For the past few days, amid this global reckoning with racism and white supremacy, I have been reading Reckonings by Mary Fulbrook. To summarise its 500 or so pages into a sentence probably does the work a disservice, but it’s largely about how many senior Nazis were able to escape justice after the war.
A passage from the book leapt out at me when I first read it and is yet to leave me alone. It concerns a guard at Treblinka concentration camp known as Sepp who, according to the recollections of survivor Jankiel Wiernick, "took special delight in torturing children". As they stood, terrified, often held by their mothers, waiting to be gassed, Wiernick recalled that Sepp "would frequently snatch a child from the woman's arms and either tear the child in half or grab it by the legs, smash its head against a wall and throw the body away."
The horror of the Holocaust is so vast and the images of it so ubiquitous that it can be hard to comprehend. Maybe that’s why this description, with all it’s violence, hits so hard. You can’t imagine six million dead, but you can imagine one murdered child.
Writing in the early summer of 2020, the events of the 1940s seem more recent than they previously did. The order imposed after the war seems to be crumbling. Images of state violence are almost a constant in our media. Demagogues and bigots feel able to speak their minds and some hold power.
But the reason the passage from Fulbrook’s book stayed with me is not just down to the moment in which I read it, but also because of less tangible forces.
Members of my family died in the Holocaust. Most likely they were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, a specialised killing squad who, as the German army advanced towards Russia, went into towns and villages across eastern Europe killing Jewish civilians and others deemed not worthy of life by the Nazis. In 1937 my great grandfather, Chaim Sandler, traveled from England to his hometown of Ludza, Latvia in a bid to persuade his family to come away with him. They refused.
After the war, my great grandfather never spoke about the 1930s or about the events that had led him to flee to England with his younger brother Jonah at age of just 16 shortly before World War One. He assimilated. He got a season ticket at Leeds United and spoke English with just a trace of his eastern European accent lingering in his soft Yorkshire burr.
His son, and my grandfather, Max, established a successful tailoring business, got married and had two daughters. This dark-skinned Jewish man would play golf with the likes Don Revie and Benny Hill at the local unrestricted club, invest in a hopeless racehorse, and put up a Christmas tree in the house every year. Even still, each week he and his wife Pam would take their children to the homes of various relatives, all dotted around all a small patch of Leeds having fled Poland and Latvia decades before, for Friday night dinner.
My family became British. As well as that, they were Jewish, Leeds supporters, who loved Billy Bremner, and giggled as soon as Tommy Cooper’s theme song came on the TV.
The writer James Baldwin, whose work has come to be a source of inspiration and strength to so many lately, wrote in his novel Giovanni’s Room: “People can't, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say ‘yes’ to life.”
Today Britain finds itself caught in a moment it is not prepared for. We have lied about our history as a matter of habit, cultivated blindspots and worked on them until they blocked out all light. Built a national curriculum that ignores the concentration camps of the Boer War, the suppression of the Mau Mau uprising, and the slave trade in favour of endless discussion of the heroes of the industrial revolution, World War Two, and the Tudors.
It’s this historical ignorance that allows the prime minister to carry himself like a cartoon version of his hero Winston Churchill and be celebrated for it, and why, in 2016, Johnson was able to win the EU referendum on a tide of nostalgia for the consequence-free days of Empire.
That is not to say that Britain is unique in either its historic evil or its failure to acknowledge it. It is a country like many others in that it is a writhing mass of contradictions and hypocrisy. An imagined political community accentuating the parts of itself it likes and ignoring the parts it does not in the desperate hope that it can continue in something close to its current form.
The prime minister tweeted earlier this month: “The statues in our cities and towns were put up by previous generations. They had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong”. You will often hear this argument: that we shouldn't put the morals of the 21st century on figures from the past, as if abolitionists didn't exist in the 18th century and there were no anti-Nazis in the 1930s.
Time alone does not engender greater morality. Powerful people don't just decide to be better. The struggle to civilise society, to acknowledge all our human rights, is always built on the backs of those who sacrifice to create a better world.
The political discord in Britain in recent years, with Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum, has felt like a turning point. A moment from which we can no longer continue as before. As Britons, we do not need to disavow our history. Instead we need to learn it. All of it. We need to be comfortable with nuance. We need to acknowledge suffering. To hold two facts in our head at the same time. Britain did end slavery in its territories in 1833, but it allowed it to flourish for centuries before that.
It's possible that without Winston Churchill, the man who above all others seems to define our current national debate, Britain, led by appeasers and anti-communists, would have folded to the Nazis even before the war began. As Neville Chamberlain attempted to make peace with Hitler in 1938, Churchill warned of the damage air raids could cause London and lobbied Franklin Roosevelt for help in a conflict he recognised as inevitable.
Churchill was also a committed racist who once declared: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” His decision to refuse a request to divert food stocks to India during the war led to the deaths of more than one million people in the Bengal famine of 1943.
All these facts can be held together at the same time and still create a coherent narrative. This is the story of Britain. It is one of the tragedies of the 20th century that a man like Churchill would come to be the clear lesser of two evils. That is how it turned out.
It’s an unhappy fact of life that few of us get to choose entirely how we present to the world. Even with the luxury that comes with having white skin, there are other things about my appearance that give me away: my thick curly hair, which is the same as my grandfathers, and my need to talk with my hands is unmistakably semitic.
My identity is also formed by the knowledge that my very existence, and that of the people I love most dearly, is tied up with past events. If Britain had folded during the Second World War, I would, in all likelihood, not exist. Most of my great grandfather’s story would not either. The grief that came with my ancestors refusal to leave in 1937 would have multiplied. The world would be worse. This has coloured my perception of what it means to be a person and to belong to this national community.
We all carry multiple identities. None of us are exclusively British in the same way that none of us are can be reduced to any one thing. The challenge, for all of us, as individuals and as a collective, is to keep hold of all the things that make us who we are and remain whole.
If we face up to who we are and how we got here, we may finally be able to understand ourselves and, in so doing, understand others. We may be able to move on and change this country and the world for the better. We finally be able to be free. To say yes to life.