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Dina Gold, with her grandmother: Their family’s quest for compensation required luck as well as determination (photo ©Dina Gold)

If monuments, special museums, educational schemes and annual ceremonies were sufficient to ensure adequate memorialisation of the Holocaust, understanding of its history and a measure of justice for the victims, there would be grounds for solid satisfaction. The existence of several high-profile commemorative initiatives in Britain owes much to Professor David Cesarani. He also played a leading international role as a public intellectual in efforts to promote Holocaust education. He rightly attracted much appreciative comment after his premature death last October.

Unfortunately, the situation is less than satisfactory in at least two ways. Here too Cesarani’s role needs to be noted. First, Holocaust survivors have tended to be marginalised and disrespected — useful as speakers to school groups or as potential financial contributors but for little else. With exceptions such as Sir Martin Gilbert, career historians have often belittled and even resented eye-witnesses to the Jewish tragedy. Some of the most contemptuous have been Jewish historians, Cesarani among them.

Obviously, personal memories are not always reliable. But neither are documents, especially if many have been lost so that it is not always possible to assess the meaning and relevance of the ones which remain. Professional historians must be prepared to use a whole variety of sources. Their frequent reluctance to engage in detail with survivors has reflected a guild mentality. I remember all too vividly the authoritarian manner in which a number of well-known Jewish historians, including Cesarani, put down Hungarian survivors when they challenged the speculative, arguably biased interpretation given by a prominent Israeli historian of Rudolf Kastner’s controversial deal in 1944 with Adolf Eichmann. It happened at a meeting organised by Cesarani, then the young director of the Wiener Library in London, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian deportations. The failure of many historians to engage in sufficient depth with survivors has meant the loss of potentially invaluable sources of information and understanding.

Second, a prevailing academic interpretation of the causes of the Holocaust has come to pay excessive attention to convenient theses by such German scholars such as Hans Mommsen, who promoted the view of the Holocaust as (in Cesarani’s words) “cock-up” and without significant historical roots.

In Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49 (Macmillan, £30), Cesarani’s posthumously published 1,056-page book, he provides a digest and interpretation of recent research into the Holocaust. It will be widely welcomed as a work that demonstrates the author’s detailed knowledge of the recent output of academic colleagues and, as he acknowledges, the resources of three major Holocaust libraries: the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the Wiener Library. Whether it will be seen as a masterly synthesis or as a work of lesser significance remains to be seen. In the immediate aftermath of his early death, it is hard to make a dispassionate judgment.

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Uwe Westphal
February 28th, 2016
4:02 PM
March 2016 Comment: I write from Germany as a journalist, broadcaster and author with experience of some 85 pending restitution cases involving Jewish property and businesses within the Berlin fashion industry. Dina Gold’s book hits exactly the right note. I wholeheartedly endorse Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s excellent article “Holocaust Survivors Are Still Waiting For Justice” (March/April edition) and what he described as “everyday denial of their Nazi past and obstruction by some German corporations”. Actually it is, according to my experience, much worse than that. Although freedom of information exists and former East German archives are now open and available to the public, many new hurdles have been established for those seeking restitution and compensation. Data protection is a major stumbling block. Even Nazi confiscation documents of Jewish property issued between 1933 -1944 by German officials, insurers and banks are difficult to obtain. Another problem is that a new generation, those aged 30 – 45, who are only too well aware of the Holocaust are, nevertheless, more than happy to make use of the trade names of Nazi-era confiscated Jewish companies. Indeed, they now use these names for their own, newly established, businesses in the heart of the Berlin fashion industry. And thus, a fresh “cartel of silence” has been created by the next generation of Germans. At the same time, textile producer associations, the Victoria insurance company (which foreclosed on so many Jewish buildings during the Third Reich, including that of Dina Gold’s family), the Berlin Chamber of Commerce, university departments of history and fashion, even fashion companies themselves all deny, ignore and lie about the long lost tradition of Jewish entrepreneurship in the German fashion industry since 1836. Dina Gold’s book makes a decisive move toward bringing the issue of restitution and compensation into the 21st century. Uwe Westphal, Berlin Author/Journalist/Producer: Ehrenfried & Cohn,204,203,200...

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