Holocaust Memorial Day


Tuesday, 26 January, 2021

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) 2021 is Be the light in the darkness.

It encourages everyone to reflect on the depths humanity can sink to, but also the ways individuals and communities resisted that darkness to ‘be the light’ before, during and after genocide.

For more information, please visit the HMD website (link to third party website, opens in new window).

On our doorstep
From the Bourne Hall Museum archives...

Persecution On Your Doorstep: The Jews

Epsom, with its famous spa and opportunities for enjoying leisure, was full of rich Londoners with international experience. This made it one of the few communities outside the capital where Jews could participate in local life. Centuries of anti-Semitism, culminating in widespread attacks in the 1260s, has led to the expulsion of all Jews from England, and those returning in the better conditions of the seventeenth century still had no official status in the country. They were banned from owning land, but could hold it on lease: that was how Jacob Gomezserra rented a house by what is now the East Street railway bridge in 1701. When the lease expired in 1723, he came to a court held by the Lord of the Manor, with Blackwell North the landlord of the Spread Eagle as his advisor. This time he was allowed to acquire the land, establishing a precedent that Jews could own English property if they were born in England. At the same time Antonio Lopes Suasso was looking for a country house in Epsom. Since he was born in Holland (he was the third baron of Avernas le Gras, in Belgium) he could not qualify as a native, and by law he could not become naturalised in Britain unless he abjured his religion. Instead, he took out a lease on a farmhouse, and had it converted into the Cedars, one of the most prestigious properties in early 18th century Epsom.

Baron Suasso must have known John Toland, the chronicler of Spa period Epsom. Towards the end of his residence in the town, in 1714, Toland wrote an eloquent appeal against the prejudiced legislation of his time. Toland had lived for many years in Netherlands, a society where toleration of minorities was state policy; he had seen its social and commercial advantages. In England there was a good-humoured acceptance of difference, particularly among the upper classes, but Jewish settlement was still something that was connived at rather than being official. Toland saw that this led Jews to concentrate on playing the money-market, rather than training themselves for the sort of trades which required a secure ownership of landed property. But the right to become a naturalised citizen, without reference to religion, was not gained until 1826.

Persecution On Your Doorstep: The Gypsies

Discriminatory laws against Gypsies followed shortly on their arrival in England. Henry VIII passed an Act of Parliament in 1530 forbidding the Roma to stay in his realm, and this was renewed in 1554. Gypsies who did not flee the country were to lose their property after twenty days, and to be killed twenty days later. Instead of killing people, magistrates in nineteenth century England tried to destroy the Gypsy way of life. Camping by the road was made illegal in 1822; sleeping rough was forbidden in 1824; local authorities were encouraged to evict Gypsies from common land in 1876. In Epsom, the arrival of Gypsies on Derby Day had been regarded with hostility, though there were local people who campaigned in their support, like Thomas Hersey the bicycle dealer of South Street. In 1895 there was a scare that they were bringing infectious disease with them – something unlikely, as Gypsies had not stayed in one place long enough to pick up an infectious disease.

In 1936, an Act of Parliament created the Epsom and Walton Downs Conservators, and gave them authority to run the Downs for the benefit of the public. This was interpreted as permission to ban the Gypsies who had traditionally camped there, but they found an unexpected champion in Lady Sybil Grant. She was the daughter of Lord Rosebery, who continued to live at his country home, the Durdans, in Chalk Lane. Lady Sybil was a tall woman, with flaming red hair and blue eyes, a remarkable personality and considerable talent. She was herself fond of caravanning and also held a hawker’s licence so that she could sell from door to door for charity. She immediately let the Gypsies into a field, called The Sanctuary, in Downs Road. It was near the Downs, and ideal for horses as it was thick with grass. After the race meeting it was possible for a local newspaper to write: ‘There has been practically no disturbance this Derby and the public and Gypsies owe a debt of gratitude to Lady Sybil Grant’.

Persecution On Your Doorstep: The Mentally Ill

By the 1930s, Epsom people were familiar with the mentally ill. Up to ten thousand patients lived outside the town at Horton. They were brought in from central London and housed in the cluster of five hospitals. There was been vehement opposition to the building of these hospitals, spearheaded by Lord Rosebery, who complained about having to meet their patients while out walking, and feared what they might do if they were not kept in confinement. Madness, as far as the doctors of Edwardian London were concerned, could cover many forms of deviant behaviour – disability, idleness, homosexuality, prostitution and crime.

When they came to power, the Nazis concentrated on children born with disabilities, encouraging doctors to administer lethal injections or drug overdoses and tell the parents that their children had died of influenza or another minor illness. Many people (around 17,000 from the deaf community) were sterilised to try and reduce the number of those classed as undesirable. However, soon the Nazis attempted to introduce an adult euthanasia programme, gassing adults with physical or mental disabilities. This scheme developed the techniques and technology using gas at six killing centres and crematoria. It was not difficult for Epsom doctors to find out what was going on in the mental hospitals of Germany. Most of the leading psychiatrists had been forced out of office, several of them fled to London, as Freud did in 1938. A new school of Nazi psychiatry was founded, based on racial theories and explicitly committed to the ‘merciless extinction’ of patients. By contrast, the staff at Long Grove looked after thousands of people with problems, including war-time Polish refugees and Jews from the East End. But until the 1920s, Horton psychiatrists had, just like the Nazis, explained social deviance as a kind of hereditary stain. Their patients were uniformly dressed in drab clothing, put to involuntary labour, denied the opportunity to marry, and generally shunted around like things instead of people. Many of these practices were abolished after the War.

