Holocaust Memorial Day – 3 reasons I read a poem instead of lighting a candle

Holocaust Memorial Day 2021

Did you light a candle on 27th January? I chose an alternative act to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2021. An act that required a Christian man’s words. But an act my Jewish mother would have approved of.

Unable to arrange public events due to yet another Covid lockdown, The HMD Trust requested you light a candle and put it in your window. A gesture to “remember all those who were murdered for who they were” and to “stand against prejudice and hatred in the world today”.

If you took part, I applaud you. It filled my heart to see windows flickering on my street. It was a necessary illumination in this darkest of years. An increasingly polarised world has emerged in the pandemic.

Jeff Bezos now makes over £5000 a minute in profits from his global Amazon empire, at the same time as 150million children have slipped into poverty worldwide.

When creatives chronicle healthcare heroes in fiction and drama, poverty and ethnicity will battle for dominance in the backstories of their patients. (Read the UK government report.) When films and songs recall the energy and diversity of #BlackLivesMatter, they will likely coda their tales with gun-toting alt right gangs egged on by the most powerful politician on the planet.

Story. All of history is story. Real events passed down to future generations. It’s how you choose to tell it that matters, which moments you include and which you don’t. So, this is the story of my alternative 2021 HMD commemoration in 3 episodes.

1. jackboots on the stairs

I didn’t now what jackboots were till I was 7.

I mean, I’d watched The Great Escape from the deep pile rug in the living room every December but it hadn’t really clicked. Actually, I’d watched a lot of war films and I was a big Indiana Jones fan. As in I used to swing my schoolbag round on its long strap and shout “get ’em Indie” as I tripped my mates up. Oh how they laughed…possibly.

So I knew there were Nazis and they were mean bastards. But they were fictional. I hadn’t realised these films were reshaping a real story that impacted my family. I found out on a visit to my Jewish Granma’s house.

From about 4 years old I used to write her letters, which is where the misspelling of Grandma came from. It stuck. So did a habit of creeping down to her basement bedroom, and stealing treats from the chest freezer in the room next door. One morning I woke early and was doing my best stair sneak when Granma jumped out of bed.

Several feet out of bed, breathing like a busted steam iron and shaking. I’d never heard her shout until then, let alone scream. A guttural wrench of a scream that cut my insides. This giant of a personality suddenly looked small, strange and wild. She was scared out of her mind. I did what any failed freezer thief would do, I ran.

The explanation that followed changed every rug film viewing, and my attitude to Indie.

Granma had lived in London’s East End during the 1930s. Between fellow Jews and the rising tide of Oswald Mosely’s violent British Union of Fascists. She experienced consistent racism, on one occasion having to flee from a group of BUF blackshirts…and their marching jackboots. In 1936 she mustered courage to stand with 1000s of other locals on Cable Street, on the famous day the BUF were kicked out of town. It felt like victory. Until 1939.

The dreams arrived as Hitler’s Nazis advanced across Europe and our diasporic cousins found themselves in camps. Granma’s sleep was filled with relentless lines of grey uniformed troops. Searching for her. Ever closer. Jackboots thumping on the ground. Even long after the Nazi’s had been defeated those night time boots kept coming.

Apparently my feet were not especially sneaky. Granma believed her dream had finally become reality and I saw the true face of fear, in all its horrific glory. I will never forget it. And if Granma was brave enough to stand nose-to-nose with fascists despite her terror, lighting a candle – no matter how important that is – doesn’t seem enough.

2. meeting Holocaust survivors – Where Shall We Go?

It’s 1990. I’m 15. Quantum Leap is a TV event, Adamski (featuring Seal) has been top of the charts forever and everyone wants a Gameboy. I was into all of that. Despite sporting the most obvious of ginger Jewfros, I cared more about popular culture than my own.

So when my school advertised the chance to be in a film I was like: “hell yeah”. I didn’t expect to find myself involved in a Holocaust documentary called Where Shall We Go?

I admit I knew a little about the project before the ad came round. My Mum had mentioned it. Her friends Carrie and Nick were involved. I’d met them, and they were cool. But I was so seduced by the idea of producing a film that I didn’t stop to ask why two history teachers were heading up the project.

With 11 other school students I took part in workshops, practised filming and research. My jaw dropped at posters of Jews painted like goblins. I held my breath at stories of kids hiding from stormtroopers. I gasped at piles of glasses and hair at Auschwitz. My mind could not compute the infeasible numbers.

A marathon shoot followed, with Liesl (from the Czech Republic), Esther and Chaim (Poland) and Werner (Germany).  Like our group of young doc makers, they were diverse – rich, poor, religious, atheist. We heard about their childhood friends and families. There was laughter. Then…Nazis, ghettos, train rides to death. Liesel and Werner escaped. Chaim and Esther went to the camps, surviving via a series of coin-toss situations.

In one, Chaim (Harry to us) stood on the edge of a hole in the woods, a pistol to his head. Below him, a soup of bloody bodies. Some still moving, fighting for a final breath. He closed his eyes, prayed his sister was OK. Then, at the last second, a shout. An SS officer needed a builder for “a project”. Harry was led away as shots rang out.

He was 15. Like me. A Jew. Like me.

In that moment, the cameras melted and I felt everything. Anger, relief, fear, guilt, resistance, hopelessness. It was the purest of cultural moments, a lightning rod to my heritage, and much more impactful that lighting a candle.

3. antidote to anti-Semitism

“Penny for the…”

“Don’t mind him, he’s an old miser.”

“Want some pork to go with that nose? Snort!”

“Must be good with money seeing as he’s a…”

“Fuck off back to Tottenham ya Yid bastards!”

“I mean you know I’m not anti-Semitic but you have to admit your lot pretty much run everything.”

Pastor Neimoller's famous poem about the rise of Nazi's, adopted by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

Yes, they are real and I heard them all, in person. One of them in front of police officers at a football match. Another from the mouth of a friend on – get this – my birthday. Four of them in the last two years.

I would never claim to suffer the abuse black people do. There is no hiding from the shameful history of the slave trade, nor from the police brutality, the institutional and street-level prejudice that people of colour face. The #BlackLivesMatter explosion in 2020 was a moment of necessary resistance. We must keep going.

I’m not pretending I have it that bad. I’m white, I’m not religious and I have an Anglo-Saxon second name. But, sadly, I know what it’s like to have a kid piss on you at school because of your race. The stain never quite washes off.

I’ve told you some stories of anti-Semitism, told to me by others. Those storytellers weren’t just Jews. My Granma ran a guest house. Harry called himself a socialist. Carrie and Nick were members of a teacher’s union. Liesl, Werner and Esther had some of those identities and more besides.

When they spoke and screamed their truth they became more than any label. Their words transcended history, and penetrated far deeper than any memorial gesture. In a time where anti-Semitic slurs proliferate once again – not in a dark corner of social media but on streets, in workplaces and stadiums – this feels like what we need.

Racism is the seed of fascism, and fascism doesn’t limit the scope of its persecution. Esther and Harry watched travellers, LGBTQ and black people die in the camps. The BUF attacked almost anyone we’d nowadays call woke. That is why my Holocaust Memorial Day 2021 was louder than lighting a candle, and involved way more writing.

I opened my living room window and read aloud Pastor Niemoller’s First They Came. Not a Jew, but another storyteller who’s words hung on my mother’s wall. I heard Cable Street and Harry in my throat. I turned jackboots from my dreams, even if only for one night, and I’m certain you won’t hear racists on my road for a good while.

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