Triumph of Good over Evil

Words of a poet

“For evil to triumph it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.”

Edmund Burke didn’t actually say this quote famously attributed to him. What he actually said was more profound:

“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

But nevertheless he is quoted thus in the Holocaust exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. You would think they would know better. But I digress. This is not a blog about dodgy quotations.

Yesterday I visited London with my family, a half-term day return trip by train. It was a really lovely, if exhausting, day. We had nine hours clear in London, bookended by two 3-hour train rides.

We had hoped to take the kids to the new Dr Who Experience at Olympia but left it too late to book tickets. It was opening week after all, so not surprisingly there was no space to be had.

Instead we decided to head for the Science Museum, and booked an afternoon IMAX 3D movie all about space and the Hubble. That left us a couple of hours free for sight-seeing. On the way down, I think somewhere around Cradley Heath (home of Green Teeth Keith (long story)), my elder son asked if we could go to the Imperial War Museum.

“Why?” we asked, surprised mainly because of our son’s non-aggressive, confrontation-hating tendencies. “Well, I really like learning about war and I think it would be good.” So that’s where we agreed to head.

We looked at tanks, and guns, and planes, and more guns, and rockets. We climbed into a World War 1 trench (incredibly good; even smelled dirty and sweaty and stale and felt oppressive and scary) and followed an interactive trail about the causes of WWII. Then we saw a sign for the Holocaust Exhibition, on the top floor. “Not recommended for children under 14”, it said. Elder son, aged 10, asked if he could go anyway.

“It might be quite harrowing. It is about a period of history and events that are pretty shocking. Are you sure you want to go?” I asked. “Yeah – we’ve done Anne Frank at school, mum. I know all about it.”

The next half hour was fascinating, and horrifying, and informative, and gruesome. We saw the rise of Hitler; we saw footage of the Nuremberg Rally; we saw Hitler Youth uniforms and more swastikas than the BNP dream of. Elder son drank it all in.

We saw the beginning of Jewish persecution. We saw a simple yet fascinating film on the deeply held anti-Semitism of Christians through history.

We saw the slow but inevitable march towards Kristallnacht. It all starts innocuously, with silly insults, and exclusion, and book burning, and laws that can be dressed up as practical but which are truly hate-riven.

“Where one burns books one will, in the end, burn people.” Heinrich Heine, German-Jewish poet, 1797-1856.

We watched sad and yet heroic interviews with Jews who survived the onslaught. All of it in a hushed, whispering atmosphere, everywhere gently lit to ensure our focus was solely on the pictures and videos on the walls around us.

Next we found ourselves in a mock-up of a train carriage, just like the ones used to transport milllions of Jews to the concentration camps.

One of my abiding memories will be a simple graph, depicting how the “final solution” was an interwoven collaboration of transport, building companies, the utilities, nazi governors in nations across Eastern Europe, the SS and the German army. They were all in on it. This was no forced brutality by a strong minority; this was a majority collusion.

Then came the final, most intense assault on our senses. Auschwitz, in tiny model form. All white. No colour, in keeping with the sombre mood.

We imagined, and saw in miniature, the families departing the crowded trains into the cold air; the last heart-breaking separation of men and women and children; the final long walk. At the last the tiny figures head underground, into the gas chambers.

All the way through the exhibition I kept asking elder son: “Do you want to carry on?”

Around him were repeated images of naked body upon naked body in mass graves. An iconic image of a Jewish man, gun at his head, kneeling on the edge of a mass grave, drew a gasp from him. “That man’s about to be shot dead, isn’t he?”

But while I didn’t want him to be traumatised, there was something about me that willed him to see it through to the end.

Along the way we talked a little about what we saw and felt; about how horrendously cruel humans can be to each other; how easy it can be for people to go along with the herd out of fear of reprisal or out of a desire to fit in; how wrong it is to judge people on the colour of their skin, or their religion, or their background.

My son will undoubtedly grow up with prejudices, and beliefs that are based on things he has been told by the media, by his teachers, by his pals and by us, his parents. He will probably be mean to some people. He will almost certainly experience hatred, and anger, and envy, and every other negative emotion. He will experience bullying, either as a giver or receiver. It’s all part of human nature.

But I’m really glad he both wanted to, and seemed to understand and learn from, his exposure to the Holocaust, even the sanitised version he saw yesterday. I just hope it doesn’t give him too many nightmares.

Incidentally, I told one relative I had taken him to this exhibition, and was asked why I would want him to see that. “He’s too young for things like that. Why take away his innocence?” Was I right? I think I was – but maybe not? Perhaps at 10 he is too young to know the horrors man can inflict on fellow man.

If it helps, he spent the afternoon marvelling at the wonders of the natural world and the fantastic things man has done and is capable of doing for each other, courtesy of the wonderful Science Museum. He got to see the life of an astronaut, to travel through Space with Hubble, to fly an aeroplane and to gun down bad pollutants in the atmosphere to preserve our climate.

I hope it provided a nice balance – the inhumanity that man is capable of, contrasted with the incredible good man can do, and teh miracle of life and the universe.

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