Sadness and rage: Auschwitz 2018

IMG_7378We placed chairs in a circle and waited to see who would come. Half an hour earlier our group of 60 anti-racists and trade unionists had returned from a day visiting Auschwitz and the remnants of the vast expanse of crumbling barracks, cut through by a railway line, that had been the death camp of Birkenau.

This was my third consecutive year on the organising team of Unite Against Fascism (UAF) for this visit. We usually encourage people to share their reflections on our return to the hotel, but that is voluntary. Some prefer to be alone immediately afterwards. Others just want to lie down in their rooms, and let the experience wash over them. This year the circle was full, and we had to add more chairs.

I wrote some prompts on a sheet: What surprised you? What made this different from reading books about the Holocaust? What emotions did you feel? What will you take back into your normal life…?

The participants began to unpick and analyse the shattering experience they had just been through. Two main emotions predominated: deep sadness but also rage and anger that the world could let such a thing happen. That people in power had failed to heed credible reports of what was unfolding, or intervene by bombing railway lines to the camps or the gas chambers, even though they had aerial photographs of them.

Our group included people with strong personal ties to this history. One participant’s mother and grandmother arrived together in 1944 in a crammed cattle truck. As they disembarked, her mother, Esther, just 16, was advised by another transportee to lie about her age. She said she was 18 and was put in a line for slave labourers. Esther’s mother could not hide her age, and probably looked even older than her 44 years, having endured starvation in the Lodz Ghetto. She was placed in the line for immediate extermination.

Esther survived, just. She was transported to a slave labour camp in Germany. As the war was ending, the Nazis force-marched the remaining slaves to the notorious Bergen-Belsen camp. There, Esther contracted typhus and shared a bunk with three other young women in a similar condition. She slept right through the day of liberation and then awoke next to three corpses.

The traumatised father of another group member was in a British army unit that helped liberate Belsen. The only Jewish member of his unit, he witnessed the piled up corpses and was tasked with guarding the captured SS men who remained at the camp.

The connections were not only with the victims. Another group member of had grown up very close to her Austrian relatives who were unrepentant Nazis.

The nearest major city to Auschwitz is Krakow – the base for our visit. Only a small proportion of Krakow’s pre-war Jewish population of 68,000 (26% of Krakow’s residents) were sent to Auschwitz. Most were deported to Belzec, 190 miles away.  The Nazis tried to to hide the reality of extermination from the local population, but they did not hide their brutal policies of separation, discrimination, and ghettoisation of the Jewish residents of various cities under occupation. Some Catholic Poles benefited materially from the Nazis’ antisemitic policies in the short term, though they too would ultimately suffer huge losses. The walls of one block in Auschwitz 1 camp – converted into a museum – are lined with photos of mainly non-Jewish Polish political prisoners who perished there.IMG_4108

In several cities Jews had formed an even larger proportion of the population than Krakow, such as the textile town, Lodz, and the capital, Warsaw. In both, Jews comprised a third of the pre-war population. Warsaw had been a cosmopolitan, multicultural city, and Yiddish was one of eight main languages you could hear on the streets. Not so today. Poland’s menacing far right groups try to induce paranoia about migrants, refugees and “Muslim invaders”, among the white, mainly Catholic, Poles who make up 96% of the national population.

Auschwitz attracts thousands of visitors every day, both educational groups and tourist day-trippers. In our reflections we discussed the merits of short visits. Some questioned the motives of day-trippers –horror as entertainment – or thought their experience could only be superficial, but others felt that even such superficial exposure would have a significant impact on them.

What makes UAF’s trip outstanding, though, is the painstaking attempt to provide crucial context in the 36 hours before we visit Auschwitz, and follow-up sessions to deepen reflection on the experience and focus on Europe’s growing far right today, not least in Poland.

I gave the opening talk – on Jewish life, death and resistance in Poland – tracing moments in the 1,000-year history of Jews in Poland, but focusing most on antisemitic policies and the growth of far right movements in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the resistance both before and during the Nazi occupation. I highlighted the courageous role of Bundists (Jewish Socialist) resisters and described the incredible bravery of the few hundred fighters aged 13-40 who led the three-week Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943.

The next day, Mary Brodbin led the group on a walk around the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, where synagogues hundreds of years old survive intact. The Nazis did not bomb Krakow because they planned to turn it into a German city. Mary took us over the river to the walled ghetto where the Nazis forced Krakow’ Jews to resettle. Fragments of the ghetto wall – shaped by the Nazis to mimic Jewish gravestones – survive to this day. IMG_4077We saw the poignant artistic monument created at the Umschlagplatz (where Jews were assembled for deportation) of 70 large wooden chairs across this square, each one symbolising 1,000 pre-war Krakow Jews, who died in death camps, in the Krakow ghetto, or at the nearby slave labour camp. The walk ended at a museum on the site of Oskar Schindler’s factory, telling the detailed story of how the Nazis subjugated and separated Krakow’s population and ghettoised the Jews before deporting them for extermination. That evening, a further talk by Donny Gluckstein, dissected the economics and politics of 1930s Europe, to analyse how the Holocaust could have been possible.

The most harrowing material evidence of mass murder is displayed at Auschwitz 1, but it is in the bleakness of Birkenau that the sheer scale of the industrial slaughter hits home. Beyond the railway line is a monument with the same inscription on stones in more than 20 languages, representing the nations from which Jews were transferred. We gathered by the stone inscribed in Yiddish, the language of most deportees, and collectively sang the Hymn of the Partisans written by Hirsh Glik who was murdered aged 22 years old. It ends with the words, “Mir zaynen do!” – We are here!

Our post-Auschwitz reflection session was followed the next morning by Lorna Brunstein, telling her mother’s life story. Esther Brunstein survived Auschwitz and Belsen but died in 2017. Lorna showed film clips of her mother re-living her traumas to educate young people about her experiences, through Anti-Nazi League events, school visits and TV interviews. Our final session in the early evening brought the past into the present. UAF’s Co-Convener, Weyman Bennett, was joined by Robert Ferguson, whose Jewish Hungarian mother survived the war but lost several relatives in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis assisted by Hungarian authorities. Together they illustrated the continuities in the way antisemitic ideology is weaponised, and the newer forces organising particularly around Islamophobia.

During that day news was filtering through from Warsaw about the planned nationalist march to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, sponsored by the ruling PiS (Law and Justice) Party, a populist right wing party that has itself inflamed Islamophobic, antisemitic, anti-Roma and anti-refugee sentiments while also opposing gay rights and women’s rights.

In recent years, Independence Day marches have attracted a growing far right presence. Many municipalities are controlled though, by Civic Platform, a liberal-conservative opposition formation. Warsaw’s Mayor sought to ban far-right bodies and neo-Nazi-banners. This was overturned by the High Court. The PiS – the principal partner of Britain’s Conservative Party in its European Parliament group – then negotiated with the far-right’s representatives over their presence on the march. Government officials led the march and were separated by ranks of military police from the far-right groups including the National Radical Camp – who have revived the name of a virulently antisemitic organisation of the late 1930s – and All-Polish Youth, who combine ultra-nationalism especially with homophobia.

Contingents from the Italian Forza Nueva marched alongside them, as did Generation Identity activists from Britain, and a group wearing hi-vis jackets sporting the slogan “Free Tommy”. Young Polish soldiers were pictured marching close to the Polish Far Right contingents, as more than 200,000 people took to the streets. But the spirit of anti-45862146_2154956614569013_320453179311390720_ofascist resistance was also present in Warsaw as progressives held an alternative march and anti-fascist rave. This march was led by two banners in Yiddish and Polish held side by side, translating to “For your and our freedom”. This slogan was first used in a Polish rising against the Tsarist Empire in 1831, then revived in the Spanish Civil War by the Botwin Company of the Dombrowski Battalion, and later by Bundists in the Warsaw Ghetto resistance.

We came back from our visit determined to share the knowledge we had gained, and play a greater role in actively opposing racists and fascists, starting with the national unity march against racism and fascism in London today. Our discussions affirmed that we need to operate on an international level and also broaden the ways in which we challenge the far-right, recognising they don’t rely purely on street activity but are recruiting many adherents through online platforms. During the visit we formed a WhatsApp group to share reflections. On the day we departed, one participant who came with her son, messaged: “Thank you so much for an unforgettable experience… so well organised. Hope that Saturday is so big that we won’t bump into any of you.”

This article was also published in the Morning Star 17th November

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Don’t be disappointed, get angry!

