I Learnt About the Holocaust in Fragments, But We Must Remember the Whole Story

My father sometimes talked of uncles who disappeared. "They were in France at the beginning of the war," he said, "but they weren't there at the end". They must have disappeared 'in the camps', was how we grew to know about such things..

I suspect that I would have liked living in Berlin in the 1920s but I was born too late - in 1946, exactly nine months after the allies took part in a victory parade through the ruins of the city. When we say things like 'never again' and 'we must never forget the Holocaust', what parts of this terrible story do we remember, what parts do we leave out, what linking events should we add?

This was always a matter of intense discussion in my family. My parents lived in the East End of London and in the 1930s had taken part in what they then saw as a three-way fight against Fascism: demonstrating against the rise of Nazism in Germany, trying to win support for Republican Spain and fighting against Oswald Mosley who attacked Jews in the streets where they lived.

As I was growing up, these personal and political stories mingled. When I was 11 we stayed in Weimar and my parents visited Buchenwald Concentration Camp. My brother and I were thought to be too young to go. I can remember my mother's white and drawn face when they came back. She said that it would have been too terrible for us to have seen what had happened. I envisaged something along the lines of the torture room in the Tower of London, where we had been on a school trip.

My father sometimes talked of uncles who disappeared. "They were in France at the beginning of the war," he said, "but they weren't there at the end". They must have disappeared 'in the camps', was how we grew to know about such things. Other fragments came into view: my mother talked of a dinner lady at the school she taught in who had been one of the nurses who went into Belsen at the end of the war. She said that "you could see it on her face". Jewish friends at school said that their parents refused to drive a German car or eat German food - apart from the friend whose parents were German Jews who loved and shared with me their Pfeffernüsse and rye bread. And when I think of it, my father loved singing German folk songs, though his Jewishness came via Poland, expressed in Yiddish.

On several occasions in my life, I have put myself through what is in effect a course on Nazism and the Holocaust. In the 1970s when the National Front was beginning to strut the streets of London, we discussed the rights and wrongs of calling them the Nazi Front and I helped write pamphlets for the Anti-Nazi League. During the David Irving trial I studied what it means to 'deny' the Holocaust. Puffin Books asked me to take part in several events with Anne Frank's cousin and Miep Gies when their new edition of the diary appeared. Then, in an extraordinary moment, my American second cousin said that some letters had turned up, sent by one of the French uncles that my father had talked about. They were appeals for help in 1941. I immersed myself in the story and how it was that the 'Vichy' government passed to the Nazis the names of Jews born outside France, including my relatives'.

When I put this together, I find myself sometimes looking out from family history to the whole history of the twentieth century and other times back from the films and books to those personal connections. Such a terrible slaughter has to be remembered but in so doing, I find myself hoping that we remember matters linked to it: that the German population as a whole was made to pay for the defeat of World War One; the Nazi leadership were no fools and knew how to say one thing to a popular audience and another thing to the business leaders; the first legislation they brought in with the Reichstag Decree and the Enabling Laws were directed towards the left-wing movement of Germany - just as Pastor Niemoeller is reputed to have said: 'First they came for the Communists...."; a key step-change took place towards a total genocide of the Jews when the German army invaded eastern Poland and the Soviet Union; the apparatus of the Holocaust was industrial, using the technology of modernity; ultimately, the victims of Nazism are immense and various, bringing together in grim solidarity, millions of people in towns and villages in the countries they occupied or bombed; there were many specifically targeted groups like the so-called mentally deficient, the Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehova's Witnesses, and the slave labourers of eastern Europe; and finally there are the soldiers on all sides who fought each other to a bloody standstill when it would have been so much better if they had been allowed to co-operate, just as socialist leaders had once hoped for back in the nineteenth century.

When I hear and see racists in action, when I hear people saying and doing racist things whilst pretending that they are being 'realistic', or 'having a grown-up conversation', I go back to Hitler's speeches where he 'explained' 'realistically' that the problem for Germans was 'the Jews' even as he met up with the biggest business leaders of the time, who in turn said to Hitler that their biggest problem was that German wages were too high, workers' holidays were too long and their pensions too big.

Anne Frank's Trees: Keeping the Memory Alive, presented by Michael Rosen, is on BBC Radio Four on 27 January, 11am


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