Answer to Melanie Phillips: Studying only classics as the source of civilisation per se and the main reference point that matters is the problem.

Having read Melanie Phillips “How studying the classics became racists” is one of many works of her I read that are filled with arguments, that are simply unacceptable. This is a response to the comment she wrote in The Times on 9th of February 2021.

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“Classics” have indeed been quoted within the West as the main source of relevance. There is too much obfuscation of equal Chinese, Arab and wider Indian sources, and civilisations beyond that. That defines “civilisation” as a project supposedly owned by Europeans (though even that would be misreading Antiquity, as it was far more interwoven with the wider East and South than what is given credit).

Phillips parallelization of “white racists” vs “Black racists” and her mentioning that there were Black colonialists and Black slave states are arguments that are borderline to Nazi ideology. If you enter Nazi discourse, as I once have, you quickly hear how “Africans are just as bad”, “look they sold their own people,” and” look how they kill each other in war.” Is that how Phillips likes to argue? Firstly, one does not excuse the other.

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Secondly, many studies have shown that slavery in African societies, whilst no state of pride in any society, for sure, was mostly very different to the transatlantic system of slave trade, less brutal and less big in scale, and not so racially defined. For most, except in the trans-Sahel trade towards Arabia, slaves were not displaced on a scale as they were by the Europeans, nor were their lives as discardable as in the Transatlantic version. That, what some call the African Holocaust, was unique in its scale and its brutality.

Crucially, as in most slaveholding systems in human civilisation worldwide, slaves, usually captured in war, could become part of a group by integration into the family of the “winners” of that local war or conflict.

To take the other point Phillips made, whilst racism by some black people or black groups exists, there is an important difference between being in power for centuries and not being in power. The development per se of modern black anti-white racism can be ugly (just read former Black Panther Leroy Eldridge Cleaver as one example) but is usually directly responsive to systemic discrimination against Black people for many generations. It does not excuse it, but it clearly contextualises it. There can in many ways be hardly a comparison. Looking at the mass-incarcerations, the lynchings, the Jim Crow system, slavery, it is evident where we need to look for systemic perpetrators.

Further, to make a general point, British colonialism is not equal to other colonial states elsewhere (in history). That is because we live in an era where we can still see the effects of that last European colonial enterprise, and where many intentionally refuse to take account of it, (European) colonial history and slavery are brushed out of the public discourse and conscience and marginalised.

It is perverse to accuse those who want to talk about the legacies of the (European/British) Empire(s), colonialism and slavery by those who are supposedly offended as somehow being obsessed or wishing to rewrite or edit history. It is likewise perverse to answer the call for recognition and adequate mentioning of the crimes of European modern society with a brisk “but look at them.”

The “editing of history,” in fact, was performed for the last 200 years at least by those who hold power in the UK and other European nations, and who still control often the history books and lessons of or children in school, or the decisions over what statues people must honour day by day, despite strong evidence that some particular persons do not deserve such special honour, because their character was, simply put, nothing but criminal and evil. A person who willingly sold and profited from the sale of other human beings who involuntarily entered into the transaction, that is, they were forced to, does not deserve honouring by putting that person in the form of a statue in a prominent location (it does, however, deserve mentioning and not forgetting (of the crimes).

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The debate is one, where justice can be done, simply through acknowledging that human civilisations, knowledge and achievements go beyond just the shores of Europe and however remarkable, the philosophies of a Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero et cetera. In a global world that recognises this, we must count on equal terms the civilisations of Chinese speaking people, of the Arabic speaking Islamic world, of the Indian sub-continent, of the Incas and Aztecs, Ethiopians, of Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, the Horn of Africa, or the Turks, Mongols, Native Americans, and Hebrew Commentary, and so many other. To focus only on Greek and Roman classics, whilst a totally valid subject in its own right, and not to be discarded, is to narrow and shut down minds. We need to expand the sources of our knowledge beyond that. Again, I like to stress, this is not a call to abolish (the study of Classics), as so many falsely claim this would be. I think I made the point that Greeks and Romans are valuable to study, but not as the only or main source of civilisation and only or main valid philosophical debate within general education.