Even if you feel internationally minded, and you like to move in cosmopolitan circles, here is a group of people you might choose not to socialise with: Poland’s Law and Justice Party, Italy’s League, Ukip, the French National Front, the Sweden Democrats, and Austrian Freedom Party. The common factor among all of them is of course that commentators regularly refer to them as “extreme right”, “far right”, or “right wing populist”.  The last three have a further similarity. They all have their roots in post-war pro-Nazi circles formed by people either didn’t think the Holocaust happened or that it was no bad thing. But they have sought to rebrand and present themselves now in a more respectable way. Nevertheless, they are still described by commentators as “far right” especially for their extreme nationalism and very negative attitudes towards migrants.
180405-victor-orban-mc-14313_866751dacde861b3e6e6ec706dcd5c37.fit-560wThese are also the main unsavoury groups that Tory MEPs had no scruples about lining up with, in a whipped vote, to defend the populist Hungarian regime, led by Viktor  Orban from censure and possible sanctions. Like those movements listed above, his regime draws support from those who appreciate its Islamophobic and viciously anti-migrant and refugee rhetoric and actions, and are equally happy when he adds open antisemitism and anti-Roma prejudice to the mix.
You could say that this hasn’t gone down too well with some of the Tories’ loyal supporters. Marie Van der Zyl, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who just a couple of weeks ago was telling an Israeli news channel that the Conservative Party has “always been very friendly to the Jews”, (pause for hollow laugh) issued a statement yesterday that fell short of “condemnation”, but nevertheless expressed “disappointment”, and found it “concerning” that Tory MEPs voted to support Hungary in this vote.

Clearly Van der Zyl cares about the sensitivities of the Tories much more than she does about those sitting in power in Hungary. She didn’t mince her words about them: she attacked Orban’s description of migrants as “Muslim invaders” and “poison” and decried his “vivid antisemitism” expressed in a “relentless campaign against Jewish philanthropist George Soros.”

I am rather hoping she will copy this statement to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who recently hosted his good friend Viktor Orban on a state visit, but never seems to draw any official criticism from the Board, whether for his apartheid policies within Israel, repression in the West Bank and Gaza, or his very cosy alliances with far right governments. It’s a funny old world.

On the day before the vote happened, Orban arrived in Strasbourg later than scheduled, and then made a bullish speech saying Hungary was being punished simply for not becoming a “country of migrants”. He reminded MEPs (and no doubt the minority populations in their countries, such as Muslims and Jews,) that Hungary had been part of the “family of Christian nations for a thousand years.” Appeals to Christianity and defence of the Christian family are going down well with white working class voters in central and eastern Europe.

Our Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, regularly stretches Britain's Prime minister Theresa May attends the One Planet Summit at the Seine Musicale center in Boulogne-Billancourtcredulity when claiming anti-racist credentials, and she knows it, do, but what does she do when she sees her MEPs taking the side of the racists and fascists? She refuses to take any responsibility for the way her MEPs were voting to defend such a man, and such a regime.

She insists it is nothing to do with her. But who then is it to do with? Her predecessor David Cameron clearly had enough authority to remove the Tory MEPs from the Euro group they previously inhabited, and place them in a new group (Conservatives and Reformists) that the Tories were fashioning together with the Polish Law and Justice Party. Why doesn’t she have the same authority? And if not now when? (in the words of someone probably dismissed by Orban as “not national, but international… not generous but vengeful.”)

While any distance that appears between the Board of Deputies and the Tories, over matters of antisemitism and other forms of racism, is welcome, it is hard not to notice a very stark contrast between the gently expressed “disappointment” with their “friends”and the much more strident, even rabid attack on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when allegations of antisemitism surface. He is incidentally believed to be responsible and castigated for every person around the globe who says something stupid but claims to be a Corbyn supporter. She gets away with saying that the Conservative Prime Minister has no say on what Conservative MEPs do.

And while Labour’s press team have rightly contested allegations of antisemitism where any hard evidence is wanting, these real and verifiable links between the Tories and antisemitic and Islamophobic parties in Europe are plain for all to see.

Even apart from the way the Tories’ MEPs voted to defend Hungary, they (with their partners in crime, the Polish Law and Justice party) are also guilty of welcoming  the Sweden Democrats into the Conservatives and Reformists Group  and of using this group to build alliances with a range of ultra nationalist, populist, far right parties that stretch back several years, with none of the media establishment batting an eyelid.

A previous slightly left-leaning president of the Board of Deputies, Vivian Wineman, expressed concern in 2010 about David Cameron’s decision to link with the Polish Law and Justice Party in founding the Tories’ current Euro Parliament group. Unfortunately that seems to have been the very last time the Board commented negatively on Tory behaviour and alliances in Europe. There is really no excuse for the Board of Deputies’ shameful silence that has persisted until this week’s events. And there are certainly no excuses now, having expressed concern, for the Board of Deputies not to demand some action by the Tories now that the vote has taken place .

It was discontent with the Board having the temerity to speak out in 2010 that led a group of Jewish businessmen and professionals to announce the formation of the (unelected) Jewish Leadership Council as a rival source of authority in the Jewish community.That Jewish Leadership Council, the Campaign Against Antisemitism, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who all enthusiastically waded into rows over Jeremy Corbyn and alleged antisemitism have been strangely quiet since the Tories lined up with some of the ugliest right-wing forces in Wednesday’s vote in the European Parliament. Maybe it has been a Jewish holiday that I didn’t know about where you are not allowed to criticise Tories – or maybe it is just the case that their concern about antisemitism is more politically selective, and they certainly haven’t wanted to upset either the Tory Party or their friend Benjamin Netanyahu.

Diane+Abbott+David+Lammy+cu6YCX5TtvumLabour meanwhile, in keeping with its traditions, has reiterated its opposition to all racism. Its MEPs voted unanimously against Hungary this week, with the same determination that their MPs in Westminster, led by Diane Abbott, David Lammy and Dawn Butler, are chasing down  the treatment of minorities and migrants in Britain, be they the shamefully treated and destitute citizens of the Windrush generation or the brutally treated inmates of immigration detention centres.

At least momentarily our national debate over racism, which has taken some very weird pathways recently, has returned to normal and we can see all too clearly who is on which side.

The “wrong” sort of survivor?

The controversies that emerged this week, over the  harsh words about Israel uttered by

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Marek Edelman

a Holocaust survivor at a meeting eight years ago, have made me think about Marek Edelman, the last surviving member of the command group who led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  He died in 2009. I was fortunate and privileged to meet him briefly at a conference in Warsaw in 1997. In the current “debates” I have no doubt that in some people’s warped minds he too would be derided and disdained as the “wrong kind of Holocaust survivor”.

Edelman was a Bundist (Jewish socialist) – a lifelong anti-nationalist and internationalist,

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Mustafa Barghouti

and opponent of Zionism. He remained in Poland – his homeland – after the war, fought against the post-war Stalinist regime from a left-wing and democratic position, and continued to struggle for a better and more humane world. His work in this regard included befriending Palestinian students in Poland, and making professional contacts (he trained as a cardiologist) through international conferences, with Palestinian doctors, especially Mustafa Barghouti, a founding member of the the secular left-wing Palestinian National Initiative. They corrersponded about the possiblity of intiating a joint civil society project towards Palestinian and Israeli coexistence with equality and justice.

During the post-war decades, Edelman suffered appalling treatment by Israeli leaders, spokespersons and media for daring to remain an opponent of Zionism, and criticise its increasigly brutal rule, and for daring to declare that in the ghetto he and his comrades had “fought for dignity and freedom, not for a territory nor for a national identity”.

In 1945, he wrote a gripping and astonishingly detailed account of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in Polish. It was published in Yiddish and English in 1946. It took another 55 years to be translated into Hebrew by an Israeli publisher.md805326772 (1)

When Israel hosted the Eichmann trial in 1961, a key event in recording the horrors of the Holocaust, but in a manner that emphasised Israeli ownership of Holocaust history, many key witnesses were invited to Jerusalem. But not Edelman. Accounts of the Eichman trial were translated into more than 20 languages, but not Yiddish, the language of the people who were incarcerated with Edelman in the ghetto.  For several decades in Israeli schools students learned about Zionist resisters, and not of the more numerous non-and anti-Zionist resisters.

At various times he was nominated to receive honorary degrees from Israeli universities, but that was blocked by key people in Israel’s official Holocaust remembrance establishment. When Edelman came to Israel to visit fellow Holocaust survivors he had stayed in touch with, his presence in the country was often greeted with very hostile press campaigns.

Back in Poland his clashes with the Stalinist authorities often led him to boycott official ceremonies of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and he began a tradition of alternative ceremonies that continues today.

