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Education not edifices

It has been recorded on a number of occasions that survivors of the Shoah declined to have the tattoo etched onto their arm at Auschwitz removed.  For many this was a sign of defiance, that they survived, for others to remember those who didn’t and for some, to remind those Jewish and non-Jewish that the Shoah was an evil reality.

There is no substitute to first hand experience.  However realistic a television programme, film, memorial or museum might be, there is nothing like seeing something at first hand.

This physical manifestation is surely the best memorial, and as the remaining number of survivors dwindles, it is more important than ever to keep their memory alive and to ensure that the largest number of people know and understand what they experienced and how so very many were not able to tell their story.

There is in the UK a plan – halted by court proceedings currently – for a memorial to the Shoah and a museum to be built in central London.  Though as far as I understand it is not strictly just about the Shoah, it includes others who were murdered systematically by the Nazis.  The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who have advised the Government on this project state on their website: “[t]he United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial is the UK’s national establishment for remembrance of the Holocaust. It is dedicated to the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust and all other victims of the Nazis and their collaborators”.

So it is not only about the Jews.  It is about all victims.  So why call it a Holocaust memorial when it clearly is not?  And why have a memorial at all, particularly one which costs £100m when this money could perhaps be better spent.

There are already memorials to the Holocaust, the most famous of which is Auschwitz. What is clear is that almost 80 years after the liberation of Auschwitz most non-Jewish people have only the vaguest of understanding of the Shoah.  That despite there being a Holocaust Museum in Nottingham (120 miles north of London) and a section of London’s Imperial War Museum dedicated to this as well.

The reality is that only people from the South East of England are likely to see a memorial situated in London.  As the miles increase from that region the numbers visiting the memorial will decrease.  Again though, even if the proposed memorial/museum was solely about the Jewish experience it would not be effective.  The answer is and can only be about education.

There can be no better way of educating people, and particularly young people who are still at school or university than taking them to Auschwitz and showing them at first-hand what atrocities were undertaken there.  This would be a far more long lasting than a visit to a memorial or time spent on the organisation’s website.

The problem we all face is that the community leaders have been so wedded to the idea of the memorial that they have not even considered the alternative.  Educating 17 & 18 year olds from around the country by showing them at first-hand the truth of the Holocaust is clearly a better way of making a lasting impression.  The benefit of a memorial is that those who promoted it and made it possible will have their reward no doubt by way of a congratulatory plaque, in the same way that we have seen with other new buildings such as Shuls and Town Halls.  Praise for the great and good immortalised.  The problem for these leaders with an education programme is that there would be no plaque, no physical reminder of the contribution made, nothing for their children and grandchildren to see.

I have been urging the Board of Deputies of British Jews to hold a debate on this subject, whether there should in fact be a memorial or rather, a programme of education.  I asked the Board for this at the meeting in May and was refused.  With two others I have now submitted a motion for discussion though there is no sense that this is going to happen any time soon.

What has happened though is that my opposition to the memorial has been described as appalling.  Sir Lloyd Dorfman was interviewed by The Jewish Chronicle recently and they reported that he said:

……he had seen “all the arguments from the other side, most of which are misinformation and incorrect”. He called arguments against the memorial “spurious”. “All the things they’ve come up with are complete nonsense, trying to spoil an opportunity for survivors who live in this country to be there at the opening, next to the Houses of Parliament. The fact that the naysayers are led by Jews, Jewish peers in particular, is appalling.”  He went on to say: I find it quite distressing, and I cannot understand why the most vociferous protesters against this are actually Jews”.

Sir Lloyd is a trustee of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation and so I can understand he is personally invested in the project.  I can also understand he might get a little hot under the collar when the project is opposed.  What I cannot understand though are the personal attacks.  When he refers to Jewish peers he is including Baroness Deech who has been opposed to the project from the outset.  The Baroness is entitled to her opinion and as I remember, debate and disagreement amongst Jews is not only well documented but is a fundamental part of our being.

Further reading of the aims of Sir Lloyd’s organisation says as follows: “The thematic exhibition will set the Holocaust within the British narrative: historically, politically and culturally. This narrative will be balanced, addressing the complexities of Britain’s ambiguous responses to the Holocaust, avoiding simplistic judgements and encouraging visitors to critically reflect on whether more could have been done, both by policymakers and by society as a whole”.

So not only the project will include non-Jewish victims but will also not just be about the Shoah; it will be about Shoah and the British response.  This is some distance from an institution devoted to this unique and dreadful experience of the Jewish people.  It may be that the project is intended to reach millions of people outside of London, though this would be an optimistic figure given that the Imperial War Museum in London attracts just over a million visitors each year.  A good number certainly, but not reaching into every school and town in the UK which is what is needed with education about the Shoah.

Sir Lloyd’s failure to understand why I, as an actual Jew, should oppose the project is sadly a reflection of an attitude taking over debate (or rather stifling it) both here, Europe and the United States.  Each issue now has a right and a wrong view.  The right view becomes the only view, and the wrong view is not only wrong, but those promoting it are evil, criminal or in this case, appalling.

By coincidence, only the previous Sunday (before the Jewish Chronicle interview), the Chief Rabbi, Ephriam Mirvis spoke at the Board of Deputies on this vary issue and said:

“….argument could be “fierce” but that it should be conducted in a “menschledik” way, the only way forward for our community. It is our passion for Jewish unity that gives us strength, and if there is an absence of it, the result is that we are weak within, and our representations are weak without”.

It is a pity Sir Lloyd didn’t hear that speech, since if he had he might not have made the comments about me and Baroness Deech that he did.  For my part, I will continue to promote my view and hope that Sir Lloyd respects that although he might not agree with me, it does not make me an appalling person.

About the Author
Robert Festenstein is a solicitor based in Manchester with considerable experience in Court actions. He is active in representing groups opposing BDS and fighting the increase in anti-Semitism, particularly amongst the left-wing in the UK.
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