Forgetting the lessons of history
After the war, it somehow felt good to be English: we were on the side that fought against fascism: “England would never condone any form of fascism” I often heard said. How naïve I was in retrospect! I would never have foreseen that those who were not born immediately after the war would not have learnt the lessons we had.
Pathé newsreels informed the public
From the 1930s to the end of the 1950s many people in England, France, and the USA, used to go to the cinema to see the black and white newsreel films produced by the Pathé company. This was ousted only by the arrival of colour television and the increasing numbers of households owning one by the 1960s.
It was via Pathé news that people saw films of Hitler’s rallies, of war-time scenes, of the H-bomb, of Victory celebrations. It was Pathé too that showed them pictures of people “going to hell in a handcart” as streams of refugees on foot trudged across Europe. Pathé also showed them footage of concentration camps and the emaciated survivors (footage still available via the Pathé archives). Later generations, born to get their news from TV or, as now, via the internet, seem less aware of the suffering caused by war in Europe.
Of course, most of us children in the 1950s were ignorant of the atrocities committed in Ireland and centuries before in Scotland and Wales (the English press made sure of that…). We certainly had no idea about what happened in Kenya in the 1950’s, or in other colonised countries.
Familiar With diversity
I was also in a unique position (although I didn’t realise it at the time) of growing up in a cosmopolitan intellectual background. My father was a lecturer in drama and education at Manchester University and he regularly produced plays. His particular penchant was Greek drama, but he also had eclectic tastes…
So my parents had a wide variety of friends: all different nationalities and backgrounds, gay friends, BAME friends (as we say now…) so many people; but with decidedly the same core outward-looking values. When my father had produced a play, there would invariably be a party at our flat.
The cast and all the others involved in the production, would turn up and bring food and wine. Ray B…… a tall man from Dublin with a beautiful accent used to be a major contributor to the party food – looking back, I realise that Ray was gay, as were some others in their circle. I remember that my seven year old self adored Ray. Some were teachers: some were in established relationships. Nothing was ever said; everyone belonged.
On one occasion, a lovely older woman (called Erica) who worked with my father, had made a “Mother Courage” wagon (they had been performing Berthold Brecht’s play). There were dolls dressed up in the appropriate character costumes in a wagon that was supposed to depict “Mother Courage’s” wagon. I treasured it.
Apart from the parties, and many suppers, we often had friends over with such different stories to tell. There was Gerda who was a Jewish refugee who was traumatised at leaving her seventeen-year-old son on the Russian Front while she escaped from Germany.
He was slaughtered – on the Russian Front – and of course, she never, ever got over it. She had no more children. I remember how at my father’s funeral, she lamented the fact that she had no family that would mourn her when she died..
Then there was John, a Czech who at seventeen had escaped from a concentration camp. I have no idea to this day why he was there: he wasn’t Jewish, but Catholic, but it was war; terrible things happened. I was at school with his daughter Catherine.
Hannah (who I think was a German Jew) was married to a colleague of my father’s. She taught German at the secondary school that I attended. She had come over on the Kindertransport at the age of eleven; her parents and her twin three-year-old sisters vanished in the camps. She was brought up by a wonderful couple, whose name I used to know, but have forgotten with the passage of time…
More than just a number
There was someone else whose name I can’t remember, who was accompanied always by his wife. He had also been a concentration camp survivor. He had a number tattooed on his arm; he shook constantly.
We must learn from history
Seeing these different people, meeting people from Europe who worked at the university, probably subconsciously informed me, about many things: about suffering and resilience, of lives destroyed and stolen and above all else: the importance of being politically informed and in being forearmed against fascism: something I honestly never believed I’d have to say – and how important it is to learn from history.