By the time the 50th anniversary commemoration for the Warsaw Ghetto came around, though, in 1993, Poland was a liberal democracy under the presidency of former trade union leader, Lech Walesa, who knew Edelman very well. Under Walesa’s premiership there was no need for Edelman to hold an alternative ceremony, but Walesa knew Edelman principally in the Polish context and hadn’t realised he had stepped into a minefield when he invited a delegation from Israel led by then Labour Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to the commemoration.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial

Ghetto resisters’ monument, Warsaw

The Israeli delegation told Walesa they would refuse to participate if they had to stand alongside and meet the anti-Zionist Marek Edelman. This was the attitude of Labour Zionists to a hero of the Jewish reistance to Nazism. Walesa was astonished but didn’t want to get embroiled in an internecine Jewish quarrel so he sought a diplomatic solution. Before the platform speeches took place, he performed a very public wreath-laying ceremony at Warsaw’s striking stone memorial to the ghetto fighters. He walked towards the memorial with arms linked on the one side to Marek Edelman and on the other side to Edelman’s grandchild. It was a very powerful moment. And then Rabin, without having to meet or shake any anti-Zionist hands, took his place among the platform speakers.

The Israeli delegates included left-winger Shulamit Aloni, who had a less jaundiced view

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Yitzhak Rabin

of Edelman. During the visit she persuaded Rabin to have a private meeting with Edelman – which he did – and, according to Aloni, he emerged very struck by Edelman’s personality. Before he left Warsaw, Rabin had met Edelman again, over breakfast with Walesa. In the conversation Edelman reminded Rabin that, from his reading, he knew that Rabin himself had a Bundist uncle from Vilna. Rabin looked a little uncomfortable. He then urged Rabin to make a proper peace with the Palestinians. Edelman recounted later that Rabin gave an embarrassed smile.

The threat that Edelman posed in the eyes of Zionists like Rabin was a challenge about how the past might more authentically be read, after it had endured a Zionist makeover, but it was even more so a challenge in the present. He legitimised the continuity and integrity of an anti-Zionist perspective, which he emphasised in a memorable interview when he said that to be a Jew means “always  being with the oppressed never with the oppressors”.

Zionist ideologues, and the crass “Israel right or wrong ” brigade here, who dominate the political institutions of the Jewish community in Britain have chosen to defend the indefensible. They have chosen the side of the oppressors. That they also seek to use their narrow nationalist reading of the Holocaust to deny the struggles for Palestinian human rights in the present, is beneath contempt. Small wonder that they face a growing challenge from dissident Jews in many countries, committed to social justice and their counterparts within Israel itself.

Speech: at Arise Festival workshop on uniting against racism and fascism 28.7.18

Last November I helped to lead an educational visit to Krakow for 50 anti-racists and trade unionists, through Unite Against Fascism, which included a day at Auschwitz. We were trying to understand what happened in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s to bring that awareness into the present.

Just days before we landed, 60,000 ultra nationalists had a riotous Independence Day rts1jhv4-e1510599172201march through Warsaw. Marchers on this day have largely been right wing conservatives but more recently the fascist presence has grown substantially. Last November fascist groups were the most active mobilisers, with flags, banners, flares, chanting slogans. One banner said “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”.  Groups were chanting “Jew-free Poland”. The fascists welcomed  overseas visitors including Tommy Robinson.

A taste of things to come here, in Britain, where fascist groups have risen then fallen, beaten back by strong anti-fascists resistance, aided by the incompetence of the fascists groups themselves. For several years now they have mustered little more than a few hundred on the streets, but last month that changed.

5b1c05fbdda4c8915e8b457915,000 marched and rioted through central London in support of Tommy Robinson, vastly outnumbering less than 300 anti-fascists. Remnants of every small deeply ideological Nazi group from the last 30 years were there, joined by large groups of Islamophobic football thugs,  Polish fascists and UKIP. UKIP’s temporary leader Gerard Batten makes speeches indistinguishable from the BNP – weaving together crude Islamophobia, anti-refugee sentiment with more subtle antisemitism.

They had hi-tech equipment – flash screens, powerful PA systems. Among the bonehead thugs were sharply-dressed, educated young men from the European-based Generation Identity movement and the American Alt-Right who were bankrolling it. Far right politicians were there from Holland and Belgium and a speech from American white supremacist Steve Bannon conveyed on screen.

A real step change – a new, threatening coming together of the far right in bigger numbers than anything we faced in the NF marches in the 1970s.

What has changed to help bring this about? The election of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of populist far-right movements and parties in several central and East European countries. Events in Britain are ripples from that wider international movement plus austerity and neglect.

Such movements normally arise during an economic crisis, although in Hungary, Czech Republic, and Poland there is no economic crisis; quite the opposite. Those movements have considerable working class support. There is something more deeply ideological happening. Islamophobia, antisemitism, anti-Roma racism are rife. So are homophobia, attacks on women’s rights, and defence of the Christian family. Fascists are increasingly versatile. They can switching their main targets, or attack several targets at once. We have to be just as versatile in the forces we bring in and unite together

We need to improve our our analysis and rethink our strategies.

Back in the 1980s I worked in the East End with Revd Ken Leech an Anglo-Catholic priest on the Marxist/anarchist spectrum and a great anti-racist activist. He wrote:

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Ken Leech

“The battle against racism and fascism cannot be won by outsiders who march into an area, chant slogans, and then march out again; it can only be won by the most dedicated, rooted and persistent commitment to undermine and destroy the injustice and neglect on which such movements thrive.”

Which is where Labour comes in. Only Labour is organised in every locality, can change people’s lives around, and combat injustice and neglect. It is not enough to moralise and say racism is evil. We need to embed the fight against racism in our struggles for better housing, health, employment, education for all. We also need to mix politics and culture. The most successful anti-fascist initiatives of the 1970s and ’80s mixed politics with culture.

We were taken by surprise in June partly because of another situation that emerged in April/May this year around the scandalously treated Windrush generation, victims of Theresa May’s deliberately hostile environment. They had also been neglected by the anti-racist movement who took more notice of the frequent attacks on Muslim communities. We have to be sensitive to how each group experiences racism but always keep the big picture in mind. Alongside Islamophobia, deep racism against communities of Caribbean heritage continues.

As we organised with, and in support of the Windrush generation, we found enormous sympathy across society. Minorities instinctively support each other but suddenly it felt like the majority were on our side.

So the opposite movement around Tommy Robinson was a serious reality check.

Another reality check for anti-racists: problems we thought had disappeared but haven’t: I became active in the mid-1970s, animated by slogans such as “black and white unite and fight”, “self-defence is no offence”, “here to stay here to fight”, but one slogan bothered me then: “Yesterday the Jews today the Blacks’, because I instinctively knew then what I am much surer about today– that antisemitism is a very light sleeper. Every so often it awakes with a real jolt. The idea of world Jewish conspiracy that explains the economic system and politics remains crucial to the ideology of fascist groups today.

All the ridiculous mainstream media headlines about antisemitism try bizarrely to pin it on the left and Jeremy Corbyn. Make no mistake, antisemitism is alive and kicking – on the far right of politics. The far right have flooded the internet with Jewish conspiracy material (some of it thinly disguised as opposition to bankers, some of it thinly disguised as pro-Palestine). Unfortunately some on the left are sharing it. We cannot allow any space for antisemitism, we cannot allow antisemites to taint the Palestinians’ cause

When the Tories goad Corbyn about antisemitism in the Labour Party and paint themselves as friends of the Jews, we need to hit back hard and show how the Tory Party is directly linked through the Conservative and Reformists groups in the European Parliament to openly antisemitic, Islamophobic, anti-Roma, anti-refugee , homophobic parties in Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Denmark and others.

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Jacob Rees Mogg at a TBG dinner

We need to expose Tory-led groups here like the Traditional Britain Group – thoroughly racist, friendly to Holocaust deniers, and recommending Mosley’s books.

I want to finish where I started – with the group of anti-racists and trade unionists visiting Poland. In those few days we uncovered the processes through which the situation of minorities worsened until anything could be done to them: labelling, scapegoating, discriminating, dehumanising, isolating… and so on. We can recognise aspects of these in our society today against different minorities.

But these stages are not inevitable. They can be challenged and interrupted. In the 1930s many people enthusiastically joined the oppressors, others just went along with it –  as by-standers. Too few resisted. Don’t be a by-stander, be an up-stander!

