Holocaust Memorial Day January 27th

Today is also the Roman Festival of Castor and Pollux. (more on that on the 15th July at the other festival of the Dioscuri.

photo of The Kindertransport statue, Liverpool Street Station, London 2006 by Frank Meisler and Arie Oviada.
The Kindertransport statue, Liverpool Street Station, London 2006 by Frank Meisler and Arie Oviada photo by K Flude

The statue commemorates the arrival of Jewish children by train (1938/9) in the Kindertransport, sent by parents desperate to save their children from fascist genocide in Germany and Austria. The children were unaccompanied and, in the statue, stand proud as they arrive in a strange country. The children have tags on their clothes, and the train track represents both the trains to the death camps and the train to safety. For more photos and information: talkingbeautifulstuff.com

Montaillou by Emmanual Le Roy Ladurie

On the subject of prejudice, genocide and abuse of power, I was reminded of one of the formative reads of my life. I met the great Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie at dinner at my father-in-law’s house in the 1980s. I was awestruck because Montaillou was one of the early histories ‘from below’, where the focus was not on kings, queens nor of the flux of states and empires, but on the lives (and deaths) of ordinary people. Something that has continued as a focus of my historical interest.

Nor, before Ladurie, had I imagined that medieval lives could be so minutely brought to life. The book was a sensation, selling over a quarter of a million copies. Professor Ladurie became a media star, and, it remains one of the great historical reads. (Of course, the book and the historiography now attracts some criticism, but do read it!)

The context of the story is appalling. In 1208, the Pope decided to launch a crusade against heretics in the South of France. The Cathars, as revealed under interrogation by the Cathodic Inquisition, had many unorthodox and heretical ideas, believing in a Good God and an Evil God, and that we are all angels trapped in this terrible world by the Evil God. Women and men were equal and could be reincarnated into each other’s bodies, awaiting the time they became ‘perfect’ and released to their spiritual form for eternity.

The Crusade and Inquisition that followed were savage, with many thousand slaughtered. At the massacre at Béziers, for example, on 22 July 1209, the Catholic forces led by Arnaud-Amaury, a Cistercian abbot and Commander of the army, battered down the doors of St Mary Magdalene to get at the refugees inside. He was asked how the soldiers could separate the Catholics from the Cathars. He replied Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius—”Kill them all, the Lord will recognise His own”. Or so it is said.

All 7,000 men, women and children seeking sanctuary were killed. Thousands more in the town were mutilated, blinded, dragged behind horses, used for target practice and massacred. Arnaud-Amaury wrote to Pope Innocent III

“Today your Holiness, twenty thousand heretics were put to the sword, regardless of rank, age, or sex.”

But, reading Montaillou is a pleasure because it brings those persecuted souls back to life in all their human glory. It is also a reminder that it is by intolerance and ‘othering’ of normal homo sapiens that allows the conditions for evil to flourish. We need to treat all human life as sacred and to bring to bear our human empathy and capacity for mercy. Anything less allows the slaughter of the innocent.

First written in January 2023 and revised Jan 2024