Ordinary People

On Thursday evening last week, I represented the University at Sheffield’s vigil for Holocaust Memorial Day in the Winter Gardens. Drawing together an audience of civic leaders and citizens, the event commemorated the victims of genocide around this year’s theme of ‘ordinary people’. As Cllr Terry Fox, the leader of Sheffield City Council put it in his speech, the victims of the Holocaust were ordinary people; the perpetrators of the Holocaust were ordinary people, and those who through bravery and personal action stood out against the Holocaust were ordinary people. Ruth Schwiening, who had come to the United Kingdom on the Kindertransport, talked movingly about her experiences: in her case, her parents were able to escape murder and join her in this country, but only after Ruth had herself been living with foster parents for a year and a half. She talked, in a compelling narrative about her experiences as a child first in Germany and then in Austria and finally in England. And then she talked about the silences and omissions as her family struggled to find ways to talk about their own experiences.

As it happens, also on the theme of ‘ordinary people’ I have been reading Julia Boyd’s 2018 book Travellers in the Third Reich which explores how English and American tourists in the 1930s and 1930s wrote or talked about developing events in Germany as the Nazis rose to, and then consolidated, their hold on power. She quotes from letters, diaries and postcards, people writing home as events happened, none of them aware of what would happen next. It lends an immediacy to her text, and I strongly recommend her book. Some of the travellers did not see what was happening, some did see, some, for different reasons, chose not to see. She opens with an arresting challenge: imagine, she says, it is 1936 and you are holidaying in Germany. The sun is shining and you are enjoying your holiday. You have parked in a town. A pedestrian clutching the hand of a child spots the GB plates on your car and approaches you. She explains she is Jewish. You have read stories in the papers about what is happening but, well, you are on holiday. She begs you, begs you to take her daughter back to England with you. What, asks Julia Boyd, would you do: turn away, explain that you are terribly sorry but you cannot do anything, or take the child to safety? Ordinary people.

We like to think, of course, that in the vast morality play which we think constitutes history that we’d always and unerringly have chosen the right side: we would have found room for that Jewish child, we’d have objected to the burning of witches or of heretics, we’d have been resolutely on the side of the French Resistance, and so on. Of course, historical experience tells us that this isn’t true. Bad things happen not because they are done by bad people but because – again – ordinary people make choices. Julia Boyd’s travellers are only too typical: some seeing, come choosing to look the other way, some choosing to become involved. The historical record tells us that the arrival of refugees, including children, in the UK in the later 1930s was frequently unpopular, however we now like to tell the story in a far more positive light. Ordinary people.

Last week, in the week of Holocaust Memorial Day, a Conservative MP was widely criticised for saying that asylum-seeking children who have gone missing from Home Office hotels “shouldn’t have come here illegally” in a heckle at prime minister’s questions. He has now apologised and made a substantial donation to an asylum charity. The comment was, at the time, intended to be both hurtful and offensive and in fact we should welcome its withdrawal. But in most cases moral questions do not present themselves to us in the way that we might choose. Ordinary people.

Holocaust Memorial Day is an important occasion to remember the victims of genocide, but, and what makes this year’s ‘ordinary people’ theme so important and poignant, it should also remind us that our obligations, the choices we have to make, are going to come to us as ‘ordinary people’. They come in the course of our daily lives, when, irritatingly and annoyingly, we are probably worried about lots of other things as well and we’d much rather we didn’t have to think hard about what we can do. W H Auden’s poem, Musée Des Beaux Arts puts it memorably: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position; how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just/walking dully along”.  If there is one lesson to take from last week it is that: it is when we are “walking dully along”, when we may be looking in other directions, that we need to be aware of our choices.

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