What's the difference between atrocities committed in war and outright genocide?by Joshua Rozenberg / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
I always wanted to know exactly how my father had managed to escape from Nazi-occupied Poland and survive the Holocaust that killed almost his entire family.
Like so many other refugees trying to build a new life in a foreign land, he didn’t want to talk about the past he’d lost for ever. When my father reached his early seventies, though, he seemed more willing to open up. Thinking he’d find it easier to talk to a stranger, I arranged for a fellow journalist to interview him. There seemed no particular hurry. And then my father suddenly died. Even though I used to carry a BBC tape recorder on my shoulder for a living, I found I didn’t even have a recording of his voice—let alone an account of his life.
When my son was two, his grandfather died. So, after university, he set off for Poland to find out about the grandfather he never knew. To my amazement, he was able to trace the Rozenbergs of Izbica as far back as the 18th century. He also discovered that my father had been deported to the Soviet Union before enlisting in the Polish forces under British command in Iran. That was followed by the British Army, naturalisation and a return to his pre-war occupation as a tailor.
Researching and publishing our family histories allows European Jews to demonstrate—in a way that readers can readily comprehend—the ultimate failure of Adolf Hitler’s attempt to wipe us all out. It is a well-trodden path. In his new memoir My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution (William Collins), Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg consults the German Holocaust researcher Götz Aly. “Many people come to see me with their enquiries,” Aly tells him. “They almost all have one thing in common: they’re over 50, mostly over 60, and those from whom they could once have enquired are dead.”
But there are two things that make the family story of the lawyer and author Philippe Sands stand out from the rest of the genre. First, his assiduous research has enabled him to construct entire chapters of East West Street: On the Origins of Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity from a flimsy scrap of paper or an unidentified photograph. Those interspersed passages, which bring the book alive at the cost of making the narrative harder to follow, read more like a thriller or a spy story: not many barristers have their books endorsed by John le Carré. Sands was surprised to find that the survivors he tracked down seemed uninterested in what he had found out about their families. But I now begin to understand why they would rather not know.