Anti-racism is very personal for me. I didn’t know this until I was a young adult and accidentally learned something important about my father that he had kept hidden from his wife, his children, his colleagues and his friends. I knew that my father was an immigrant to this country. I did not know that he was a German Jew, who had been imprisoned in a Nazi labour camp or that his mother, who he named me after, had been murdered by the Nazis in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I found out about my father’s identity from a casual comment by a cousin’s wife when I was staying with them wife at their home in Switzerland.
When I got back to the UK, I told my father what I had heard. He came to see me and told me some of the personal history that he had withheld until then. At the age of 19 he had been arrested on Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass), when Nazis and their supporters had attacked Jewish homes and businesses and taken many Jews from their homes. He was taken to a Labour camp, where he suffered frostbite and came close to losing fingers. He was saved by his uncle, who lived in Switzerland and negotiated his release, on condition that he left the country. He had to leave his widowed mother and elder sister in Germany. His sister was later imprisoned by the Nazis but made her own escape and reunited with my father at the end of the war. His mother, the grandmother I never knew, tried desperately to get out of Germany but failed, and so became one of the many victims of the Nazi holocaust.
After he had left Germany my father travelled to the Middle East, originally to study but then chose instead to join the British army. At the end of the war he escorted Nazi prisoners when they were prosecuted at the Nuremberg tribunal. Serving in the British army gave him the chance to settle in the UK and to study medicine, which had always been his ambition.
It was then that my father began the process of changing his identity. He renounced his German nationality and became a British citizen. Like many Jews at that time he changed his surname to the Swiss-sounding one that his uncle had chosen for his own branch of the family. He told people about his family in Switzerland and led them to believe that Switzerland was his country of origin. He became thoroughly British, except that he never quite embraced the traditions of drinking warm beer or eating fat chips with salt and vinegar. He proudly served the NHS for over 3 decades as a hospital doctor. When he retired the local evening paper marked the event with a short article under the inaccurate and rather belated headline, ‘Swiss doctor flees Nazis’.
As long as he lived I respected my father’s wish to distance himself and his family from the events of his earlier life. But after he died I felt the need to find out more about my grandmother. When I searched on the internet I found one brief reference. It was from the Yad Vashem database, which was established to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. It gave my grandmother’s date and place of birth and death. It recorded her place of death as Auschwitz. I rarely cry but I did then. With grief for the horror of what had been done to this woman who I had never known; and with gratitude to the chroniclers of Yad Vashem who had not allowed her memory to be erased.
I went with my husband to Berlin to see the museums and memorials there. I wanted to understand better how such terrible things could have been done in so-called civilised Europe in the twentieth century. How could Austria and Germany that had produced musicians, like Mozart and Beethoven, writers like Goethe and Schiller and philosophers like Kant and Hegel descend so rapidly into a ferment of hatred and violence and the appallingly cold blooded campaign of genocide that the Nazis carried out against Jews, Roma, gay people and people with disabilities?
The archives of newspapers, posters and film showed many Germans felt angry and humiliated because of their country’s defeat in the First World War and the impact on their lives of the economic collapse that followed. They were looking for scapegoats and were receptive to the powerful, nakedly racist and discriminatory propaganda put out by the Nazis. This promised them a future in which they would be prosperous citizens of a once again proud nation. If only they could defeat the enemies that were hiding in their midst and polluting the purity of their Aryan race.
It was horrifying to see film of how women who were believed to have slept with a Jew had had their heads shaved and and their clothes stripped from them, before being driven taken through the streets in an open cart, to shouts of abuse from the crowds that gathered.
In another way it was equally shocking to see how effective the Nazi propaganda had been in making people believe that Jewish neighbours, who had been their friends, their doctors, their lawyers and their trusted merchants were dangerous enemies in their midst. I read a letter from an ordinary German solider to his wife. He described how he had shot a Jewish father, mother and their young children. He commented that ‘it was not pleasant, but I had to do it because otherwise they would have done it to you and our children.’
We went on to Poland and visited the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camp. It was early spring, and I wore a quilted anorak but was with this protection I shivered in the bitter wind. We walked through the notorious entry gate, beneath the brutally ironic sign that reads ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (work sets you free).
In the museum we saw some of the possessions that had been taken from the prisoners on arrival as they were stripped of the last vestiges of their dignity as human beings: a broken doll, a watch, glasses, false teeth and human hair. We saw the huts where they were crowded together to sleep with minimal bedding, the rows of rudimentary toilets that they were allowed to use only for a matter of moments, at set times. We walked through the yards where they would be made to stand out in the bitter cold for hours at a time, while they were counted and re-counted. We learned about how the Nazis had for some time struggled to find an efficient and convenient way to murder the vast numbers of people they wanted to destroy, before they happened upon Zyklon gas.
At the end of the disused railway line we saw a faithful replica of the cattle truck train carriage that would have brought my grandmother to her own final destination. I do not know whether she was selected for immediate despatch to the gas chamber or whether she lived long enough to suffer an extended period of hunger, bodily decay, despair and humiliation. We saw a replica of the crematorium in which her poor body was finally destroyed completely. She has no grave beyond the memorial at Auschwitz, which she shares with so many others.
I would like to pay tribute to the courage of those Germans who have been prepared to face up to the truth of their country’s history. And to Poles like Agnieszka, the impassioned and knowledgable young woman who was our guide at Auschwitz. These people are determined to honour the memory of the victims and to make sure that the evidence of their suffering is preserved; so that the reality of the Holocaust cannot be plausibly denied.
I think it is important to tell the stories of my father and my unknown grandmother in the hope that they will help people now to see the terrible consequences of racism. Antisemitism is a particular kind of racism and one of the oldest and most persistent. But it is just one of many forms.
I am frightened by the similarities between what I have learned about Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and the economic and political developments we are living through now. I wish that people in government and my fellow citizens would be as willing as those Germans I admired, to take responsibility for the cruelties and injustices to people who were the victims of our own country’s colonialism and slavery. I want us to take action to bring an end to the discrimination and abuse that people from minority groups have to suffer in our country to this day.
Knowing more about my father’s and grandmother’s history has helped me to understand why my father chose to conceal his original identity; to protect himself and his family from the horrors he had experienced in his youth. I am grateful to him for that love and care. But I do not want my grandchildren, or anyone else’s, to grow up in a country, or indeed a world, where people have to hide who they are; or where they are prejudged, discriminated against, or persecuted because of where they come from, how they look or what they believe.