Redefining Holocaust memorials for the post-survivor era

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick (right), holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott and his grandson Reuben at Victoria Gardens in Westminster, London, celebrating the go-ahead being given to a Holocaust memorial. Picture date: Thursday July 29, 2021.
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick (right), holocaust survivor Sir Ben Helfgott and his grandson Reuben at Victoria Gardens in Westminster, London, celebrating the go-ahead being given to a Holocaust memorial. Picture date: Thursday July 29, 2021.

London’s new Holocaust Memorial will be like the latest Apple MacBook Pro. It will catch the eye, come with a slick operating system and offer incredibly powerful memory. It will advance the state of the art, helping to move Holocaust education way beyond schools – like Apple Inc moved itself – and into the adult mainstream.

But it’s the software inside the hardware that will count most: the educational content.

Shortly before the pandemic, the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s team visited us to pick our brains for the day in rural Nottinghamshire. The content they had in mind for the London Memorial’s learning centre sounded just right for its location, opposite the Houses of Parliament. As Lord Pickles has always said, it will tell the story of Britain’s role in the Holocaust “warts and all” — and these warts are indeed political ones. They reside on the body of the House of Commons, where hard evidence of Hitler’s death camps went ignored from 1941.

The London memorial, then, is a political statement by the British State. Not the Jewish community. Inside, it will teach valuable lessons about the political actions and inactions of this country’s leaders in the 1930s and 40s. And that is laudable.

Another success factor is how this content will link with everyone else’s. A MacBook without connectivity is not much of a MacBook. What an amazing opportunity to link to the riches inside other gleaming pieces of publicly accessible hardware such as the Imperial War Museum, the Wiener Library and the one I have the privilege to run, the National Holocaust Centre & Museum.

If the new London Memorial is located at the heart of British power, perhaps we are at the heart of the British audience. We are in the centre of the country. We cater for a hugely diverse cross-section of the British public, as one of Arts Council England’s ‘National Portfolio Organisations’. We are visited by Muslim faith schools, Christian church groups, Jewish youth groups and tough ex-mining Midlands families. We are a safe space for honest conversations. Maybe it’s the tranquillity of beautiful memorial gardens, poignant sculptures and a thousand white roses. Or the inspiring Memorial Hall and two highly thoughtful permanent exhibitions. Or the friendly people. But this space has always produced reflection and reconciliation between Christian and Jew, Jew and Muslim, Left and Right, young and old. Last week, as I flicked again through the photo albums of our early days, lovingly compiled by the matriarch of our founding family Marina Smith, I was reminded that for 26 years, we have not only been a home-from-home for Holocaust survivors but a place for them to talk to hundreds of thousands of children; for three Chief Rabbis and several Archbishops; for persecuted minorities and reformed extremists. Yes, we have superb school programmes and miraculous digital inventions like The Forever Project — but it is that very softest of softwares — this human dialogue — that remains so powerful. In an age of hate speech and hateful marches, it is a place of peace (hence the name of charity that operates our Museum being Beth Shalom). In a post-Truth world of Holocaust distortion, it is a haven of Truth. It is the loving creation of a Christian family, affectionately nurtured by some of the Jewish community’s biggest, kindest hearts from Sir Trevor Pears to the Ronson family to our Chairman and everyone’s favourite uncle, Henry Grunwald. As we build ever more concentric circles online around this wondrous physical core, its calm, humanitarian beauty is a valuable counterpart to and ally for the shock & awe of London.

After the ground-breaking work of our friends at HET, HMDT and UCL Centre for Holocaust Education to get the Holocaust onto the political map, national calendar and national curriculum, here’s to the next upgrade: a networked Holocaust education system, using the best bits of each organisation, de-duplicating the other bits, and with ongoing ‘software upgrades’ to be shared by all.

holocaust.org.uk

About the Author
Marc Cave is Chief Executive of the National Holocaust Centre & Museum in Nottingham, UK
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