'Interacting with Hitler' is more than insensitive

By Greville Janner, September 8, 2011
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Usually, when a waxwork exhibition attracts media attention it is because they are unveiling a new model of a pop star or matinee idol. Over the past fortnight though, Madame Tussauds has made headlines for the wrong reasons.

When Israeli grandchildren of Holocaust survivors visited the exhibition recently, they were horrified by the site of teenagers standing by the model of Adolf Hitler and performing Nazi salutes. Understandably, they were distressed to see young people apparently imitating a gesture supportive of the hateful regime that had murdered their relatives. We have since learned that this was not an isolated incident. It must have been shocking for them to witness.

Having registered their concerns with Madame Tussauds, the offended visitors were told that Tussauds proactively encourage visitors to interact with waxworks and absolutely defend their right to make choices such as Nazi salutes as long as visitors "behave responsibly".

This response was outrageous. Having a model of Hitler is one thing, failing to take responsibility for how people act around it is quite another. Some, like the comedian David Mitchell, took umbrage at the couple's complaint as well as of my own support for their cause, suggesting that we should simply laugh off the actions of people who perform stiff-arm salutes.

His view is, in many ways, a traditional British response, that we should simply laugh at Nazis. It is an attitude which evokes Dad's Army and the satirical songs of Noel Coward. But it is also an approach that takes no account of the feelings of others - the humanity of those who suffered during that time and continue to suffer today from those painful memories.

For the families of those who died or lived through the Holocaust, Nazism is not about pompous uniforms, it is about the murder of millions of innocent people and the destruction of Jewish communities across Europe. For them, the symbolism of the Nazi era is not a joke; it is a painful reminder of the darkest time our people have ever experienced. All we ask is for some sensitivity and respect to be shown. Seeing a Nazi salute is not just offensive to descendants of Holocaust survivors but to any decent human being.

Do we walk on by or do we decide to make a difference?

It took courage for that couple to stand up against offensive behaviour and, as more individuals and media took up the mantle and expressed their own dismay at Madame Tussauds' response, we saw them agree to take action. They went from actively encouraging interaction with their waxworks to announcing that they had staff manning the area to ensure that visitors were stopped from performing the Nazi salute. Whether this is happening in reality remains to be seen. But it is good that Madame Tussauds has recognised its own responsibility, especially when so many of its visitors are young and impressionable.

However, there is a clear lesson here for us all. Do we walk on by when we see others acting in an insensitive, intolerant or abusive way? Or do we do something about it - do we actually decide to make a difference? For all of us, there are moments when we have had to face that choice. For me, it was serving as the youngest war-crimes investigator in the British Army of the Rhine that forged my determination always to act in the face of injustice. Working with survivors of Bergen-Belsen in the months following their liberation instilled in me a resolve never to let their experience be forgotten.

It is perhaps timely that my old friend Thomas Buergenthal, survivor of Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz, will be visiting the UK to speak at the Holocaust Educational Trust's appeal dinner next week. If there was ever an example of a man who made it his life's mission to never to look the other way, it is Thomas. He was lucky that he was not murdered in the gas chambers and he experienced unimaginable horrors before the age of 16.

He is now one of the world's foremost experts on human rights and international law, a Judge of the International Court of Justice and a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee. He is a man who has not only endured appalling cruelty, but whose experience has inspired him to devote his life to human rights and to standing up against injustice and intolerance - demonstrating the power of just one person being able to make an overwhelming difference.

The Madame Tussauds incident may have seemed trivial to some, but it was deeply hurtful and upsetting to those it affected. We must learn from this incident that it is only by standing up and making our voice heard over every injustice, no matter how small it may seem, can we hope to build a world where antisemitism and prejudice are truly consigned to history.

Lord Janner is Chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust and a former war crimes investigator

Last updated: 11:18am, September 8 2011