And I give Phillips a point in one area. When we engage in the exercise of looking at all of humanity, we will discover that both civilisation and human genius, as well as the potential for human evil, have been omnipresent and are universal human attributes (though there are questions regarding scale and degrees).

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We can then perhaps somewhat relativise the undertakings of European colonialism and slavery as coming out of the capacity of humans to engage in evil acts, though to start with, those crimes relating to the body of European inheritance must be acknowledged, if not atoned for first.
Of course, perpetrators and their descendants often have no interest to do so, especially not, if they never were humiliated for it (as the Germans were, who look inwardly over the Third Reich).

And that is the core of this debate in which the “glory of the nation” remains a largely untouched and unquestioned subject. The status quo is being defended in parliament, as if politicians were the guardians of history. They are only the guardians of simplified notions of nationhood, essentially footnoting the worst crimes. I tend to say these days, it was World War II that safeguarded British identity. The fact that they won the war against a vicious Nazi State is why it is so insisting on its memorialisation, because it also cleanses British conscience from that, which was before, or so they may think.

But true “glory” of humanness comes only from introspection and understanding clearly where previous generations have totally, offensively and murderously been wrong. It comes from the understanding that there has been an attempt to brush over this huge sore of history as if it never was as horrible, terrible and ferocious as it was. To refuse to acknowledge this means Black lost and infringed upon lives, other human beings’ lives, did not matter and continue to not matter, not even for the sake of chronicling these lives, the places from which these people came from as worthy for consideration as a source of study in human civilisation, as worthy as the study of the classics.

The upkeep of the focus of only a narrow vision and sources that keep a non-questioning identity that often carries non-entitled degrees of egocentric arrogance in place, is continuing with the structures of that era, which disable, not enable people to move on, grow and become more globally aware. It is a betrayal of who we really are as humans, which includes the obligation to understand human civilisation on Earth as a whole – all its people, contributions, achievements and failures. It is a pillar for a world beyond the narrow towards a world that serves all, perhaps with less conflict and less inequality in a wider sense.

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Brexit Comment: The people on Tyburn

The English translation of my Brexit comment

I am personally quite depressed about the results of the referendum.


It were not the positive reasons against an EU with “business as usual,” perhaps with an eye to the way the EU handled Greece or how they reacted to the crisis in Ukraine, nor – more importantly – how they managed the refugee issue, or their largely held assumption as Christian and the source of all civilisation, nor the agricultural regulations ( I am old enough to remember the mountain of butter wasted in the 1980s).   I don’t throw any of these arguments out, they are mostly valid.  Now that Britain is on its own however, it can negotiate its own TTIP agreement, but rather than with a critical and careful evaluation as is the case in the EU, given all the protests, with the renewed neo-liberal elan and anglo-centric power of the Tory Party.


For over three months I was on the roads of England and Wales, precisely those areas that voted largely against the EU for the German independent left of center newspaper taz, die Tageszeitung (see here). What depresses me actually is that the arguments of many who voted for Brexit had actually little in common with all of the above, but much more with the frequently argument put forward to me of  “too many immigrants” and “we need our country back!.”

Oftentimes a mixture of sentimental versions of a long gone imperial Great Britain and an undercurrent of nationalism, that frequently contained a dose of unashamed racism was presented to me..

Yes UKIP supporters argued in deed they desired to internationalise immigration. But when darker pigmented people had arrived in Britain in the 1950s, 60s and 70s from India, Pakistan, West and East Africa and the Caribbean many Brits complained ferociously. They welcomed Europeans gladly, “as people who are more like us”. But when they came they hurried to deny them their humanity likewise.


Many of the younger Brits voted for Remain. Hence it were especially the older ones fed and loaded with emotional, nationalist and populist propaganda from yesteryear, often against any real logic, such as in Wales, an impoverished region, that has been one of the largest beneficiaries of EU funding, who carry the responsibility of Brexit. Simple solutions for complex issues.


If you believe that this was a victory for left and justified critique of the EU, you are well advised to be more careful before you pass judgement. This was the glorious victory run of a raw, never critically examined, and once again forthcoming nationalism, which explicitly understands John Bull and Britannia to be atop the rest of the world.


