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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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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.