Life & Culture

Remember both bride and prejudice

We must not be afraid of looking at the good and the bad in our history


When Gena Turgel was liberated from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on April 15, 1945, I am sure that she would have found it hard to believe that she would get married, have children and make a life for herself here in Britain.

Gena had endured unimaginable horrors, including Auschwitz-Birkenau, and had arrived at Belsen just barely alive after years of dehumanisation and loss. When British forces arrived at the gates of Belsen, they didn't just bring a physical end to the years of imprisonment, they represented so much more - life, freedom, opportunity.

Wearing a wedding dress made from a British army parachute, Gena went on to marry one of the men who liberated her, Norman Turgel. The dress now sits in the Imperial War Museum in London.

For every day of the 71 years that she has lived here, Gena has expressed gratitude to the country that welcomed her with open arms and enabled her to rebuild her life. She considers herself to be British and is perhaps one of the most patriotic people I know.

For Gena and for many survivors, this country represents their safe haven after years of barbarity, but sometimes we forget to ask ourselves - what came before liberation? Could we have done more, sooner? These are the questions asked by a new exhibition, Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust, co-curated by Holocaust Educational Trust Regional Ambassadors and on display at the Wiener Library. The exhibition is a reflection of the issues that the ambassadors themselves grapple with, and they have done so thoughtfully and sensitively.

We must not be afraid of looking at the good and the bad in our history

In this country, we rightly remember with great pride the 10,000 children who arrived in Britain on the Kindertransport and found safety here. In 1938, the first trains arrived at Liverpool Street station, bringing 200 children from an orphanage in Berlin to safety in Britain. But, earlier that year, a meeting of 32 countries had taken place in Évian to address the growing Jewish refugee crisis in Europe, and none, Britain included, would expand their immigration quotas to take in adults in need.

Even after the events of Kristallnacht prompted Britain to take in the children who arrived on the Kindertransport, it refused - with only a small number of exceptions - to admit their parents, most of whom were subsequently murdered in the Holocaust.

Those who were liberated at Bergen-Belsen by British forces continue to feel a deep-held sense of gratitude to those young men who restored their freedom. But it is widely known that the debate about whether the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz still lingers. The Allies knew about the existence of Auschwitz as early as 1942 and, in 1944, they were in a position to consider whether aerial bombardment was a strategically sound decision. In the exhibition our regional ambassadors have created, there is a reply from the Air Ministry to Winston Churchill's request about the possibilities of bombing Auschwitz, explaining why they believed it to be an impossible course of action. Nevertheless, the decision continues to be debated by historians.

And we also must not forget that British shores did not escape antisemitism. In 1932, Oswald Mosley established the British Union of Fascists, elements of which were explicitly antisemitic. In 1936, BUF followers mounted a blatant antisemitic campaign in the East End of London, home to 100, 000 British Jews. The BUF were famously, and bravely, faced down at the battle of Cable Street - the 80th anniversary will take place later this year.

These are just a few examples of an incredibly complex tapestry that makes up Britain's relationship to the Holocaust. At the Trust, we recognise that there is no simple narrative. If we only ever remember the good, we are at risk of simplifying and rewriting our own history.

Similarly, if we remember only the bad, we do a disservice to those brave and important decisions that were made in the most difficult of circumstances.

This does not mean that we should not be proud, but that we should not be afraid to look at our history in all of its complexity. We should never be so complacent in our knowledge of the details that we risk losing sight of the bigger picture.

When Gena Turgel arrived in Britain, she received a press fanfare, with newspapers clambering over themselves to speak to, as she would become known, ''The Bride from Belsen''. Not only was she free but she was accepted - she left a cage and entered "the most wonderful world". Her story is remarkable, but if we forget the complex path of history that led there, and our own role in it, we are being untrue to our history.

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