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Exhibition Review: Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain And The Holocaust

Posted by Elizabeth Fraser, Thursday 12th May, 2016

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'I am Alive' by Kitty Hart-Moxon

I took part in the Holocaust Education Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz Project in 2010 and since then, I have been aware of the importance of passing on the lessons of the Holocaust. Studying genocide during my undergraduate degree served to reinforce this view and I decided to begin blogging for the Wiener Library in order to contribute in some small way to their mission to act as a living memorial to the evils of the past.

In order to educate myself further about the Holocaust and Britain’s role in particular, I recently visited the Library’s new exhibition, ‘Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust', co-curated with the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Regional Ambassadors.

'Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain And The Holocaust'

As a Brit, I am rarely given pause for thought regarding my country’s role in opposing the Holocaust. I’ve been taught that I come from a nation that continued to resist the seemingly unstoppable conquest of Nazi Germany as the rest of Europe fell; a nation of Churchill, rationing, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz spirit. In Britain, we view our response to the Nazi invasion of Europe as a proud moment in our history, but as demonstrated by ‘Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust’, a new exhibition at the Wiener Library, Britain’s response to the Holocaust was deeply flawed.

The British Government and the Holocaust

It is no secret that fascist and antisemitic movements sprang up in Britain in the 1930s, most notable of which was the British Union of Fascists (BUF), led by Sir Oswald Mosley. The exhibition contains two flyers for BUF rallies at the Royal Albert Hall in 1933 and 1934, which serve as a grim reminder of the traction Mosley gained among some circles as well as his intractable resistance to the plight of Jewish refugees from Europe. However, fascism never gained a real grip upon the public imagination and as ‘Dilemmas, Choices, Responses’ shows us, the opposition to Jewish immigration was not a result of radical far-right ideologies.

The exhibition shows us all the ways in which the British government was kept informed about the plight of Jews in Europe and had ample opportunity to offer refuge to persecuted communities. The Evian Conference of 1938 was called by Franklin D. Roosevelt to seek commitments from participating nations to accept refugees. Only two countries agreed to increase their quotas: Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. The following year, a government White Paper prepared just months after the November Pogrom in 1938, limited Jewish migration into Mandatory Palestine to 75,000 over five years.

The exhibition highlights two notable sources of intelligence about the Holocaust: the Polish Government in exile provided Britain with early and accurate reports about the Holocaust; and the 1942 Riegner Telegram confirmed fears that Nazi Germany was preparing a mass murder of European Jews. It is clear that the UK Government was attentive to this information, as demonstrated by the 1942 Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations, which described the events of the Holocaust unfolding in Europe. Despite British acknowledgment of the mass murder occurring in Europe, it was felt that Britain should not undertake any actions that could jeopardise the war effort and that winning the war was the best way to end the Holocaust.

Refugees in Britain

I had imagined that those Jewish refugees who were permitted entry into Britain would be met with a warm welcome, but the exhibition showed me that this was not always the case. Some refugees, particularly men from Germany and Austria, were viewed with suspicion and they were interned in camps on the Isle of Man. I was shocked to learn that refugees fleeing a genocidal regime were interned as enemy aliens and the lack of sympathy that refugees found when they arrived in the UK.

Perhaps this lack of sympathy stemmed from the unwillingness of the press to cover the Holocaust. The BBC defended their lack of reporting on the Holocaust by explaining that any such coverage would require them to allow antisemites to respond, in order to maintain neutrality. Perhaps most the most outrageous example of this was the BBC’s reluctance to broadcast Richard Dimbleby’s report from the liberated camp of Bergen-Belsen. It was only his threat to never report again that forced the BBC to air his report.

Honouring the Heroes and Victims of the Holocaust

It was heartening to learn stories of those like Richard Dimbleby as well as Anthony Eden and Eleanor Rathbone, who pressured the Government to publicise the Holocaust and spoke up in favour of granting asylum to those fleeing for their lives. I also learned about the British Hero of the Holocaust award, which recognises those British citizens who helped to rescue victims of the Holocaust. Since its creation in 2010, there have been 31 recipients of this award and it was a reminder of the extraordinary lengths that some British people went to in order to rescue Jews. The only regretful detail is that some recipients of the award were not honoured by their government for their courage during their lifetimes, but instead received it posthumously.

The exhibition examines how after the war, there was little appetite in Britain to learn about the experience of the refugees. I found Kitty Hart-Moxon’s memories of arriving in the UK particularly distressing; having survived the Auschwitz and the death marches, she was told by her uncle to never mention her experiences so as to avoid upsetting his daughters. Her first autobiography, I Am Alive, considered to be the first memoir of the Holocaust in Britain, was not published until 1961. Both this and her second book, Return to Auschwitz: the Remarkable Story of a Girl Who Survived the Holocaust (1983) are available to read in the Library’s Reading Room.

The overview of the exhibition I have offered here barely scratches the surface of the extraordinary documents and testimony that it showcases. ‘Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain and the Holocaust’ has transformed that way I understand my country’s response to the deadliest genocide the world has ever seen and I think it the timing of the exhibition, when this country is once again grappling with how to respond to a humanitarian crisis, could not be more fitting.

‘Dilemmas, Choices, Responses: Britain And The Holocaust’ runs at the Wiener Library until June 15. Read the thoughts and responses of visitors to the exhibition by searching #BritainandtheHolocaust on Twitter.

Since publication of this blog post, the exhibition has been extended through 23 June.

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