The oldest form of racism, antisemitism, is on the rise, as is hate and intolerance. Evidence of it is all around us, but whilst most are oblivious, those of us in the tiny Jewish community are not so blissfully ignorant. Jewish school children in Aotearoa New Zealand are routinely targeted by fellow students and shockingly in two cases that I know of, by a teacher. A 2021 survey found that 6 percent of all Kiwis thought that Jews had brought the Holocaust, the murder of 6 million Jews, onto themselves, 10 percent thought they currently have too much control in the media and a chilling 20 percent thought that Jews have too much financial control.
Such appalling antisemitism has no doubt been bolstered by the rise in conspiracy theories and misinformation. Indeed, in the 2022 parliamentary protests, antisemitic rhetoric was not difficult to find – the derogatory placard “Jewcinda” that seemed to be just tickety-boo by those protesting, the wearing of yellow stars as if to say that those who suffered vaccine mandates equated to the identification of European Jews who were targeted for slaughter and the age-old tropes that blamed Jews for, well pretty much everything.
In my role as the chair of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, I see a bit of the raw and nasty underbelly of Aotearoa New Zealand. But I also see the importance of learning about history – in particular the history of the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the deliberate attempt to exterminate the Jews, defined by antisemitic ideology, propaganda, legislation, and the systematic implementation of unprecedented extermination techniques. Many other people were also persecuted with dedicated measures. Some – such as the Roma people and the disabled – were targeted for extermination alongside the Jews, while many others were also oppressed by the Nazis on the basis of their ethnicity, political ideas, religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
This singular event in our history can be an antidote to what ails us, when taught sensitively. It empowers us to act to protect against antisemitism, prejudice and apathy. Kids really get it and they know what to do with the history. It is not a simple lesson in what happened. They understand that they have a crucial part to play to ensure their community, their society, their nation is safeguarded.
I have been thinking a lot about the impact of the Holocaust in the past two years as I finished the memoir of my late mother, Inge Woolf, who was a Holocaust survivor. That book was published just this month under the title, Resilience: A story of persecution, escape, survival and triumph. Those who survived needed resilience in large measure to survive and thrive, as my mother notably did.
When Mum discovered she was dying in late 2020, she realised she could not complete her book in the time she had left. So, I offered to finish it for her. It has been a cathartic revisiting of her life for me as I grieved the loss of a fabulous mother, confidante and friend.
The project opened up as I saw all the materials my mother had gathered together – the administratively clear, but chilling deportation orders for relatives to be transported in cattle cars to places that are seared in our collective memories – Auschwitz and Sobibor; the document evidencing the forced sale of the Viennese family business; the record of the family conversion to Christianity as they desperately sought to save themselves; the enemy alien book my grandfather was required to use to report routinely in the place that gave him refuge, but not trust.
The draft of Mum’s memoir, numerous speeches and her oral testimony together formed the basis for a book that needed to be shared widely. Some would wonder why, but for me and other Jews living in Aotearoa New Zealand it is because the Holocaust and its aftermath are still with us in one of the places that is as far away from where it occurred as is possible. But it is not just for us. Antisemitism whilst affecting us, is not a Jewish problem, nor is the racism that others communities routinely experience their problem. It is not the victim’s problem to fix. The solutions lie with each of us.
This single event, the Holocaust, is instructive in underlining that hate starts small and can end in places we cannot imagine, that we all have a part to play in being vigilant to guard against prejudice and that whilst we may differ in race, ethnicity, religion, and a myriad other ways, we are all human. In the final years of her life, my mother dedicated herself to teaching these things through her own story and the stories of refugees and Holocaust survivors who came here, through the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, an institution she helped to create.
Whilst my mother’s life is just one story – the saving of a single child from the fate of the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust, it underlines the tragedy of what was lost, is a call to never forget and for us each to do better.
Deborah Hart is also chair of the independent review of Aotearoa New Zealand’s electoral laws and chair of the Consumer Advocacy Council, and serves on the Human Rights Review Tribunal. Resilience: A story of persecution, escape, survival and triumph by Inge Woolf is out now.