Criticism of Holocaust Memorial Day misses the point, says David Cesarani. Penetrating the patriotic pomp and platitudes was the British people's respect and remembrance of those whom the Nazis believed were worthy of neither
Only the most hard-bitten could have failed to be moved by the ceremonies at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and in Westminster Hall, on January , marking the 60th anniversary of the day Russian troops liberated the notorious death camp.
As an adviser to the Home Office in preparation for Holocaust Memorial Day, I attended the national ceremony in London and the reception held earlier at St James's Palace for survivors and British veterans who participated in the liberation of Belsen. More than once I had a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, but this did not blind me to some incongruous aspects of the memorial events. While I welcomed the attention the anniversary attracted, I couldn't help wondering at the reasons why this year it bulked so large in the media.
The national ceremony, largely conceptualised and orchestrated by the BBC, was both moving and perplexing. I sat in the fifth row, staring at the back of Cherie Blair's head. The Prime Minister was at the front, along with the Queen, Prince Philip, the Home Secretary and leaders of the opposition parties. It was a truly national event and it was pervaded by patriotic motifs, a strange and sometimes jarring combination of elements that one colleague described as " Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) meets the state opening of Parliament".
The axis of the ceremony was provided by a BBC film recounting the return to Belsen of Susan Pollock, a survivor of the deportations from Hungary in 1944. Interleaved with her story was a concise account of the Nazi persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jews. At Belsen, she was shown meeting Major Dick Williams, who was among the first soldiers to enter the camp. Their encounter was contrived, but it was no less touching for that.
Pollock ended by recollecting her arrival as a refugee in England. "I found enormous acceptance, helpfulness, tolerance and genuine goodness," she said. This was the first of several encomiums. Stephen Fry recalled how his mother and her Jewish parents had migrated from Vienna before the war, so avoiding probable extermination. "I thank you Britain," he intoned, "for allowing me to have life."
At the end of a moving contribution, Paul Oppenheimer, a German-born Jew who was deported from the Netherlands to Belsen, where his parents perished, concluded that: "I will forever be grateful to Britain and the British people for saving our lives and rescuing us from certain death. I am so proud to be British."
No one referred to the ambivalence that Britain had showed towards the plight of Europe's Jews in the 1930s or 1940s. Instead, the expressions of patriotism and affirmations of British decency were reinforced by the iconography and ritual of the event. It was held in the Palace of Westminster, only the third time that the great hall had hosted such a ceremony. Pictures of Anne Frank were projected onto stone walls literally etched with British history.
Giant screens showed Pollock kindling a memorial flame in Belsen while a piper of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards played a lament, and we watched as resplendent guardsmen escorted the flame into Westminster Hall. They stood in attendance as survivors queued to light the flame with tapers that called to mind a cathedral procession.
Within this framework, Fry evoked the fate of Roma and the Boros Gypsy Ensemble played a mournful tune. Ade Adepitan, a Paralympic gold medallist, encapsulated the mass murder of the disabled and the forced sterilisation of blacks in Hitler's Germany. "I wonder," he asked rhetorically, "what chance I would have had - black and disabled?" Sven-Göran Eriksson recalled the visit to Auschwitz by members of the England football squad and delivered a timely condemnation of racism in sport.
Tony Blair pledged "to confront such prejudice wherever it seeks to disfigure our community" and reminded the audience that genocide begins with racist abuse. But it was left to Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations, to utter the words "never again" that have become so emblematic of such events and so problematic.
For, at the close of the ceremony, gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell erupted from his seat and shouted that Tory leader Michael Howard was guilty of repeating history with his proposals for curbing asylum and immigration. His demonstration exposed the tension between the rhetoric from the platform and actual policies.
Is Holocaust remembrance a Judaeo-centric history fest manipulated for political ends, as Southampton University academic Mark Levene claimed in a pre-emptive newspaper article? To Levene, who is representative of many critics, Holocaust Memorial Day is "a smokescreen for a rather different agenda". It obscures the Government's possession of weapons of mass murder, its failure to prevent atrocities and its dalliance with genocidal regimes.
Levene argues that the day merely celebrates Britain's wartime role and affirms the "value system" of Western states. More specifically, he alleged that a previous choice of theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2005, on refugees, was dropped for political reasons.
This criticism is ill-informed and demonstrates a certain naivety about how the Government and the media work. The theme of refugees was chosen three years ago by the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and was abandoned after the BBC pointed out that it would be obliterated by coverage planned around the anniversary of the liberation and the end of the war.
Having invested massively in a prestige series on Auschwitz (Tuesdays on BBC2), the BBC helped to drive the media response. It commissioned a poll that helpfully revealed widespread ignorance about the camp and pounced on Prince Harry's swastika gaffe to reinforce the point. The organisers of Holocaust Memorial Day were probably no less surprised than anyone else at the results of this unremitting attention.
The substitute theme on survivors and liberators appealed for other reasons. Like the massive coverage of the D-Day anniversary, it conformed to the ideal news template of a clear-cut story with good guys and bad guys and a happy ending, full of human interest with plenty of dramatic or poignant stories from people like us.
It is sheer fantasy to identify a conspiracy to use such diverse occasions to celebrate Western values. On the contrary, this year's theme allowed plenty of scope for questioning Britain's record in the 1930s and 1940s. I should know because I wrote the Holocaust Memorial Day theme paper that was distributed to schools and local government. It points out that, in the 1930s, Britain rescued Jewish children while abandoning their parents in Nazi Germany, bowed to anti-Semitic and fascist scaremongers and offered little succour to survivors of the Nazi camps. It would not take a genius to see that this mixed record speaks pointedly to today.
Does a government that has "dirty hands" forfeit the right to commemorate genocide? Yes, Britain possesses weapons of mass destruction and has supported despicable regimes. Government policy on asylum and immigration, or the treatment of Gypsies, is wide open to attack. But rehearsing these controversies misses the point of what this year's event was all about.
The Nazis sought to strip their victims of dignity, to take their lives and wipe out any memory of them. At the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony, the nation showed its respect for those whom the Nazis decreed "unworthy of life" and remembered those who were not saved.
Despite the patriotic kitsch and the platitudes, the essential message resounded clearly. For whatever mixed or muddled reason Holocaust Memorial Day was ordained, each year we are given a precious opportunity to turn benign sentiments into practical reality. Whether we carp or act is up to us.
David Cesarani is research professor in history at Royal Holloway, University of London, and serves on the Holocaust Memorial Day national ceremony steering group. He writes in a personal capacity.