By Tony Kushner
The theme for the 2024 Holocaust Memorial Day, which takes place on January 27, is the “fragility of freedom”. This year is an especially poignant one, marking 80 years since the deportation and murder of Hungarian Jews, when the gas chambers of Auschwitz were working at full capacity, and also the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.
In a vision document, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust highlights many types of freedom that were taken from people during the Holocaust – at its most basic, the freedom to live. It also highlights the people who risked their own freedom to help those in danger of persecution, at the most extreme level, facing genocide.
One of the challenges of Holocaust and genocide commemoration, as well as education in the UK, is to relate events “over there” to everyday life “here”. In 1938, the then UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain, justifying his policy of appeasement, referenced Nazi Germany’s attack on Czechoslovakia as a “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”.
There were ordinary people in the UK, however, who made it their business to “know” and to help the hundreds of thousands of people at risk – Jews and political opponents of Nazism, especially on the left – through the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia (BCRC).
Heroes known and unknown
BCRC was part of an international network of activists involving hundreds if not thousands of people. Until recently, none of these were remembered beyond small circles of family, friends and fellow activists.
The one major exception since the late 1980s was Nicholas Winton, even more so since the release of the biopic, One Life (2023). The film at least allowed some consideration of two other activists – Trevor Chadwick and Doreen Warriner – but told nothing of their background, motivations and future lives.
W. R. Chadwick, the son of Trevor, said of the wider BCRC group that: “Some have not been given sufficient credit for what they achieved; some have been credited with slightly more than the facts might warrant. One has been given huge credit for the deeds of others.”
Chadwick’s son especially objected to the title given to Nicholas Winton as “the British Schindler”. Winton himself was always quick to correct any attempt to overstate his role, which was running some of the bureaucracy from London to enable the Kindertransport to be expanded to Czechoslovakia. The Nazis weren’t the main challenge in doing this – it was the British Home Office which was the barrier to Jews and others leaving before the war.
Pity the country that needs heroes
There is a wider issue here: we want “history” to be made up of saints and sinners – and the Holocaust has become the major morality story of modern times.
The Nazis and their collaborators easily fill a role of evil wrongdoers. But the risk here is that perpetrators can easily be dismissed as criminal or deviant, rather than ordinary people carrying out terrible deeds.
In such narratives, the victims have to be presented as passive people without agency who are, if they are lucky, the recipients of the generosity of others. The rescuers become uncomplicated and two dimensional.
As W. R. Chadwick notes: “We crave heroes (and prefer to ignore Brecht’s counter comment, ‘Pity the country that needs heroes’)”.
It is telling that the British Heroes of the Holocaust scheme has been abandoned because some of those who were given this status – both dead and alive – were shown not to have done what they claimed.
The most notorious of these was Denis Avey who was a British prisoner of war in Auschwitz, but who borrowed his account of helping Jews there from Charles Coward whose account of doing so was equally fictitious.
When dealing with questions of freedom and attempts to take it from others this Holocaust Memorial Day, there are several dilemmas. On the one hand, we distance ourselves from the possibility of being perpetrators (we are not like them). On the other, we can be alienated from the concept of being a rescuer or helper if we see them as utterly exceptional.
One way this can be avoided in relation to the particular relationship between Britain and the Holocaust is to recognise that there were many people, often as part of networks, who tried to bring Jewish and other refugees to the UK. Some did this sort of work throughout their lives – others, perhaps the majority, like Chadwick, and others associated with BCRC – did it once.
It is revealing that those in Britain who did the most during the Nazi era to make the world “safe to be a Jew” (to borrow the words of one such man, James Parkes) are the least known now.
Eleanor Rathbone is one of these people, often referred to as “the MP for refugees”. Along with other activists, Rathbone publicised news of the extermination of the Jews during the war and demanded action to save them, which the British government ignored.
There were more obscure figures, all ordinary people, who helped. One was Beryl McIntyre in the village of Ditchling who was economical with the truth in placing Jewish women in non-existent posts for domestic service and thereby enabled increasingly desperate people to get visas and escape before the war.
Preserving freedom for those at risk can sometimes mean literally putting one’s life on the line. More common is for ordinary people doing the right thing at the right time through small acts of kindness and commonality.
Tony Kushner is James Parkes Professor of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations at the University of Southampton, UK.
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