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Why Holocaust memorials fail Extremism is rising, anti-Semitism is returning – memorialisation hasn't worked

It looks like a toast rack. Credit: Adjaye Associates

It looks like a toast rack. Credit: Adjaye Associates

January 25, 2019   4 mins

It is Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday, a treacherous time when Jews are told, by some, that they gather all victimhood for themselves. Jeremy Corbyn tried to rename Holocaust Memorial Day as Genocide Memorial Day for this reason, but we are told that this is no longer Labour Party policy, and that is gratifying.

Instead, a new Holocaust Memorial will be built next to parliament, in Victoria Palace Gardens. It was ordered by David Cameron and chosen by competition – Memorial Idol? The winning entry looks, to me, like a giant toast rack containing toast.

I went through the entries yesterday, in a facetious rage – what’s your favourite Holocaust Memorial? It is hard to forgive the architects, however well they mean, their professionalism. It’s a job, inciting meaning with sculpture in small spaces, and their metaphors screech at me. And so, alongside Toast Rack, I found Massive Alien Baby, Hill on Its Side, Metal Sandwich, Toast Rack Slightly Different, Triangle, Something About Aeroplanes, and – and this is just lazy – Circle.

I hate most Holocaust memorials. I hate the one in Berlin, which is a series of concrete blocks. It’s so unimaginative, only a German could have built it. I watched a woman place a handbag on a block, saw an emergency exit twinkling, and left. I hate the one in Vienna too, which is a prison cell, surrounded by cafes. Is it a memorial or a tiny re-enactment? I won’t go to Auschwitz either. All that chip throwing, and children being dragged around unwillingly, and bad reviews on Trip Advisor – look them up, people complain they aren’t moved, and they flew in to be moved – and, in the past, anti-Semites with tape measures lurking, trying to prove it’s all a hoax.

My favourite memorial is Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It’s an archive too, busy with historians. If you want proof, for instance, that Jews were not complicit in the murder of their fellows – a popular myth on the far Left, who love the anti-Semitic play Perdition as much as Ken Loach does – you email Yad Vashem, and they rebut it with evidence. They have collected all the names of the dead they can find. It is in Israel, which is the only memorial to the Holocaust that means anything, because it holds the possibility that it will not happen again, not because people type hash tags that say #NeverAgain and post them on Twitter, but because there is an army. That is why Jews mind Right-wing anti-Semitism, which is not anti-Zionist, less that Left-wing anti-Semitism, which is anti-Zionist. Sticks and stones will break my bones. Leave us the guns.

There is a canyon in the grounds of Yad Vashem, made of golden stone. On the walls of this canyon are written the names of the settlements in Europe which were emptied of Jews. The size of the letters depends on the size of the settlements. You find names in Hebrew and English of places you have never heard of written in small letters in the walls, and then you come to the great pre-war centres of Jewish culture and they are huge: Warsaw. Krakow. Vilnius. There is also a children’s memorial where, with candles and mirrors, the effect is conveyed of infinite points of light. I like this less, because it is comforting, and I won’t be comforted. They make the children seem eternal when they did not even have even a natural life-span.

But is this the whimsy – the privilege – of the Jew? I don’t need a Holocaust Memorial, for all surviving Jews are a memorial. There’s one asleep upstairs. He’s five. I haven’t told him of the attempt to annihilate his tribe in living memory. I will tell him when he is 13. They learn it too young in Israel, and I think it has sent them mad.

There is already a Holocaust Memorial in London. It’s two stones under a tree in Hyde Park, with a quotation from Lamentations: “For these I weep. Streams of tears flow from my eyes because of the destruction of my people.”

We don’t need another one, not because they irritate me, but because Holocaust memorialisation does not work. It has not worked. Extreme populism and Nationalism are rising. Anti-Racist campaigners are in despair. The absence of anti-Semitism post war was the anomaly, and now we return, slowly, to the status quo.

People cannot be educated out of mass murder. That’s the paradigm. Germany was the most cultured country in Europe in 1933. The Waffen SS weren’t fools with pitchforks. Many of them had PhDs in medicine and law. Anti-Semitism is many complex things, but it is, at its most mundane, a pressure valve. It erupts when people are bereft, and afraid, and seek a common enemy on which to project their fear. So the £50 million for the toast rack should go on something else. Something that will create a society prosperous and self-confident enough not to need a pogrom in which the most despised wretch in the city is a king. Because he is not a Jew.

The new Holocaust memorial will stand by Westminster, as if a debt were owed by Britain to the Jews. Bars are low here, but Britain owes less than most of Europe, if only due to the luck of the sea. We cannot know, and I do not want to know. (My grand-father had the cyanide ready in 1940 in south London. He didn’t want my grandmother to go to a concentration camp.) I dislike the self-congratulation due to the Kindertransport, in which 10,000 children were brought to Britain, for where were their parents? But the British have not been truly expert in anti-Semitism since the 13th century, and even Jewish memories struggle to extend back that far.

It is normal, though, on the far Left, to accuse Jews of stealing victimhood, and refusing to share it with others who are, equally, due memorials. That’s an offensive charge. Murder a talkative people who like books, and survivors will talk about it, and write books about it. But even anti-Semites can be right, if for the wrong reasons. There should be a memorial to all racisms, not to thwart their idea of the grasping Jew, but because it is just.

The British profited greatly from slavery, and colonialism for a while, and those victims have no Yad Vashem. They do not have a great centre of sorrow and learning to commemorate the enslaved, the tortured and the dead. It would be better for the Jews, and for everyone – for what is good for everyone is good for the Jews – if one were built.

That is my prayer – no, my desire – on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.


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