Time to decolonise the Holocaust

David Rosenberg was on the Holocaust Memorial Day panel organised by Stand Up To Racism on 24th January 2023. He gave this powerful speech on behalf of the Jewish Socialists' Group, pointing not only to the direct perpetrators but to the states, governments, professionals and politicians who enabled them to commit mass industrialised murder

Time to decolonise the Holocaust

Flowers left in one of the remaining barracks at Auschwitz-Birrkenau.
Photo: David Rosenberg , taken on 12th Nov 2018

In February 1935, several years before Hitler advocated what he called his Final Solution to the Jewish Question, one fascist wrote: “…the most certain and permanent way of disposing of the Jews would be to exterminate them by some humane method such as the lethal chamber.” Who was he? Arnold Leese, a retired veterinary surgeon from Lincolnshire. By the mid-1930s, he headed a small, virulently antisemitic grouping in Britain called the Imperial Fascist League. Their flag? A Union Jack overlaid with a a black swastika in a white circle.

Some academics still claim there is something essentially German about fascism. Nearly 80 years after the war ended, we know that fascism, with its ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism, can arise anywhere. No people is immune from it.

The Nazis’ destruction of Jewish and Roma lives in Europe could not have been achieved by them alone. They needed collaborators to assist them; and they needed others to look away or refuse to see what was happening before their eyes.

"Had the Nazis occupied Britain, they would have found enthusiastic collaborators among fascist activists and powerful upper-class networks."

Had the Nazis occupied Britain, they would have found enthusiastic collaborators among fascist activists and among a range of powerful upper-class networks that flourished here in the 1930s, especially the Right Club, the Link, and the Anglo-German Fellowship, who were delighted that Hitler was “dealing” with what was called “the Jewish problem”.  On the day war broke out between Britain and Germany, the 5th Duke of Wellington vented his anger at the “anti-appeasers and the fucking Jews”.

Among Conservative MPs in the 1930s were several open antisemites, such as Captain Ramsey, MP for Peebles and South Midlothian. He regarded all Jews as evil, though I don’t think he encountered many in his constituency. He lapped up false and malicious propaganda claiming there was a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. Anti-fascists knew that it was aristocrats like him who had actually taken over the world and were hoarding its resources.

Another was Nancy Astor, often lauded by Shadow Cabinet member Rachel Reeves as the first woman to sit in Parliament. Astor was a fanatical supporter of Hitler and promised that he would solve “the world problem” of “Jews and communism.”  Mind you, unlike Captain Ramsey, she made exceptions. At a private gathering she introduced her friend Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel, as a speaker, and described him as “the only decent Jew I ever met.”

And yet, the British establishment continue to tell themselves that the Holocaust happened “over there”, Britain was nothing to do with it, and of course helped to defeat Hitler.

The Black Lives Matter movement rightly tell us that we need to decolonise the telling of history. It is time to decolonise the Holocaust, to ask awkward questions about what the British state was doing in these years.

It was not just a matter of the friendships between Nazi-supporting aristocrats in Britain and Germany, but hundreds of thousands of asylum applications from Jews in the 1930s ignored and rejected; the failure of politicians and civil servants to treat seriously reports of huge systematic massacres of civilians that marked the beginnings of the Holocaust. They dismissed such reports as exaggerated and refused to contemplate any special actions to rescue Jews in ghettoes and offer sanctuary to refugees, or slow down the killing process by bombing train lines leading to Auschwitz.

In Caxton Hall, Westminster, a prominent Polish Jewish socialist, Szmul Zygielbojm, revealed to a packed international Labour Party meeting in September 1942, reports of the first use of poison gas as a weapon of mass murder. Forty thousand Jews held in Chelmno, Poland, were gassed over a period of seven weeks. We know now that this included some Roma, too.  He said: “The conscience of every person must be shaken; the serenity of those who ignore the facts must be exploded.”

The questions for the British State go beyond 1945. Why was the British state so so mean-spirited about taking in refugees from the Displaced Persons camps in the late 1940s? Britain took in relatively few Holocaust survivors. Those who entered depended on private initiatives by remarkable people, several of them not Jewish, rather than official government help.

"The Holocaust should never be seen as something inexplicable that happened outside of history."

In Britain, Holocaust Memorial Day was first officially commemorated in 2001, on 27th January – the day the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.  Auschwitz was the most extensive of six death camps the Nazis constructed, all of them in Poland, where victims were industrially slaughtered in gas chambers. The Holocaust should never be seen as something inexplicable that happened outside of history. It happened in the real world, within an economic system that channelled the skills of trained architects, engineers, scientists, physicians, administrators… to create factories of death that deprived the world of the talents of millions of other human beings whom they labelled inferior. All in the context of modernity and capitalism.

