I was given The Diary of Anne Frank
as a present when I was 10 or 11. As a result, her story haunted me well into adolescence. For months I inhabited that achterhuis in Amsterdam, hearing the daily chimes of the Westerkerk, wondering how I might have coped with those days of confinement, secrecy, silence and ever-present fear of betrayal, let alone what happened afterwards. Both fascinated and horrified, I read everything I could get hold of about the Holocaust, including a copy of The Scourge of the Swastika
by Lord Russell of Liverpool my father had hidden at the back of a bookshelf. Later, more mature, I read Primo Levi.
It had been a long time since I'd immersed myself in Holocaust literature, when last summer an old schoolfriend recommended The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found
, by Bart van Es. Among the estimated 4,000 Jewish children hidden from the Nazis during the war was another Dutch Jewish girl, fostered by the author's grandparents in Dordrecht. Although happy there, she had to be moved on from safe house to safe house by a well organised resistance network to avoid police raids during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, where the population proved surprisingly complicit. In some places she was mistreated and abused.
All her close family died in concentration camps and she suffered a deep loss of personal identity, but, unlike Anne Frank, she survived. Anne Frank's family could not protect her from the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and the typhus that killed her sister and herself, just weeks before liberation.
Another schoolfriend, from a Jewish background, came to Edinburgh with her parents in the 1950s from Poland, where they sensed anti-semitism reasserting itself. During the war, her mother's life was saved when another woman gave her a cross to wear during a scare at a railway station. My friend still vividly remembers as a small child being taunted by other children for being, unbelievably, a 'Christ killer'. For me, she embodied Anne Frank, but it was many years before we became friends. She recommended I read East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity
by Philippe Sands.
This book, focused on the city of Lviv, formerly Lemburg, also Lvov, sometimes Polish, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and now Ukrainian, traces the rise of anti-semitism in central Europe, particularly in Poland, in the early 20th century and how this affected the families of two men who, by the middle of the century, had become respected international lawyers in Britain and America.
Hersch Lauterpacht was responsible for introducing the term 'crimes against humanity', which was used during the Nuremberg trials. Rafael Lemkin wanted the term 'genocide' to be used, but although this was referenced by the Scottish prosecutor, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, it was not given legal status at the time. To a layman, the distinction between the terms might seem a fine one, but Lauterpacht strongly opposed the term 'genocide' because he considered it would have the adverse effect of setting one group against another. He considered that the individual was what was important, whether as part of a mass crime against a specific ethnic group or not.
During this anniversary, I watched some of the televised documentaries showing footage of the past intercut with survivors' testimony of life as children in the concentration camps. Auschwitz has been well documented, Belsen and Buchenwald perhaps less so. Belsen, built on open heathland in the north of Germany, was initially considered one of the more humane concentration camps. It had no gas chambers. People simply died of hunger, disease and neglect, their corpses left to rot. Richard Dimbleby famously described the vision of Hell he saw when he arrived with the allied troops at its liberation. The buildings were so contaminated they had to be torched and burned. One unintended consequence was the removal of evidence of what had happened there.
The youngest survivor who spoke in these documentaries was born a day before the camp she was in was liberated. She may live to be the very last survivor.
The Nazi Holocaust should not be forgotten or, for those who, like David Irving, might wish to, denied. It was a wound that shocked and scarred the heart of 20th-century Europe, and its effects are still being played out today, not least in the Middle East. This time the untermenschen are the Palestinians, kettled into the Gaza Strip or forced to undergo humiliating police checks as they make their way through another dreadful barrier wall. There seems no end to humanity's capacity for cruelty and violence towards those whom they fear or envy to the point where they wish to eliminate them from the face of the earth. I tell my Muslim husband you can only understand Israel in the light of the Holocaust, but we must not forget the displaced and disempowered Palestinians. I highly recommend Mornings in Jenin
by Susan Abulhawa, a book that deserves to be better known.
And so to Brexit. Against this background of continuing human turmoil and tension, one has to deplore the puerile behaviour of the British Brexiteers in the European Parliament as Britain left the EU. A disgracefully discourteous display, showing a contemptible poverty of historical understanding and empathy. It shames the nation they have purported to represent.