Here in Great Britain, one looks rarely critically into ones own past. They celebrate the end of slavery, but refuse to take responsibility for the hundreds of years the practice went on to enrich the nation, and they likewise deny the truth, that it were slaves themselves who sabotaged the institution of slavery, before parliament abolished it, as the losses became too costly.  So now a sovereign Great Britain, can once again engage in pretentious and loud politics, but just like English football hooligans in France, it is more noise than content. The up until this day largely spread feudal estate owners, the monarchy are all in a better place once again. And cheap items produced with no or little labour rights can once again flood the market. Maybe there will soon be even a labour factory  under the personal supervision of the crown producing cheap royal souvenirs somewhere in Bangladesh.


Everything is like before the end of the colonial era. The servants of this vision are, as was the case historically, the ordinary people, who allow themselves to be exploited, the descendants pf those who in large numbers were sent into often senseless battles under the banner of manipulated patriotism, and the descendants of those workers slaving themselves  in industrial scale mills in the Manchester region, or in coal mines,  about whom Marx  once so eloquently wrote, or of those who being hungry and poor, were sent to Australia, after stealing a loaf of bread, or worse were hung on Tyburn. It’s all for the Queen and her country. And the country made a public spectacle of it, with alcohol and laughter and made sure the poor individuals, not the ruling elite and the inequality of the country  were to blame. Now it is the EU and its European immigrants!

Brexit Kommentar: Das Volk an den Galgen!

Persönlich bin ich ziemlich niedergeschlagen vom Ergebnis des Referndums. Es waren nicht die positiven Gründe gegen die EU mit “Business as Usual”, beispielsweise Griechenland oder die Art und Weise wie die EU auf die Ukraine reagierte, oder noch wichtiger, wie sie mit der Flüchtlingskrise umgeht, oder gar ihr weit verbreitetes Selbstverständnis als christlich und “Quelle der Zivilisation”, oder die Landwirtschaftsregelungen, ich bin Alt genug für Erinnerungen an den Butterberg. Keins dieser Argumente verwerfe ich. Alleine kann jetyt Großbritannien seinen eigenen TTIP mit den USA schließen, unter den Tories mit neoliberaler anglozentrischer Wucht, statt unter der EU mit kritischen und vorsichtigen Stimmen.


Ich war über etwa drei Monate für die deutsche taz, die Tageszeitung auf den Straßen in hauptsächlich England und Wales, genau jenen Orten  die gegen die EU stimmten. Was mich niederschlägt, ist, daß die Argumentation vieler die Brexit wählten, meines Erachtens nichts mit all dem zu tun hat, sondern dem mir immer wieder breit geschlagenen Argument, “too many immigrants” und “we need our country back!.”


Oft mischten sich darunter sentimentale Visionen eines imperialen Großbritanniens, und ein unterschwelliger Nationalismus, oft durchaus mit Rassismus verbunden.


Da argumentierten Ukiper sie wollten Einwanderung internationaliseren. Doch als es dunkelhäutige Menschen aus Inden, Pakistan, Westaftika und den Karibikstaaten waren, da beschwerten sich die Briten der 60ger und 70ger Jahre. Man freute sich auf Europäer, “die mehr wie wir sind”. Doch als sie kamen, wurde ihnen ihre Menschlichkeit wieder entzogen. Viele der jungen Briten wählten für den Verbleib. Es sind also die Älteren mit emotional national populistischen Ideen von Yesteryear, entgegen jeglicher Logig, wie beispielsweise in Wales, eines der am meisten EU subventionierten Orte Europas,  die Brexit zu verbuchen haben. Einfache Lösungen gegen komplexe Argumente.


Wer glaubt, daß dies ein Sieg für die linke Kritik der EU ist, sollte vorsichtig sein. Es war der glohreiche Siegeszug eines rohen, nie kritisch betrachteten und wieder zum Vorschein gekommener Nationalismus, der Briten oben und den Rest der Welt darunter sieht.

