To be a true memorial, the stories we tell about the Holocaust must be the whole truth

As much as we want to protect our children from the atrocities humans commit against each other, we must help them understand that nothing can bring back the dead or repair those who lived the horror.

One of the lessons of parenthood is that you are a coward. Whatever moral fearlessness you may have thought you had in the absence of dependents shrivels and shrinks when the awfulness that the world has to offer is being imposed not on you – fallen you, complicit you – but on them, your children with their smallness and their extraordinary solidity in your arms and their exquisite freedom from the muck and misery that you know humans are capable of.

So I hide things from them, suddenly channel-hopping when a distressing news bulletin starts on TV, or beginning a loud conversation about homework at the breakfast table when the Today programme takes an upsetting turn. To compensate for this ongoing deceit, there's a parental duty to acclimatise my children to the dark and alarming – but to do it in a controlled, fairy-tale fashion, where the thrill of the bad comes with the emergency exit of the impossible and the magical so it can be safely tidied away at the end.

One of the favourite ways to do this in our family has been Judith Kerr's The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, a large tiger arrives at the door just as the small Sophie and her mother are sitting down to tea. The tiger eats all the food in the cupboards and drinks all the tea in the teapot, all the water in the tap and all daddy's beer. Then the tiger goes away, Sophie's dad comes home and all three go out for dinner at a café. The home invader, with his lovely, luxurious, huggable tale, never returns.

The story is delightful. It's also dangerous: children of around the picture-book stage generally have an acute suspicion of strangers, particularly the ones who appear in their homes. But there's another danger that The Tiger who Came to Tea suggests, a more concrete one from Kerr's personal history though a more jarring one for those who find the tiger a benign visitor. It's a reading that Michael Rosen put forward in last year's Imagine documentary on Kerr's life and work. Kerr was born in Germany during the Nazi rise to power. Her father was a Jewish intellectual who publicly criticised Hitler, and the threat of the unwelcome visitor was a real and constant one for the Kerrs: the family escaped Germany just days before the knock on the door would have come, settling in London where Kerr grew up and trained as an artist. 

Perhaps you find this fanciful; but then, it seems far more fanciful to imagine that writers and illustrators who lived through the Second World War might bear the knowledge of its extraordinary horrors and never find that knowledge winding its way into their art. Dodie Smith's upbringing was secure in Britain, but her sequel to The Hundred and One Dalmatians, called The Twilight Barking, is explicitly about the prospect of nuclear annihilation. In it, the dogs of earth are called to a parliament by Sirius, lord of the Dog Star – an extraterrestrial canine who offers his interplanetary brethren the chance to escape humanity's destructive tendencies and follow him into space. (I should mention too that the dogs “swoosh” to this parliament rather than walking in a normal dog fashion. It is a very odd book.)

In the end, the dogs decide their duty lies with their “pets” – that is, their humans – and they would rather face death by H-bomb than commit desertion. This seems such a strange, explicitly political turn from the preceding book that I laughed when I read the summary; but reading The Hundred and One Dalmatians to my daughter recently, it occurred to me that this might be a reckoning with one of the Twentieth Century's monumental devastations too. In this stories, Dalmatian parents Pongo and Missis travel an unimaginable distance to rescue their stolen puppies. When they find them, they are imprisoned in a kitchen along with dozens of other pups, all of them in imminent danger from Cruella de Vils ghastly lust for furs.

At first, Pongo and Missis want to get just their own puppies out. But then they go into the enemy camp, and there, both feel the same thing: they feel that they are parents to all the puppies, with a duty to take every one of the 97 to safety. And so they do. All are saved. All of them find a home with Pongo and Missis's owners, the Dearlys. I've read the book myself of course and watched the films, but this was the first time I noticed the obvious: “Oh my God,” I announced to my husband (who gets this sort of thing a lot), “It's the kindertransport. With dogs.”

The difference, of course, is that the real kindertransport could not save everyone. Some were left behind. Some never found another home. Many died. This is a fact that Kerr deals with in the Imagine documentary with the unsentimental honesty of the survivor. She returns to her childhood home with presenter Alan Yentob. Together, they visit a number of Holocaust memorials, including one on the platform from which trains were dispatched to Auschwitz with Jews as cargo. Kerr looks at the monument, sceptically. “It's all very well,” she says, “but it doesn't bring anyone back.”

And to underline this, the documentary then shows a child's drawing found in a concentration camp. It is similar in style and subject matter to some of the examples of Kerr's juvenile draughtsmanship that her mother packed when they fled their home. The name of the child who drew it is unknown. Whoever they are, they surely died where the picture was found. The losses are unrecoverable: art may be a consolation, but it can never be a recompense. Which is why we commit a dishonest evasion if when we think of the Holocaust we think only of the individual survivors who went on to create beautiful things, more dishonest even than a story where everyone is saved.

I remember feeling strangely outraged on learning that Primo Levi may have died by suicide in old age having survived Auschwitz. My resentment can only really be explained as a feeling that he owed me his existence as a continuous triumph over Nazism – that Levi's ongoing ability to overcome brutality was necessary to my ability to live with its existence, and his suffering as a victim should be subordinate to my suffering as a voyeur. The crass idiocy of initial my feelings on this point should not need pointing out. When we make an individual survivor into the redemption of a whole horror, all we do is hang the weight of the many dead around the neck of the living and demand they carry the burden for us.

When humans commit atrocities against each other, all cannot be saved. Even those who survive must continue surviving, in the words of a friend whose grandmother escaped the pogroms by being evacuated to Stalingrad; bad things continue to happen to them, and sometimes people do horrendous things themselves in order outrun evil. Nothing can bring back the dead or repair those who lived, and the stories we tell ourselves about the Holocaust must contain this whole truth if they are to be any memorial at all.


A visitor walks past an inscription on the gate at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Germany. Photo: Getty

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.