Discovering My Family’s Holocaust History (it’s been a strange week…)

Hello, I’m normally a fairly upbeat chap and, if you follow my career, you’ll know I try quite hard to make history entertaining and enjoyable. I am not above writing a gratuitous fart joke (or seven). But please forgive me for this more serious, and painful, post. I’m in a strange mood while writing it, and there’s a lot on my mind. Namely, the Holocaust.

It’s Passover Week in the Jewish calendar, a time with considerable emotional heft for those of the Jewish faith, but that hasn’t stopped a trio of political figures from three separate nations uttering some truly appalling things. It began with the UK Labour Party somewhat feebly chastising Ken Livingstone for wrongly asserting that Hitler supported Zionism (he didn’t). The idiocy baton was then passed to America, where the White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, clumsily compared Syrian President Assad to Hitler, noting that the former was worse because Hitler didn’t gas his own people. This was a monumentally stupid misstatement, one for which he has now apologised, but it is deeply regrettable that forgetting about the Holocaust in Passover Week is par for the course from the shambolic Trump administration.

But perhaps the more dangerous utterance this week was not a spokesman’s stupid blunder, or the stale opinions of a semi-retired controversialist, but was from the mouth of a potential future leader of France. Marine Le Pen, who has worked hard to try and detoxify her father’s dangerous right wing party (Le Front National) denied that France’s authorities had been complicit in the rounding up of French Jews during the Nazi occupation of WW2. This is a fact of history proven many times over by historians, and one officially endorsed by the French state since 1995. Her malicious denial is not just factually incorrect, it’s downright disgusting.

As it happens, I’m equally as interested in the politics of France as I am in those of the USA. I am, you see, half-French (my weird hair and fondness for stripy t-shirts is probably a bit of a giveaway). But, if I’m honest, I’ve never known that much about my French heritage beyond my grandparents’ generation. It’s only recently that my mother and aunt have been able to show me family trees and documents that reveal the truth of what happened to our family before the 1950s. Just last month, we realised our 19th century ancestors also included several generations of Italians, my favourite of them being a Milanese ice cream maker, so that was a rather charming discovery.

The sharper revelation arrived on January 20th, during Donald Trump’s inaugural address to the American people. As I winced at his ugly oratory, and cheered myself up by retweeting droll barbs on Twitter, an email popped into my inbox from my mother. I quickly opened it, forgetting what it was she had promised to send me. Immediately it made me cry.  There in black and white was a series of scanned documents listing the details of my great-grandfather’s transportation to Auschwitz.

Scroll forward to this week, and — in another strange coincidence of depressing American rhetoric and painful family history — members of my family were visiting the Shoah Memorial in Paris just as Sean Spicer was making his Hitler blunder. This important museum is dedicated to remembering French Jews whose lives were destroyed by the Holocaust. And there, on the wall among a collage of smiling faces in black & white, was a photo of my great-aunt posing with another Jewish girl, in happier times. I’m not going to share the photo, or tell you her name, because that is too personal. But let me tell you what happened to her, and to her father — the man whose transportation records I had recently seen for the first time.

She was a Jew living in France, born to Algerian and Tunisian immigrants, and a week before her 16th birthday she was deported to a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, Auschwitz II-Birkenau. This was July 1944, and I don’t know when she’d been rounded up, or how long she’d been held in the infamous Parisian internment camp at Drancy. The arrests of French Jews had begun in 1941, and, until July 1943, Drancy had been administrated by collaborating French police. That summer, however, the SS officer Alois Brunner had arrived to take over, and it was under his tenure that the brutality escalated (Brunner was never brought to justice for his crimes, though he was convicted in absentia). My great-aunt was probably arrested and detained by her own countrymen, but she was deported to a deathcamp on the orders of a Nazi. Marine Le Pen would have you forget the first part of that sentence. Don’t let her. Miraculously, this young woman survived the horrors. Decades later, I would meet her a handful of times, and would find it puzzling that she wasn’t closer to her older sister, my grandmother. It’s only now that I understand why.

Years before the hulking menace of occupation and concentration camps, the family had already been touched by tragedy. Their Tunisian mother had died when they were little girls, and their Algerian father – my great-grandfather – had seemingly decided against being a single parent. Instead, the sisters (who were aged just 4 and 9), were separated for several months, sent to live on different farms far away from the city, before being permanently placed in the Rothschild orphanage in Paris to be raised by caring strangers.  Their father went back to work, probably in a jeweller’s workshop. Grieving for their mother, and with those long months of early separation doing its sad work, it seems the sisters were never able to form a strong bond. Perhaps the 5-year age gap was just too big.

