Interivew: James Smith

With his brother Stephen, he set up the UK’s version of Yad Vashem. He explains why, as a non-Jew, he is dedicated to battling anti-Jewish hatred

By Simon Round, September 2, 2009
James Smith (right) with his brother Stephen, who is now working with Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles. Their decision to found Beth Shalom involved sacrificing promising careers in the cause of Holocaust education

James Smith (right) with his brother Stephen, who is now working with Steven Spielberg in Los Angeles. Their decision to found Beth Shalom involved sacrificing promising careers in the cause of Holocaust education

Very few people remain unmoved by a visit to Yad Vashem, but for Stephen and James Smith from Nottinghamshire, it proved to be a life-changing experience.

The brothers, who had hardly met anyone Jewish before they visited the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem in 1991, came home with a conviction that they should do something to encourage education about the Nazi genocide of the Jews.

The result was the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre, built in a renovated farmhouse at the family home in the village of Laxton.

This week the centre celebrates its 14th anniversary. It now welcomes 30,000 students a year, and has won many awards for its programmes and its web activities. It is no longer merely a family business. Stephen Smith has accepted the prestigious position of chief executive at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation in the United States, leaving brother James in charge of a rapidly expanding organisation. Former Labour schools minister Stephen Twigg now chairs the board and there is a team of 20 working hard to educate and campaign about not only the Holocaust but other genocides worldwide.

But why did the Smith brothers undertake this project in the first place? After all, many thousands of people visit Yad Vashem each year but very few of them open their own Holocaust centres as a result.

James remembers that seminal experience. “Going to Yad Vashem was more than an eye-opener, it was a huge experience for us. We had a glimpse of this massive catastrophe and we wanted to know more. We visited central and eastern Europe, and went to the sites of camps and of former Jewish communities. We were left with the overwhelming feeling that this went beyond something that the Jewish community could address alone. We didn’t want to de-Judaise the Holocaust, but we did want to raise awareness of this terrible crime.”

The original plan was not a grand one. Stephen and James envisaged a small local project, essentially aimed at schools in the area.

Indeed, the Smith brothers, both in their 20s when the centre opened was first mooted, had other career plans. Stephen, a theology and philosophy graduate, was running what was fast becoming a successful cake business, supplying high-street chains and supermarkets, while James was training to be (and ultimately qualified as) as a surgeon. However, as Beth Shalom achieved national prominence, the Smiths abandoned their careers.

James says: “As often happens, you get more and more involved and find that the more you know, the more you realise you understand very little.”

The establishment and subsequent growth of Beth Shalom inevitably brought the Smith brothers into contact with Jewish communities and with survivors. There came a point when both Stephen and James, whose father was a Methodist minister, considered converting to Judaism.

James says: “The more we looked at the Holocaust, the more we wondered about the role the church had played in setting the scene for it. Many people in the church turned a blind eye, others blamed the Jews themselves. I have had friends who asked me why I was building a Holocaust centre when the Holocaust was a punishment for what the Jews did to Jesus 2,000 years ago. I think the church has educated itself away from this view now but we were very disillusioned about the fact that century after century there had been this anti-Judaism which had led to antisemitism.

“Meanwhile we were spending a lot of time talking to survivors and visiting little synagogues in eastern Europe. Back in the UK we were welcomed into shul. In fact there came a point when we were more likely to be in shul on Yom Kippur than we were in church at Easter. Judaism’s values resonated with us and we discussed converting very seriously. But I became a little more reticent about it in the end. I didn’t want this to be about reacting to the failures of the church in a negative way — that’s not really a reason to convert. Plus, there was something important about the centre being founded outside of the Jewish community. For us to become Jewish would somehow be self-defeating.

“We’re saying the Holocaust should be important to everyone, not just Jews, so if we then became Jewish, everybody would accuse us of running the centre to prove our Jewishness.”

While the Holocaust is at the heart of Beth Shalom, it has become a “departure point” as James puts it, for its work on other genocides, notably in Rwanda and Darfur. In fact, the devastating massacres in Africa as well as events in Bosnia came on the eve of the opening of the centre, causing both James and Stephen to question their own project.

“We opened in 1995, but while we were still building in 1994, the genocide in Rwanda happened,” says James. “We knew nothing about it because there was not the imagery of barbed wire and gas chambers and also because it was happening in Africa. We didn’t see the connection.

James Smith (right) talks to Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State, at the Kigali Memorial Centre. The Smith brothers were invited to set up the centre by the Rwandan government

James Smith (right) talks to Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State, at the Kigali Memorial Centre. The Smith brothers were invited to set up the centre by the Rwandan government

“It was only towards the end of the genocide that we realised we had missed something huge in our own lifetime. Our criticism that the world did know and did nothing to help now applied to us.

“Meanwhile in Srebrenica a massacre was happening right on our doorstep, right on the cusp of our opening. We had the embarrassment of opening a centre which was meant to be a warning from history while genocide was again under way in Europe.”

James took the lesson that genocides never happen the same way twice. He sees the work of Beth Shalom and its sister organisation, the Aegis Trust, as aiming to prevent future genocides and confronting extremism.

“Aegis was founded in 2000 initially as a think-tank policy group but became more action focused. We were invited by the Rwandan government to set up its version of Yad Vashem which opened in 2004 and serves the city of Kigali. We have also addressed the problems of bringing perpetrators to justice. After the Holocaust, its perpetrators found safe haven in countries around the world. The same is happening now. There are Rwandans with blood on their hands living in Europe right now. We are looking at structural and legal ways to stop this happening. In our modest way we like to think we are following the example set by Simon Wiesenthal.” Part of the centre’s success has come through setting up links with other Holocaust institutions around the world. One such example has had an unexpected result.

“We were developing co-operation between the centre and the Shoah Foundation and the co-operation developed a little more than we might have imagined,” says James, referring to his brother’s departure for Los Angeles.

“He sees it as a positive move not only for Stephen but also for his centre. “Stephen was approached by what is one of the top three Holocaust institutions in the world.

It was proof that we have an established centre which is recognised nationally and internationally. It also in a way helped to solidify our change from a founder-led organisation to something more established.”

James points to Stephen Twigg as a crucial part of this transformation. Twigg was asked to join the board when he lost his parliamentary seat in 2005.

Twigg recalls: “They very kindly asked me to come and do some work with them. Initially, they were keen to bring me in on some of the education programmes in Rwanda. But the basic goal is still educating about the Holocaust itself.”

So how does Twigg feel the centre should develop? “The transition we are trying to make is from a family firm to a national or even international centre of excellence, even though our strength is still bound up with James and Stephen and their mother Marina.

“We are trying to do this by focusing on primary as well as secondary pupils, by working with professional groups like prison officers and the police, and opening the centre up at weekends and holidays to the general public.”

The ultimate goal for the next decade is to reach between five and 10 times more people than at present. James sees echoes of his experience of Yad Vashem with that of the students who attend the centre today. “I see certain children grow up on the day they come here. Sometimes we learn that children have even chosen their courses at university on the basis of what they have seen here. That gives me a real sense of pride.”

Last updated: 1:47pm, September 2 2009