 

Anti-fascists must face the present with honesty and imagination

“There were those who said: ‘Bash the fascists wherever you see them’. Others among us asked ourselves: How was Mosley able to recruit Stepney workers? This, in spite of our propaganda exposing the fascists. If they saw in the fascists the answer to their problems, why? What were the problems? Did we, in our propaganda, offer a solution? Was propaganda itself sufficient? Was there more that ought to be done?”

“The battle against racism and fascism cannot be won by outsiders who march into an area, chant slogans, and then march out again; it can only be won by the most dedicated, rooted and persistent commitment to undermine and destroy the injustice and neglect on which such movements thrive.”

Two very honest quotes from different moments of the 20th century encounter with fascism which still ought to speak to us today, just after thousands of jubilant far-right supporters of Tommy Robinson, including the  Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance (DFLA) marched and rampaged around London with only a tiny number of anti-racists bravely opposing them.

The first quote was written in the 1940s by a Jewish communist, Phil Piratin, about the 1930s, when the threat came from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The second was a comment  by Ken Leech, a very left-wing Anglo-Catholic priest. He was writing in 1980 about events just two years earlier, when the National Front were successfully recruiting from all classes of the population and terrorising local immigrant communities. I was privileged to work professionally with Ken in the East End in the late 1980s.

In both the 1930s and the 1970s, though, anti-fascists were ultimately successful in creating energetic, creative and courageous mass movements to push back the fascists. Both eras had their iconic moments: the Battle of Cable Street 1936, the Battle of Brick Lane 1978, whose significance cannot be under-estimated, but neither should they be over-estimated.

There is a difference between a battle and a war. The war against fascism in both those decades was not won on a single day with one huge mobilisation, but through a variety of means, by developing grassroots alliances, using a diverse range of tactics, and also through making mistakes, discussing and reflecting on them and building more sophisticated responses.

The victory at Cable Street was cemented by the solid day to day work over the following three years, by the Stepney Tenants Defence League, a very imaginative housing campaign established by anti-fascists who understood the need to connect the fight against antisemitism with the fight for better living conditions for all.  The Communist Party, in which Phil Piratin played a prominent role, was at the heart of London’s anti-fascist movement. It had 550 members in the East End but had a strategy for spreading its influence by addressing the concerns and immediate needs of all working class people.  The Stepney Tenants Defence League (STDL) was led by Communist and Labour activists and had 11,000 members by 1939, many of whom had taken part in successful rent strikes in that period after Cable Street. In one famous case the STDL saved two working class fascist families from eviction after they fell behind with their rent. After being helped they tore up their membership cards of Mosley’s fascist party. The STDL leafleted many estates about this victory as a demonstration of what united working class communities could achieve.

© Copyright 2012 CorbisCorporation

Rent strike, Langdale Mansions, East End 1939

The battles that were won in Brick Lane in 1978  owed much to day to day local self-organisation by young people in the community most under attack, who were supported by trade unionists, left wingers, radical church people (like Ken Leech) but also by a national movement, the Anti-Nazi League, which won the endorsement and active participation of people well beyond a small far-left bubble. And this movement was intimately tied to a brilliant and energetic cultural initiative, Rock Against Racism, which brought large swathes of young people of all backgrounds into contact with anti-racist politics, and gave those people the space to shape that initiative.

Many were shocked by the events of last weekend in central London. I felt frustration and paralysis more than shock. The writing has been on the wall for a while, but the organisations that have been doing most to warn us what we will soon be facing, showed us both their strengths and their weaknesses.

A variety of circumstances prevented me from being there. A fall two days before, which left me nursing very painful ribs, meant I was in no fit state to attend a demo that was bound to be physically demanding. I absolutely admire the courage of those who went and stood their ground, while being so overwhelmingly outnumbered.

In the immediate aftermath, the highest estimate I heard for our side was 400; the highest for theirs, 30,000. More reliable estimates I have obtained since place the DFLA numbers at 12-15,000, but put our side’s numbers as little more than 200. And even if they were 400, this could only be a token, symbolic response. And their side, unlike ours, has serious money and organisation backing their foot-soldiers, most likely from both the American and European Far Right/identitarian forces they are clearly working closely with.

To their credit, the largely overlapping bodies Unite Against Fascism (UAF) and Stand Up To Racism (SUTR) have been trying to explain to a wider audience, over the last year, the serious danger presented by the Football Lads Alliance (and its larger splinter – the DFLA). At first , many dismissed the FLA as a flash in the pan outburst from a motley collection of thugs. But UAF/SUTR, have kept a close eye on developments in continental Europe,  noting how quickly the street movement Pegida  mushroomed and then gave birth to Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD). They also noted how a new generation of fascists are cooperating and strengthening each other between eastern and western Europe.

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Panel at West Mids TUC/SUTR conference 2nd June 2018

Both UAF and SUTR and have tried to generate greater awareness and support. I have been part of this – speaking at local and national meetings and mobilisations called under their umbrella, most recently an excellent discussion event in Birmingham on 2 June co-organised with West Mids TUC. I have played a significant part in their very worthwhile educational initiatives to take anti-racists and trade union activists to Auschwitz, and will continue to do so, but in the face of the forces we are confronted with, there needs to be a serious and honest reckoning with reality. This applies not just to UAF and SUTR,  but to everyone who is committed to understanding the conditions and range of factors that are feeding the growth of the far right in order to take effective action to challenge them. Street confrontations matter, but they can only succeed if we can draw people from beyond the existing pool of active anti-racists and anti-fascists. That also means seeking to persuade and win over those who are being attracted by simple, hate-filled, inhuman explanations for the deepening problems and inequalities that confront them every day.

It is quite a few years since any counter-demonstrations by anti-fascists have numbered more than a few hundred.  With a very fractured far right who could frequently fail to reach three figures themselves that was sufficient. But not now. SUTR and UAF have organised considerably larger numbers at rallies called on their own terms, but have  often counted feet rather than heads in the attendance claimed. Inflating the size of our demonstrations for PR reasons does us no favours. And as we are discovering now, when we urgently need real numbers, it is a political liability. These inflated claims may raise the profile of our organisations but they don’t give us an accurate picture of where we are or what we can do next.

No one can doubt their efforts to mobilise in strength, but turning out numbers consistently and at short notice is very difficult. It is very simple to blame those sections of the broader left movement that weren’t there, call for numbers and for “unity” and claim we would have swept our opponents off the streets if only….  I’ve heard it all week on Facebook. It is harder to ask ourselves to account more objectively for why other forces weren’t there when they were needed – like last weekend. But if we don’t ask that question with honesty and listen to people’s genuine answers, then we are all in trouble.

The day after the far right march last Saturday, I went to Poland for a short visit, a country where the conventional right wing is lurching further rightwards, and becoming more authoritarian; where far right forces who openly express antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Roma racism, are growing in confidence, and maintain contact with our far right, . Our conversation with Polish leftists, who are numerically weak, showed us that that they understood the variety of reasons why large numbers of working-class Poles were voting for the right and some supporting the out and out fascists. They also understood that challenging and undermining the right does not mean responding to every provocation but it does mean doing patient grassroots work on their own terms to generate real gains for working people and offer alternative perspectives.

When I spoke at the Birmingham SUTR/West Mids TUC conference, one participant asked me to comment on the relative success of German anti-fascists who had mobilised 72,000 people recently. I responded that the German anti-fasicst movement has always been more diverse politically and in its tactics. I also pointed out that the largest portion of the 72,000 were mobilised through an initiative that mixed music with politics

Which  brings me back to those quotes at the beginning. We can’t only be reactive, and go chasing round the country at great speed and in ever decreasing numbers to where the DFLA or other far right forces are marching, at the expense of doing work in our own communities – that “dedicated, rooted and persistent work” that Ken Leech talked about.

We have to find ways to intervene that address the reasons why struggling working class people are getting drawn to groups like the DFLA and offer them potential ways of changing those circumstances. That is done best through local campaigns. It may sound heretical but what the DFLA/other pro-Tommy Robinson forces get up to in central London may be less significant than what they attempt to do in local communities. We also need to continually highlight their international connections and make our own international anti-fascist connections

img_1427One of the great successes of the Anti-Nazi League when it was launched in 1977, was winning the endorsement of figures in sport, music and film who were influential in the lives of many young people. I would urge my comrades in UAF and SUTR to use their resources and experience and collaborate in building a bigger and broader national umbrella for national anti-racist and anti-fascist activity. But it is our ability to do patient work in our localities, that continually links and embeds the fight against racism and fascism with the fight for better lives for all – at work, in schools, in housing, in health – that will be decisive. Time is running out.