By the time Nazi tanks rolled across the fields of France, my grandmother – the older of the two – had left the care of the home, but remained at the orphanage as a member of the kitchen staff. In the meantime, their widowed father had embarked on a love affair with a French woman. At some point the relationship turned sour. When the French police began rounding up Jews, it was his vengeful ex-lover who betrayed him to the police. He too was interned at Drancy. On November 20th 1943, four days before his 55th birthday, he was put on a train to Auschwitz where he was subsequently murdered in Hitler’s unspeakably evil policy known euphemistically as the Final Solution. His crime was being a Jew.

It’s estimated that 11 million people were annihilated in the Holocaust, a chilling word which means “entirely burned” in Greek. About 6 million of these victims were Jews: the other targeted groups included Poles, Slavs, Roma Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, LGBT people, those with physical disabilities or learning difficulties, people of colour, political opponents to Hitler’s rule, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Freemasons, resistance fighters, petty criminals, and many more. It’s thought that France’s Jewish victims numbered 76,000, of whom roughly 11,000 were children. About 65,000 of that total number were initially held at Drancy before transportation to the deathcamps. Only 2,000 returned alive, my great-aunt being one of them.

Given the mammoth scale of death in the Holocaust, we might view 76,000 victims as fewer than we would have expected in a nation the size of France. Thankfully, some had been able to flee the country before the authorities snared them, often aided by those non-Jews who found the escalating atmosphere of anti-Semitism to be morally abhorrent. Today these compassionate souls, who risked much to offer salvation to the persecuted, are known in France as ‘les Justes’. In Israel they are venerated as the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. Sadly, my family received no such help.

All the same, my grandmother was never caught by the Nazis. She was 19 when the arrests began, and – presumably having already heard of her father’s fate – had tried to warn her younger sister to keep a low profile. It did not work. The orphanage was raided and we know what happened next. Instead, my grandmother spent the whole period of Nazi occupation living in anxious safety, wondering if she’d ever see her family again. In 1945, upon the liberation of the concentration camps, she was told to go to a nearby Parisian hotel where a welcome surprise awaited her. It was her 17 year old sister, back from hell on earth. It’s gut-wrenching to know that, in her final years, my grandmother (we called her Mamie) quietly admitted she wished it had been her father instead.

Our beloved, complicated Mamie died in 2013, just hours after my fiancée and I had travelled urgently to Paris to show her the engagement ring and invite her to our wedding. We knew she was ill, but had no warning that it was the end. She’d endured so much in life, I genuinely thought she’d make it to see us walk up the aisle, a whole year later. In hindsight, I realise she knew otherwise. It goes without saying that I wouldn’t exist to write this if Hitler had got his way, so you might expect the telling of this tragic story to have been a crucial part of my upbringing – a family ritual of pained appreciation for what did not come to pass. But no. This is all confusingly new to me.

Despite being a 34 year old professional historian, only now am I learning the terrible specifics of my family’s experiences in history’s most infamous atrocity. How on earth did I not know this stuff already? Well, the reasons are quite straightforward. As a wounded France got back to its feet, my grandmother married a nice French Catholic man who – worried about her future safety – asked her to change faith to France’s preferred choice. After all, Jews had always been under suspicion, long before the Holocaust, and who knew what the future would bring? They raised two daughters (my mother and my aunt) not as North African scholars of the Torah, but as middle class Catholic schoolgirls with wimple-wearing nuns for teachers. My mother then moved to England and married my vaguely C of E father, meaning my brother and I were raised with no religion at all.

Consequently, all of us grew up with no understanding of Jewish culture, and found it amusingly odd when my grandmother would exclaim “Mazel Tov!” at moments of joy. Alas, my Gallic language skills are patchy at best, having grown up as a stubbornly reluctant Frenchman (until 1998 delivered footballing glory for France, and my own feelings of patriotism unexpectedly blossomed). So, I never had those deep and meaningful conversations with my grandmother. But, even if I had done so, she rarely talked to us about her horrific youth, only having opened up to her daughters. In response to this revelation, my French aunt began exploring our Jewish heritage through her artistic exploits (she’s always been a talented painter), but my mother didn’t feel ready to follow this path. The fact that we were in England meant it never quite sunk in for me. I grew up knowing WW2 had been traumatic for Mamie, but the specifics were hazy.

It’s only since my grandmother’s death that the rest of us have started to investigate what must have been an extraordinarily traumatic wound. I can only imagine the conflicting emotions she must have felt when she saw her sister at social occasions, such as Christmas (a festival she must only have adopted in her 20s?), and I know from my mother’s reports of growing up in the same house that sometimes it all became too much. There were mental health episodes that required professional care away from the family home, and many years later – after my grandfather had died – she would stay with us in England for a fortnight or more, every summer, during which she often demonstrated a certain flair for the dramatic. I always thought she was just very, very French. And she was. But now I realise there was so much more bubbling away under the surface. Mamie carried her past with her every day, as do we all, and yet it was not a burden I inherited. Her past was not passed on when she passed on.

