For the full video interview, please click here.
For the French version, please click here.
Hello, Mr. Goldman! Could you introduce yourself in a few words and tell us a little bit about the tragedy that has affected your family?
I was born here (Brussels) in 1947. So, I was born after all this. I don’tknow of the whole story we are going to talk about except what I have beentold. But I lived it quite intensely through complicated family situations. Ihave to go back a generation. My parents are Polish Jews, born to families thathave been there forever. They come from two cities, both about 50-80 km fromWarsaw. At that time, there were about 3 million Jews in Poland. Between thetwo wars, the Jews faced two types of difficulties. Firstly, socio-economicmisery because the country was going through a crisis. We are after the crisisof ’29, in a country that is not very prosperous. And then there’s a traditionof anti-Semitism that becomes really unbearable with the rise of Polishnationalism which organizes boycotts: “Don’t buy from the Jews.” Asthe situation is difficult, they send children abroad. My parents, who don’tknow each other yet, come to Belgium as economic migrants, but also to fleeanti-Semitism. Then comes the war. You know about Nazism and its racial laws,that Jews are persecuted in Germany. In the spring of 1942, the so-called FinalSolution came into effect. There is one too many people on earth; we must notonly discriminate against them, beat them, imprison them, but we mustexterminate them.
A decree of the occupier orders all Jews to show up and introduce themselves to the Dossins barracks in Mechelen to go to Germany in a labour camp, although they are not really told why. What is important is that it only concerns foreign Jews at the time, so the occupier is going to get some kind of ambiguous collaboration with the Belgian Jews by telling them “you risk nothing at all, but you must help us”. As in the Netherlands and France, national Jewish associations were set up. The arrest of my father arrived rather late, I do not know the details, he will be deported in February ’44. As for my mother, she was deported in January ’44, almost at the end of the war. When in 1942 the decision to deport foreign Jews was taken, she immediately contracted a white marriage to become Belgian. This is a procedure that many migrants used to have security of residence. Once she became Belgian, she joined the Resistance, and it was not until October 1943 that the deportation was to include Belgian Jews as well. She then went underground and was arrested by denunciation four months later. They both ended up in the Auschwitz camp where the train from Mechelen arrived. My father will be deported with his wife and the youngest of his three children and they arrive at the so-called ramp in Birkenau, the terminus station. There, people are sorted as they arrive; those who can still work as slaves enter the camp, and those who are considered useless immediately go to the gas chamber.
That’s what happened with my father’s wife and their youngest child. The other two children were in hiding with Belgian families during this time. When my mother returned to the camp, she was a little woman, she was not even 1.5m tall, but she was vigorous. I learned a few years before her death that she had arrived pregnant at the Auschwitz camp, that she had given birth there, and with friends who worked in the infirmary they euthanized this little girl who was in full health to prevent her from being subjected to the medical experiments of Dr. Mengele, a war criminal. My father was later transferred to the Dachau camp. In a way it was fortunate because it was a pure labour camp, without gas chambers. He was liberated by the Americans, while my mother stayed all the way to the Auschwitz camp and a few days before the Soviet troops arrived began what was called the death marches. At that time there were about 100,000 people left in the Auschwitz camp and the Nazis took them with them in their retreat. It was in January in the middle of winter, it was freezing and this caravan of poor people came up to Germany. It took several months for them to run into French or American people who repatriated them. My parents met after the war. I was fortunate to have an extraordinarily alive mother, for whom life went on as did the fight against fascism. She pushed me to get involved in life and made me, I hope, a balanced and rather optimistic man.
Perhaps a brief word about who Henri Goldman is today, about your work and your commitments?
