For me, at least, it’s the human details. The single shoe, the pile of discarded spectacles. Seventy-five years on from the end of the Second World War, the sheer scale of the Holocaust is almost impossible to comprehend. Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. In the next decade, perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less we will encounter a critical moment in the passing of the mid-twentieth century record, close to the moment when the Holocaust will move from the oral to the written and visual record. The ways in which we choose to remember, to pass on the witness, will be a major test for the twenty-first century.
This Thursday, the University will mark Holocaust Memorial Day. We will be joined by Dr Agnes Grunwald-Spier who will be speaking in the Stage Room, in the Student Union HUBS building, City Campus at 12.30pm.
Agnes was born in Budapest in July 1944 to Leona and Philipp Grunwald. As a small baby Agnes and her mother were saved from deportation by an unknown official – again, it’s the small details which resonate. In November 1944 Agnes and her mother were sent to the Budapest Ghetto from which they liberated on 18 January 1945. The family arrived in England in May 1947. Her father, who had been a forced labourer rounded up by Hungarian fascists, later committed suicide in June 1955.
Agnes went on to read politics and history at what is now Oxford Brookes University and then completed an MA in Holocaust Studies at Sheffield University 1996-98. Her research has produced a series of publications, including The Other Schindlers, about Holocaust rescuers, Who Betrayed the Jews? and Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust.
Agnes was a civil servant, became a Justice of the Peace, and has been a Trustee of the UK Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT). She was an elected Deputy of the Board of Deputies (BOD) of British Jews between 1997 and 2012. This Thursday she will talk about the importance of remembering, and the lessons, which, in fractious times, with hate crime on the rise, seem ever more important.
In the 1970s, as a teenager, I was hugely influenced by Jacob Bronowski’s magisterial 1974 series on the history of science, The Ascent of Man. It has its critics now, who castigate its largely male, almost exclusively western account of science, but it stands out as one of the greatest of television series – it’s available on DVD. In one late episode, Bronowski, a Polish-born British mathematician, scientist and thinker stands in a muddy pond in Auschwitz, a pond into which he says, the ashes of many of his relatives were deposited. And he talks – it is an extraordinarily moving clip, available on YouTube here – about science, knowledge and the experience of total war. “It’s said” he begins “that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.”
Which is why, two and a half generations on, there are lessons still to learn.