 

 

 

Preserving the memory of a martyr

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On 9th May 2018, I spoke at a seminar organised by PUNO – the Polish University Abroad – to mark the 75th anniversary of the suicide as political protest of the Polish Jewish socialist and anti-fascist Szmul ‘Artur’ Zygielbojm. My paper was about “The Struggle to Memorialise Zygielbojm in London”

 

In April 1991 I was chairing a meeting organised by the Jewish Socialists’ Group in London, to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Our speaker was one of our older members, Majer Bogdanski, born in Piotrkow Poland in 1912. We had asked Majer to speak specifically about his comrade Szmul Zygielbojm. Majer recounted Zygielbojm’s life up to his escape from Poland with a mission to tell the world what was happening under Nazi occupation. He then described Zygielbojm’s crucial work in London between 1942 and 1943 when he served on the Polish National Council in Exile, how Zygielbojm bombarded political leaders, diplomats and the press with first-hand information from the ghettoes collected through underground resistance networks, until his final courageous act of suicide as political protest, prompted by two simultaneous events: the failure of American and British politicians and diplomats to offer any plan for rescue and refuge of Jews being slaughtered in Poland, and the news that the incredible Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had finally been extinguished.

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Majer Bogdanski

Majer came to Britain as a refugee in 1946 and lived in East London till he died in 2005. He and Zygielbojm had been active in the same left wing organisation– the Jewish Workers’ Bund – in Poland. in Lodz, in the late 1930s, Majer saw Zygielbojm almost every day.

In 1991, ours was the only Jewish group in Britain that identified itself closely with the Bund’s political philosophy. Today, as both the left of the Jewish community and further right wing are both growing, there are other Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Labour and a younger group jewdas, who openly embrace some key Bundist ideas.

The Bund was secular, socialist, committed to Yiddish culture, and to full equality for minorities. It was thoroughly anti-nationalist – especially territorial nationalism – so it was a strong opponent of Zionism. The Bund believed that Jews should strive for equal rights in the lands where they lived. Its slogan in Yiddish was: “Dortn vu mir leben, dort is undzer land” – There, where we live, that is our country.

8a400850d71576f426b39654bd6bd334In the 1980s/90s, the JSG held annual meetings to commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Majer often spoke. We ourselves only become familiar with the details of Zygielbojm’s story in the early 1980s. We wrote about him in the second issue of our magazine, Jewish Socialist, in 1985, to inform a wider Jewish and non-Jewish public.

The audience at our meeting in 1991 were captivated not only by Zygeilbojm’s dramatic story, but also by the authenticity of Majer’s delivery as someone who had personal recollections of Zygielbojm. As the meeting formally closed and people stood chatting, Majer asked me: “Should there not be some kind of memorial to Zygielbojm in London?” I said, “Of course there should, and I will do what I can to make it happen.” Some time  later, I was speaking with another Bundist, Esther Brunstein, who used to visit Zygielbojm’s home in Lodz as a child – her best friend at school was one of Zygielbojm’s children. Esther told me that a visiting Canadian professor of Yiddish had asked her recently whether there was any memorial for Zygielbojm here. (There is a prominent memorial for Zygielbojm in a park in Montreal)

How odd it is that a person who had committed such a dramatic act of self-sacrifice in London, as a political protest during the Holocaust, had not already been commemorated here, and remained barely known even within Britain’s Jewish community.  But that reflects the dominant narratives within that community that were established by the early 1950s.

Zionism had been a small minority opinion within Jewish communities everywhere

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DP Camp Germany 1947

before the second world war and found more traction among the middle class when many Jews were working class. By the mid-1950s the social class formation of Jews was definitely changing making them more amenable to it, but the two biggest factors were the Holocaust, which wiped out so many of the people who believed in diaspora, and also the terrible situation after the war, where hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors languished in DP camps with no country wanting to take them. Zionists who organised within DP camps, persuading people of the possibilities of reaching Palestine, won sympathy for their position among Jews in Britain and elsewhere. In Zygielbojm’s last letter to his brother Fayvl in April 1943,  he excoriated Zionists for “exploiting the Jewish tragedy for their political ends”, paraphrasing their spokespersons: “Another 100,000 Jews murdered. Give more money for Palestine.”

Within Jewish youth and educational organisations here, the  Zionist narrative about the precariousness of diaspora, of redemption and security through Israel, became hegemonic. Their telling of the Warsaw Ghetto resistance – in which Bundist and communist anti-Zionists and non-Zionists fought alongside left-wing Zionists in a united Jewish fighting organisation – elevated the role of Zionists fighters and conveniently airbrushed out the communists and Bundists, and Zygielbojm.

Very few Holocaust survivors were allowed to settle in Britain compared with other western European countries or the US and Canada, but there was a group of around 25 Bundists and children of Bundists in London shortly after the war. They lived mainly within its poorer quarter – the East End. Many joined the Labour Party, and were active in local Yiddish cultural groups.

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Bundists in London around 1950: Front Row (from left) Perec Zylberberg, Majer Bogdanski, Esther Brunstein. Just behind Majer , Leon Kuczynski

There was no Holocaust memorial in London at all until 1983. The Holocaust Education Trust was founded in 1988 and their focus was on education packs, exhibitions, schools work rather than physical memorials. The Holocaust Galleries in the Imperial War Museum did not open until 2000. The statues at Liverpool Street station to mark the kindertransport were unveiled in 2006, so when we we began contemplating a public memorial for Zygielbojm in 1991 this was quite novel.

How did we start? With a meeting of the Bundist survivors in London, their spouses, and a few people in the Jewish Socialists’ Group especially interested in Bundist history.

In 1991, there were four surviving Bundists in London, Majer Bogdanski, Leon Kuczynski – a strong, thick set man – in Yiddish a shtarker – who had been very active in the Bund’s self-defence group in 1930s Warsaw; Wlodka Blit-Robertson – whose father was Lucien Blit, a well known Bundist in Warsaw. Wlodka’s mother was a left-wing Zionist. Wlodka and her twin sister were smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto a few weeks before the uprising and hidden by catholic family. Wlodka’s father had already escaped to Russian and later to London, her mother and other family members were killed by the Nazis. And, finally, Esther Brunstein, a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, who came from a Bundist family in Lodz. Her brother, Perec Zylberberg, who lived in Montreal and was active with Bundists there, would join us if we met when he was visiting. We usually met in Esther’s house. Of those Bundists, only Wlodka is still alive today.

At our first meeting we named ourselves the “Szmul Zygielbojm Memorial Committee”, and agreed that the most appropriate and realisable form for a permanent memorial would be a plaque preferably on the building where Zygielbojm lived. It ended up in a more prominent position. We wanted something less ephemeral than a conference, more public than an artefact locked in a museum, something that could raise awareness and encourage people to reflect on its relevance today.

I sought advice from Dan Jones, part of a group that successfully campaigned for a plaque commemorating the Battle of Cable Street – a seminal anti-fascist event of the 1930s. On his advice we sought endorsements for our project – from historians, academics, writers, rabbis, cultural figures, and MPs. We wrote to around 80 people, and got replies from 40-50, mainly very enthusiastic.  A tiny number were wary of commemorating a Bundist. Despite several attempts, we got no reply from Greville Janner, former president of the Board of Deputies, involved in several Holocaust–related initiatives, but also a staunch Zionist.

Where did Zygielbojm live? In Porchester Square, Paddington. In 1991 this was a Porchester Sq_signConservative flagship Council, unsympathetic to socialists and trade unionists, and not keen on immigrants and refugees. It was this council we had to approach to ask:  “Would you please commemorate a Polish, Jewish refugee who was a trade union, socialist and anti-fascist activist!”

My initial letter to the relevant Council officers, copied to the leaders of the major political parties on the council, described Zygielbojm’s life and death, explained that a monument had recently been unveiled in Warsaw on the 50th anniversary of the Ghetto uprising, and added “yet there is no memorial to Zygielbojm in London where he carried out his most important work.” We listed some supporters: the historians David Ceserani and Bill Fishman; the Polish Jewish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman; three rabbis; two MP’s, Barbara Roche from Labour and Alex Carlile from the Liberal Democrats. Carlile had been born in 1948 to post-war Polish Jewish immigrants; Colin Shindler, editor of the Jewish Quarterly magazine (a respected cultural journal); and Esther Brunstein, a survivor of the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz.