 Man schaut hier selten kritisch in die Vergangenheit, feiert das Ende der Sklaverei, aber schaut sich nie genau den Bezug zur Sklaverei selber an, und die Tatsache, dass Sklaven selber die Institution sabotierten, bevor das Parlament dies abschaffte (auf Grund der Verluste). Nun kann also ein souvereignes unabhäniges Großbritannien wieder großprotzig Politik machen. So wie englischen Fußballfans in Frankreich, ist es mehr Geschrei als Inhalt. Die bis heute weit ausgebreiteten feudalen Landeigentuemer, die Monarchie, sind also wieder besser plaziert, und billig ohne Arbeitsrechte hergestellte Gegenstände können wieder importiert werden. Ja vielleicht werden sie sogar unter Schirmherrschaft der Krone hergestellt, irgendwo in einer Billigfabrik in Bangladesch.

Alles genau wie vor dem Ende der kolonialen Zeit. Und das Laufvolk dieser Vision ist wie in der Geschichte das sich ausbeuten lassende untertänige Volk, die Nachfahren jener, die oft in großen Mengen mit manipulierten Patrotismus in sinnlose Schlachten geschickt wurden, über welche Marx in den Textilfabrikhallen  Manchesters schrieb,   oder die in Australien oder gar am Galgen Tyburn landeten, weil sie aus Hunger ein Brotlaib gestohlen hatten. Alles für’s Land und die Königin!

Quite the country’s Christian tradition, Dave!

When the prime minister of Great Britain states,what religion the country has, you must wonder.  We heard such definitions before from his predecessor and yet he went to a war that reaped long-lasting injustice and chaos.

When Cameron now states that Britain was Christian from the beginning, you must wonder when one starts counting ?  Celts and early Romans were certainly not Christian.

It makes one remember the intensity with which some early colonialists imagined themselves as new keepers of Jerusalem, and talking of which those who sent in part brutal knights for similar causes hundred of years earlier. Or perhaps those who called for the Jews of York to be killed? They surely were all Christian? Or the wars fought and people killed, tormented and tortured during in the struggles of which Christian faith was in deed the correct one? The king and nation serving faith or the Rome serving faith? Once they assured themselves to have the correct version they went to force it upon the parts of the world they occupied and exploited. Stealing with one arm and preaching with the other. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and the gracious King or Queen, long live he or she! Or the token Christianity that thrived on holding the poor of this country in deep misery for centuries?

Secondly him advising to talk about refugees is a bit of shoe polish on a partially rotten shoe. He is not the one who has a proud record on welcoming refugees when compared with all other European neighbouring countries, and then there is his governments appalling record on Calais, his inability and unwillingness to trash the right wing press and parties into the bin of bigots.

In deed, if this was a Christian country, what would Jesus do? And then there is his record on how he treats the poor and sick, his lack of sufficient policy to guard the environment and his selectivity into which causes he steers his lot to save. One wished Britain was a Christian country actually, the kind of deep philosophical, humble way of submitting oneself to do only good, help the poor, sick and needy and share the riches of society for the betterment of all. Token Christianity for the sake of cheap nation building is the tool of politicians who use religion to better their own ends. It has been abused to justify anything from slavery to war to hang people at the gallows of Tyburn and elsewhere. I don’t think the current prime minister fails that tradition.

Perhaps Mr Cameron would care to invite some Syrian refugees, some disabled and poor, some London homeless and impoverished students to his table this Christmas, and perhaps he could make permanent assurances to them and take the lead on what being Christian ought to mean?

Eine Frage des nationalen Gedenkens und Vergessens. A question of national memorization and forgetting

Potentieller Ort des Shoa Memorials neben der Tate. |Potential location of the shoa memorial next to Tate Britain.
Potentieller Ort des Shoa Memorials neben der Tate. |Potential location of the shoa memorial next to Tate Britain.

