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“THIS is our history and it’s up to us to find it.”
Michael Rosen is talking about new book The Missing, a deft combination of prose and poetry which pieces together the previously lost stories of his two great-uncles Martin and Jeschie, victims of the Holocaust: he could equally be expressing his wider artistic mission.
Much of Rosen’s work has often served to memorialise the persecuted, the “othered” and the politically dissident within their own countries: from his and Emma Louise Williams’s exhibition of the work of anti-fascist London artist Albert Turpin, to his biography of Emile Zola.
He knows that stories of other lives engage us when they make us both see ourselves and truly “see” others — stories that are not about us can also be about us.
As he writes in The Missing:
This is about France.
This is about Germany.
This is about Jews.
This is not about France.
This is not about Germany.
This is not about Jews.
Rosen understands that the universals, the small human details, draw us in and enable us to feel as well as think about history’s most devastating moments.
And we must do this; must feel how painfully like us victims of this and all genocides have been — and that their murderers were not as alien as we would like, either.
“Never again” is not a statement but a call to action.
As we live through another surge of fascism and anti-semitism, The Missing could hardly be more timely.
As we watch sections of today’s media quite openly work with the Establishment, the book reminds us how often the official record can’t be trusted: it wasn’t just people the Holocaust sought to obliterate, but truth itself.
As Rosen tells me: “The family history research for The Missing has taken about 30 years; it’s not easy tracing individual cases of people killed in the Holocaust.
“Each country where the genocide took place poses different problems: were records ever made? If they were, where are they now? Is it easy to access them?”
He found creative ways around this, and was helped as much by individuals, both living and dead, as by mainstream archives and institutions: “My way into the records in France was helped first by the fact that fragments of letters and photos survived locked away in cupboards, then by the fact that local historians in France were piecing together exactly what happened in their towns and villages.”
It was a simple knock at the door in western France, he found, which “did for” his great-uncle Martin.
Afterwards, an insignificant-seeming note from his landlady to the local prefect asking for guidance reveals the everyday reminder of horror she was left to witness, represented by a sealed bedroom and abandoned basket: “A wicker basket containing some linen belonging to Mr Rosen had been left in the room, which had been sealed up by the Gendarmes,” she explains, asking if she can enter this room in her own house — even behind closed doors, she is too scared to do so without official permission.
The reply was that she could not remove the seals until told otherwise.
The sealing of rooms in this way was common, and wholly unnecessary, except as an act of humiliation and intimidation.
Another tenant had to look at the sealed room every day, too — the abducted man’s brother-in-law lived in the next room.
Martin Rosen never would reclaim the wicker basket.
When I spoke to Michael Rosen at last year’s Matchwomen’s Festival, he touched on this forthcoming book, and I’d assumed it would be a follow-on from his memoir, So They Call You Pisher!
Instead, it’s a book for young people that can be read by all ages, and this, in part, is because of its profound political aim: “One trigger for writing it as a book for young people came from the fact that I had been talking about the events of the book in schools and on one occasion one student said, ‘But none of this happened, did it’?” Rosen tells me. “So I want the book to reply to Holocaust denial.”
As Rosen detailed in Pisher!, his world view was shaped in part by his mother Connie and father Harold’s active membership of the Communist Party.
Earlier this month, MI5 with Conservative connivance made a startling move against democracy by listing organisations like Unite against Fascism and Stand Up to Racism alongside Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion and the Communist Party as “extremists.”
Rosen has experience of being beyond the political pale: as he recalled in his memoir, because of his parents’ communism, “contemporaries at school, parents of friends, relatives and of course the press, radio and TV looked on us as traitors, enemies.”
The young Rosen found consolation in the rich alternative culture that the party, and wider left, strove to provide for readers of all ages.
Much of his own work provides now a similar balm to the beleaguered; two of his books have collected together this original material: Workers’ Tales (Socialist Fairy Tales, Fables and Allegories from Great Britain), and Reading and Rebellion with Kimberley Reynolds and Jane Rosen.
The Missing reminds us that those trying to escape nazi genocide were, first and foremost, refugees — at a time when one of them, Labour peer Alf Dubs who came here via Kinder Transport aged six, has seen the Tories vote down his Brexit Bill amendment to unite displaced children with their parents.
Rosen makes sure to tell young readers in The Missing: “When I think about it, my relatives were refugees — a lot like the people you may have seen on the news recently.
