Never again

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
NEVER AGAIN: a history of the Holocaust. By Martin Gilbert. HarperCollins. pound;19.99

As well as being Churchill's official biographer, Sir Martin Gilbert is our foremost historian of the Holocaust.

He is a man who, convinced that impeccable and detailed recording of evidence was needed so the world could not forget, began, along with others, the painstaking work of building up the data. Documents from here and occasional finds from there; personal memories (hard to come by in the immediate aftermath, easier as the distance grew and some kind of recognisably human life had taken over) recorded, and eye-witness reports filed; official records examined, and unofficial records, photographs and slips of paper that were meant for destruction carefully analysed.

All this, plus a deliberately cool tone in writing about the most emotional and terrible of material, makes Gilbert compelling and gives the reader the sense of immense authority underlying a text that is by necessity rather short.

This volume has been published to coincide with the Holocaust exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum, for which Martin Gilbert has been the prime adviser, and it is aimed at 14-year-olds and above.

There is also the context: what was Jewish life like in Europe before 1933? Did the Nazis really succeed in destroying a whole way of life? Was that way of life as beautiful as those who now remember it perhaps through rose-tinted spectacles - think of it as being?

Then we move on to who did it. And who collaborated? What foreign powers helped, and significantly, which representatives of which foreign powers really helped prevent extermination? Gilbert records the names, lives and work of Wallenberg, Foley, Sugihara, Born, Selahattin Ulkumen, Perlasca and de Sousa Mendes.

He also records the righteous gentiles, not necessarily diplomats, but ordinary people, men and women, who risked their lives to save Jews - among them Oskar Schindler, Premysl Pitter, Yvonne Nevejean, and Andre Trocme.

So the volume reads as a history of atrocity, of barbarity beyond describing. But it also - and it is remarkable in this - implicitly asks the reader : "What would you have done had you been there? What would this have meant to you?" For this is about the war against the Jews, but it also asks young people about genocide, about ethnic cleansing, and about the nature of "civilisation".

It asks questions in a way that will make us grieve certainly, shock us certainly, but most importantly of all think about how it could have happened, and whether it could ever, albeit on a smaller scale, happen again. It teaches us never to forget, but also to learn from the knowledge, and use it to shape our own better lives.

Julia Neuberger is a rabbi and chief executive of the King's Fund, London


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