Tickets for Kishwar Desai’s MMP lecture on the Partition of India are still ‘on sale’ (don’t worry: they’re free – you can book here) on the LSE website. Following the attention given to this turbulent event in the press, on TV and film this year, it will be fascinating to hear how the newly opened Partition Museum in Amritsar, India, has fared – and how the subject is being treated in the Indian and Pakistani media.
Lady Kishwar Desai – the chair of the Arts And Cultural Heritage Trust, which has set up the world’s first Partition Museum at Town Hall, Amritsar, Punjab – will be giving the MMP annual lecture at the LSE on Wednesday 22 November, on the subject of ‘Partition, 70 years on: what have we learnt from the division of India?’
On the Partition Museum’s website, Santosh Bali, one of the people whose oral history is available to listen to, comments that the present generation doesn’t know how the independent states of India and Pakistan came into being or ‘how we got this freedom’. Now in her 80s, she clearly feels that it’s a good thing that these stories are finally coming to public attention, even though the memory of those times still brings tears to her eyes. And Santosh, by her own admission, got off relatively lightly from the whole experience – her family only lost, in her words, all their belongings.
But it’s a funny thing, this kind of switch between ignorance and knowledge. If the younger generation in India and Pakistan knows little about the birth pangs of their countries, it is partly because the older generation held back from telling them. There is nothing in this that is particular to the Indian/Pakistani story. Holocaust survivors often went decades before talking of their experience, just as people who had fought in either of the World Wars of the last century found it impossible to talk about their experiences before their final years. It’s a phenomenon well known to psychologists (often called the 50-year rule) and brilliantly evoked in Richard Flanagan’s 2013 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North:
Immediately after the war it was quickly like the war had never been, only occasionally rising up like a bad bump in the mattress in the middle of the night and bringing him to an unpleasant consciousness. [. . . ] Sometimes, it was hard to believe he had ever really been to war at all.
There came good years, grandchildren, then the slow decline, and the war came to him more and more and the other ninety years of his life slowly dissolved. In the end he thought and spoke of little else – because, he came to think, little else had ever happened.
If the limited knowledge a younger generation has of the previous generation is in part down to the lack of curiosity of one generation and the reticence of the other, there is another kind of ignorance (in the original sense of ‘lack of knowledge’) in terms of the stories and records that find their way into the public domain. A generation grew up in post-war Germany in largely blissful ignorance of its country’s role in the Second World War because there was no mention of it in the books they studied at school, and their parents and older relatives didn’t talk about it. Likewise, generations of young Japanese students grew up in a country where the 1941–45 conflict was a conspicuous blank in all schoolbooks. Who’s at fault for their ignorance?
Thanks to the TV programmes, films and features there have been this year in the press and wider media, the events of Partition are now part of the public domain in the UK in a way that they arguably were not before. My first awareness of Partition, though, was reading Freedom at Midnight (by Larry Collins and Dominique Pierre) in my 20s, a book that mapped the trauma of the period while allowing a (relatively) young British man to retain his faith in the Brits as the good guys. I don’t think I could hold on to that faith now, when so many other historical records provide a picture of the British imperial ‘adventure’ that is the polar opposite of the one I imbibed at school. I feel embarrassed about my ‘ignorance’ now, just as the young generation of the 1960s and 70s in Germany felt embarrassed, and then angry, about their ‘ignorance’ of their country’s past. But I’m not sure I blame myself for my ignorance, and I find it useful to remember that now when I am tempted to criticise others for their ‘ignorant’ views.
Knowledge is a burdensome thing but it is surely better than ignorance, and it can only be a good thing that the Partition Museum is shining its light on a period in the history of the Indian sub-continent that has for too long been shrouded in darkness. How important, too, if the 50-year rule mentioned above is true, for organisations such as the Partition Museum (and, in this country, the British Library and the Wiener Library, among others) to be gathering the oral testimony of a generation before it disappears.
Why not come along to the LSE on Wednesday 22 November and hear Lady Kishwar Desai reflect on the challenges of setting up this institution to collective remembering and on the differences it has made to the people involved, in one way or another, in the project?
Tickets for Kishwar Desai’s lecture, Partition, 70 years on: what have we learnt from the division of India?, are currently on sale. LSE students and staff are able to collect one ticket per person from the SU shop, located at Lincoln Chambers, 2–4 Portsmouth Street. Members of the public can ‘purchase’ tickets online via the event page on LSE’s website.
