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27 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

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.

By Sarah Ditum

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.)

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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.


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