Karen Pollock MBE: “No minority, no one, should be persecuted because they are different”

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Monday 27 January marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and all the Nazi concentration camps across Europe. World leaders, including Prince Charles, the Presidents of Russia, Germany and the Vice President of the USA, have recently attended the World Holocaust Forum in Israel, visiting Yad Vashem, the official memorial to victims of the Holocaust.

The Holocaust is the darkest chapter in our history, one of destruction, brutality and loss. It was a systematic, industrialised murder of 6 million Jewish people, with the intention of exterminating the whole Jewish people. The Nazis also enslaved and murdered millions of others: political opponents, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, people with physical and mental disabilities and prisoners of war, among many others. There were gas chambers and mass graves, people who were complicit, some who thought of their personal gain and others who stood by. Yet, despite what the survivors have been through, Pollock says they have a zest and a love for life.

One might think that Holocaust Memorial Day is a particularly hard day for the survivors. However, Pollock believes that around this time, “survivors feel respected, listened to and celebrated even. It’s a real opportunity for us to tell them how important they are, how valued their testimony is and a way for us to say, we are going to remember, we are going to carry on their legacy.” Faced with the challenge of the survivors getting older, frailer and fewer, the Holocaust Educational Trust do not want them to be “constantly bombarded”.

Nevertheless, “the incredible thing about our survivors is, though they are all very different and are different characters, they all have this real inner strength and determination. This means that while there is breath in their bodies, they want to share what they have been through, they want people to know.”

“While there is breath in their bodies, they want to share what they have been through, they want people to know”

Of course, some survivors still do not speak, and some who spoke about their experiences in the earlier years, “when it was raw and they had really never spoken about it before”, would have needed “support” to face such tremendous trauma. Does that mean it has become easier to share their stories?

Pollock thinks for many of them, “any time they say it, however many times they’ve shared their testimony, ultimately, they are reliving it. And often they’ll say, I’ve got a speech in front of me because I’ve been given a time limit, but just so you all know, it’s embedded in my brain, my memory, my heart, I don’t need notes”. This “sends chills” to Pollock, who knows that “what they’re trying to say to you is, I’m not a public speaker, I’m an eye witness.”

The survivors often say: “It’s embedded in my brain, my memory, my heart, I don’t need notes”

Pollock has commented in the past that inspirational stories from the Holocaust are “in the minority”. So why do we hang on to these stories? Why do we think that they are important to remember? Quite possibly so we can have some sense of hope for the future, that there is some essence of humanity. Pollock has learnt so much from the survivors, “not just what they’ve been through, but little moments they have described, that are so incredibly touching and will always stay with me”.

A Survivor’s Story:

She recounts her recent conversation with a survivor, “who had been in Auschwitz, where some of her family, though she didn’t know it, were immediately murdered. From Auschwitz she was in Bergen-Belsen, and she always describes the moment that Bergen-Belsen was liberated, which was by British troops… A soldier picked her up- she was very weak, she probably weighed nothing, she was starving and was very ill, and he said some warm words to her. The kindness and the humanity that was demonstrated to her was something so alien to her, as she hadn’t experienced that in years, having been in the ghettoes, on a cattle truck, and in the camps.”

This “really moves” Pollock, because “I just think it is what we would regard as obvious and natural responses to people in need. Yet they had become so dehumanised and been abused so badly, that even the essence of humanity was something they had forgotten about.”

“They had become so dehumanised and been abused so badly, that even the essence of humanity was something they had forgotten about”

Jewish Identity:

Pollock, who grew up very aware of her Jewish identity, understood that “being Jewish was a core part of who [she] was.” Whilst studying French and Italian at the University of Leeds, on her year abroad she shared with her classmates why she kept kosher and why she was observing a particular festival. “The opportunity to explain why I was doing certain things and what family meant to me, with regards to Judaism, was something I felt was ambassadorial.”

She asked herself, “why am I proud to be Jewish, what does it mean to me?” She determined, “being Jewish is a way of life”, that “without sounding trite, it is about being good to people, being respectful, learning about others and having core values”. It is something that Pollock “still carries with [her] now”.