“Because of the events of the second world war, they were forced to run: to flee and hide. When I turn on the TV now, 80 years later, I see thousands of families that have been forced to run from new wars, driven into hiding and sometimes losing their lives. So I hope this book becomes part of a bigger conversation.”
The conversation began with silence — the gaps and question marks all too common in his and so many Jewish families: from The Missing: “Dad shrugged... ‘They were there at the beginning of the war, but they had gone by the end. I suppose they died in the camps.’ In the camps? I thought. What camps?”
He says today: “From the time I was a boy, I knew that people were missing from our family but knowing this was linked to a feeling that it would be impossible to find out what happened to them. When I found out as a teenager that this was part of what the nazis wanted, that people like my father’s uncles and aunts would be wiped from European history, it became a project for me: to find out.”
The Missing is a dazzling multi-tasker — a riposte to Holocaust denial, a defence of refugees, a work of history and a page-turning work of genealogical detection.
Even the latter aspect has deeper political meaning: Rosen is lighting, or writing, a candle against the darkness of the Shoah, weaving “the missing” back into the tapestry of his family, taking back from the nazis what they tried to steal; an act of defiance he calls “a victory against that horror and against the intention to wipe them from history.”
I ask him if he uncovered anything in their stories that particularly shocked or surprised him, in ways he hadn’t expected?
“One was how close Jeschie and Rachel were to escaping and that it was the great irony of Eisenhower announcing the armistice with Italy which sealed their fate.
“Two was the ‘banality of evil’ of four village gendarmes knocking on a rural woman’s door in western France to arrest a man who had done nothing wrong. And it was this act carried out on the orders of the local administrators, acting in turn on an instruction from the local nazi security police that did for Martin Rozen.
“The ‘banality’ is the police report writing up the arrest made at 2.30 in the morning in January 1944. It is so incredibly ordinary — like a write-up of a traffic offence and yet this is the Holocaust in action — a massive crime of the 20th century.”
I ask Rosen about a comment he’d made about feeling more emotionally vulnerable as he got older, telling him I’ve noticed over years of oral history work that this seems to be a human trait — something like an opening and expanding of the heart as we get older, often encompassing a desire to draw family close — not just the living, but the dead, in a drive to connect with the past.
“This does seem to come only with age: the same interviewees will say: ‘But I couldn’t have cared less about the past when I was a kid! I wish, now, I’d stopped and asked my gran about X or Y...”
So how does Rosen succeed in making stories of the dead “long ago” connect with all ages?
Engaging young people politically is as crucial now as when the Communist Party of his youth worked in it, and there is ever-increasing competition for their attention.
“I’ve been visiting schools and talking to young people for 45 years, so I guess I’ve discovered ways of talking that are not boring!
“I try to make things very graphic, and when I’m relating these events, I switch between recounts of an event and rhetorical questions: ‘I asked myself then, ‘why did they do that’?”
Rosen finds that pace is important, too: “I always make time for the students to talk to each other about what they’ve just heard.”
Equally crucial is emphasising that everyone has stories to uncover: “I say to them that there are ‘secrets’ in everyone’s family and hidden stories of wonderful things but often difficult and awful things — just like mine. I hope that will encourage them to talk to older relatives.”
I ask Rosen how so many years of involvement in such a painful subject affected him on a personal level: “You’ve written movingly about what you call your ‘vulnerability river’,” I say, “and that work that touches on difficult subjects like the death of your son Eddie has to be carefully managed. How do you stay in balance?”
He says: “We become overwhelmed by sad things when we are unable to keep any distance from them. That’s fine sometimes but if these sad things are overwhelming us all the time, it’s difficult to live.
“I find that I help myself a lot by separating things. This is what doctors and criminal lawyers do: they separate the factual side of their work from what they would usually feel in life outside of work.
“It’s not easy and you have to be careful that you don’t deny the humanity of people. So, with this research and book, I pushed myself to focus on how to find the material, how to translate it, and then when I had that, to sit back and let myself feel what it was about, and how awful it all is.”
And how, I ask him, can the rest of us deal with these dark political times? We know that that racism and prejudice affect the mental health of all of us, not just the targets. How do we, as activists, fight them while also not being overwhelmed by injustice?
“It’s very hard to keep calm when there seems to be such wilful efforts to deceive us. I take guidance from satire which reminds us that the power that is being wielded is frequently absurd, inconsistent and contradictory.
“In a personal way, I find it helpful to hunt such moments down and expose them through poems and social media.”
Finally, I ask him about a Kafkaesque moment we’d shared at the end of last year.
