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Smile for the Auschwitz selfie: why Holocaust memorials have failed

You don’t have to look far to read complaints about the “service” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which should trouble me, but rather makes me howl with laughter.

It is time to say that attempts to memorialise the Holocaust have failed and may even be counterproductive. The dead are still dead; anti-Semitism still exists and sometimes thrives. Myths of Jewish power circulate, now with the added insult of “playing the Holocaust card (that you presumably picked up at a Holocaust memorial gift shop)”. A clutch of these memorials, all counselling kindness to the refugee, could not save Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy, from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in 2014.

In January the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, posted a picture of herself signing a Holocaust remembrance book on Twitter. “We must never forget,” she wrote. It reminded me of my favourite line from the 1986 Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters: “The reason they can never answer the question, ‘How could it [the Holocaust] possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is, ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’”

Two weeks later, Rudd announced that the “Dubs amendment” – which aimed to offer sanctuary to solitary child refugees and was sponsored by Lord Dubs, who came to the UK from Czechoslovakia on the Kindertransport in March 1939 – would be discontinued after resettling just 350 children. (Even the Cameron government, no friend to the vulnerable, suggested that it could take about 3,000.)

I do not expect Rudd to know that, in response to the Évian Conference on Jewish refugees, held in France in 1938, Adolf Hitler offered German Jews to the world but the world did not want them. Britain took 10,000 children, sponsored privately, and left their parents to die. After 1945, Britain agreed to take another 1,000 Jewish children but it could not find 1,000 still alive. It took 732.

I now see that, for the likes of Rudd, “Never forget” means “Don’t forget for two weeks” or, if politically expedient, “Don’t forget for three days”. But if that’s what you think, you never knew anything to forget. Rudd couldn’t see the connection between the British government of 1938 leaving children to die in far-off lands and the British government of 2016 doing the same. Her signing of a Holocaust remembrance book was so meaningless that it was, at best, hand exercise and, at worst, a cynical PR gesture.

This act of Holocaust memorialising was a failure. I hope that Rudd is prevented from approaching any Holocaust-related stationery in future. But that won’t happen. The orthodoxy in these circles is: let them all come to bear witness, no matter what they do with it. Some of them might learn something.

This policy led to a friend hearing a young Polish boy, touring Auschwitz, describe a fellow visitor as “a rich Jewish bitch in all that jewellery”. The boy had learned nothing, but the man had. He punched him in the face, and that is the only cheerful anecdote in this article.

Theresa May was caught out, too. After the government abandoned the Dubs amendment, Barbara Winton – the daughter of the stockbroker Nicholas Winton, who organised the Czech Kindertransport and saved 669, mostly Jewish children – pointed out that the Prime Minister had been her father’s MP and had spoken at his memorial service, calling him “an inspiration to us all”. But every inspirational experience has, it seems, its limits.

Turn to Tripadvisor and its users’ reviews of the death-camp sites in Poland. You don’t have to look far to read complaints about the “service” at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which should trouble me, but rather makes me howl with laughter. Some complained that their expectations of feeling something – something they had read about (in a Daily Mail piece titled “How the seven dwarfs of Auschwitz fell under the spell of Dr Death”, for instance) or seen in some worthless Holocaust-related film (such as X-Men: Apocalypse) and wanted to feel for themselves – were not met. Auschwitz-Birkenau had failed them, too; you could say they were now, in their small way, victims of the Holocaust. There was also the man who called the site of the Wannsee Conference, at which the Final Solution was planned, “a big disappointment”. Well, yes.

When you allow the Holocaust to symbolise absolute evil, it does not warn you to be vigilant. Rather, it comforts you, because this or that crisis cannot be the same. It allows you to take refuge in distance and in difference; and it becomes trivial enough almost to warrant the terrible phenomenon known as the “Auschwitz selfie”. Aylan Kurdi, goes this line, isn’t Anne Frank. Katie Hopkins isn’t Leni Riefenstahl with a pen. 

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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