At school we learned nothing about the Holocaust or Nazi Germany. In the collective psyche, World War II was still current story, not yet history. At school, we used “Jewish” casually, like “Scottish”, to mean parsimonious or tightfisted. My own first insight into anti-Semitism came watching the television series, The Ascent of Man. Jacob Bronowski made a pointed aside “Men like me were not around at that time”, referring to some aspect of life in wartime Germany: I had to ask what he had meant.
Later, I learned of my paternal lineage: my great grandfather coming to Britain as a teenage refugee, leaving his Polish village, fleeing successive pogroms for a better life. Across four generations, in East London and then industrial Glasgow, sons rebelled against and replicated patriarchial violence, disowned their fathers, married out. My father was the last to grow up with some sense of Jewish heritage. In the army, permanently estranged from his father, sharing the same, obviously Jewish, handle with the then Minister of War, sick of ribbing and worse, he abandoned his patrimony and took his mother’s name, which I have today.
Without inheriting a mythology, it was in Narnia that I first found a sense of belonging, of struggle, of sacrifice and redemption, of course in ignorance of the author’s propagandist intentions. However, the core of my spirituality was shaped by the words of Jacob Bronowski. I wrote his words out, over a drawing of his face, and stuck this on my bedroom wall at home and later at University.
Standing in the ruins of the extermination camp at Auschwitz, this is what he had to say about science:
“Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known. We feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible.
Bronowski first opened up to me that our reality is beautiful and amazing, to be approached with boundless curiosity, with honesty and clear sight, without dogma, conscious of the influence of our prior beliefs and with our convictions open to challenge. This is the heart of science, and when incorporated into society and personal relationships, it is revolutionary.
Earlier in that same episode, the camera panned across barbed wire fences, lights and towers. Here is what Bronowski said of the Holocaust:
“It’s said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. That was not done by gas – it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.
“When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”
Taking a handful of mud from the water he said:
“we have to touch people”.