As antiSemitism thrives, I often think of Woody Allen’s line about the Shoah. It’s delivered by Frederick (Max von Sydow) in Hannah and her Sisters.
“The reason they can never answer the question, ‘how could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question,” he says. “Given what people are, the question is: why doesn’t it happen more often?”
This may be true, but I think there is something lazy in it, something un-Jewish. There is a tradition in Britain of rigorous, even joyful, teaching of Jewish history and as the hatred grows online, I want to listen to a woman who has been teaching Jewish history and the Shoah for 40 years: my mother, Trudy Gold.
Her story, which is also part of the story of teaching the Shoah in Britain, is typically Jewish, both cautionary and inspiring.
She won a scholarship to a minor English public school in the late 1950s. “It was a real shock,” she says.
“When we went to assembly, the non-conformist kids — two atheists, a couple of Catholics and three Jews — instead of letting us creep into the back for notices, they made us walk right to the front of school, so all eyes were on these strange beings.”
She went to cheder but, she says, “my Jewish education was nowhere as good as my general education. I think that was true for most Anglo Jews. Our parents’ aspiration was for us to be English people.”
The Eichmann trial in 1961 coincided with a “growing political awareness. My father was very left-wing. We discussed Trotsky more than we did the rabbis”. When she joined the Aldermaston marches against the bomb a few years later during Pesach, her mother insisted she take matzah.
“I suppose a quarter of the people on the march were also getting their matzahs out.”
When she married, and had my sister and me, she didn’t think the local cheder “was up to scratch, so I went to see the rabbi”.
Within three months she was school’s headmistress. Not long afterwards, she joined the Spiro Institute for the Study of Jewish History and Culture. In the 1980s, there was very little teaching of Jewish history and the Shoah in Britain, so it was significant when the institute, set up by Robin Spiro, established an AO-level in modern Jewish history.
She taught it at Eton in the mid-1980s, describing the boys there as “delightful, they called me Ma’am”. One told her he took the class because “I want to understand why my grandfather was on the Irgun hit list”.
At St Paul’s Girls’ School, where she also taught the AO-level, a pupil said: “I want to understand why you didn’t take Uganda.” At the Spiro Institute, then on the Finchley Road, later on Kidderpore Avenue, and later still at the LondonJewish Cultural Centre (LJCC) on North End Road, there was a strange alchemy.
Refugees and survivors came to classes to trace a pattern in their lives. “My real knowledge of the Shoah,” she says, “came from them.”
One day, the writer Rafael “Felek” Scharf, who dedicated his life to trying to reanimate Jewish memory in Poland — his great-grandfather was the Rabbi of Osweicim — came in to do some photocopying, and essentially never left.
At an adult education class on Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz — Rumkowski is very controversial — a man said “Rumkowski saved my life”.
It was not an isolated incident, she says. At an adult education class on the Shoah, Jack Kagan identified himself as a member of the Bielski partisans. “The next week he told his story and would become the reason we went on to teach in Belarus, where he was born.”
And under the chairmanship of Clive Marks and with the support of other philanthropists, extraordinary people met at the LJCC.
The great intellectual and professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University, Robert Wistrich, would offer precis of his latest research. Jerold Gotel, a Yeshiva-educated restaurateur from New York came to run the overseas programme. He studied at Oxford University under Theodore Zeldin and went from camp to camp before the Berlin Wall fell to say Kaddish for his family.
The group was close: “When it got too much, we had each other.” They began to travel. “In 1986 Martin Gilbert came to see us,” she says. “He asked us to teach refuseniks in Russia.” They went once a year, carrying books and cameras. “Anything they could sell. In class in England, people would fall asleep after an hour. Here, you would teach for three hours. They said, ‘Go back to England, be Jewish for us’.”
She was stopped at customs with books of Jewish interest and asked who they were from. She replied, “Rabbi Smith.” It was true. Gotel was betrayed and hauled into KGB HQ for teaching Zionism. “They said, ‘Be a tourist, Mr Gotel’. He was written up in the papers as someone who was propagating nationalism.
“When Rafael Scharf heard Poles were teaching the Shoah in Krakow, he told us to teach in Krakow,” she says. “He needed diaspora Jews to do it.”
They worked with Joachim Russek of the Centre for Jewish Culture in Krakow: “Russek brough Polish teachers and we trained them. They turned up in their best suits and wrote down everything. They grew up under communism. My first question was always: ‘How do you know I am telling you the truth?’
“Strange things always happened in eastern Europe,” she says. In Bialystok, on a Spiro Institute tour, they were walking to Zamenhof memorial — he created Esperanto — and “an old man shuffled up and spoke Yiddish”. (Gotel had Yiddish. The men were wearing kippot.)
“He had been hidden by the non-Jewish woman he married. He took us back to his flat, told us he was a Cohen, and pronounced the priestly blessing.” They learnt that Chinese academics were fascinated by the parallels between the Nanjing massacre and the Shoah: Gotel became an associate professor at Henan University.
Gradually, teacher training in the UK expanded as more awareness was disseminated through academic research, documentary and film. Different organisations were formed, and Holocaust Studies went on the core curriculum.
Following the Stockholm Declaration, the International Task Force for Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research was established in ten inaugural countries in 2000. The following year Holocaust Memorial Day was established in Britain.
“Those were hopeful days,” she says. “We believed that if we taught the Shoah properly, we could make people more sensitive, more aware of racism, and we put our souls into it.”
She met Lithuanian and Polish teachers: “Smart but taught under totalitarianism.” She remembers one Ukrainian teacher telling her how she taught the Shoah. “She told the children, ‘Write your hopes and dreams down.’ She put them in an urn and burnt them. I said, ‘There is nothing I can teach you.’”
In those days of hope, they couldn’t foresee the reanimation of antisemitism, or the emerging truth that the Shoah must be relearnt in every generation. That charismatic generation of teachers — David Cesarani, John Klier — has largely gone, and so has their advocacy: now they teach The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas in schools.
“All the old canards — they are back. There are day trips to Auschwitz,” she marvels — as if you could learn anything in a day.
“If you teach it properly every element of humanity is there,” she says. “Austrian and German Jewry could have been saved in their entirety if they had been given refuge. There is culpability among the Allies. Every moral issue is in the Shoah. But we push away the parallels, so we don’t have to take responsibility.”
Instead, we propose to build a memorial to the Shoah. “My friends who are survivors think it’s mad,” she says. “I watch these people write words on museums that don’t make one jot of difference to anyone. You must learn how Jews lived, not just how they died. Look at the syllabus.
"There is no teaching of 1945-48, of what happened to Jews who returned to eastern Europe. Thousands were murdered, including the man who led the Sobibor Uprising. There is little teaching on the connection between the Shoah and the establishment of the state of Israel and how many survivors made their homes there, and nothing,” — she looks aghast — “on the Jews from Arab lands.”
Rather, “there is a morbid fascination. It has been depersonalised, and dejudaised, and it has nothing to do with the dilemmas of the Shoah”.
Scharf died in 2003, Wistrich in 2015, and Gotel in 2017. “I’ve met giants,” she says, and, because her parents’ aspiration was for her to be an English woman, she quotes Julius Caesar:
“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world Like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves”.
Now she works with the philanthropist Wendy Fisher offering online lectures at Lockdown University. She is still teaching.