of his siblings perished.
When as children we visited my father’s sister, who had survived Auschwitz with another sister and niece, there were whispered conversations in the front of the car. My parents were discussing the ‘miracle’ birth of my young cousins whose mother had been through a medical trauma in the camps.
Little did I know that in Ramat Gan in Israel there was a similar experience for my late cousin Zvi. Every Saturday morning my uncle Martin (my father’s youngest brother) would drink coffee with a fellow survivor on the balcony exchanging memories in Hungarian.
Cousin Zvi would listen (he had picked up Hungarian from his parents).
There were horrific memories including an account on being tied all day to a train line after an escape attempt.
There was no direct conversation about the family experience. It was only a generation later when a younger Israeli cousin, armed with a rough chart drawn by my aunt, found his way to the remains of the hut occupied by his mother at Buchenwald and recited a quiet prayer.
In their later years my dear Aunt Rose and cousin Sheindy opened up on their experiences as teenagers. They would regularly talk at local schools in the Brighton area. The Shoah was directly confronted. On the afternoon of just passed Shabbat Shuva, after shul in Hove, I visited my admirable cousin Sheindy, now in her 90s but as sharp as a button. On her dining table was Dan Stone’s book The Holocaust: An Unfinished History.
Scheindy showed me a letter pushed through her door from a neighbourhood 10-year-old. The child’s class were studying World War II and requested a chat with a living witness. She had no hesitation in saying yes.
The Shoah is out of the cupboard. It took decades to do so and it is so important, as survivors fade away, that the world does retreat back to where it was in the immediate decades after the war when Holocaust disclosure was supressed.
Remembrance, in the shape of museums and prominent memorials as in Berlin, but not yet London, are more critical than ever.
- Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and City Editor for the Daily Mail.
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