I have just returned from a week with my elder brother and sister in Belarus, where we joined a group from Vienna, under the umbrella of the IM-IMER organisation, on the 11th annual visit dedicated to the memory of those who were deported from Austria to Minsk in 1941 and 1942. We were all, in our own way, in search of some understanding of the murder of our close relatives among the over 10,000 Viennese Jews who perished in the name of 'National Socialism'.
The timing of our visit was given particular focus by the paradox of contemporaneous events in the UK, Europe, the USA and beyond. Persistent incidents of homophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism and islamophobia, encouraged and legitimised by the manifesto narratives of hate and division that dominate the voices of so-called leaders on both the right and the left, sit uncomfortably with the commemoration of the sacrifice of those who landed on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago in order to rid Europe of exactly such hatred and prejudice.
On 28 November 1941, my grandparents, Rosa and Arthur Baum, were exiled from their home in Vienna on the 12th Transport, departing from the Aspangbahnhof for an eight-day rail journey (which today takes some 16 hours), the last part of it in cattle trucks. Their destination was the Minsk ghetto, in the territories recently occupied by Germany after its invasion of the Soviet Union. The ghetto had been made ready for these incomers through the murder of existing Jewish residents in anticipation of the large influx from Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia. Here they were held in grossly over-crowded conditions, without heating despite record low winter temperatures dropping to minus 40 degrees. Although the youngest and fittest were selected for labour, this was a brief respite and the last survivors in the ghetto were massacred during a three-day Aktion in July 1942.
Rosa was 62 and Arthur nearly 59 at the time of their deportation. We do not know the exact fate of my grandparents, whether they survived the transport, the bitter winter temperatures in the ghetto or died during the Aktion but we do know that just three people from the 999 on Transport 12 were alive at the end of the war. Insofar as we are able to ascertain (and the Nazis were incredibly good record keepers), these are the facts surrounding their demise, a fate in common with six million others that my late father could or would not share with us in any way. With the encouragement of his parents, he was able to leave Vienna in 1938 for France and then Scotland, but Rosa and Arthur chose not (or were unable) to join him, blind in comprehending the fate that awaited them.
Our time in Minsk was, in part, an attempt to add to the fragmented historical mosaic which my brother has been able to piece together about my father's life in Vienna. This is the story of someone with a working-class background who left school at 15, who was employed for a number of years before going to university and had almost completed his doctorate before the Anchluss closed doors of opportunity to him. We only recently discovered that his supervisor at the University of Vienna was Engelbert Broda, the chemist and physicist who was suspected by some of being a KGB spy, code-named Eric and possibly a main Soviet source of information on British and American nuclear research. Likewise unbeknownst to us, Broda published the findings of their work (in both names) in 1938 in English in Transactions of the Faraday Society.
My father spoke little of his flight from Austria as a refugee via Italy, Switzerland and France, to Scotland, where he arrived in August 1939. Above all, we knew nothing about the fate of his immediate family in both Austria and Hungary. This was a personal biography of which my father never spoke to my mother or his children. It was clearly a matter of immense pain, maybe survivor guilt, to him. Perhaps he sought to protect us from the horrors of his own loss?
As a consequence, Rosa and Arthur were not people with whom I have ever been able to closely identify as my family. They were never 'grandma' or 'grandad' but rather just my father's unnamed parents – faceless until I saw a single photo of them after my parents' deaths. Therefore, I could not feel the sense of loss or grief that was evident in the experience of others in our group. That, in turn, is the cause of some unease for me.
Minsk bears little resemblance to the city it was in the early 1940s – just two buildings in the area of the Jewish ghetto survive, so gaining a real sense of place was difficult. Acknowledging memorials, of which there are many, was part of the process of our commemoration in the city and also in the nearby labour and extermination camp of Maly Trotsinets. Here most of the 10,000 people exiled from Vienna to Minsk perished alongside up to 200,000 prisoners of war, partisans, political prisoners and Jews from across Europe – all classified as Untermenschen (inferior people) within Nazi ideology.
Acknowledging our personal losses and, with it, the destruction of an assimilated economic and cultural community, who contributed so much to cities such as Vienna, was very important to everyone who participated in the visit and, for me, brought an important sense of understanding to events of which I was only very vaguely aware. We hung named memorial plaques to our family members but also to others with no living relatives, on the pine trees that have grown where the killing pits were.
However, for me this personalised experience, however horrific, was forced into proportion when I learnt more about the scale of Belarussian loss at the hands of National Socialism. This was the wider backcloth to the tragedy of my grandparents and the Viennese Jewish community. Having survived the ravages of Stalin's purges during the 1930s, a quarter of the nine million population of Belarus in 1939 perished during the great patriotic war. The dead were from all communities, faiths and political persuasions. Two-thirds of a very substantial Jewish community, largely rural, were exterminated between 1941 and 1944, leaving over 150 villages completely abandoned with no survivors after the war.
Small numbers escaped to join partisan groups in the deep forests that are still so evident in Belarus today. They fought as part of, or alongside, Soviet partisan units until liberation in July 1944 and many then faced Stalin's grotesque 'vengeance' on survivors through exile to the gulags in Siberia. We were honoured to meet four survivors of the Minsk ghetto, each telling their own traumatic story of anguish and heroism.
We live at a time when varied claims to priority with respect to the future of humanity are proposed, notably the case for our natural environment and the consequences of climate change for the planet. For some, alongside such claims, the fate of peoples, individuals or collective, constitutes a side agenda. Who can judge?
For me, however, ensuring that the barbarism of Minsk is never permitted to re-emerge, whether legitimised by a state or not, has to be humanity's number one priority to itself. We have already failed the people of, inter alia, Rwanda, Myanmar, Gaza, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and Christchurch in this regard. What is so important is that we stamp out ideologies that give succour and support to actions that can lead to a repeat of what happened in Minsk and elsewhere in Europe during the Nazi era. We can only combat extremism in Europe by adopting a united political and cultural front that stands in uncompromising opposition to the politics of division and evil.
This is surely the strongest possible argument for the UK to remain at the heart of Europe, working with our partners in the European Union to ensure that what transpired 80 years ago can never happen again. It is not about economics, whether it is £350 million a day, whether it is more than that or less. It is not about good deals, even better deals or reviving the greatness of a forgotten past. It is about challenging misrepresentation and lies, whether at the ballot box, in the media or on Twitter. It is about eradicating intolerance between nations and peoples, but also protecting the rights of individuals on the streets of Southampton, West London and Canterbury. It is about the consequences that single acts of homophobia, xenophobia, antisemitism or islamophobia have for the values that underpin our society. Such consequences legitimise the politics and violence of hate and a disregard for the lessons of the past.
We are told that about 5% of the population of the UK do not accept that the holocaust killings or genocide on this scale took place. Holocaust denial goes hand in hand with the street violence and political intolerance that is mushrooming in the UK, Europe and the USA today. I would simply ask all holocaust deniers, then, what happened to my grandparents? How and why were my sister, my brothers and I denied the extended family that most people today take for granted? Why did my father have to live with this torment of grief and (we presume) guilt for the rest of his life, something he was never able to share with us?