I’VE never been a fan of Holocaust Memorial Day. Instituted in 2001, HMD is always held on January 27, the day on which, in 1945, Auschwitz was liberated.
From the start, HMD had its vocal critics, notably the Muslim Council of Britain.
Between 2001 and 2007, the MCB boycotted HMD on the grounds not merely that the event excluded “genocide and violation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, in Kashmir and elsewhere” but that it included the “alleged Armenian genocide”.
Of course, there is not — and never has been — a “genocide” of Palestinians. But there certainly was an Armenian genocide, perpetrated by the Turks in 1915.
HMD has, inevitably, been exploited by a range of no doubt well-meaning people who have, inevitably, seen it as a convenient peg on which to hang a range of no doubt well-intentioned humanitarian concerns.
That’s my first problem with HMD. My second is that, certainly as orchestrated here in the UK, HMD tells a story . . . but not the whole story.
Between 1933 and 1945, successive British governments could have saved countless Jewish lives, but — with the active collaboration of leading British Jews — deliberately chose not to.
By 1944, Auschwitz and other death camps were within easy reach of Allied bomber aircraft. Weizmann led a delegation to the Foreign Office asking that the railway lines from Budapest to Auschwitz be bombed.
Winston Churchill favoured the plan, but was out-manoeuvred by Foreign Office officials who argued that the Soviets might not be pleased by such precipitate action and that the saving of Jewish lives in Hungary might lead to further “illegal” Jewish emigration to Palestine, which would not please Muslims throughout the British Empire.
The plan was dropped.
Mandate Palestine offered an obvious escape route for Jewish victims of Nazism. But in 1939, Neville Chamberlain's government had issued a White Paper effectively ending the promise of the Balfour Declaration.
Leading British Jews such as MPs Sir Louis Gluckstein and Sir Isadore Salmon supported this policy. And, once Germany had been defeated, the British did their utmost to ensure that Holocaust survivors did not reach Palestinian shores.
This year, HMD was used by the British government to honour “British holocaust heroes”, among whom was the banker Otto Schiff who [I quote from the citation] “helped create the Jewish Refugees Committee which arranged to bring Jews out of Germany . . . to Britain during the war, as well as supporting them financially once here.”
The financial guarantees arranged by Schiff and others only covered Jews of German nationality and did not extend to Jews of Polish, Hungarian or other nationality who were living in Germany at the time of the Nazi takeover.
Polish and Hungarian nationals had to obtain visas to enter Britain, and the view of the British government — supported by Schiff and his colleagues — was that these unfortunates could return to their countries of origin.
Such repatriations were routinely enforced. In 1936, 3,800 Jews in this category were returned, with the full approval of the Jewish authorities, to countries in eastern Europe.
The strict terms of the guarantees were used by those who articulated Anglo-Jewish refugee policy as a means of limiting not merely the numbers of Jewish victims of Nazism permitted to enter Britain but also the type, or class.
In his apologia for Schiff’s policies, Norman Bentwich (the Jewish, British-appointed attorney-general for Mandate Palestine), described how the Home Office “had complete trust in Mr Schiff and his assistants, and were prepared to accept their word that any particular refugee or group of refugees would be maintained”.
But the reverse was equally true: refugees were admitted, and were refused admission, on Schiff’s say-so.
Home Office officials trusted Schiff and Bentwich because they knew that, in their approach to this task, these gentlemen would bring to bear prejudices and preferences of which the government approved — for example, the occupational class of those applying for entry.
As part of a delegation to the Home Secretary on April 1, 1938, Schiff complained how very difficult it was “to get rid of a refugee . . . once he had entered and spent a few months in this country”.
The imposition of a visa requirement, Schiff explained, “was especially necessary in the case of Austrians who were largely of the shopkeeper and small trader class and would therefore prove much more difficult to [re-]emigrate than the average German who had come to the United Kingdom”.
On April 1 next, it’s this blatant prejudice that I’ll be commemorating.