Thursday, 27 January 2011

Never Again! Miriam Halahmy and Leslie Wilson

For the past year Leslie Wilson and I have been having ‘a big conversation.’ Leslie is half English/ half German. I am Anglo/Jewish. We both believe that dialogue is the way to build bridges across divided communities and to promote healing and reconciliation.  We regard our deepening friendship as a contribution towards the defeat of Hitler and Nazism. We therefore decided to do a joint blog for Holocaust Memorial Day 2011.   


Memorial to 7000 Jews of the town of Kerch, Crimea, shot in an anti-tank ditch.

 As a Jewish child growing up in England after the Holocaust I saw the faces of my grandparents on the victims in the newsreels. However for my friends the victims looked like foreigners, a people far away about whom they knew almost nothing.
 The Nazis organised the rounding up and murder of one and a half million Jewish children and I often thought, That could have been me. My family come from Poland, right in the heart of the killing fields.
Memorial in  Poland

But the Nazis threatened all children. Every single German child whether their background was Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Black, gay, gipsy or political was at risk. Kitty Hart who survived Auschwitz and a death march says, “We believe it can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.” She has given her testimony since 1946 and has even taken neo-Nazis back to Auschwitz.
Like most Jews of my generation I have absorbed a lot of material about the Holocaust and a huge spectrum of emotions. Ultimately I believe that the cry of the Jewish people at the end of the war, Never Again! is underpinned by promoting dialogue across divided communities. Human rights prevail in an atmosphere where all people are regarded in the same equal non-judgemental way. Every young person should be encouraged to contribute to this goal and fiction can help to provide the route map forward. A fourteen year old girl said this week at an HMD workshop, “I now think of all the people who died as individuals.”

In my debut YA novel, HIDDEN, Meadowside, March 2011, I have focused on immigration law and human rights through the eyes of an ordinary English teenage girl. Alix befriends Samir in her school when he is bullied for being foreign and together they hide a tortured, desperate asylum seeker to save him from being deported.

 If we are to build bridges across communities then we need to understand that there is no hierarchy of suffering. Everyone must contribute to the dialogue if Holocaust Memorial Day is to make a difference. We are all citizens of the world!

We need to remember and mourn the victims, that’s a way of defying Hitler, who wanted them to be obliterated without trace. And yet - if ‘Never Again’, the words that I saw written on the monument to the dead at Dachau, is to mean anything, I am certain that we need also to think about the perpetrators.

Photo courtesy of Scrapbookpages

Growing up in post-war Britain, I so often heard people say: ‘The Germans should have done something to resist Hitler.’ The image of the German, man, woman and child, was always of the goose-stepping, Heil-Hitlering, rabidly anti-Semitic fanatic. A nation of ‘things’ as the text of the Belsen newsreel put it, disguised as humans, but not really so. Even for the next generation of Germans – to whom I partly belong, it could be an easy way out. There was something wrong with them, I wouldn’t act the way they did. End of story.

I remember hearing an American tour guide taking a group of teenagers round Dachau. ‘Imagine’, she kept saying, ‘what it was like for them.’ I thought yes, imagination was what was discouraged in the 3rd Reich. You didn’t ask questions, you didn’t think about what it was like for those other people. But that’s precisely what fiction invites us to do. Even more than history. Fiction can make us feel what it was like to be there, making frightening decisions; to imagine what it’s like to have the Gestapo in your house, to be standing, facing the wall, while armed men turn everything upside down hunting the Jew you have hidden there. Or what it’s like to not help. To be scared, because you know what happens to the people who’re caught helping. And – remember this – those people are described as scum by the authorities. The lowest of the low. And your country’s at war, and you’ve been told the Jews are on the side of the people you’re fighting. You’ve even been told that the war was forced on you.

I’m not saying this to excuse; I’m saying it because I think if we can understand what made ordinary human beings turn their backs on their fellow-citizens, or even denounce them to the authorities – and even join the death squads who forced them to dig their own graves and then shoot them as they stood naked and shivering – then we can perhaps act differently in future – whether the groups under threat are Jews, Muslims, asylum-seekers, Roma people, gay people  - who knows? And the key is to understand that the Germans, and anti-semites and Roma-haters too – of other nations who went along with the Germans to help the murders - were ordinary people. It was an ordinary Dutch person who informed on the Frank family. So - what would we do?