GERMAN: In London wird eine nationale ‪#‎Holocaust‬ Gedenkstätte gebaut. Man will dabei nicht sparsam mit den Fehlern des eigenen Landes sein. Doch manche wundern sich über das Vergessen einer Geschichte die viel mehr mit Entscheidungen London zu tun haben!
ENGLISH:  In London a holocaust memorial is to be set up. Britain warrants not to be economical with the truth and British mistakes. But some observers note that another history whose decisions were actually made from within London has not yet got appropriate remembrance.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION (ALL RIGHTS RESERVED) (slightly altered with original quotes)

This text in a slightly shorter version was first published in German in the Juedische Allgemeine 14th April 2015:

Two months ago the British government announced, that it would make available the equivalent of around 67 million Euros for the construction of a national Holocaust memorial in London. Consultations concerning this proposal which brought together experts and survivors had gone on in the previous year. Amongst others they felt that too many different organizations had sought to obtain funding for holocaust related memorialisation. With the planned national memorial site the research and the remembrance are to be better managed and administered.

The new memorial site will be fitted with an integral educational centre using the latest technology. As a first and pressing step, survivor testimonies of the still living witnesses are to be recorded for posterity.

Despite the liberation of the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen through the British Army and the Allied victory 70 years ago, Great Britain’s image at the memorial site is not to be shown triumphantly, argues the Jewish historian David Ceserani, who was also privy of the consultation.
Ceserani said in particluar:

It would be essential to show how Britain was involved in the fate of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s and 1940s and that in doing so it would also be absolutely necessary to confront the negative elements of the story.

In the historical preamble, the report mentions the appeasement of Nazi Germany, the grudging response to the refugee crisis, domestic anti-Semitism and fascism,  internment, the closing of the Jewish national home to Jewish fugitives from Europe, and the patchy response to information about the mass murder of Jews during the war. The report in absolutely clear that the learning centre, which will be organically connected to the memorial, will present an honest appraisal of Britain’s relationship to the fate of the Jews and that it will not be ‘triumphalist’. Equally, the educational programme that will be developed over time will encourage young people to dwell on the ambiguities of the British response to Jewish suffering. It will not be a ‘whitewash’.”

Kurt Marx (c) Daniel Zylbersztajn

A group of aged holocaust survivors at the holocaust survivor centre Shalvata, the only such institution in the UK, welcomed the announcement to build a national Holocaust memorial site. Kurt Marx (89), who grew up in Cologne, and had fled with the Kindertransport to England, argues it should be a place that remembers and shows what evil humans are capable of performing. “In the beginning many thought Hitler was only a madman and he would not stay for long. But what he did, in spite of the fact that Germany understood itself as a civil society, “says Marx.
Marx is grateful to Britain for his rescue. But he remembers, that many Britons made no difference between him a German Jew and Nazis at the beginning,. Even today this would continue. At Shalvata he is not allowed to speak German, as it might upset some other attendees.

Belgian-born Sarah Espinoza, who escaped the Nazis just before the outbreak of war “on the last boat across the Channel to England”, as she says, reports shockingly how she spotted a sign during a recent visit to Belgium which read : “No Dogs and No Jews!” This is evidence that rampant anti-Semitism continues, she argues. “If you do not drum it into the heads of people, the Shoah will be forgotten and one day history may repeat itself,” fears the 90-year-old.

Chaim Olmert, Shoaueberlebender | Shoa survivor Chaim Olmert (c) Daniel Zylbersztajn
Chaim Olmert, Shoaueberlebender | Shoa survivor Chaim Olmert (c) Daniel Zylbersztajn

Chaim Olmert (87), survivor of numerous labour and concentration camps, demands, that the new centre will depict the Holocaust in all its complexity. He states how his wife’s family had been arrested by the British during their attempt to escape to Palestine and sent to prison in Mauritius instead. He adds, “It is important that the Holocaust is not thrown together with other genocides in the same pot, because it was a unique chapter in human history,” admonishes Olmert.

Where exactly the memorial will be located is as yet not entirely clear. Currently there are three possible locations however: Near Tower Bridge, next to the Tate Britain Gallery and in front of the Imperial War Museum. The suggested sites follow other findings from the commission concerning the holocaust memorial site, for many survivors were unhappy with the current London Holocaust monument erected in Hyde Park in 1983. They believe it to be too small and rather distanced from the centre of town.
But another group would rather welcome a memorial in Hyde Park. The former history teacher Oku Ekpenyon (69), she received an MBE for her initiative on African and Black history, has been campaigning for the erection of a monument in Hyde Park to commemorates the victims of the slave trade since 2002. In fact 2008 Ekpenyon received assurances from the London Mayor Boris Johnson hereto, but the project has been stalled ever since due of a lack of funds.

