If proof were needed of the late David Cesarani’s incredible, indelible impact on Jewish and British life, it came from the sheer number of heartfelt tributes that poured in during the hours after his death last weekend at the age of just 58.
From the prime minister to community leaders and Holocaust educators to former students, the outpouring of grief and sense of loss was both immediate and profound. Many referred to his role in the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day, his authoring of many definitive books on the Nazi era and unstinting support for organisations involved in passing on the memory.
We will never know the extent of what he might have achieved had he lived a longer life, but his vast body of work will continue to bring the realities of those dark days to the attention of Britain and the entire world for decades to come. Most recently, Cesarani was a prominent member of David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, which earlier this year recommended that a new national learning centre and prominent memorial be built in central London.
This week, only hours after it was announced he’d passed away, we had another troubling reminder of why his work and that of Sir Martin Gilbert, who also passed away earlier this year, and others remains vital. The exhaustive study by University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education revealed knowledge of the Shoah among British schoolchildren, even after studying the period, is often limited and based on wild misconceptions.
In particular, very few youngsters were aware of the complicity of ordinary people in crimes around Europe while just a sixth recognised camps other than Auschwitz.
The fact the research revealed a strong interest from students in learning about the Holocaust was, however, a clear positive. Britain has a duty to encourage this interest while survivors still remain with us and beyond – as the prime minister has shown such a readiness to do.
Indeed, David Cameron movingly said yesterday: “I hope the new National Memorial to the Holocaust together with its accompanying learning centre will help to continue the vital work to which David dedicated so much of his life.” It’s a matter of overwhelming sadness that David won’t be there to contribute to that work. He will be greatly missed. We wish his wife and children long life.