Auschwitz actually had three different components – Auschwitz 1 was a prison/concentration camp for Polish political prisoners, trade unionists, homosexuals, and others deemed “asocial”. Many perished from starvation.

A second camp, Monowitz, consisted of slave labour factories, especially those built by the private chemical company I G Farben and armaments factories established by the manufacturer Kruup. Tens of thousands of slaves – mainly Jews – were worked to death there. The life expectancy of these slaves was 3-4 months. The great Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi survived Monowitz.

The third and best known component was the killing centre at Birkenau, 2 km from Auschwitz 1. It was dedicated only to extermination. Around 1 million Jews and 21,000 Gypsies were exterminated there in gas chambers.

The guinea pig trials for mass killing by gas took place in September 1941: 600 Soviet prisoners of war were selected for execution along with 250 polish political prisoners considered unfit for work and of no use to the Nazis. Instead of ordering them to be shot, the camp commandant experimented with mass killing by hydrogen cyanide gas. In Germany in 1939 there had also been experiments with methods of mass killings that were perpetrated against disabled people.

I have been to Auschwitz several times as part of the Unite Against Fascism/Stand Up To Racism team that leads educational trips there. Each time it hits me in a different way.

In Auschwitz 1 there are horrific drawings by prisoners who survived the bestial brutality by guards, but what haunts me most about Auschwitz is less the frenzied antisemitism, the utter hatred of the “other”, but more the cold, calculating way the Holocaust was brought about as a process of people using their skills and ingenuity to make mass killing of that “other” possible

One display shows a map of the 20-plus countries from which Jews were transported to Auschwitz. Among the furthest was Norway. Ships collected Jews, delivered them to Denmark. Then they were transferred by rail on a 28-hour journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau . One of those ships – the Monte Rosa – took 46 Jews; 44 of them were gassed at Auschwitz. Britain captured the Monte Rosa later in the war. It was renamed and served other purposes afterwards. In June 1948, it docked at Tilbury under its new name: the Empire Windrush, transporting hundreds of new Caribbean immigrants who came with apprehension and hope, who have contributed so much to Britain, but have been met with prejudice, racism and discrimination.

Now we see our current Tory Home Secretary, Suella Braverman seeking to renege on promises to bring justice to the victims of the Windrush scandal; the same Home secretary who doubles down against the Holocaust survivor Joan Salter, who absolutely rightly compared Braverman’s language to refugees today with the dehumanisation of the Jews in Nazi rhetoric.

Auschwitz and other death camps were the very end of the process. Anti-racists and anti-fascists need to focus on the beginning – the labelling, discrimination, exclusion, scapegoating, dehumanisation and brutalisation of particular communities – especially the Jews, but also Roma and Sinti Gypsies, and disabled people. Wherever we see these processes against any minority, we need to intervene, and be upstanders, not by-standers. The Holocaust survivors I know personally, survived because they were hidden by Polish Catholic upstanders.

"The Nazis were determined to eradicate an immensely rich and beautiful culture as well as people."

Long before Holocaust Memorial Day was an officially recognised day in Britain in 2001, I attended Holocaust memorial events in the East End of London, at least from 1982; only they didn’t happen in January. They took place every year on 19th April, the day that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising started. These memorial events included personal reminiscence, poetry and songs. They were conducted in Yiddish – the daily language of the vast majority of Jews killed in the Holocaust. The Nazis were determined to eradicate an immensely rich and beautiful culture as well as people.

These events remembered the murdered and celebrated the resistance, not just the physical resistance, but the concealed heroism of those who organised clandestine schools, children’s art exhibitions, literary events, poetry readings, soup kitchens, libraries, underground newspapers, almost under the noses of the Nazi occupiers, yet hidden from them, which kept people alive, and maintained their spirit of hope. Without that work, based on the principles of mutual aid,  there couldn’t and wouldn’t have been physical resistance.

But what I also remember from those memorial events (which were organised by the Friends of Yiddish) was that the chair, a Bundist Jewish socialist called Majer Bogdanski, would always honour Roma Gypsies who, he declared, died in the same way as the Jews for the same reasons.

This year will be the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – an event that every anti-racist and anti-fascist, whatever their personal identity and background, should hold very close to their heart. In the struggles against autocracy and oppression in 19th century Poland, a slogan was coined: “Za naszą i waszą wolność!” “For our freedom and yours!” That slogan was used also by fighters from Poland, many of whom were Jews, who went to Spain in the late 1930s to fight against Franco’s fascists. And it was a slogan, in Yiddish, used by underground newspapers in the Warsaw Ghetto: “Far undzer un ayer frayheyt!” It is a slogan that epitomises the unity and solidarity that must be embraced by all minorities facing any kind of racism and bigotry. The challenge is to turn those slogans into real action for a besere un shenere velt – a better and more beautiful world!


Posted: 26 January 2023