This context has always made me a politically and socially committed person. Because of this family history, the hard core of my commitment revolves around the rejection of racism. More than that, there is also the recognition of cultural diversity. I am very happy to live in Brussels, which is a city where even today the majority of people are either foreigners or of foreign origin. It is an extraordinary richness not to have a culture of reference. And it is no coincidence that out of the 695 local councils that we have elected, there is not a single one from the far right. This is unique in the European landscape. When you look at what is happening in Flanders, France, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Italy and Spain, you see the emergence of mass parties everywhere. I think it’s thanks to the “cosmopolitan” identity of Brussels that we don’t have that. It shows that more cultural diversity leads to more democracy and openness.
Besides that, I have a degree in architecture, but I’ve done six jobs in my life, around music, journalism, writing, page layout… (Mr. Goldman is currently editor-in-chief of the magazine “Politique”.)
This Monday, 27 January, we commemorated the victims of the Holocaust with this year’s focus on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp. Who do you think is responsible for what happened to the Jewish people? Is it solely the fault of the Nazi regime or is there a more collective responsibility?
There is a collective responsibility that is historical, and then there are much more specific political responsibilities. Jews are the only non-Christian minority that has existed for a long-time all-over Europe, from Portugal to Russia, from England to Bulgaria. And it is on the Jews that the need to express a difference has focused. For a long time, Jews were locked into a very specific economic function. If Jews became usurers, it was because they were not allowed to own land at a time when society was living off the land. By forbidding them to own land, they were forced to have small commercial functions. And then when a bourgeoisie developed in Western Europe, they were pushed eastward. They lived through pogroms, professional prohibitions, numerus clausus at the university when they have started to be able to study, etc. Structurally in European society there is a need for a permanent scapegoat, and at a time when we have no Arabs, no blacks yet, it falls on the Jews. Now there are much more conjunctural events that have plunged Europe into war. The advent of Nazism is not unique, we see the arrival of autocratic nationalist regimes in many places. The question of why genocide took such a prominent place in this war is something very difficult to explain and understand. It doesn’t make sense. It makes sense for a criminal authoritarian regime to turn an entire population into slaves, but it does not make sense to decide to liquidate them industrially. Other countries have experienced genocides, such as the Armenian genocide or the Tutsi genocide, which are the two other major genocides that have been recorded. It was done in a planned manner, but not in an industrial manner, as was the case with the Jews. That’s what’s quite unique. How can a people that is considered at the time to be one of the most civilized…like the people of Goethe, Schiller, Karl Marx, Freud, Einstein, etc…. How can a people that is one of the most evolved in Europe at a certain point forget its culture to make this? It is not the least civilized people who are capable of the most barbaric crimes.
This year many leaders from the Muslim community participated in the Auschwitz commemorations. Do you think that dialogue between different groups can be a remedy against radical ideologies?
Muslims have been widely accused of being the vectors of a new anti-Semitism. It is important to show that this is not true and that they empathize with the suffering of the Jews. There are also fine initiatives in the other direction, such as the iftars and exhibitions organised by the Jewish Museum in Brussels, which are an extraordinary moment of sharing. There are fruitful elements. It is important to note that Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are developing at the same time, and we must combat them together.
Today we can see that hate speech is on the rise in European societies. Why do you think there is so much hate in today’s society?
We’re coming out of a period called the glorious thirty years (1945-1975). An exceptional period for Europe… even if it coincides with the golden age of colonialism. It is a period of growth, there is no unemployment, wages are rising steadily, public services are improving, pensions are also improving, the pie of the economy is growing so much that everyone, both bosses and workers, is earning more. And then all this will stop from the ’75’s onwards. For ten more years, we will pretend that everything is going well, that the situation will improve, and then we realise that it is no longer the case. Unemployment increases again, the social balance of power deteriorates and little by little people say “I am not sure that my children will live better than me. What can be done? To whom?” And then the old nationalism resurfaces and says it’s other people’s fault. We have to take care of our poor but we can’t do it because all the poor people in the world are coming to invade us. Nationalism rises and revolves around refusing the other, the foreigner. The prosperity of capitalist societies is at a standstill. We realize that it no longer works, that we are no longer able to ensure a regular increase in the middle classes. There are new middle classes emerging in China or India, but the middle classes in Europe have collapsed. And on this basis, a discourse of exclusion has developed. The liberal economy no longer works and the left has not managed to impose another form of solidarity, so the extreme right is taking advantage of it. It is based on this old xenophobic background that exists in all societies where there is a very powerful national history.
