At one time, I wouldn’t have written about the Holocaust simply because I felt so much had already been written and spoken about it. What more could I possibly say?
There is, however, a great deal more to say as new discoveries and accounts have emerged. I’ve been listening to The Rest is History podcasts that have featured Jonathan Freedland’s recent book, The Escape Artist, about two Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz who escaped the notorious concentration camp. I was particularly struck by the accounts of Jewish people who willingly went to the camps thinking they were being deported from Germany, where they were harassed, attacked and denied many basic freedoms, to start new lives elsewhere. Once the camps were fully operational, others were convinced to join their families through an elaborate system of faked letters about how pleasant the camps were from those supposedly inside. The so-called authors of these letters were likely to be dead – some 80% of deportees to Auschwitz died within hours of arriving.
Freeland’s book describes how the two young men escaped in 1944, and more importantly how they authored a lengthy and detailed report about the horrors taking place in Auschwitz and struggled to get it taken seriously. The report was sent to Jewish leaders in Eastern European countries, where Jews were being deported to Auschwitz. After some convincing, Hungary stopped its deportation as a result, saving some 200,000 lives. Upon reading the report, Churchill went straight to the Department of Defence, bypassing his Cabinet, to order a sabotage operation of the train tracks to Auschwitz. But he was met with resistance due mostly to practical military matters, and the operation was sent to the Americans. Like Churchill, Roosevelt felt something had to be done urgently and came up against resistance. Antisemitism in America was pervasive at that time, and military officials expressed their doubts, treating the report as ‘Jewish exaggeration.’ Such accounts of the US response chime with Ken Burns’ recent documentary The US and the Holocaust, detailing the anti-immigrant and antisemitic fervour that played a role in America’s delay to fight in Europe and its shameful unwillingness to accept Jewish refugees.
On a personal note, the subject of the Holocaust often brings back a memory from childhood. When I was about nine years old, I was watching television at a friend’s house. I can’t recall what brought this about, but during the ads, my friend’s grandfather rolled up his sleeve to show us the tattooed numbers on his forearm. Too many years have passed for me to remember his exact words, but it was something about the war and being Jewish.
I’ve ended up having something to say about the Holocaust and a reason for saying it. As the witnesses and survivors are dying off, I feel the weight of responsibility on my generation – the children and grandchildren of those who lived through WW2 – to keep the conversation going, to share the knowledge so that history does not repeat itself.