Model of the slavery memorial that was planned for Hyde Park | Modellbüste  des Sklavenhandeldenkmals
Model of the slavery memorial that was planned for Hyde Park | Modellbüste des Sklavenhandeldenkmals

Now that the government has announced,  it intends to finance a Holocaust memorial, Ekpenyon wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, asking for government help: “The government claims it wishes to remember the human suffering of the Jews during the the Holocaust. With a fraction of the sum intended for the Holocaust Memorial, you can ensure that there is also a site that reflects on the time of slavery and the price African people paid for the development of this nation. ”

Star Wars actor Hugh Quarshie, one of the patrons of the slavery memorial campaign, argued:

“I think there should be a Memorial in every major capital city, just as there are tombs to The Unknown Soldier.  It is not simply appropriate and important but essential because it would signify universal recognition that the attempted extermination of one group of human beings by another group of human beings is not just wrong but an absolute evil.  We talk about The Holocaust because it it is still within living memory, was strategically planned, systematically executed and perpetrated by a nation claiming to be at the highest rank of civilisation, and extensively documented, recorded and even filmed. The word Holocaust is not to be used lightly; there are gradations ranging from mass murder to ‘ethnic cleansing’, to genocide.  But it is my hope that such memorials would also testify to the atrocities of earlier holocausts not so extensively documented, but no less extensive in their scale or their atrocity: the near extermination of the indigenous people of South America by the Conquistadores, recorded by Bartolomeo de las Casas in his anguished Account of the Destruction of The Indies; and of course the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  We can only estimate how many millions died during the crossings or were brutalised and worked to death after arrival. This was brutality on an industrial scale, carried out by nations claiming to be among the most sophisticated on earth; but there have been no apologies made or reparations paid.  And it is precisely because there are no living witnesses that we need memorials to these horrors.”

Freddie Knoller (Foto HMT, mit Erlaubnis)
Freddie Knoller (Foto HMT, mit Erlaubnis)

The 93-year-old Auschwitz survivor Freddy Knoller, born in Vienna, understands this. His greatest fear, he says, is oblivion and indifference – especially when the survivors will no longer be there. He sees the planned Holocaust Memorial as an important  reminder to democracy, because something like the Holocaust could only rise out of dictatorship. Freddy Knoller’s lead for the memorial is however far more humane, “Let us love one another, not murder,” the old man begs, who has been himself, he claims, a life long optimist. “I never gave up!”

Nachbarn reden nur für Geld | Neighbours only talk for money. The shocking news from Lambeth Slavery House!

Mein Bericht in der Taz nach einen Besuch der des Sozialmietwohnungskomplex in Brixton, wo drei Frauen die 30 Jahre in Sklaverei lebten am Donnerstag befreit wurden.!128072/

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My shocking  report for  Taz Die Tagezeitung, Germany, after a visit to the Lambeth Slave House in Peckford Place, Brxton.   Use googletranslate to get a translation in your language. Link:.!128072/

“I call for a new code of morals, ethics  and community relations in neighbourhoods, councils, schools and media in Britain!


Related:  The Possibilities and Impossibilities of being a Neighbour (Open Democracy):  How relations between Jewish and Catholic neighbours  in Poland during and after the war years in the last century, have a bearing on relations between neighbours in contemporary London.

“Zu viele Mohren” | “Too many moors” Black History Walks in London


Meinem Bericht über die Black History Walks in London ist wie er in der Sonntaz steht nicht viel beizutragen.!123686/  

Interessant war jedoch ein sofortiger Angriff dieser Initiative eines deutschen Beobachters, der dieser Geschichtserweiterung nicht wohl gesinnt war.  Es sei politisch korrekter Rassismus.  Dabei fehlt gerade die schwarze Geschichte an vielen Stellen in London, nicht zu Letzt auch in den englischen Schulbüchern.  Hier redet man lieber darüber, dass Großbritannien einer der ersten Länder war, die den Sklavenhandel abgeschafft hat.     Experten sagen aber, dass dies nicht so gewesen wäre, hätten nicht Sklaven selber immer wieder gegen die Sklaverei rebelliert.