With wonderful timing, the Wiener Library opened its new exhibition, ‘A Bitter Road’, on the reception of Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s, on Thursday 27 October, the day that the Calais ‘Jungle’ was dismantled and its residents dispersed. The coincidence didn’t escape the speakers at the exhibition’s launch, two of whom drew comparisons between the numbers of Jewish refugees taken in by the British government in the war years and the numbers of refugees who have been granted asylum since the Syrian conflict began. As Dan Stone (one of the speakers) said, ‘The number of children admitted through the Kindertransport scheme – although not their parents – was quite large: the same as the number of people in the Jungle.’ (The full transcript of his speech may be read here, on the University of East Anglia’s website.)
Much of the fascination of the exhibition, sub-titled ‘Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s’, lies in the documentary evidence of ordinary people’s reactions to the experience of emigration and arrival in a new country. Booklets of advice on how to avoid drawing attention to yourself (‘Refrain from speaking German in the streets … the Englishman greatly dislikes ostentation’) make interesting reading, and raise the question of what those booklets would advise now; the complicated process of vetting and vouching for the refugees reveals a national paranoia that feels very contemporary. The suspicion Jewish refugees came under – being predominantly from Germany and therefore seen as potential enemy agents infiltrating Britain – inevitably brings to mind the suspicion currently directed at Syrian refugees and the fear that a refugee may be a terrorist in disguise.
The bureaucratic formality of the reception process, which from this distance looks more obstructive than well-intentioned, contrasts with the more personal correspondence and diary entries presented elsewhere in the exhibition, one of which, written by Ruth Ucko, the first diary entry she wrote in English, announces her impending wedding as an emergence from a period of turmoil. A further section of the exhibition examines the media’s response to the refugee crisis, jumbling together headlines from the 30s/40s with today’s headlines in a way that shows how little has changed over the last 70 years.
A diary entry from Ruth Ucko, her first written in English.
At Thursday’s launch, Ben Barkow, director of the Wiener Library, introduced the three speakers, two of whom – Rabbi Harry Jacobi and Lord Alf Dubs – arrived in this country as refugees, from Holland in 1940 and from Czechoslovakia in 1938 respectively. Rabbi Jacobi spoke movingly about the circumstances of his escape on the last evening before the Dutch surrender to the Germans, a 14-year-old boy in a boat under fire from German bombers. He paid tribute to the woman who saved him, Gertuide Wijsmuller-Meijer, in a similar way to Alf Dubs’s recognition of the intervention of Sir Nicholas Winton (one of whose letters is part of the exhibition). Alf Dubs – the author of the Dubs’ Amendment, whereby unaccompanied refugees are to be offered safe refuge in this country – drew parallels with the current refugee crisis (the jury is still out, he claimed, on how his Amendment was being implemented), parallels that are a firm part of the exhibition, too, and on which Dan Stone, professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London, focused in his talk:
Of the world’s 65 million refugees, some 10,000 tenaciously made their way to Calais, where they were stopped from proceeding to the UK and where, until a few days ago, they set up camp in the Jungle, a place which should never have been allowed to exist in one of the richest corners of the world (I’m talking of Europe as a whole, not Pas-de-Calais). Ten thousand is a six-hundred and fiftieth of 65 million, or 0.015%. These are not people who lack initiative or talent; they have determinedly made their way across dangerous terrain and ugly encounters with people smugglers and border guards in order to fulfil their dream of entering Britain. This country, with its ‘proud tradition of helping the oppressed’, has denied them entry and, with the exception of a few hundred children hurriedly allowed in as the French were sending in the bulldozers, refused even to allow children with relatives in the UK and, under Lord Dubs’s amendment, unaccompanied children, to enter, leaving them exposed to the dangers of the camp. Words such as ‘cynical’ come to mind.*
The exhibition is open until 17 February 2017. If you find yourself with half an hour to spare in the Russell Square area, I urge you to visit it. In fact, go and visit it anyway!
‘A Bitter Road: Britain and the Refugee Crisis of the 1930s and 1940s’ is open to the public between 10am and 5pm, Monday and Friday (10am–7.30pm on Tuesday), at the Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust & Genocide, 29 Russell Square, London, W WC1B 5DP. It runs until 17 February 2017.
*For more of Dan Stone’s speech, visit the University of East Anglia’s website.