Marc Cave

Strength and survival

It might seem 'woke' to focus on women's experience of the Holocaust, says museum boss Marc Cave, but a new series of web events show that it is a vital way of getting important messages across

March 05, 2021 10:26

I viscerally loathe virtue signalling. It is the ultimate form of letting evil flourish while doing precisely nothing.

So says the guy who commissioned a three-part webcast series celebrating women for International Women’s History Month. But before you ask for the sick bucket, let me explain.

There has never been a gendered approach to Holocaust education. The Nazis and their accomplices murdered homosexuals because they were homosexual but Jews because they were Jewish, rather than male or female. Right?

In the main, yes. But to fulfil their policy of extermination, their techniques were different for women versus men. Moreover, the victim experience of women differed in profound ways in the ghettos, camps and in hiding. This sheds new light on the Holocaust. And on the human condition today. And there’s the rub. Writing as a Brit and as a human being, I know the Holocaust offers an unrivalled lesson in decivilisation. But the trauma of Nazi boots on our ground does not inhabit Britain’s soul as it does across the Channel. So it seems arrogant that as a Jew, I should assume that a non-Jewish 14 year old today will give a damn. 76 years ago might as well be 7,600 years ago. Without linking the subject to contemporary British issues, the Holocaust will become a pure History lesson like The Black Death. With Holocaust denial and distortion, it may even one day be relegated to mythological status like The Great Flood. Nothing operates in a vacuum. If we believe the Holocaust offers important life lessons, we need to protect its value as life evolves.

So, just as our highly successful ‘Race Science and All That Jazz’ webcast in January looked at the black victim experience and gave new food for thought on the White Supremacism targeting both black and Jewish people today — our new ‘Women of The Holocaust’ series gives the Holocaust renewed moral urgency. It will make you think again about gender, family and love. It features women who not only survived but after the war, thrived. Role models who challenged the status quo and who, specifically as women, might challenge your own thinking.

Kitty Hart-Moxon will challenge your beliefs about gender based notions of strength. Kitty says it was her mother-daughter bond that kept her alive. So much so that she and her mother had their Auschwitz number tattoos surgically removed and preserved, together, in formaldehyde. Numbers 39933 and 39934 are an eternal symbol of that female bond.

Joan Salter will make you think twice about letting the children of Holocaust survivors tell their stories. A former BBC screenwriter, she is brutally incisive about vicarious victimhood and will tell you why things like The Forever Project make for more reliable ‘witnesses’.  On Mother’s Day, Eva Clarke and Hanneke Dye will make you make you reflect on the unique miracle of motherhood as they explain what it is like to give birth in complete silence lest the Nazis catch you, or in the dirt at Mauthausen.

Dr Agnes Kaposi will break your heart; then put it back together again and make it burst with pride. When she argues in favour of Second Generation testimony, she will speak not only as a survivor of Hungarian, Nazi and Stalinist horrors but as a daughter who was too tough on her father. As a mother who lost a daughter to cancer. As a grandmother with a powerful bond to her five grandchildren. Yet with the lucidity of a brilliant electrical engineer who fought rampant sexism to become only the third female Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Agnes represents everything I aspire to: to love and be loved and to leave something of worth. Despite everything. 

These are human lessons for today that teach us so much more than the history of the Holocaust.  They will be coming to your screen through the interviewing genius of two further female role models: BBC Europe editor Katya Adler and National Holocaust Museum trustee Dame Helen Hyde. You don’t want to mess with them either.

In summary, what ‘Women of The Holocaust’ seeks to do is two-fold. First, to make an impact by tethering the past to the present. Second, to make a difference. There is brilliant academic scholarship on the Holocaust but too little of it benefits the mainstream. There is a vast intellectual chasm between Academic theories and public mores. When Eli Wiesel made the world see the importance of Survivor testimony, he changed the world. When Christopher Browning wrote Ordinary Men, he made the world see how passivity becomes complicity. Both these thinkers made seminal academic points which successfully influenced mainstream attitudes and behaviour. But right now, I feel the public harvests the chaff and not the wheat of some astonishing scholarship going on inside some impressive ivory towers. Without the will to interpet this scholarship for the public discourse, brilliant particularist theories will continue to be dumbed down into virtue signalling and bland universalist clichés like ‘we must fight all forms of hate’.

We have a duty to unlock and appropriately translate transformational academic ideas for the public good. Actually, Professor Maiken Umbach’s world-class work on Holocaust images is an example. She has a genuinely new theory. It makes us see that photography is a subjective comment not a simple imprint of reality. In contrast to the faceless mass of helpless victims in perpetrator photography, the photos taken by the victims themselves — most often women — communicate individuality and resistance. We at the National Holocaust Museum worked with Maiken to bring this idea to life in a VR-based national touring exhibition called The Eye As Witness. In this way, we address the acute problem of compassion fatigue and enable general audiences to relate afresh to the victims… and to spot how photographs today, especially on social media, can mislead.

Likewise, ‘Women of the Holocaust’ offers the uniquely female experience of the Holocaust as a source of insights into all our relationships today. It is a new, particular and perhaps edgy academic angle — but it marks Women’s History Month in an original and sincere way, hopefully touching on contemporary issues a woke 14-year old might care about.

If nothing else, it beats just tweeting #metoo three times a day.


Marc Cave is director of the National Holocaust Museum

For details of the events:


March 05, 2021 10:26

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