BOOK REVIEW / What] Must I hold a candle to my shames?: British Jewry and the Holocaust - Richard Bolchover: Cambridge, pounds 22.95

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'A SACRIFICE wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering.' The OED gives 'holocaust' an English pedigree of more than 700 years. Half a century ago, the word acquired a new application. In December 1942, in a bulletin from the British section of the World Jewish Congress, it was pressed into service for the first time to describe the systematic annihilation of European Jewry.

The news of mass killings had appeared a year earlier, when 52,000 people, Jews and non-Jews, were reported murdered after the German occupation of Kiev. This was followed by the first reports of the use of gas as a weapon of mass extermination at Mauthausen concentration camp; by the summer of 1942 most British papers had carried headlines similar to that in the Scotsman - 'Bondage in Eastern Europe - A Vast Slaughterhouse of Jews'. At the end of the year, the front page of the Jewish Chronicle appeared bordered in black: 'Two Million Jews Slaughtered; Most Terrible Massacre of All Time.'

Given the unambiguous nature of such reports, Richard Bolchover asks: 'Why was it that the Holocaust made such little impact on Anglo-Jewry; why in hindsight do British Jews appear insensitive?' These are painful questions for a young Jewish scholar, but Bolchover pursues them unflinchingly. He quotes from The Yogi and the Commissar. 'A dog run over by a car,' wrote Koestler, 'upsets our emotional balance and digestion; 3,000,000 Jews killed in Poland cause but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don't bleed.' Conscience does, however. Fifty years after the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, a 33-year-old English Jew takes a cathartic scalpel to what he plainly regards as his community's abandonment of their European kin.

But what might Anglo-Jewry reasonably have been expected to do? In wartime a minority community numbering fewer than 400,000 has even less purchase than in time of peace. There was no great disposition to dispute the government's contention that the only way to save Jews was to win the war; initiatives such as bombing the railway lines leading to the extermination camps were occasionally discussed, but never urged with any great insistence.

The picture Bolchover paints is of a community trapped by its own values, haunted by the fear of domestic anti-Semitism and debilitated by internal conflicts. There was animosity between the Chief Rabbi and Sir Robert Waley Cohen, the president of the United Synagogue; there was a preoccupation with allegations that Jews were prominent in black market activity; late in the war there were even disputes over whether rabbis should go as temporary chaplains to the liberated concentration camps.

Bolchover maintains that throughout the war it was, above all, the debate over the building of a Jewish home in Palestine that absorbed the energies of the community's representative institutions. It was a battle fought with some ferocity, and Bolchover argues that it masked another conflict - that between the established families of Anglo-Jewry (the 'Grand Dukes' or 'Cousinhood') and the sons of the immigration from Eastern Europe that had begun in the 1880s. The 'Cousinhood', imbued with the basic Anglo-Jewish belief in emancipation as a contract with Gentile society, was generally non-Zionist; Bolchover believes that the loss to the Board of Deputies of many of its members gravely weakened the influence of Anglo-Jewry nationally.

This book grew out of a dissertation, and even now, with 50 out of 200 pages devoted to index, notes and bibliography, it carries a weighty burden of academic apparatus. Bolchover does not always write easily, and his narrative density suggests that he has not distanced himself sufficiently from his research. He has, none the less, made a poignant and important contribution to Holocaust studies.

'What] Must I hold a candle to my shames?' asks Shylock's daughter in The Merchant of Venice. Richard Bolchover has held a bright and honest flame to what he sees as the shames of Anglo-Jewry in wartime Britain. But it would be a severe and impertinent critic who viewed them in a harsher light than those of any other community within the nation.