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For Holocaust Memorial Day, here is a look at how one family’s experience helps us to grasp the unfathomable.
Michael Rosen’s new book, The Missing (Walker Books,2020), is an account of his researches into the fate of his relatives in World War 2. Sensitive and conversational, this short book doesn’t shy away from the horror of the Holocaust, or the author’s distress and outrage, yet – reflecting, one feels, the author’s own disposition – it is both gentle and encouraging.
When I was growing up, stories often hung in the air about my great uncles: they were there before the war, my dad would say, but they weren’t after.
The Rosen family lived in Poland, then home to the largest Jewish community in the world. During World War 2, many Jews fled Poland, and many, many more died. Three million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, around 90% of Polish Jewry. The author’s paternal great grandparents had eight children. Four stayed in Poland and perished, two went to live and work in France and perished, two went to America and survived. Rosen, a Francophile from a young age, recounts his dogged investigations into the French wing of the family in particular.
Big facts of history are simply interwoven with individual life stories. The chapters are short, interspersed with poems, and the language straightforward – suitable for 8 year olds, and for older readers. However, nothing is simplified. We discover, with Rosen, that the family in America knew more than they let on. Why the secrecy? Was it survivor guilt? Had they not tried sufficiently to help their siblings in Europe? Or had they tried and failed? This family failure is echoed in tales of national failure, as when the ship St Louis, carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, was turned back by the US government after travelling 4000 miles and so nearly reaching safety.
Rosen writes of other genocides, of more recent refugee crises, and of intolerance built on prejudice, antisemitism, xenophobia, discrimination:
When you really look back at the history of it all, you can see that these terrible things happened bit by bit: in stages.
What was going on in Germany in, say, the 1920s is not the same as what was happening in 1944, when the mass killings were taking place. So now people look for signs of what might be a dangerous slippery slope. (p.102)
January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day. Here are some online links to further resources:
- The Holocaust Explained, managed by the Wiener Holocaust Library in London
- Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
- The Anne Frank Trust UK
- The Holocaust Educational Trust
The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is Be the light in the darkness, with very similar messages to those Michael Rosen gives all of us in The Missing.