There is a moving statue of Jewish refugee children in London’s Liverpool Street Station that commemorates the Kindertransport, which brought 10,000 predominantly Jewish children to safety in the U.K. as WWII was brewing.
Maybe it is time to erect an empty plinth alongside it and encourage our schoolchildren to ask their teachers, "Why did their parents not come with them?"
The current debate in the U.K. over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party and the persistent presence of Holocaust denial offers us a chance to ask some important questions about Britain’s role in the Holocaust and its aftermath.
In Britain, we mark International Holocaust Memorial Day, and have instituted compulsory Holocaust lessons in school. But it is time to challenge the national myth that the British were the good guys through and through.
We fought the Nazis and won – but did we help the Jews? No, not really, is the answer.
Challenging that myth requires us to re-evaluate, as well, the mostly forgotten years of the British Mandate in Palestine, and the Labour Party’s attitude towards Holocaust survivors. The dark years of 1945-47 are rarely discussed in Britain. Those who lived through those years are now dying one by one. Their testimonies are now being overwritten by other narratives pushing indiscriminately hostile accounts of Israel’s founding.
My Catholic grandfather fought in the British Army in Palestine in the First World War and was with General Allenby when he entered the Old City of Jerusalem in 1917. He trained some of the first battalions of the Jewish Legion who fought with the British.
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But my left-leaning mother’s initial sympathy towards Israel turned into a passionate hatred, one fueled by much of the U.K.’s left-wing media. Even though I am married to a Jew, I shrugged her prejudices off; I tried to ignore the questions they threw up about British society as a whole, and specifically about Labour’s post-war attitude to Jews.
But two years ago, I stumbled across the story of how thousands of Holocaust survivors fled Europe after the war on clandestine immigrant ships. Many had returned to their homes in Eastern Europe only, once again, to be threatened by their neighbors; they were fleeing their destroyed communities in fear of their lives. With strict immigration quotas in force in the U.S. and Britain, they felt their only hope of a future lay in Palestine. The British government thought otherwise.
This wasn’t the first time Britain failed Europe’s Jews.
In 1939, just when Europe’s Jews desperately needed sanctuary, Whitehall severely curtailed immigration into Palestine. While in opposition, Labour had promised to remove the restrictions, but when they won the 1945 general elections, they did not keep their word.
As a result, when the survivors of the camps and ghettos tried to break through the Royal Navy blockade, they found themselves interned in detention camps, surrounded by eerily familiar watchtowers and barbed wire.
Few of my friends and acquaintances in the UK had heard the story before. Why has this episode been "lost" from the history of the British left?
According to Dave Rich, a leading expert on anti-Semitism in the U.K., the left as a whole is incapable of dealing with the Jewish experience and the memory of genocide. "If you look at the standard left-wing narrative, it sees Jews before the Second World War as anti-fascists; during the war they are the victims of the worst of fascism, but after the war they are seen as fascist oppressors."
Holocaust education, which has intensified in recent decades, has increased public knowledge and debate – but on the hard left that has led, ironically, to a proliferation of unsavory comparisons between Israel’s actions and those of Nazi Germany. Rich says this takes the form of “lament[ing] the failure of the Jews to learn the lessons of their own genocide.”
But now it’s clear this period should become part of Britain's national discussion, and not left to those who seek to hijack history for political ends.
Overlooking how successive British governments failed to respond ethically to the suffering of Jews before the Holocaust, and to its desperate survivors, has allowed the growth of distorted histories: around the idea that Israel was "born in sin," that the U.K. was an exemplary sanctuary for Jewish refugees, and that Britain’s left has always exerted itself on behalf of the victims of racism and genocide.
Rosie Whitehouse is a freelance journalist and is currently writing a book about Holocaust survivors’ experiences in the years immediately after the Second World War. Twitter: @rosiewhitehouse