20th Century

York and the Holocaust

A memorial plaque to the 1190 massacre was unveiled in 1978. (Imagine York)

The idea that York holds a significant place in the history of anti-Semitism is a relatively recent one. The link between the suffering of Jews in the twentieth century and that of Jews in the twelfth century was not immediately forged by historians or journalists. During the Second World War, as news of the Holocaust slowly seeped out of Europe, the scale of the atrocities was little understood and went relatively unreported in the mainstream media.

However, York was a prominent position from which to respond to the news of Nazi anti-Semitism and Jewish massacres, not through any link with the events of 1190 but through its position as an archbishopric. On Saturday 19th December 1942 the York Evening Press printed a piece written by Dr. Cyril Garbett, Archbishop of York, in which one of the earliest war-time reactions to the Holocaust can be found. He calls the massacre of Jews in Poland “the greatest crime in history...the murder of a nation and the deliberate extermination of the Jews”.

This reference to the Holocaust is remarkable, not just because it is an almost immediate response to news of the atrocities but also because of the scarcity of reports covering the Holocaust. To a modern reader, aware of the extent of the genocide, the war-time silence on the issue is surprising. However, the full extent of the Holocaust was not understood until after the war as concentrations camps were discovered and the horrific accounts of the survivors published and circulated.

During the war there was also an unwillingness to remember the more troubling and uncomfortable elements of British history. For example, a guide to Clifford’s Tower published in 1943 fails to mention the Jewish victims of the 1190 massacre, an omission that is very difficult for a twenty first century audience to understand. The Anglo-Jewish poet Jon Silkin wrote this poem in 1961 illustrating the wilful ignorance of York’s Anti-Semitic past:

Absence of Jews

Through hatred, or indifference,

A gap they slip through, a conscience

That corrodes more deeply since it is

Forgotten – that deadens York.  

The people of York did make a positive contribution to aid the suffering of Europe’s minority population. The York Refugee Committee was formed in November 1938. It worked as part of a nationwide network of volunteers which offered financial support to and found homes for Jews and political refugees trying to escape the terror of occupied Europe. The Committee was very successful and by the May of 1939 there were 118 refugees, many of them Jews, living in York.  

The recent rediscovery of the Committee’s minute book in York’s City Archives has shed new light on how the city reacted to the Holocaust and the persecution of minorities during the Second World War. The minute book shows not only who was settled in York but the provisions that were made for them and the generosity of York’s citizens. The Committee established two employment bureaus, found space for child refugees in local schools and created sports and social clubs. Their efforts allowed Jews and other refugees to escape the terror of Nazi Europe and begin new lives in York. Many of those who were settled in York during the war chose to stay after 1945, a lasting testament to the success of the Committee.

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