Involving herself in the Union of Jewish Students, Pollock describes “issues of extremism and quite a few battles with regards to anti-Semitism on campus.” As a result, the first job she had was working with the all party Parliamentary Group against anti-Semitism.  Reflecting on why she cares so deeply about remembering the Holocaust, she says, “I felt strongly there should be frameworks, laws and ways that people should be free to be Jewish, or whatever religion and whatever way of life, without feeling threatened or intimidated.”

Pollock then became aware of the Holocaust Educational Trust and felt “there was an opportunity for the Trust to perhaps be a bit more engaging with the media and parliamentarians, and make them understand a fundamental part of what it is to be Jewish. It’s not just about our culture. Historically, we have been persecuted, and it might not define who we are, but it’s something we are very aware of. And we know the signs of anti-Semitism.”

Modern British Anti-Semitism:

Anti-Semitism, as defined by the IHRA, is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” In September 2019, 87% of British Jews believed Jeremy Corbyn was anti-Semitic, and the three most prominent Jewish newspapers in the country declared that Corbyn would pose an “existential threat” to Jewish life. Pollock thinks “it’s an absolute disgrace that when there were blatant examples of anti-Semitism from members of the Labour Party, the leadership did not treat it with the seriousness that it deserved, and they didn’t say that there was no space or room for it within a mainstream political party.”

“It’s an absolute disgrace that when there were blatant examples of anti-Semitism from members of the Labour Party, the leadership did not treat it with the seriousness that it deserved”

This meant, “that it then continued”, she reasons, as “people felt that they were given license, because no one had told them it was wrong.” She saw anti-Semitism, “resurfacing and emerging from all corners of the country, in different constituency parties and online, and there were all sorts of suggestions that any claims of anti-Semitism were smears”.

Moreover, Pollock says, “you have therefore got to ask, did Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, and others, have a blind spot when it came to anti-Semitism, in a way that they don’t when we talk about any other racism? I think it is a blight on the Labour Party and it was a blight on our society.” Though it will not “suddenly change overnight”, the recent General Election, which saw Labour lose nearly 2.6 million votes, “has at least demonstrated that this country is made up of decent people who reject hate.”

“It is a blight on the Labour Party and it was a blight on our society”

The advice Pollock would give to someone experiencing racism or any form of hate crime? “Talk to somebody and report it. Make sure that there is a framework that is dealing with the issue.” She adds, “they should also know that there are many, many people who are their allies. In just the same way that I feel when there have been incidents of anti-Semitism, whether I have experienced things online, whether we as a charity have had awful abuse, or whether we have seen things in our politics recently, there have been some good people, who aren’t Jewish but who understand that no minority, no one, should be persecuted because they are different.

“No minority, no one, should be persecuted because they are different”

 

Could something like the Holocaust ever happen again?

“I think that when we talk about the Holocaust, we are talking about a specific event that had specific precursors, specific victims and perpetrators. There is a special nature and context to the Holocaust. But have genocides happened since the Holocaust? Yes. We’ve seen it in Cambodia; we’ve seen it in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur. So, on the one hand, we say never again, but on the other, there’s a question of have we really learnt the lessons, and has the world learnt the lessons?”

“Have genocides happened since the Holocaust? Yes. We’ve seen it in Cambodia; we’ve seen it in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur”

Even so, Pollock hopes that through the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, there will be “generations of people who actually think they can make a difference”. The Trust, who Pollock accredits being “instrumental in encouraging the government facilitating a consultation for there to be a national day to commemorate the Holocaust”, teaches educational programs in schools across the country, organises for survivors to give their testimony and enables thousands of young people each year to visit Auschwitz.

Consequently, over the years, the Holocaust has “become far more embedded in the national consciousness.” Pollock suggests that people “often think, what’s the difference if I do x, y or z, I’m not going to change anything, but actually, if we all thought like that, nothing would ever happen.”

Karen Pollock was awarded an MBE in 2012 for services to education and specifically for the Holocaust. She has helped The Holocaust Educational Trust to empower and educate young people, in order to protect the memory of the Holocaust, and to stand up against injustice today.

Image: The Holocaust Educational Trust

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