Monday, 27 April 2015


Up in Manchester, a very frail woman is approaching her one hundredth birthday. When I first met her more than ten years ago she was still a very alert and lucid conversationalist, albeit one who spoke slowly and quietly. Now, though, it's not clear that she always knows where she is and with whom she is speaking. Inevitable, of course. But still sad.

For my nine-year old son, the fading away of this elderly lady  - his great grandmother - means that he'll never have the chance to learn from a living relative who can remember his maternal family's most turbulent times.

She came to the the north of England from Berlin via Amsterdam in the late 1930s, her parents, aunts and uncles having had the foresight to cash in their assets and scatter their offspring around the world before it became impossible for German Jews to escape the impending slaughter.

I had this in mind when my son and I recently visited London's Imperial War Museum. He's an inquisitive kid, very keen not to be fobbed off with watered down explanations of complicated truths. He also knows something of his family history. So although the museum's Holocaust Exhibition is officially not recommended for children under the age of fourteen, he and I decided together that he should see it. Speaking with him as we travelled to the museum, I really laboured the point about how distressing this particular exhibition might be for him. But he wanted to see it. So he did.

The whole thing, of course, is horrifying. But what interested me most about my son's reactions was that he visibly felt anger as well as sadness and revulsion. One of the things that angered him most was to learn that his great grandma and her fellow German Jews had been referred to as a "disease" or a "contagion", first by the operatives of the state propaganda machine in their native country and, as the effects of that propaganda took hold, by a bigger and bigger percentage of ordinary German citizens.

At the age of nine, my son understood that it's possible for powerful, well-resourced organisations to dehumanise and demonise an entire group of people. He understood that constant and noisy repetition of these ideas can legitimise them in the minds of millions of people. He understood where this can lead.

Language creates reality. It's so much easier to ignore or even encourage the murder of human beings if they're thought of not as parents or neighbours but as vermin, bacteria or a virus. Dirty, dangerous and less than human. How horrible it was then, as recently as 1994, when Rwandan radio stations incited Hutu people to violence using these words: "You have to kill the Tutsis. They are cockroaches". Maybe you remember that. Maybe you remember feeling glad that you lived somewhere more civilised.

As I walked away from the museum discussing what we'd just seen with my son, I didn't know that one week later, here in 21st Century Britain, the country's best-selling newspaper would carry an article in which migrants from Africa and the Middle East would be described as "cockroaches" and likened to the norovirus. 

To the best of my knowledge, neither the proprietor nor the editor of that newspaper have expressed any regret at the columnist's choice of words. So I conclude that they see nothing disturbing in it. Maybe you see nothing disturbing in it. But I really hope you do. 

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