We received encouraging letters back and the matter was passed to Westminster plaques scheme coordinator Gillian Dawson, who was extremely helpful. Within a relatively short time we had agreement in principle for the plaque and details of the likely costings. At this stage the exact wording wasn’t required but that was a very interesting discussion on the committee, with some urging caution to ensure the council’s planning committee would rubber stamp it, others wanting it to  be as politically explicit as possible within a limit of 28 words. The maximalists won. Our final wording:

“Jewish Workers’ Bund leader. Representative to the Polish Parliament in Exile… Took his life in protest at the World’s indifference to Nazi extermination of the Jews”

The Council’ agreed it and we began fundraising to cover the costs of the plaque, approximately £375, and our ongoing administrative costs.

We updated the surviving organisation of the Bund on our progress. After 1945 the remnants of the Bund – many of whom were Holocaust survivors – were scattered in several countries but affiliated with a World Bund Coordinating Committee in New York, which produced a monthly Yiddish journal – Undzer Tsayt (Our Times). The Jewish Socialists’ Group had contact with the Bund from the mid-1980s. They were overjoyed about our initiative and put us in touch with the remnant of Zygielbojm’s family. When he committed suicide, Zygielbojm believed all his immediate family had been wiped out, apart from any who got out before the war. His brother Fayvl got to South Africa. But one of Zygielbojm’s children, Joseph survived.

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Joseph and Adele

A Red Army partisan during the war, he returned to Poland, married Adele, who had survived a Nazi concentration camp and several slave labour camps, and then they came to America. Joseph was excited about our plans and looked forward eagerly to coming to England for the unveiling. Then we hit problems.

 

The plaques officer, informed us that the building Szmul Zygielbojm lived in was now occupied by five private renters. We required consent from all five households. We feared encountering one antisemite who would refuse. Ironically, the one refusal was from a Jew – a Holocaust survivor who feared that the plaque would attract fascist vandals. We detailed the historian David Ceserani to approach him but he couldn’t persuade him. We had to look elsewhere.

Behind the flats there is a very nice garden, part of it a children’s playground. The council investigated but told us that the garden could not be used for any “racial, religious, political or memorial” purposes.

library_Porchesterr RoadAt the end of the terrace, Porchester Square meets Porchester Road, just opposite there was  a beautiful library building with a white façade. A plaque would stand out prominently. The library were keen, and later we held further Zygielbojm memorial events there, but Council officers informed us that a library plaque could only celebrate an author. Zygielbojm was a factory worker at 10 years old, making boxes, before being apprenticed as a glovemaker. In the 1930s he was a drama critic for the Bund’s newspaper, and wrote several articles but he was not a recognised as an “author”.

Meanwhile we developed further contacts. Zygielbojm’s surviving family shared his strong identification with Poland, and put us in touch with Jan Karski . They encouraged us to approach Polish bodies here. We contacted the Polish Embassy, the Polish Cultural institute, and some elderly Polish socialists here in Britain, including Lidia Ciolkosz. We also had contact with one of the founders of the new Polish Socialist Party, post -1989, Piotr Ikonowicz, whom the Jewish Socialists’ Group had already encountered when he visited London to meet socialists here in the early 1990s. He expressed warm support for our initiative.

In May 1994, a year from our first contact with the council we received the welcome news that the side-wall at the end of the terrace opposite the library was in full council ownership. The planning committee was unlikely to object to the plaque being mounted there. So by chance we ended up with a much more prominent position. But there would be a delay. The terrace was due for refurbishment towards the end of the year. If we put the plaque up in the autumn it would soon be covered with scaffolding and sheeting for several months. We reluctantly accepted this delay. Our new target date was May 1995. However, it transpired that the refurbishment works were more extensive would take much longer. So we had to push the date back a further year until May 1996.

During this delay we received the saddest news from Adele Zygielbojm, that her husband Joseph had died. She assured us though that she and other family members would come for the unveiling. Indeed, in those three years it took from our initial approach to the unveiling itself, Zygielbojm’s brother Fayvl died in Israel, as had two members of out committee who were husbands and wives of Bundists.

zyg-brochureFast forward to Sunday 12th May 1996, a beautiful sunny day, 53 years after Zygielbojm was pronounced dead, when the plaque was finally unveiled. We hoped that 100 people would attend. Nearly 200 were present. We gave out a 4-page memorial brochure we produced through donations from the Bund, the 45 Aid Society (a London-based society of Holocaust survivors), and several individuals. The brochure contained a brief biography of Zygielbojm, newspaper cuttings reporting his suicide from 1943, a quote from Jan Karski from an article he had sent us, and Zygielbojm’s suicide letter address to President Rackeiwicz of the Polish Government in Exile.

We gathered, initially, on the opposite side of the road to the plaque, where the Lord Mayor of Westminster officially welcomed us. I spoke of Zygielbojm’s life and death, his enduring messages urging practical international solidarity for the oppressed, and reflected on why no memorial for Zygielbojm in London existed. Zygielbojm, I suggested, cast “an uncomfortable shadow over how Britain’s military objectives were defined and prioritised. For the allies it was a costly victory, for the Jews of Europe it was an irrecoverable loss.” What about Jewish leaders’ lack of interest?  I suggested that: “Zygielbojm, and the philosophy of the movement he represented did not fit with Anglo-jewry’s post war self-image and values. Too often in our community, material success, high academic achievement, support for Israel, are more prized that contributions to humanity as a whole.”

Esther Brunstein, one of the Bundists on the Zygielbojm committee, read Zygielbojm’s suicide letter in Yiddish, and Julia Bard of the Jewish Socialists’ Group read it in English. We crossed over and gathered under the plaque. Adele Zygielbojm and the Polish Ambassador, Ryszard Stemplowski, pulled the curtain rope to unveil the plaque. We invited people to join us at the Yaa Asantewaa African-Caribbean community centre, a mile away, for a reception and celebration of Zygielbojm’s life.

An all-women klezmer band, Royte Klezmoyres (Red Musicians) greeted guests IMG_5662with Yiddish tunes. There were speeches. Perec Zylberberg, who had flown in from Canada, spoke on behalf of the Bund about Zygielbojm’s importance to their movement; Polish Ambassador Ryszard Stempowski paid tribute to Zygielbojm’s courage and recalled the Bund’s significant role in Polish political life. Majer Bogdanskl offered personal memories of how Zygielbojm interacted with Bundists in Lodz. David Cesarani described Zygielbojm’s extraordinary efforts to spread first-hand information and demand action during the Holocaust. Adele Zygielbaum and her two sons Arthur and Paul spoke of the legacy of ideas and values that he left.

“By his death ,” Adele said, “he wanted to express the importance of every human being’s right to live, no matter who they are or what their beliefs.”

Arthur Zygielbaum said his grandfather’s message was still current. “People are still being exterminated today because of an accident of birth. Because they are identified with one ethnic group or another. His death is not resolved. His message is still unanswered. His cry is not silent.”

Arthur’s brother Paul affirmed that “Szmul Artur Zygielbojm’s labour and sacrifice were not for the Jews alone… amid his anguished pleas for the salvation of a people, he wrote of his belief that a better world would come… a world of freedom, justice and peace.”

jan-karski1-720x340Messages of support were read from absentees, including Jan Karski who wrote:  “Much as I would like to come I cannot. I am over 82 years old and not strong any more.” He sent an article he had published and invited us to quote from it. We chose a paragraph where Karski says: “Taking one’s own life violates the Judaic-Christian tradition but a distinction should be made,” between someone “who takes his life because he cannot handle any longer his personal misfortune, or to escape from the responsibility of his acts”, and on the other hand, Zygielbojm, who “took his life out of compassion for the suffering of his people hoping that his death will help or save those he loved.”

After refreshments we ended with a cultural programme of poems and Yiddish songs including the partisan song, traditionally sung at commemorations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and di Shvue – the hymn of the Bund.

For several years afterwards we gathered by the plaque on the nearest Sunday to Zygielbojm’s yortstayt (death anniversary) for a ceremony with speeches and songs, and there would always be a presence from the Polish Embassy or Polish Cultural Institute.

On the 70th anniversary of Zygielbojm’s death in 2013 we held a big meeting and cultural event with music and poetry, in central London, at which Wlodka Blit Robertson spoke about her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and when she was hidden afterwards, Esther Brunstein spoke of her childhood recollections in Zygielbojm’s home and Mr Szaniawski spoke on behalf of the Polish Embassy.

We hope that our efforts to mount the plaque, and the consciousness we raised about it, have contributed to telling the story of an extraordinary person and the values both he and the Bund embodied.
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So who are those Tories cosying up to?