This happens sometimes. History’s legacy is everywhere in the modern world. THEN is the largest constituent part of what makes up NOW – it’s everywhere we look, it’s the inherited words we speak, the ancient streets we walk, the old buildings we gather in, the timeless style of clothes we wear, the eternal ideas we carry in our minds. We dwell in the culture forged by our ancestors, their voices echo in our conversations. Yet, alas, we don’t always realise it. Each new generation arrives with less to remember than their parents, instead acquiring their own new knowledge and experiences to fill the mental gap. Sometimes society forgets, or stops caring, about what was once considered to be vital information.

In 1995, President Jacques Chirac admitted in a speech that France had been complicit in the rounding up and transportation of Jews. In 2017, Marine Le Pen tried to weasel her way out of that truth because her shallow brand of jingoism won’t accommodate such national shame. This has angered me twice: once as historian and once as a descendant of the victims. What scares me most is that some will have believed her. Memories can fade so fast. Fifty years ago, the Boer War remained a big deal because veterans still slowly pottered around the streets of Britain. Now? Nothing…

We have already lost the WW1 generation, and next year’s armistice centenary will be the grand finale, after which public interest will gradually wither through each passing decade. Soon we will lose the WW2 generation, and yet already we see alarming Holocaust revisionism doing big numbers on Google searches. The sinister pushback has already commenced. It’s easier to lie when there are fewer witnesses to discredit your bullshit, and once they are gone it becomes the duty of historians to keep these human experiences in the public’s mind. Often we have less success than we’d like. Historians don’t get as much airtime as politicians.

And so I come back around to Spicer, Livingstone and Le Pen. When politicians stand before us and lie, or speak confidently despite their ignorance, we must resist the seduction of their language. In times of complexity, simplicity is tempting. A leader who offers soundbite solutions is enthralling. Podium rhetoric can seemingly solve anything when life is hard and money is tight. But such quick fixes are mirages in the desert. The past was vastly complex, and modern politics isn’t much simpler. When politicians invoke the past in their campaign speeches, we must not implicitly assume they know what they’re talking about.

Le Pen is a toxic demagogue in waiting, and her comments were deliberate denialism, but that’s not to say all politicians are evil bastards, or shit-for-brains numpties – I tend to be fairly romantic about the idea of public service, and many of them work tirelessly to serve their constituents. If they are ever wrong, often it is born of ignorance, not cynicism. But wrongness is still a bladed weapon, all the same. We have to immunize ourselves against these lubricated lies that slip so easily into our perception of the world. When we hear some grand claim in a speech, or see a convincing meme in our social media timeline, we owe it to ourselves to check it against a reliable source. In such a case as Spicer, Livingstone and Le Pen (is it me, or does that not sound like a disreputable law firm in a Dickens novel?), many historians on Twitter were quick to fact-check the dangerous errors, and they will often give up their time to answer genuine questions from the public, particularly pertaining to national politics.

It’s not our fault if we are misled by the speech we encounter. After all, this stuff is hard. There’s a reason historians and scientists spend years studying a single subject. To understand the complex interconnectedness of cause and effect requires more than a cursory glance at Wikipedia, or some graph on Twitter. Even after a lifetime of scrutiny, historians can still scratch their heads in frustration at the tantalising unknowability of lost eras. We also disagree over the same evidence, so there isn’t always a single definitive truth anyway. The mountain of things I do not know about the past is mind-bogglingly enormous — and reading history is pretty much all I do, every day.

This week, it was my family’s truth which was corrupted by dangerous political speech. Next week it will be someone else’s. But the fallacious statements from Livingstone, Spicer, and Le Pen were successfully challenged thanks to the combined efforts of eyewitnesses, historians, and the survivors themselves, all of whom contributed over the years to help build up an understanding of what happened in those brutal years under Hitler’s reign. In the Shoah Memorial in Paris — and other institutions like it — there are documents, photos, diaries, and carefully-assembled rosters of names, dates, and places; the weight of evidence that defies denialists.

In all walks of life there are people who dedicate their lives to curating and interpreting such evidence, so that the rest of us can know things. They number in their ranks not just historians, but also journalists, scientists, legal scholars, and many more. Often they will debate passionately amongst themselves, and sometimes we won’t subscribe to their ideas, choosing instead those of their rival colleagues. This is ok. Provided they build their arguments on verifiable evidence, disagreement over interpretation is a healthy democracy at work.

Now, however, we find ourselves drowning in a torrent of fake news and deliberate disinformation that has no relation to truth whatsoever. It must be said, I worry about this a lot, frequently wringing my hands over New Scientist articles about confirmation bias and the psychology of conspiratorial thinking. But, thanks to the labours of those who care about facts, the truth will always float to the surface. Let us paddle over to it, and cling to its reassuring buoyancy while we figure out what the hell to do with all the bullshitters.

Thanks for reading this.


Image taken from the Shoah memorial, Paris