Einige zusätzlichen Fotos füge ich hier meinem Blog bei.  Viel Spass beim lesen.  Die Adresse zur Buchung steht im Bericht.



This article highlights London’s African and African-Caribbean History throuh a guided Black History Walk I attended.  You can use googletranslate to get a relatively good translation of the article which gives an interesting extension of what you may know about London.  The point is that this history is still missing on most ordinary city walks, or the British conscience of itself.  Black history in the mind of Brits consists of having abolished slavery, being the good man, rather than a driving factor in discrimination, subjugaton, exploitation, theft and murder on grounds of the priviledge of the European background and lighter skin complexion.

Read here:!123686/

Bonnie Greer and Julia Pascal discuss Slavery and Shoa

Date of production: 16 November 1999

Produced and presented by: Daniel Zylbersztajn


IN: Recently British Jewish

Out: For Deutsche Welle I am Daniel Zylbersztajn from London



Recently British Jewish Playwriter Julia Pascal and Black American Playwriter Bonnie Greer united their creative powers in a unique event at the British Library in London, which was to try to combine the work of the two writers in one event.

More significantly, in order to bring together, Jews and Blacks and their histories of collective sufferings, led by the voices of women. This was going to be a day that had the issues of trauma, loss and survival and how to enact these histories on stage, at its heart.

But not only was this a performing event, but it opened up to a critical debate, following presentations of Greer’s and Pascal’s works, a debate in which holocaust survivors, who were amongst the invited guests, actively participated and thus allowed for invaluable first hand commentary.

The two writers had worked previously together, Bonnie Greer has been acting for Julia Pascal and is now associate writer of the Pascal Theatre Company.

The event opened with extracts from various plays by Julia Pascal. Julia Pascal has gained international credibility as a second generation British Jew. Her plays include Theresa, The Dead Woman on Holiday, and Dybuk, all of whom deal with

holocaust survivor stories in one form or another. This year she released a new book entitled Holocaust Triology.

Here is one of the extracts taken from Julia Pascal’s play Dybuk:

[extract from dybuk]


After a break Bonnie Greer, continued the event with readings from her works, – which included extracts from her first novel Hanging by her Teeth, and passages from a series of forthcoming short stories of hers. These stories deal with conflicting identities of African American women at locations outside the United States. The following extracts were read from the story called “A Frivolous Girl”, which features the confrontation of a young African American teenager with her first visit to Africa:

[extract from a very frivolous girl]

The presentations of the two play writers, were followed by an open discussion, which centred on the question of the possibility of picturing the black experience along side the Jewish and vice versa.


This is Eugenie (say u-gine) Dodd a child survivor, who was inspiration to a forthcoming play called Dora:

“I think the experience is very different! There is the Jewish Experience and there is the black experience and I am not sure that they are exactly the same because there is a very, very different cultural background to them. And maybe you generalise it too much. You could say both of them are experiences of displaced people. But there is much more to it than that.”


Boonie Greer responded to Eugenie Dodd, referring to her father who served in the then still segregated US Army:

“I do have to go back to my dad. If my dad could make a link in himself. I mean he was a guy who saw lynching, forced to see lynching – forced to see a lynching, when he was six year old -the clan made them all watch this man lynch. And he was in the segregated army in the United States. If he could feel that this related to him on some level, and when he went to that concentration camp, that’s what he reported to us. Of course the particularities are absolutely different.”

[Dodd] “But then you see there is also the visual aspect of it. You are black, I might be Jewish! When in the Dybuk there is this aspect of: Do I disclose that I am Jewish, Do I say so, am I embarrassed about being Jewish? You can’t do that! That’s choice!”