If you were feeling a bit overpowered by the whiff of hypocrisy coming off the large number of Tory MPs, and their DUP friends, including Norman Tebbit and Ian Paisley Jr, who joined the “anti-racist” protest against Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament Square last Monday, to say “enough is enough” about alleged antisemitism in the Labour Party, then I would strongly advise you to be very careful where you travel in Europe.

In particular, I would recommend that you avoid Strasbourg and Brussels where you might find yourself inadvertently hanging out with Tory MEPs, and their close friends, who certainly have a whiff of something unpleasant about them.

At David Cameron’s behest in 2009, Tory MEPs left the centre-right grouping they had formerly been part of to form a new, more right-wing alliance. The Tories are the largest group in that 72-member alliance, the next biggest faction being the Polish  Law and Justice Party (PiS). Yes,you have heard of them. They made headlines lately with their new law which is attempting to rewrite Holocaust history. They are making it illegal to suggest any complicity by Poles in the genocide of Jews during the war.

As the ruling party in Poland they are also trying to rehabilitate the honour of the ultra-nationalist, antisemitic, right-wing Polish parties active before the war. Hot on the heels of the controversial Holocaust history bill, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lit a candle and laid a wreath at the Munich grave site of the Holy Cross Mountains Brigade, a Polish

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Polish ultra-nationalists

underground military unit who collaborated with Nazi Germany against communists during the Second World War. These kinds of actions are giving increased confidence to Poland’s neo-Nazis who were the leading forces among a 60,000 strong ultra-nationalist march through Warsaw last November.

The alliance’s junior partners include the  Danish People’s Party (DF) described by some commentators as “right-wing populist” by others simply as “Far right”. Islamophobia is the DF’s main racism of choice, one of their spokespersons opining “Muslims should live in a Muslim country – not here”. I doubt, though, if that would put off Jonathan Arkush, the Tory-supporting-Trump-supporting, President of the Jewish Board of Deputies, fronting Monday’s rally in the Square, since the DF are very enthusiastic supporters of Israel under its leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wonder how Arkush and his counterpart at the rally, Jonathan Goldstein, of the Jewish Leadership  Council, feel about other members of this Tory/Law and Justice-led alliance, such as the Latvian National Alliance  made up of “All for Latvia”, which  describes “international globalism” and “multiculturalism” as its chief enemies, and its partners, “For Fatherland and Freedom”. This National Alliance takes part in an annual event commemorating the Latvian Waffen-SS, and some years back reprinted a book seeking to justify the crimes committed by the Latvian Waffen-SS against Jews and Russians.

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Marching to remember Hristo Lukov

Another member of this right-wing European grouping who, also, it seems, enjoy a good march, are the Bulgarian National Movement (IMRO). In February, for the 16th consecutive year, they held a march through the centre of Sofia to honour Hristo Lukov, an army general who led the pro-Nazi Union of National Legions during the war. The march ended by the house where Lukov was assassinated by communist partisans. Neo-nazis from several other parts of Europe flew in to take part in the march. IMRO also express racist sentiments against Bulgarian Turks and Roma communities.

While it is true that a number of anti-Corbyn Labour MPs were present last Monday, and Luciana Berger spoke for them at the rally in Parliament Square, the collusion between the Tory Party, the Tory supporting press, and the right-wing self-proclaimed leaders of the Jewish community, this week, has been plain to see. No doubt a number of protesters came there in good faith to protest against antisemitism, having been conditioned by constant right-wing press stories, including those by the Jewish Chronicle, to believe that instances of antisemitism only occur in the ranks of Labour (and, of course, there have been real instances), but others would have taken part knowing the damage this could inflict not just on Labour’s leader, but on the Labour Party in general in the forthcoming local elections. One Tory activist, David Thomas, a former Conservative parish councillor was honest enough to tweet “It’s an actual stroke of genius we’ve been able to pull this off, perfect timing heading into the elections too” (My emphasis). He has since deleted the tweet.

It appears that those Jewish “leaders” who are cosying up to the Tories for mutual benefits can only look in one direction as they seek to uncover antisemitism. Have we heard any of them speak out against, let alone even question, the highly dubious alliance the Tories have built and are sustaining with Islamophobes and antisemites in the Tory-led Group in the European Parliament? Why ever not?

Theresa May now plans to take advantage of the febrile atmosphere around the theresa-may-an103106230epa05433683question of antisemitism by earmarking April 17th for a parliamentary debate about it. All racism is serious. It is surely one of the main failures of May’s Government, and Cameron’s before her, that antisemitism has been rising as have other forms of racism and bigotry against African-Caribbeans, Muslims, Roma, refugees, and members of the LGBT community on their watch. This has multiplied further  since the Brexit Referendum. Minorities who face much more frequent instances of abuse and attack by racists than Jews do, and encounter institutional racism on a daily basis, might be angry that the Tories sudden desire to spend an afternoon discussing racism is limited to only one kind. They surely have a point. Nevertheless, Labour should absolutely welcome this debate.

Not only will it give parliamentarians the chance to explore the issue in depth and share their understandings, it will also provide Labour with the opportunity to put the Government on the spot about their institutional links to antisemites and other racists in Europe. For all their bluster when confronting Labour, the Tory-supporting leaders of the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council seem much too coy to do that to their own side. I hope Jeremy Corbyn and other members of the Labour Party can show them how it is done!

 

 

 

 

 

Shout-out to Warsaw anti-racists

My speech Whitehall at the March Against Racism, London 17th March 2018, as part of the UN Day Against Racism

Greetings to anti-racist London and a special shout-out to our comrades marching in

speaking at March v Racism 2018

David Rosenberg speaking. Photo: Julia Bard

Warsaw today. Next month is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising when 220 Jewish fighters, the youngest just 13 years old, resisted the armed might of Nazi occupiers for three weeks.

But any commemorations in Poland this year are overshadowed by the current Polish government’s disgraceful attempt to rewrite Holocaust history and deny any Polish involvement. These actions give more confidence to Poland’s ultra nationalists and neo-Nazis, who don’t need any encouragement.

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Protesters on the march from the Polish organisation KOD

When the Polish Far right held a 60,000 strong march through Warsaw Last November, they shouted for a “Jew-free Poland”. Their banners said “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”. In Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, racists are targeting Muslims, Roma and Refugees as well as Jews.

The last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Marek Edelman, said: “to be a Jew means always being with the oppressed never with the oppressors”. The Jewish Socialists Group completely agree. Wherever people face oppression, live under violent occupation, suffer racial, sexual or homophobic discrimination and violence, their struggle is our struggle. As Jews, we stand unconditionally with our sisters and brothers in Muslim, Roma and Refugee communities.

In early May, there is another anniversary that is very meaningful for us. The 40th anniversary of the racist murder of Altab Ali, a young Bengali immigrant clothing worker in the East End, who lived and worked in the same streets where our families lived in the 1930s, when they were fighting poverty and Mosley’s fascists.

Altab Ali was stabbed to death in 1978, as he walked home from work. Killed by three teenagers whose minds had been poisoned by racism. Those teenagers werealtabalimetpoliceappeal not born racists. They learnt it from National Front propagandists, from mainstream newspaper editors who constantly wrote anti-immigrant, anti-refugee headlines, from police who ignored racial violence, and from overnments who treated immigrants as a problem, as an irritant, to be controlled or removed.

And those teenagers bought into the idea of nationalism, that spuriously divides people, that thinks majorities are superior and should have more rights than minorities, that offers the poor and exploited “White pride” Instead of jobs, houses, and social services.

As anti-racists we fight for a true multiculturalism that supports our languages, our identities our cultures, but also unites all our communities against poverty and exploitation. Nationalism can never be our friend. Nationalism can never be the answer.

