No one word can define or describe the events of the Holocaust, or Shoah, as it will never cease to do justice by the victims and survivors who suffered beyond our comprehension.
I don’t and won’t attempt to make sense of the past, as I feel I am inadequate for this job.
I tried to piece together the pages I immersed myself in over the years; some of which led me down a spiral of academia that at times didn’t contain remnants of the humanity that was lost and altered over the years.
It is a human’s innate curiosity to want to know why.
None of those words compared to the eloquent dialogue of Ruth Barnett MBE – a woman held in high esteem within Holocaust and genocide activism.
Barnett experienced a turbulent transition to Britain in 1939, having lost her native German citizenship only months after being born in 1935. She along with her brother Martin were amongst those children of the Kindertransport who fled their homes during the Second World War.
Barnett’s early years and adolescence were fraught with a lack of self-identity, not being able to fully claim and realise her identity as her own.
After being forced to repatriate back to Germany at the age of 14, leaving her elder brother behind who was attending university, she returned to her parents and witnessed the destruction the Third Reich had on her birth country, its people, and most importantly – her family.
Barnett expressed her fear in returning to Germany. She said she couldn’t cope with being back in a place she once fled.
The one-sided depiction of Germany from Britain led her to being turned against her parents.
She said: “I never managed to face the past and come to terms with it in their lifetime.”
Something she confessed to have regretted. Barnett expressed that it took several years of psychotherapy to make sense of her childhood experiences.
It took a year to pass before she was allowed to come back to England. She found solace in her new home and yearned to go back.
She explained that her parents knew they had made a mistake bringing her back to Germany.
She said: “That year was the worst in my life.”
Although her family did not return to Berlin, she discovered her father – who had fled Nazi Germany to Shanghai, had returned briefly.
Barnett said: “He was made to feel so unwelcome.”
Her sentiment was that Berlin had been so badly damaged by the Reich’s legacy, and that those who had followed Hitler’s belief were not going to be changed overnight.
What was once her family’s home had become unrecognisable.
For years Barnett believed that it was only her brother and she who were part of the Kindertransport, not fully understanding its extent until 50 years after her first arrival in Britain.
She described a kinship felt by those she met, an extended family – a shared history that produced many narratives of the same story.
The way in which Barnett described this long overdue meeting, was one of which expanded her understanding of her childhood.
The reunion acted as an epiphany – it began her path to rouse the nation’s conscience to the realities faced by not just herself, but for the other victims of genocide who were not able to share their story.
Barnett confessed: “I suddenly realised how much I had been denying and avoiding anything to do with the past.”
Reflecting on the news of when the 10,000 Kinder that came to Britain, Barnett shared that that was just the beginning of their story. She also acknowledges that the public’s conscious began too late.
She said: “Every genocide that is not stopped, and the delay to bringing the perpetrators to justice only creates huge impunity for more.
“We beat our breasts and chanted ‘never again,’ but it’s been again and again.”
She asked the question of how civilised is the human race to go on allowing genocide?
Whilst she acknowledged that getting the government to condemn and naming current genocides is rooted in political self-interest, the loss of Genocide Amendment vote that would require the government to reconsider trade deals with a country committing genocide, she believed this action showed that politicians don’t have the right to determine what can be called genocide.
The 11-vote loss is one that could have made all the difference.
Barnett is intrigued when others offer differing opinions and beliefs, she believed that they are valued – and is not afraid to engage in debate with anyone.
Speaking of how we can go on further education around the topic of genocide, Barnett said that there has never been a more dysfunctional family of nations that makes up the human race.
She said: “A lot more is caught than is taught.”
Conversations about topics such as the realities of the Holocaust, past acts of atrocity committed by the Empire and others, are not supposed to be comfortable but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important, or should be ignored, even dismissed as ‘re-writing history’.
Barnett encouraged us to think more and talk more.
Barnett keeps her family and their legacy close to her heart when campaigning for better education on the various genocides that have occurred, and are still occurring, honouring them through her work.
She encapsulated her family’s history in her play What Price for Justice? making sure that their story transcends the years going by, in the assurance that her work will only encourage further conversations surrounding the realities of the Holocaust.
Ruth Barnett is a living memory. I had the honour of articulating only a fraction of the wisdom she had to offer.
She has continued to work through her retirement as an activist, to bring attention to the atrocities that have and still are shifting the equilibrium of the world.
Barnett told Kirsty Robson and myself that it is our role as the future generation to continue the narrative of change. To further expand the scope of education that will be learned by those who come after us once our turn finally comes to an end.
Ruth reminded me that she doesn’t have all the answers, but that the answers will arise if we learn from one another.
Ellen is History graduate from the University of Southampton, specialising in the Holocaust, and 17th/18th century Crime and Punishment. She is currently a trainee at News Associates in London, studying for her NCTJ in Multimedia Journalism. Recently, she joined Demographica as their Editorial Outreach Manager, hoping to inspire people to pick up a pen and start writing.