Polarisation of society is very common today in our western societies, including in the countries of the European Union, and in the United States, which are said to be great democracies. In your opinion, is this a sign that democracy is in danger?
What we call polarization is an effect of the breakdown of solidarity. In order for it to take hold, you have to designate an otherness, and it always falls on populations of foreign origin, or in the United States on minorities. To say that black Americans or Hispanics are of foreign origin, yes, a very long time ago. But then all Americans are of foreign origin! It’s all just a construct. In Europe this discourse has taken on new proportions with the new waves of migration.
Unfortunately we are still witnessing persecution in 2020. All over the world people are worried about their ethnic, cultural, political, sexual and other backgrounds… Having made this diagnosis, what are the solutions envisaged? What is missing to ensure the respect of fundamental human rights? Are we condemned to see history repeat itself?
I think we are relatively doomed to give up the idea that history is linear and that it will always move towards more progress. This is what we have been discovering for the past few years, and the ecological crisis is not helping. The spiral of consumption and waste will make the Earth unviable. Human societies are going through a difficult time. If populists are getting stronger everywhere, it’s because a scapegoat has been appointed. They say “eigen volk eerst”, “our people first” and the others they could die. Éric Zemmour, who was asked in a French TV programme “what do you feel when young people die in the Mediterranean”, has just said “I don’t care at all, they took their risk. I’d rather they die than my own children”. We are at that point when we don’t really see how we’re going to get out of it anymore. On the other hand, there is a lot of hope coming from the youth movements, the whole mobilization for the climate for example. It’s a step forward… I think we need a profound cultural change to consider first of all that intangible goods, tenderness, love… are more valuable than material things. That said, we need at least enough food, clothing and shelter. I don’t rely so much on the political world to initiate change, but more on the associative world. How do you convince dominant, powerful people to give up their privileges? It’s difficult to convince them. In general, people who have privileges don’t abandon them of their own free will. It is often necessary for less privileged people to snatch them away. That’s how the whole history of human emancipation works. If certain African peoples had not fought for their independence, they would not have had it. If women had not fought for more equality, and it’s not over, nothing would have changed, it would still be men who would decide everything. And if the workers hadn’t fought for social rights, it wouldn’t have been the capitalists who would have given them like that. We have to accept that society is an space of conflicts, that there are social, economic and cultural struggles. The dominated groups must take their destiny into their own hands. They must obviously do so in a way that does not lead to a reversal of domination. The history of human emancipation is not linear. There have been times when we moved forward and times when we moved backward.
What place do you give to intercultural dialogue in the resolution of the problems we discussed?
For me, the very existence of a multicultural city prevents a nationalist conception of things and forces one to be a little less self-centered. I have to be able to understand that this is important for a person who has another origin. That doesn’t mean that they should remain locked in what they have received. But that this is their starting point and that if I want to make this person my equal, I must accept that this person’s cultural baggage is as valuable as mine. The society I really dream of is a society where no one has to choose between being faithful to one’s own baggage and making society all together.
Speaking of dream society. We were commemorating Martin Luther King’s Day on 20 January, what are your wishes, your dreams perhaps more precisely, for future generations?
We have an incredible wealth that it is up to us to bring to life. It will evolve over time. No one knows for how long we will remain Turkish, Moroccan or Jewish. After how many generations it disappears or not. Then we get married to each other too, things happen. It is by remaining open that we can assume our destiny as the most cosmopolitan city in Europe according to all the statistics, and that we can be a small island of resistance to the rise of identity nationalism. This is what I can perhaps hope for the future.