Falling out among history’s thieves and gatekeepers

An interesting little spat has developed between two very right-wing governments over who gets to say what in narratives about the Holocaust.
Poland’s ruling Law and (in)Justice Party are getting hot under the collar about negative references to the behaviour of Poland and its (non-Jewish) population during the Nazi genocide, and are trying to pass a law criminalising references to “Polish Death Camps”.
They have a point on that – the camps were set up on Polish soil by Nazi occupying forces. Only, they want to go further and silence people who claim that any Poles collaborated with the Nazi forces, which undoubtedly a number did.
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Two of the most powerful books I’ve read by left-wing Jewish resistance workers and survivors, The Stars Bear Witness by Bernard Goldstein and On Both Sides of the Wall by Vladka Meed, are replete with tales of courageous solidarity from non-Jewish Poles at great personal risk, but also many tales of betrayal.
Then there is the well-known case of Jedwabne, Poland, in 1941 where hundreds of Jews were rounded up by their non-Jewish neighbours, forced into a barn and then the barn was set on fire. Although previous generations of Polish politicians have acknowledged and apologised for this massacre, the newly ascendant right-wingers are trying to muddy the historical waters by asserting either that it was the Nazis who did it, or who encouraged the local people to do this, or they make an even worse excuse saying that this was some kind of local revenge for the Jews being too friendly to communists.
When you consider the scale of the slaughter of Poland’s Jews – 90% of a population of 3.3 million, spread over many areas, it is inconceivable that a total this high could have been reached without the active cooperation of local elements or, at best, the passive acceptance and lack of serious resistance from the non-Jewish Polish population in many places.
The Law and Justice Party’s motives are not clean, but they are not alone. Similar attempts to revise the accepted histories – and even to rehabilitate Nazi collaborators – continue apace in Lithuania and Ukraine, where there was clearly considerable cooperation with the Nazis against the Jews.
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Irena Sendlerowa

What Poland can rightly claim is that, across the whole territory of western, central and eastern Europe, though there were remarkable efforts to help Jews in Denmark, it was only in Holland and Poland that specific organisations among non-Jews were set up to assist the Jews in their time of greatest need. In Poland it was ZEGOTA, in which Irena Sendlerowa was very active.
But the moves by Law and justice in Poland have come under fire from another very right-wing  government; one that practices racism, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation on a daily basis.  This is Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in Israel, which oppresses Palestinians, especially in the Occupied Territories, but also inside the Green Line, at the same time as it falsely presents itself as the legitimate guardian and gatekeeper of Holocaust memory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyah

Netanyahu, of course, comes from the Jabotinskyite Zionist political tradition that was very influenced by, and friendly to, the concept of fascism in the 1930s. It had members seeking to make deals with the Nazis on the basis of common ultra-nationalist and anti-British sentiment in the 1940s.  Netanyahu would happily damn almost all Poles today as antisemites (one of his late associates – Itzhak Shamir – did just that, claiming that Poles imbibe antisemitism with their mothers’ milk), although Netanyahu would surely make exceptions for  very right wing Poles who praise Israel.

One of his big fans here, Stephen Pollard, editor of the increasingly dreadful Jewish Chronicle, got himself in hot water a few years back with his fulsome praise of the Law and Justice politician, Michal Kaminski. Kaminski had condemned the Polish president at the time for apologising over Jedwabne, saying there was nothing to apologise for – at least not until Jews apologised for the role  Jewish partisans and Jewish communists had played in this period alongside the Red Army. Kaminski had earlier been involved with Fringe far-right groups beyond Law and Justive, but was pro-Israel.

Israel’s claim to being the legitimate spokespersons on the Holocaust predates

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Eichmann on trial, 1961

Netanyahu and the Israeli-right wing’s hold on power. The Israeli Labour Party which held power from 1948-1977 assumed this role and offered their own distorted narrative about the Holocaust.  in the 1950s Israeli educators, supported by their government, propagated the lie that during the Holocaust, Jews had ‘gone like lambs to the slaughter’ – a slap in the face to the dead as well as survivors who had performed incredible acts of resistance. The story of resistance did come out, partly at the Eichmann trial of 1961 but a new lie was built – that it was the Zionists alone who were responsible for resistance and they did so because they could see a future; they had a dream of building a Jewish future in Palestine.

An anti-Zionist, Polish Jewish socialist, Marek Edelman, one of the surviving commanders of the Uprising in Warsaw, Poland’s largest ghetto, had written The Ghetto Fights –  the most searing, heart-wrenching description of the three-week long resistance there in the most unequal of battles – in Polish, in 1945. It was translated and then published in Yiddish and English in 1946. The Israeli state did not even invite Edelman to give evidence in Israel to the Eichmann trial. He was treated as persona non-grata because he  remained true to his anti-Zionist principles.

It is disgraceful that the proceedings of the Eichmann trial were translated into dozens of languages, but not Yiddish – the main language of the victims of Eichmann and his fellow Nazis and their local helpers. Shamefully, The Ghetto Fights remained untranslated into Hebrew for 56 years, finally getting published in Hebrew in 2001, even though Edelman had made rights available to all.

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Edelman’s book gave the lie to the Zionist narratives and claims about ghetto resistance both in terms of who was involved (anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Bundists and Communists as well as socialist Zionists) and what they believed they were fighting for. In an  interview recorded in a later book, Edelman said  “We fought for dignity and freedom. Not for a territory, nor for a national identity.”

Netanyahu’s government has also been doing pretty much what it accuses the Polish government of doing, with regard to Palestinian perspectives on history. It has written its own laws regarding “acceptable” historical memory. Since 2011  Israeli legislation has made mourning the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) publicly difficult for Palestinians and others in Israel. It authorises Israel’s Finance Minister to revoke funding from institutions that mark the country’s Independence Day as a day of mourning. Everything is done to make organisations fearful of doing so. I guess, with Netanyahu we should not be especially surprised at his hypocrisy.

While these two very obnoxious right-wing governments argue head to head, perhaps, in the 75th anniversary year of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, grass-roots activists should plan for how we can honour the memories of those who stood up to hatred, fascism and authoritarianism. How we can remember those who wanted to build, instead, a world of social justice, that respected freedom and equal rights for all. How we can link them to struggles for freedom in other places at other times, and how we can use use their specific struggle as an inspiration for our battles today.

A reckoning with the past and present: Auschwitz 2017

tracksI’m feeling physically drained but mentally uplifted and energised having just returned today from the 2017 Unite Against Fascism visit to Auschwitz/Krakow. It was an immensely powerful, life-affirming experience that provided a chastening reckoning with the past and a confrontation with racism and fascism in the present. Just a few days before our visit 60,000 ultra nationalist Poles, with neo-Nazi groups and their special visitors from abroad in the forefront, had marched and rallied in Warsaw.

We were based in Kraków, where, before the Holocaust, 26% of the city’s population were Jews, and where synagogues and other buildings in the Jewish Quarter of Kazimierz remain intact and a community is gradually and successfully renewing itself (the same is happening in more than a dozen other Polish cities).

We were a cross-generational, multicultural group of 48 anti-racists and trade unionists, from those in their teens to those in their mid-70s; from Caribbean, African, Asian, Scottish, Brazilian, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Muslim, Christian, and other backgrounds. Among the Jewish participants were children, grandchildren and relatives of both Holocaust victims and survivors.

The richness of the casual, friendly conversations across these backgrounds and affiliations, and in responses to the organised educational programme of talks, discussions and walks, is impossible to convey. Just to say that many hugs, tears but also moments of laughter were shared every day of the trip.

barracksOn the third day, we visited Auschwitz 1 camp – whose solid brick buildings have been turned into an excellent but horrifying museum – and then the much bigger expanse that was Birkenau, where gruesome ‘selections’ were made every time trainloads of deportees arrived. Most were selected for imminent death in the gas chambers located within this complex, while a minority were selected for work within the camp, and others temporarily housed in the indescribable conditions of the camp barracks before being transported to slave Labour camps in Poland and Germany.

This was my third visit – my second as one of the group ‘leaders’ – and each time I learn much that is new to me. This time I was able to gain new information and insights about the lives of those selected for slave labour, and reflect on their circumstances. Between the longstanding slavery of Africans and their descendants in the Caribbean which ended in the 19th century, and the story of contemporary slavery currently keeping around 30 million people globally in bondage (despite every country declaring it illegal), there is the slave-labour story principally but not exclusively of Jews during the Nazi period, which remains to be examined and told in more depth – with the potential to be linked more closely to both historical and contemporary examples in our understanding and campaigning today.

At every stage in the trip the past was living in the present as we talked of modern daybirkenau processes of stereotyping, labeling, discrimination, exclusion, and dehumanisation of various communities – and also resistance then and now.  We recognised some of the key continuities too, such as with antisemitism. It was refreshing to hear participants from a range of ethnic/cultural backgrounds perceive and condemn the current growth in antisemitic conspiracy and Holocaust denial propaganda and say how dangerous it is.  It was even more refreshing to see that those activists calling it out felt no need to qualify their condemnation of antisemitism with statements about the separate issue of Israel/Palestine.

IMG_0243Equally welcome was the recognition of the role of culture in resistance to the Nazis in the 1940s. Many participants remarked how moved they were, in Auschwitz Birkenau, when we stopped by a stone plaque in Yiddish that was part of a monument and members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group sang “Zog nisht keynmol” – the Yiddish hymn of the partisan resistance fighters – whose first and last verse ends with the defiant words of struggle: “Mir zaynen do” – “We are here”.