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Britain's role in resisting the Holocaust not a very proud one

By Nick Railton

Published 27/01/2016

Inaction: Winston Churchill
Inaction: Winston Churchill

Today the world is called upon to remember the millions of Jewish and other victims of what the then Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Herman Hertz called "the Satanic carnage" in Europe.

It is important to remember the British response to the persecution and murder of Jews.

We remember the UK declared war on Nazi Germany and that British soldiers liberated the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank died shortly before their arrival.

We remember that 80,000 Jewish refugees found asylum in the UK. We remember that the Catholic Frank Foley bent the rules in the British passport office in Berlin to grant visas to Jews.

We remember that the 30-year-old London stockbroker Nicholas Winton used his money and ingenuity to rescue 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia. He refused to be a passive bystander.

The Archbishop of Canterbury had, on December 5, 1942, condemned in The Times, in the name of Anglican and Free Church leaders, the extermination of the Jews as "a horror beyond what imagination can grasp". The following year he repeated his concerns in a speech in the House of Lords, supporting a motion to offer immediate aid to Jewish refugees.

He condemned the procrastination of the US and British governments at a time when "the Jews are being slaughtered at the rate of tens of thousands a day on many days". "We, at this moment, have upon us a tremendous responsibility," he said. "We stand at the bar of history, of humanity and of God."

Recognising evil is one thing, doing something to counteract it is another. We should not forget that the Government had for too long sought to appease Hitler by giving in to his demands.

The Munich Agreement brought no peace for Czechoslovak Jews - and, as the pogroms a few weeks later showed, nor for German Jews. Trying to come to terms with the Devil rarely produces good fruit. We do not forget that, as Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said at the time, British immigration policy was grotesquely inadequate. The UK largely failed to open the doors across its empire - especially in Palestine - to Jews.

We should not forget, moreover, that it was an English fascist, Arnold Leese, who called in 1935 for the segregation of Jews and the use of "lethal chambers" to exterminate them.

We should not forget that anti-Semitism permeated British society at the time - one factor that facilitated the official inaction and indifference to Jewish suffering.

We should not forget that though Churchill initially called for the RAF to bomb Auschwitz, he then took Foreign Office advice and undertook nothing of the kind.

Nor did successive British Governments hunt down Nazi war criminals after 1945, as Churchill and Eden had said they would. On the contrary, many war criminals -Ukrainians, Latvians and other eastern European collaborators - were admitted to the country and protected from punishment.

We should not forget that after 1945 British civil servants showed the same indifference to the presence in their country of perpetrators of the Holocaust as they had shown to the plight of Jews prior to 1939. Justice was not done. Strangely, a movement that began with Gentile followers of Jesus being encouraged by the apostle Paul to share materially with poor Jews in recognition of the gift of the Gospel ended, in the 20th century, with representatives of nations shaped for centuries by Christianity robbing Jews of all their property, their homes and money, before gassing them.

A crime that should never be forgotten.

  • Nick Railton is a lecturer in German at Ulster University

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