AS A boy growing up in Brighton I was only mildly knowledgeable of the Holocaust. At family gatherings there were all manner of stories about the Blitz and bombings in Kemp Town (where my maternal grandparents owned a public house) but the death of six million of our people was not on a subject for dinner table discussion.
I was vaguely aware we shouldn’t buy German – from washing machines to cars – and occasionally would overhear a whispered conversation between my mother and father about appalling things that had happened to my father’s family.
When the American fictionalised mini-series Holocaust, starring a young Meryl Streep, came to TV screens in 1978 my mother decided it would be too upsetting to watch. At school history was all about the Tudors and Stuarts and childhood literature all about the daring-do of Biggles rather than the darkness of the camps.
Yet the Shoah was closer to our lives than I could have imagined. My father fled Continental Europe 1939, arriving in Britain as a refugee in the belly of a cargo boat. His two elder brothers seized, by Hungarian fascists, died in work camps. His parents died in Auschwitz and his two sisters, niece and a younger brother were survivors of Auschwitz and the other camps. Against this traumatic background my very existence and that of my siblings and broader family often seems accidental.
How different things now are. As I took part in some of the commemorations of Holocaust last week first in Brighton (my father with us) and then in the grand setting of the Guildhall for Holocaust Memorial Day [HMD], I couldn’t but reflect how things have changed. Holocaust education is now embedded in the school curriculum. As a result of the efforts of, among others, the late Greville Janner and Labour politicians such as Ed Balls and Gordon Brown, schoolchildren and young people across the nation have the opportunity to visit the camps and see the horror first hand. The Imperial War museum is no longer just a monument to Spitfires, large guns and the doddlebugs that scared citizens witless during the war. It also has a shrine to Shoah remembrance and testimony is at the heart of its exhibition.
HMD is now enshrined in the national consciousness. Some 3,600 local activities took place across the country from Scotland to the west country, from the west midlands to the north west. At the main ceremony in the Guildhall politicians and national figures from across the spectrum were represented .
And just to make sure the Shoah is central to the national memory and all that is sacred in British life, as reported in these pages last week, a new national monument is to be placed in Victoria Tower Gardens, adjacent to the House of Commons. This but a stone’s throw from the Churchill War Rooms, from where the war which freed Europe from the Nazi grip was managed.
In 2015 HMD had particularly resonance because it coincided with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I was privileged to be among delegations from around the world which trudged along the railways lines in the snow, through the chilled night to kindle memorial lights in honour of our lost but never forgotten family members. In 2016 the symbols and memories were different. The death of Lord Weidenfeld was a remainder of the huge contribution which exiles from Nazi Europe have made to British and international life.
The BBC, so often vilified by sections of the community for its coverage of the Israel, provided on the day broadcasts from the Guildhall and showed a brilliant and moving documentary on the Kindertransport.
At St James Theatre in London, The Pianist Of Willsden Lane, a tribute to how an Austrian kindertransport refugee found her way to the Royal College of Music and on to the stage at Wigmore Hall has been playing to packed houses. The artist Frank Auerbach, also on the kindertransport, is the star turn at the Tate Britain at present.
At a time when David Cameron and the government are having to move gingerly on the issue of refugee children from Syria and Islamic State, the focus on the children of the Shoah has provided an uplifting backcloth.
In parallel with all this my family has been on its own learning curve. Two decades ago we began our own journey of remembrance when with my father we returned to his ancestral home – once in Hungary and the Czech Republic and now in the Ukraine – and his journey across Europe from the great centre of Jewish learning in Bratislava to a pre-war Zionist naval school in Italy and, eventually, to Victoria Station.
We heard from my aunts and uncle about the horror of the camps and can see the terrible stain that it has left on their lives. Age means their ability to recount their memories may soon be gone, but Shoah memorial has been – and is being – hard wired into the lives of new generations in Britain.
For that the British Jewry can be truly grateful.