Why are we still indifferent to the fate of others?

Once the war began Britain, not Germany, took the lead in barring escape routes for Jewish refugees

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As Holocaust Memorial Day returns for the third time this Monday, its critics have, by and large, been seen off. It is now part of the landscape of lecture programmes and synagogue events, a time for television and schools to show a little respect. But there is a real danger that the laudable desire to remember the Holocaust can sink into something almost too comfortable, and too unchallenging.

As Holocaust Memorial Day returns for the third time this Monday, its critics have, by and large, been seen off. It is now part of the landscape of lecture programmes and synagogue events, a time for television and schools to show a little respect. But there is a real danger that the laudable desire to remember the Holocaust can sink into something almost too comfortable, and too unchallenging.

A couple of times recently I have been exposed to what I can only describe as Holocaust kitsch. Just before Christmas I sat in the Royal Opera House and saw an absurd travesty of the great horror being played out before the elegant audience. Here were cattle trucks trundled across the stage; here were the swooping glissandos of violins as well-fed actors in striped pyjamas were told by singers in shiny boots to go left or right.

The representation of Auschwitz in the opera version of Sophie's Choice was an obscene betrayal of the reality of the Holocaust. It was a gross error of judgement putting images of the death camps on the stage of the Opera House to provide a maudlin entertainment for the comfortable opera-goers. And yet nobody made a fuss, we all just sat and clapped politely.

And then I went off to see a new film that is slated for release later this year, Max, which plays games with the story of Hitler's youth as a struggling artist. It makes the Holocaust into Hitler's personal tragedy. If Max, the Jewish art-dealer of the title, had got to a meeting with Hitler on time, then, this film suggests, Hitler would never have felt so rejected by the Jews that he needed to murder millions of them. It is, unintentionally, funny, and yet somehow the laughter dies when you think of what you are really laughing at.

This revolting opera and absurd film are particularly bad examples of Holocaust memorialising. But even great art struggles to convey to us now the darkness of the past. Roman Polanski's film, The Pianist, which is released tomorrow, is one of the best treatments of the subject that I have ever seen. Raw without being self-indulgent, it tears the viewer's emotions apart for two and a half hours. It proves that for all the books, films and museums, people are still not inured to these stories. I had never before been to a press screening where audible sobs cut through the darkness throughout a film's duration.

And yet even this brilliant film offers us a sense of uplifting catharsis; otherwise it would be quite unbearable. It ends with our hero, who has won out against all the odds, returning to his piano and playing the same nocturne that he played as the Germans entered Warsaw. Such a wonderful story – all the more wonderful because it is true – helps us to bear the horrors by presenting us with the Holocaust as a tale of individual survival rather than mass death.

The desire to turn the Holocaust into a story that will, finally, comfort us is particularly possible for people in Britain and America. We are the ones who can congratulate ourselves on being on the right side and doing everything we could. The Holocaust does not present us with a challenge so much as a reason to feel good about ourselves.

Especially, there is a great deal of self-congratulatory rhetoric currently doing the rounds about our "honourable" tradition of giving "welcome" to the victims of Nazi Germany. In the words of many right-wing commentators that I have read recently, our generous attitude to those real refugees is contrasted with our over-generous attitude now to bogus refugees.

It is interesting that we like to see ourselves as so very welcoming. To question that view is not to downgrade Britain's achievement in helping to destroy Nazism. But the British were not quite as ready as commentators now like to suggest to give help to those who were trying to get out of German territory.

Certainly, Britain gave refuge to tens of thousands. I am eternally grateful for this, since my grandparents both arrived in 1939, my grandmother on a permit to work as a maid, and my grandfather with "nothing but the clothes he stood up in", having already served time in a German prison. Britain let in about 70,000 Jews in the 1930s. No other country did more, but it is telling that the numbers were still so limited. Let's not forget; most Jews who tried to leave Europe were unable to do so, and once the war began Britain, not Germany, took the lead in barring escape routes for Jewish refugees.

The numbers were limited partly because of the opinion of sections of the press, expressed through rhetoric that was identical to the rhetoric we hear now. The Daily Mail said in the Thirties: "Once it was known that Britain offered sanctuary to all who cared to come, the floodgates would be opened, and we should be inundated by thousands seeking a home." As Bernard Wasserstein says in his great study, Britain and the Jews of Europe, it was not so much anti-Semitism that denied these Jews their full claim on people's sympathy, so much as an indifference, an "imaginative failure".

There is no people in the world who face anything comparable to the horrors that the Jews of Europe faced sixty years ago. Now, what's more, we do have the legislation that binds us to giving asylum to refugees – international legislation, let's not forget, drawn up in reaction to the disastrous situation those refugees faced in the 1940s.

But we still seem to suffer from that imaginative failure which allows us to remain indifferent to the fate of others. It is extraordinary how many voices are now being raised to suggest that we should roll back the years, that we should detain all asylum-seekers or that we should suspend or amend the 1951 Geneva Convention.

Now that fear can be whipped up about the potential terrorists among asylum-seekers, this rhetoric is having a real influence on public opinion. According to one newspaper, 84 per cent of British people now believe that refugees should be kept in special camps and a third of us believe a significant proportion are terrorists.

Yet I don't think that most people in Britain are really xenophobic any more than they were anti-semitic in the 1940s. Most are simply indifferent to the plight of individual refugees, and there is very little in the political or artistic debate of our times that is trying to break through that indifference and remind us of the huge gulf between our comfortable lives and the struggles that refugees face to reach our shores. Just as the Daily Mail could deride those who wanted to give refuge to more people in the Thirties as "misguided sentimentalists", so they now deride those of us who believe that our country can cope with tens of thousands of hardworking, if traumatised, immigrants each year.

It is interesting that some refugee and Jewish groups are promising to use the occasion of Holocaust Memorial Day to stage a demonstration at the offices of the Daily Mail, to make a stand against this slippage into such rhetoric. Indeed, this may be a better use of the day than going to see another film or listening to another lecture.

There is no point in remembering, unless we also try to learn lessons from the past, however uncomfortable. There is no direct equivalence between the persecution of 60 years ago and that today. But one of the lessons of the past is that this imaginative failure, this difficulty in recognising a refugee as a full human being, must constantly be challenged.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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