‘London does not need a new Holocaust memorial in the shadow of Parliament. It already has a very moving one in Hyde Park’
“Now and Forever enshrined in memory are the six million Jewish Martyrs who perished in concentration camps, ghettos and gas chambers. In their deepest agony they clung to the image of Humanity, and their acts of resistance in the forests and ghettos redeemed the honor of man. Their suffering and heroism are forever branded upon our conscience and shall be remembered from generation to generation.”
Philadelphia has one, erected in 1964 and carrying the message above, so why should not London? After all, Britain has made a major contribution to Holocaust memorialisation. The centralised character of the British educational curriculum is important, with the Holocaust being a significant subject in the teaching of history, although this led to complaints from Muslim bodies in the early 2010s. It retained this status in the National Curriculum for History when it was revised in 2013. I was a member of the advisory committee and there was no suggestion at all that less attention should be devoted to the Holocaust.
There is a more general engagement with Holocaust awareness. Government support was important for the designation in Britain of Holocaust Memorial Day, held on January 27, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. In 2015, on a state visit to Germany, the Queen visited Bergen-Belsen. Large numbers of schoolchildren and others are taken to Auschwitz by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Moreover, the Holocaust has become for many a key foreign and global locator and validator of a world war that is otherwise presented essentially as a national narrative, focusing on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, and D-Day.
Thus, the proposed Holocaust memorial and Learning Centre in Victoria Tower Gardens might appear an obvious, natural development. Indeed, it may seem unpleasant to enter some caveats. Yet they need addressing. Most obviously, London already has a Holocaust memorial. It is a very moving one and it is unclear to me why it is judged inadequate. Unveiled in 1983, the Holocaust Memorial in Hyde Park was the first public memorial in Britain dedicated to Holocaust victims. Go and visit it. In the Dell, to the east of the Serpentine, the memorial consists of two granite boulders surrounded by a copse of silver birch trees and carries an inscription, in Hebrew and English, from Lamentations: “For these I weep. Streams of tears flow from my eyes because of the destruction of my people.” The site of annual remembrance services, the Memorial is also an appropriate and strong site for personal reflection. Funded by the Board of Deputies, it was unveiled during a service in which Patrick Jenkin, the Environment Secretary, described it as “a reminder of the past and a warning for the future”.
It is completely unclear why the commitment and efforts of that generation are being written out of history in order to justify a larger monument. If there is to be another memorial, what then happens to the Hyde Park one, a much more appropriate place for reflection on the mysteries of human motivation and purpose in history? Surely Victoria Tower Gardens is the wrong place. Why ruin a much-needed open space when there are so few in Westminster? Why put a Learning Centre so far from where young people live? In Westminster, it will be another tourist site and not a part of the educational process for young people. Indeed, from that perspective, a location in Birmingham, Leeds or Manchester would be much better.
It is now fashionable to have significant Holocaust memorials in very prominent spots. But what is right for Berlin and Vienna is not necessarily appropriate for London. It is fundamentally different for perpetrators to have such a prominent memorial than for the power that led the fight against them.
Memorials have become central to the “history wars” that are now so significant in identity politics, which opens up issues of equivalence and prioritisation. Holocaust deniers are clearly evil (not mad, for that is a calumny on the insane) and Holocaust diminishers, as I tried to show in my book The Holocaust: History and Memory, are deeply problematic with their seriously flawed attempts at demanding comparisons and asserting equivalences.
In political terms, however, this will not be so easy. The cry will come for a similar memorial and learning centre for the slave trade, the Armenian massacres, Rwanda, and on it goes.
The Holocaust itself is best felt in its all-too-many sites. The former Jewish quarter at Salonika (Thessaloniki), from where over 40,000 were taken to slaughter at Auschwitz II, remains somewhat spectral, and the heat of the day does not stir the quiet. When I visited the rebuilt site of the Vilnius ghetto in the mid-1990s, I was struck by the very few indications of its earlier identity. The women, children and old men were murdered there in August 1943, and the younger men taken for murderous slave labour. “Earth Conceal Not The Blood Shed on Thee,” the injunction on the Jewish monument at Bergen-Belsen, is more powerful for being in situ.
Not all of us can or will travel, but that is equally true of learning centres in Britain. Moreover, in the context of competition in memorialisation, of assertion through grief, we would benefit from some guidelines. Possibly the most difficult, but the most necessary, would be to keep what we have got so far, which includes the Hyde Park Holocaust Memorial, and to be wary about erecting more memorials.
In the event of the latter, maybe we should focus on issues, events and individuals in national life. For Britain to become a competing battlefield of statuary centred on differing views of the significance of episodes of global history would be unwelcome. That the Holocaust is taught in British schools as part of world history is correct in every sense. That should not mean that there is a comparable determination to build memorials.