By Daniel Finkelstein, Times political columnist
“I don’t think Hitler wanted us to do this. Sit here in Hendon in the sunshine eating strawberries.”
A few years ago, my mother was playing host to a young man from Switzerland. She didn’t really know him or his girlfriend, who was with him, but she had known his mother and his aunt.
Two young sisters who, like mum, had been in Belsen, where they had met. They had experienced the terrible disaster of seeing their parents die next to them, starved to death on those long bunk beds. But they had survived and ended up in Switzerland, where their wealthy grandmother had taken them in. And so, as they sat in the garden of my parent’s home in Hendon, my mother just touchy lightly on their terrible past.
The man’s girlfriend nudged him. “Now,” she said, “you can have answers to all the questions you have about those day.”
He shook his head sadly. No, he said. He could not ask my mother about things his own mother would not talk about.
When I heard this story, I realised how lucky I was. I am able to ask and get answers. For so many children of Holocaust survivors that is not possible. The memories are too painful to be relived. Or the people who experienced them are no longer here to answer questions.
My mother talks freely of her experiences. Of her arrest in Amsterdam, of her periods in Westerbork and Belsen, of her release, of the death of her mother, of the work of her father. And from this I have learnt more than stories about her life.
I have learnt how fragile is the freedom and liberty I take for granted.
I realise that here, in our lifetime, people were able to commit terrible crimes in Europe, not in some far away place which I only see on the television. She was taken from the streets of Amsterdam.
I see that respect for the rule of law is something not everyone has or values. And, sadly, I see that hatred of Jews is something even otherwise civilised people can fall prey to.
You will not find me casually dismissing political correctness, as if respecting other people didn’t matter.
Or talking about human rights as if they were a curse. For I know they are the greatest blessing that can be bestowed. And I have also – I am sorry to say – learned the necessity of vigilance and to be hard headed about the importance of security.
This is the inheritance of a child of a survivor. And lucky is the child who gets to hear such a story without having to experience it themselves.
With this luck comes a duty.
To speak of what we have learned.
To tell the story we have been told. To draw from it the lessons. And to be driven by those principles.
This is a duty that cannot be avoided. I embrace it.