The murders, slaughters and genocides of the past and present are among the hardest things we find ourselves trying to explain to children. I can remember going to Germany in 1957 when I was 11 and my parents saying they were going on a trip to a “camp”. Why can’t we come too, I asked. Because it would be too horrific, they said. They were going to Buchenwald, a concentration camp in easter Germany.
When they came back, my mother’s face was drawn. She couldn’t or wouldn’t describe or explain what she had seen. But then she didn’t ever tell me that she’d had a baby who died, born before me and after my brother. That was then. Things have changed.
Mostly, we try to explain even the most horrific of events. Many of us think that it’s better to try to do that than let these things sit about in our children’s minds full of misconceptions or imaginings that these things are about to happen tomorrow or next week. In truth, not only is this hard, it’s hard to understand these things ourselves.
Like many other people, I link the word “Holocaust” to the phrase “Never again”, meaning that such events shouldn’t ever happen to any group of people anywhere, ever again. The problem is, though: do we know why or how it happened last time? What is it we should do to stop it happening again?
This takes us back to how we commemorate the catastrophes of the 1930s and 40s. They affected my own family: my father’s cousin was put on a train out of Poland by his parents, and he never saw them again. My father’s uncles were deported from France and never seen again.
Growing up, these stories hung in the air. What happened? I’d ask. Don’t know, they’d say. They weren’t being evasive. Genuinely, they didn’t.
So I’ve tried to get to know. I’ve spent many hours combing the internet, writing to survivor’s organisations and I know much more now. I ask myself, why? That was the past. I can’t bring them back. They I say to myself, if I find stuff out, tell people and write about it, doesn’t that mean the didn’t die totally in vain?
If, for example, I share the fact that the officials of the Vichy regime in France made lists of foreign-born Jews that they passed to the Nazis and it was these that enabled them to capture and deport my great-uncles, doesn’t that give people pause for thought about how lists of minorities can be misused- with terrible effect? In other circumstances, I’ve been asked to contribute to events around the Anne Frank trust.
Like millions of others, I’ve read Anne Frank’s diary. I feel honoured to have met Miep Gies, the women who hid the Franks. In the midst of thinking about the horrors of roundups, deportations, mass exterminations, Miep Gies is the embodiments of hope. Thousands like her took enormous risks to protect people who would otherwise have been killed.
If we are to make progress in how we treat each other, knowing the details of what Miep Gies did makes the telling of what happened easier, both for ourselves and for the children we’re talking to.
Michael Rosen’s Anne Frank’s Trees: Keeping the Memory Alive marks Holocaust Memorial Day on Tuesday 27th January at 11am on Radio 4