This was Eugenie Dodd answering Bonnie Greer’s reflection. Julia Pascal challenged the point about Jewish invisibility, remembering experiences whilst playing in France:

“Personally I know. In France I was taken to be an Arab. So I had quite a lot of race hatred. That’s the nearest I can get! That was my personal journey into that. And the fact that Bonnie was in it: we are the same generation, and lived through certain things. That for me was my way to do that.”


So are the Jewish and the Black experiences the same? If Julia Pascal can feel racism for being mistaken to be an Arab in some racist corners of France, is it possible for a black person to understand the Jewish experience. Bonnie Greer again:

You have to hear me say to you that I can empathise. You see that’s the first thing that I am saying., and the rest of it is detail! You know what I mean? We have to work it out some kind of way. And I am not a spokes-person for anybody. All oppressed people have a commonality with that experience. The details and particulars are everybody’s details and particulars. I don’t deny that at all. But I am saying that there are things that I understand. And the things that I understand are the things that we should meet on, we should talk about, we should built on! And I understand everything because everything has happened to black people, so I understand it all! Except the thing is, what you chose and how you function. It is how we can start to work to build the things that we need to build! There is memory with a big M and there is memory with a little M. And I have on my wall pictures all the way back to my great great great great grand mother, little photos. One of them was a slave! And always through our family they talked about this experience. The waiting at the night for the door, the lynchings, the living in quarters where you weren’t fed, going out to work without any kind of recompense, the total fear that people lived into and people still live in many parts of the South, even as I speak. That memory, which happens to do with oppression, an art or creative person can use that, to pit into a particular mode. The rest of it, of course you check with the experts, with people who actually lived through it, with people who’ve gone through the particular thing that you’re writing on. But that general memory is something you can pull back from your own experience. And anyone who comes from an experience, an in fact anyone who doesn’t come from an experience of being particularly oppressed, if you work it through creatively, you can find a general moment that you can then use. So I feel that I was able to create that. Because I had from my own history those same experiences in general, not in particular but in general!


Bonnie Greer. Having established that there was a similarity in the perception of the experiences, what is the whole purpose of these representations? A member of the audience opened up the debate:

“ I am coming from a slightly different perspective. I was interested in what you were saying about memories. The minute you were talking about memory and relating memories and sharing memories is making it impossible for the denial of those memories. And that’s what I find key in what you’re all saying is how do we prevent that denial. I work with children who have been abused. And there is so much about denial that that actually happens. So much about denying themselves that it actually happened to them. There comes a point when they can talk about it, which may not be for many years and what we have to do is to equip ourselves against that denial. That is what removes stereotyping, that is what fights prejudices, that’s the way to tackle. “


In this light the point about traumatic collective experiences, their memory and the prevention of their denial become very acutely relevant. Bonnie Greer put it like that:

“We can remember and we can make words. So as long as we keep making language, and with our bodies and with our minds and with our voices, we can at least pass on the legacy of not denying! It’s true for black people. It’s what black people try to get, all of us in the Diaspora, the African Diaspora, really try to get the rest of the world to see, is not denying, not deny what happened. And you are doing this as well, Jewish people: We must stop denying, and there is so much denial going on. That’s the key.”


In her concluding words Julia Pascal added a contemporary example of such denial. Referring to the holocaust revisionist David Irving, who has been in various trials for holocaust denial, including countries such as Australia, Germany and recently Great Britain, she stated:

“Yeah, I just bring it back to the David Irving case. The whole thesis of that denial is to deny that Hitler knew what was going on, and that is why today is important and why we are connected, cause it’s the same story – from them – and that’s why it is terribly important why we go on making the work. What else can we do? We the next generation, who didn’t know it directly, but it’s so close to us, it’s our duty to tell those stories in any way we can!”

produced for DW in 1999 – full transcript follows – all rights reserved!

The implications for these words are grand. Not only for the Jewish and African Diasporas. Denial of the existence of suffering equally applies to millions and millions of forgotten souls wherever we live or you may listen, who bear evidence to the worst in human nature. All to quote Bonnie Greer, are different in particular but the human traumas and nightmares, are equal in general.

For Deutsche Welle, I am Daniel Zylbersztajn from London.

© 2000 DeutscheWelle