In December, Rosen had been a key speaker at a solidarity vigil in Hampstead, after anti-semitic graffiti had appeared there.
I spoke too. It was attended by members of the local Jewish community, families, schoolchildren and supporters of Stand up to Racism, Unite against Fascism, and left Jewish groups. Anyone was welcome to join it or, of course, to organise their own vigil.
There were around 200 people there for the vigil, and a handful of men from a group called the Israel Advocacy Movement trying to disrupt it.
Almost surreally, these counter-protesters talked, laughed and heckled through speeches by two rabbis and a speaker on Roma persecution; they shouted defamatory slogans about Jeremy Corbyn (who was neither there nor in any way associated with the event) through a minute’s silence for victims of the Shoah.
The men claimed to be members of the local community but this transpired to be untrue; they were well-known for disrupting Palestinian solidarity events.
Before the vigil, Rosen’s post about it had been shared on social media along with abusive comments about his being “anti-semitic,” seemingly on the sole grounds that he’s left wing and has shown some support for Corbyn’s polices.
Afterwards, he was subjected to days of orchestrated, targeted social-media abuse and harassment, which transferred to me when I defended him — understandably given Rosen’s popularity, he ultimately had more people defending than attacking.
“You deal with this sort of thing a lot,” I say, “and have the distinction of having been blocked on Twitter by anti-semitism tsar Lord Mann. But how does being called an anti-semite affect you on a personal level, as someone so aware of his own family’s suffering at the hands of the ‘real thing’?”
Rosen says: “I’ve always said that there are several aspects to the ‘anti-semitism in the Labour Party’ issue.
“The whole discourse has been fuzzy as to what actually constitutes anti-semitism and whether some is more serious than others.
“Are ‘slurs’ as reprehensible as ‘discrimination’ or ‘persecution’? Should they be treated in the same way?”
Rosen goes on: “If the sole way in which anti-semitism is being combated is by focusing on the Labour Party then it’s not anti-semitism that’s being combated, it’s the Labour Party.
“There is clear inconsistency in the way that right-wing and far-right anti-semitism is being treated in the media and in politics as a whole.”
Of the vigil, he says: “When the anti-semitic graffiti appeared in Hampstead, it was open to anyone and everyone to respond how they wanted. Several groups came together very quickly to organise a vigil. Anyone could have attended to support.
“As I said at the vigil, we will only be able to combat this kind of thing is with unity in action. At the moment, I believe that one aspect of this anti-semitism matter is a wish by the more official parts of the Jewish population to demand the right to own and to lead all Jews.
“This even extended to the idea that those of us on the vigil had no right to be there because the Jewish community didn’t want us there.
“I’m Jewish and I’ve lived in north London all my life. The graffiti is as much a threat to me as they are to any other Jewish person.
“The graffiti didn’t distinguish between someone who is religious and someone like me who belongs to another tradition — that of secular Jewish workers, thinkers, artists, shopkeepers and the like, many of whom live in north London. Calling me an anti-semite for saying or thinking such things is absurd.”
How do we tackle attempts to conflate support for Palestine or BDS with anti-semitism?
“I try not to comment much on Israel-Palestine at the moment. I’ve never been there and part of the consequence of doing this work to write The Missing is to remind me more than ever that my life is wound up with life in Europe and the US.
“We have a government in power that has within it and in satellite groups around it, people with agendas to do with low pay, migrants, low taxation for the super-rich, migrants, Islamophobia, racism and anti-semitism.
“I suspect that there will be times that it will run a dual track similar to that of Orban in Hungary which will use coded words (‘Soros,’ ‘Goldman Sachs,’ ‘illuminati’) for attacking what they see as the ‘dangers’ of ‘international Jewish finance’ while at the same time demanding allegiance and support to the state of Israel.
“This is what they call ‘economic nationalism’ — posing the idea that there is ‘good’ ‘national’ capitalism and ‘bad’ ‘international capitalism.’
“I think that one thing we can do,” Rosen concludes, “is expose, explain and fight against this.”
In The Missing, an easy and beautiful read on an impossibly hard and ugly subject, Rosen offers us important ammunition for that fight.
Louise Raw is the author of Striking a Light and organises the annual Matchwomen’s Festival. This year’s is on Saturday June 27 in Bow, east London. Tickets via Eventbrite. Stand up To Racism’s statement on inclusion on the “extremists” list can be read at mstar.link/SUTRCounterterror. Michael Rosen’s book, The Missing: The True Story of My Family in World War II is published by Walker Books.
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