I don’t write propaganda, I am a storyteller – but I know stories are part of our society and contribute to its thoughts. I was so glad when one teenager wrote about my novel ‘Last Train from Kummersdorf’: ‘It makes you think: what if?’

View HMD website and trailer here.


Katherine Langrish said...

Thank you both for these thoughtful posts. "What if - what if it was me?" I think you're right, we need to consider ourselves and our culture in the light of both sides of that question.

What if I was one of the victims, and nobody helped me?

What if I was too afraid to help, and so ended up complicit - guilty?

Katherine Langrish said...

... there's a third question too, of course: "What if I was one of the haters? The would-be perpetrators?"

Though I don't believe anybody reading this blog would BE one such, we have certainly all met them. Even when the people in question seem too ignorant or too wildly remote from our ways of thinking to engage with, they do need to be challenged.

Miriam Halahmy said...

I'm not sure about the complicit-guilty if you are too afraid to help. But if you go out of your way to betray, that is the unforgiveable, I think. Anne Frank and her family should have survived. They were betrayed. And what for? An extra sausage?

Della said...

These are both very interesting posts about a subject that continues to perplex and haunt us. We need to understand what goes wrong with the human mind to have permitted such atrocities on so mass a scale. I think making small steps by recognizing our responsibilities to each other every day in our own communities – not ignoring the bad things we see, however minor – is one way to stay diligent.

Miriam Halahmy said...

To: "miriam"
Sent: Thursday, January 27, 2011 1:12 PM
Subject: Re: HMD 2011 from Miriam

> Hi Miriam,
> I've just read your and Leslie's blog, and this comment rightfully belongs there, but the last
> comment I posted ages ago didn't work, so I didn't.
> There are two grandmothers in this family. I am one, and Liesl, over a decade older, is the
> other. Liesl is German-Jewish, and a Kindertransport child. She will be speaking on several
> Cornish radio stations today (my daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren live in
> Cornwall). She also visits Cornish schools. Liesl's whole family - mother, father, siblings and
> grandparents, were murdered in the Holocaust.
> Although it's not often a topic of conversation, little details sometimes emerge... how, at the
> age of ten, she was a promising young skater, and how, one day, her coach had to tell her
> that he wasn't allowed to teach her any more. And after she'd settled in a school in England
> at the age of fifteen, she kept writing to her mum, and how precious her mum's replies were
> to her, until one day they stopped for ever. Little things - like one of her teachers daring to
> say, one day, that her family was as good as anyone else's (did he learn to keep his mouth
> shut? or did he share the same fate as so many good people). And she's still proud of being
> German, likes using the language, loves the literature...
> No, never, never again.
> I just needed to say that, and do feel free to use it if you want to.
> love, Enid xxx

Leslie Wilson said...

I'm glad - it makes me cry, actually - that there are people who were born Jewish Germans, unjustly expelled from their homelands and suffering the murder of their loved ones, who can still treasure the culture of Germany - to which, incidentally, her Jews made such an enormous and valuable contribution. Literature, science, music,philosophy, drama - if you go to the Jewish Museum in Berlin, you can see some of that history. Moses Mendelssohn and Mendelssohn the composer, Heinrich Heine, Jakob Wassermann, Elisabeth Bergner, Einstein,, that's just a few, for starters.

Rosalind Adam said...

Thank you, to both of you, for a very moving post. Like Miriam, I have been brought up with a constant awareness of the terrible things that happened. As a youngster I knew a number of concentration camp survivors and still feel sick with the memory of their accounts.

But how can we grandly say, 'Never Again' when it's still happening to different cultures and different religious groups? It might be called something different, ethnic cleansing, but it's still the murder of human beings.

If only we could care enough about each other for all this killing to stop.

Stroppy Author said...

Thank you, Leslie and Mariam for a wonderful, thought-provoking post.

Miriam Halahmy said...

From: Denise De Rome
To: miriam
Sent: Saturday, January 29, 2011 7:18 PM
Subject: Re: SORRY .... HMD 2011 from Miriam

Hi Miriam
Great blog! Yes, amongst many bits, I love the bit when Leslie says ' Fiction can make us feel what it was like to be there, making frightening decisions; to imagine what it’s like to have the Gestapo in your house ...... '
In fact I love it all.
Intended to bring my French grandfather's extraordinary illustrated certificate for some act of bravery in 1917. ... he was later in WW2 resistance, so I've often thought about what it was like to have the Gestapo swarming around. .....

All the best