Stephen Smith is Executive Director Emeritus of the USC Shoah Foundation and CEO of conversational video platform Storyfile. The British-born, LA-based, 55-year-old co-founded, with his brother James, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum — affectionately known as Beth Shalom — in Laxton, Nottinghamshire in 1995. James, 52, is president of the centre and CEO of genocide-prevention charity the Aegis Trust, which the siblings also established, in 2000.
Stephen on James:
James is more of a thinker than me. Everybody referred to me as hyperactive — I knew the word when I was four. I’m more the “get it done” kind of force and he would be more “let’s think about this and do it well”. As a child, he was fascinated by anything that moved. He would just keep animals… and I would create a farm! That’s how our division of labour was, and remains.
I was 24 and James 22 when we were in Jerusalem for the summer. We knew we needed to put the whole day aside to visit Yad Vashem. And it turned out to be a life-changing day.
I saw a photo of a group of priests with their arms raised in a Heil Hitler salute. I remember then realising that the clergy fully bought into the Nazi ideology and became a part of the organs of state. To us, that just indicated it wasn’t about the brutality of the Nazis — it was about the failure of society.
Christianity had lost any moral credibility through its allegiance with the Nazis. It didn’t even shake my faith, it reversed it. I no longer identify as a Christian. I’d read enough about antisemitism in the Christian world by that point to be very circumspect. It just didn’t seem right to me that a religion that was born of another would then turn around and persecute it for century after century.
Yad Vashem triggered a big awakening. We said it seems to us that remembering the Holocaust is not the responsibility of the Jewish world at all. Why should the victims have to deal with the consequences of their own suffering, plus the consequences of the world’s failure? We sat in a taxi with a driver whose name I remember to this day, Joshua Turgeman. We said there does not seem to be a place in Britain where you can go to say our civilisation failed and this is what we’re going to do about it. And he turned around in his car at the traffic lights on Herzl Boulevard and said: “You guys should do it. If not you, whom?”
The idea for the museum came about a year later. I was on the M40 at midnight and I called James. It was a shock to us that there wasn’t a Holocaust memorial, a centre, or anything. Somebody has to build one and there just isn’t the money anywhere, or the interest. I said I think we have to sit our parents down — maybe we just build the centre on the site that they already own, and maybe we can have the house. And he said, “good idea”.
We bought the property next door for our parents to move into. They’re now in their late 80s and still there. My mum’s close circle of friends are all Holocaust survivors.
As children, my parents dressed us in the same sweaters. We used to hate that — we didn’t want to feel like twins. Now we’re increasingly looking like each other and people confuse us, congratulating one on something made by the other. We’re basically both bald guys with beards and glasses. We may be on the other side of the world now — I’ve been in LA for 12 years — but we’re still completely in sync with each other.
James on Stephen:
As far back as my memory goes, Stephen has always had a plan for something. He is an extraordinarily creative person. When we were developing the Holocaust centre, you’d think we’d bring in a landscape gardener. I got the paper out and began drawing. In the meantime, he’d gone off and hired a JCB and started digging.
Until our visit to Israel, our knowledge of the Holocaust was pretty sparse. We’d not learned anything at school. One thing that stuck with me at Yad Vashem, as a medical student at the time, was a statement on the wall that said 45 per cent of doctors had joined the Nazi Physicians’ League. This wasn’t a small number of psychopathic individuals or rabid antisemites.
This was about ordinary professional people getting involved in the Nazi enterprise. I’m no better or worse than anyone else. If I’d been living in Nazi Germany two generations earlier, there’s a one in two chance that I would have joined. What would I have done? Why did so many people go along with it? They’re questions that 30 years later I’m still asking and that we should still be asking for hundreds of years.
We need to get better at understanding that process of perpetration if we’re ever to stop genocide happening. We’ve got to understand the psychology around why these crimes take place because any of us potentially could become victims of genocide and anyone could become a perpetrator or a bystander.
I guess I’m now somewhere between faith and agnosticism and humanism, but I wouldn’t say that I buried faith completely. Being in that position of a challenged Christian, I think, enables me to talk to Christian leaders and say that antisemitism is something we have to take very seriously. But in reality, these days, I’m more likely to find myself in shul than in church.
In the early 1990s, I would honestly have had no idea that we’d still be working in this field. As children, we both wanted to become farmers. It probably shouldn’t be reported in the JC, but my big dream was to be a pig farmer. After taking time off to work at the Aegis Trust, on genocide prevention worldwide, I was going to go back to surgery, but that’s gone off track a bit [James left medicine in 2003].
I don’t argue with Stephen. Our disagreements were more when we were younger — having pillow fights and things like that. I think by the time we were in our early 20s, we got on pretty well and had a good balance between our roles. We just naturally got on and filled gaps in a way that meant we complemented each other.
Every five years or so, Stephen and I come back and collaborate. And I can imagine doing that in another 30 years. We’ll be in our 80s, maybe not phoning each other, but we’ll be communicating via some other technology and I’m sure there will be another project that we’ll cook up together.
Stephen and James Smith were talking to Etan Smallman. For more information about the National Holocaust Centre and Museum, visit: holocaust.org.uk
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Me & You: ‘Visiting Yad Vashem was a life-changing day’
Brothers Stephen and James Smith co-founded the National Holocaust Centre and Museum