August 2, 2021

We don’t know how many Jews died in the British Holocaust. Marianne Grunfeld, Auguste Spitz and Therese Steiner were deported from Guernsey by the German occupying force in 1942 — mainland Britain would not admit them because they were not citizens — and murdered in Auschwitz. French Jews forcibly moved to Alderney died in the labour camps, but we don’t know how many. The British Holocaust was small.

Even so, a vast Holocaust memorial will soon rise in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to parliament, against opposition from local residents and many British Jews, including Holocaust survivors. But the last obstacles are overcome: the government has pushed it through because they want it.

There is already an adequate memorial in Hyde Park — size does not matter here; Albert Speer loved size — and a permanent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum less than a mile from parliament. The newest memorial — there are more than 300 already worldwide, rising seemingly in harmony with anti-Semitism itself, like a bad symphony — will attempt to convey meaning through what looks like a giant toast rack, or a child’s toy; simple for ease of understanding.

They all do that. The Holocaust memorial has become an architectural cliché. For some reason blocks are favoured, as if part of some giant cosmic warehouse, and that all adds to the ennui; the numbness; the nothingness. There is no Holocaust memorial better than a live Jew, or, even better, a Jew who is not afraid. But it’s too late for that. Britain did not behave perfectly: far from it. We offered nothing during the Evian Conference of 1938, convened by the League of Nations to discuss German and Austrian refugees. The Evian Conference is not much discussed, probably because it locked European Jews in a prison the size of a continent for ease of murder. Joseph Goebbels was thrilled by this dismal indifference to Jews, writing in his diary that the Nazi regime was better than the so-called “civilised” world because it was more honest.

In fact, Lord Winterton, a member of the House of Lords and the British representative at Evian, apologised to Germany for “unwarranted interference in affairs of state”. His official quote was: “The United Kingdom is not a country of immigration”. Foreign office memos were reliably anti-Jewish: “this office spends too much time dealing with the wailing Jews”; “Why should the Jews be spared distress…when they have deserved it?”

After an international outcry, 288 German Jews were admitted to Britain from the refugee ship the St Louis — “the voyage of the damned” — after America and other countries shut them out. (Three other countries eventually took refugees from the ship but many perished.) The captain Gustav Schröder even considered wrecking the ship off Cornwall to save his passengers. 10,000 Jewish children were admitted to Britain — the Kindertransport — after lobbying by MPs including Eleanor Rathbone and Josiah Wedgwood, Quakers and British Jews, though their parents were excluded, of course. There were British rescuers. The banker Nicholas Winton saved 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before the war. The Mills and Boon novelist Mary Burchell smuggled valuables out of Germany so refugees could meet the financial requirements to enter Britain. Frank Foley, a passport control officer — and spy — in the British Embassy in Berlin “bent the rules” to save Jewish families. But the small quota of Jews allowed to British-controlled Palestine — 15,000 a year from 1939 for five years — was never filled. After the war the British government agreed to take any Jewish children still alive in continental Europe. They found 732, some of whom were the Children of Windermere, sheltered for a while in the Lake District. Rescue, as I said, is the perfect memorial. And that was that: until now.

Why build a Holocaust memorial here, now — a sort of awful twin to the Palace of Westminster, which is likewise otherworldly and alienating? I, who experience Britain as a haven — my ancestors are Polish Jews and between 1941 and 1945 Polish Jewry declined from roughly 3,400,000 to 300,000 with mass murder (we do not know the exact figures, for obvious reasons) — will not be able to look at it. I have an idea that it will sully, for me, something sacred. I know, of course, that not all minority communities feel this way: why should they? It is one Jew’s emotional response. Many British Jews want this memorial and lobbied the Conservative government for it.

But even if your motives are decent, all the evidence points one way: Holocaust memorials, by themselves, do not work. They have not worked: the news will tell you that. We do not know what works. A stable political system might help — anti-Semitism is, most prosaically, a pressure valve in times of social and economic distress — as would a detailed rebuttal of every lazy and ancient libel against the Jewish people: the deicide; the well-poisoners; the puppet masters. Those who call Jews puppet masters will have a lot to say about this memorial. They are saying it already. They say our misery is favoured, that we exploit it, that we have special access to power to ensure a large memorial to our dead.

For example, the Church in Britain is planning a formal apology to the Jews for medieval anti-Semitism. But it won’t talk about the role of the scriptures in inciting it; they remain. Teaching the Holocaust outside the confines of wider Jewish history is pointless. Without an educated and engaged population aware of the context of this genocide — and all genocides, separately — the Holocaust assumes the dimensions of a fairy tale. Enter the Palace of the Ugly Toast Rack, children, and be afraid, but do not be wary. Here is a place of such unique evil it has nothing to do with you. Build the structures high and they are inhuman. The only thing people really need to understand about the Holocaust is that it happened to people like them; to avoid another they must do something. Will the memorial facilitate that?

No, it reads like denial, and cynicism, a kind of national virtue signalling: Britain turns its face to the place it has done least wrong, to distract from wrongs elsewhere. To read of plans commemorating Jews — easy to rally support for, since they are dead — while politicians tut at migrant boats and fantasise about interning refugees on islands is nauseating. Europe is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the war. The government is playing catch-up in bronze because it’s easy. Perhaps, in 80 years, when the current migrants are shut out, and dead, they will be honoured with an ugly memorial.

There is a memorial already in Victoria Tower Gardens: Samuel Sanders Teulon’s memorial to Thomas Fowell Buxton, the abolitionist. That it is to the abolitionist rather than the enslaved is typical. It is obvious what should be memorialised by the British state at the centre of its pomp: slavery and murderous colonialism. But that is too loaded for a government led by a man whose novel Seventy-Two Virgins is little more than a collection of racist epithets. Better to let compliant Jews have their memorial and, to the rest, nothing.

Beautiful trees will be destroyed: the opposite of the Jewish dictum to choose life. The Buxton memorial — such as it is — will be overshadowed; black pain dwarfed, quite literally, by Jewish pain. A promise will be broken: in 1879 a donation of £1000 was given by the Rt Hon W H Smith, on condition that Victoria Tower Gardens would serve local people in perpetuity. It will become a target for anti-Semites, and their myths of Jewish power. And, finally, as a Holocaust survivor pointed out to me this morning, it’s on a flood plain. That should be enough.