Fascism On Your Doorstep

The British Union of Fascists was part of politics in pre-War Epsom. The movement had headquarters in the High Street, on the other side of the road from the Spread Eagle. The charismatic Sir Oswald Mosley, formerly a Conservative MP and Labour minister, had united fascist splinter groups in 1932. Mosley himself had little to say about Jews, but he wished to lead a movement which would come to power through mass support, and took no steps to control racial propaganda from his followers. In 1946 James Chuter Ede, then the Home Secretary, was able to report to the House of Commons that the Movement had been receiving about £60,000 a year from Mussolini. ‘The British were at heart essentially fair-minded, and were prepared to give opponents a fair hearing’, according to the British Union rally. And the girls of Rosebery School were indeed very polite to Herr Unger, a tall young stormtrooper who came over in 1934 to explain the merits of Nazism. He spoke of Germany’s revival: he also spoke about the menace of Communists, and how he proposed to deal with them. ‘Nazi methods of treating political prisoners seemed to us rather harsh’, wrote Miss Breen of the Upper Fifth.

Public meetings were held at Epsom, and Captain Leonard Mohan was proposed as a parliamentary candidate. He had joined the British Union in the late 30s, after a career first as a Catholic ordinand, then as a journalist: his earlier political career had been as a supporter of Irish independence. Speaking at North Cheam in 1938, Mohan appeared on a platform with a stalwart of the movement, A.K. Chesterton, who spoke of ‘putting Britain first’. A few months later Chesterton resigned. He had had enough of the confusion and deceit which surrounded Mosley’s leadership, and he did not like the ranting style of its newsletter, Action. The propaganda against Jews which filled its pages seemed, like the black shirts and the shouts of ‘Hail Mosley’, to be a pale imitation of the real thing in Germany, except that it lost support for the movement rather than increasing it.

Refugees On Your Doorstep

In November 1938, legislation was passed preventing Jews from taking part in any aspect of German economic life. Jews sought to escape from these nightmare conditions by emigration. The Reich was only too happy to let them go, but other countries were very stringent about admitting immigrants. After the occupation of Austria in 1938 exposed the Jews there to Nazism, voluntary groups in Britain – especially the Quakers – were campaigning for the refugees. Governments delayed, stating that to admit Jews would only encourage the Nazis to step up their persecution: they were also afraid of a public backlash against refugees if too many were allowed in. After Kristallnacht, when it became clear that lives were at risk, the British government conceded that 10,000 children could be admitted on what became known as the Kindertransport. There were tearful partings from parents who had determined that their children, at least, should have a chance. Of those who were left behind, few survived.

Many refugees were able to escape from persecution in Nazi Germany before immigration was made difficult. Hans Lehmann and his wife Ellen came to England in 1933, and in 1940 they acquired a house in Woodcote Road. Lehmann was a chemical scientist, who set up his own successful analytical laboratory business, as well as developing and marketing adhesives for the furniture industry. He was also an elected fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. In 1940 Epsom had no synagogue, but Hugh Warner the vicar of St. Martins stepped in and offered temporary use of the Church House. Through similar acts of inter-faith generosity it was possible to use the Congregational Lecture Hall in Upper High Street, and finally the old Bugby Chapel was sold by the Salem Baptist Church to be fitted up as a synagogue. Lehmann continued as the leader of the local Orthodox community until 1992. After retirement, he concentrated on local history, publishing the major work on the buildings of Epsom Spa.

The Holocaust

During September 1939, SS General Reinhard Heydrich gave orders for large areas of western Poland to be cleared of Jews. They were to be confined to special areas in a few cities, called by the traditional name of ghettos. The two largest were Warsaw and Lodz, and during the first two weeks alone, 40,000 Jews were confined in each of these. They were surrounded by barbed wire, brick walls and armed guards. After this, there was a deliberate policy of death by starvation, so that between July 1941 and June 1942 about 50,000 people had died. The deportation of Polish Jews to death camps began in 1941. Almost everyone was killed, although a few people were kept alive as slave labour. In a single year 600,000 Jews died at Belzec, 250,000 at Sobibor, and 750,000 at Treblinka. At a fifth camp, Maly Trostinets, people sent by train were gassed in the vans that carried them, a few being kept alive to remove the bodies and then shot. In the summer of 1942 the camp at Auschwitz, previously used for holding and killing Poles, was requisitioned for the Jews. Across from the main camp at Birkenau a vast barrack area was set up and four gas chambers were built. During 1942 the trains began to arrive. All old people, children and women with babies were gassed. Able-bodied men and women were kept in the barracks as slave labour; by late 1944 there were some 30,000 people working there. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest single centre of mass murder. Over a million Jews were killed there.

Gypsies were the other population targeted for extermination on racial grounds.  The laws against Jews were a new invention of the 1930s, but anti-Gypsy legislation drew on long-established routines which, in Germany as in England, were used to control migrants and force them into a settled existence, using work camps if necessary. From 1935 onwards Gypsies were defined as an alien race and rounded up into concentration camps. However, Nazi ideals regarding those deemed unfit for society were not limited to racial boundaries. Anyone considered guilty of anti-social behaviour, whether they were homosexuals, the physically or mentally disabled, Jewish sympathisers, political enemies, or religious opponents: all were all potential targets.