Category Archives: Holocaust

Football and anti-Semitism

The debate about the use of the word ‘Yid’ in football is all over the papers at the moment, including, with breathtaking insensitivity, this front page. I’m not easily offended, but found this headline is horrendous.

The topic of Jews and English football is the subject of an exhibition, Four Four Jew, opening next month at the Jewish Museum London. I interviewed the curator and we touched on the controversy around the ‘Y word’ , as she phrased it. She said that while the exhibition would look at the use of ‘Yid’ it ‘wouldn’t come down on either side of the argument’.

Ultimately, whether you are comfortable calling somebody a ‘Yid’, either in support or in hate, is a personal decision. I made up my mind where I stand a long time ago and here is an updated version of an article I wrote on the subject in Time Out a few years ago.


I’d been calling Spurs ‘the Yids’ for a couple of years before my dad told me it was racist. ‘Don’t you know it’s anti-Semitic?’ he said. I didn’t, nor had I worked it out from one of my favourite Chelsea chants: ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo/He stands at the back of the Shelf/He goes to the bar/To buy a lager/And only buys one for himself’. Racial stereotypes were clearly not one of my strong points as a 13-year-old.

I’d like to say that I immediately stopped using the word, but I didn’t. Chelsea fans – like those at Arsenal and West Ham – had been calling Tottenham ‘Yids’ for decades. Given that Spurs devotees called themselves the ‘Yid army’ I didn’t see how it caused any harm. I didn’t consider it racist or anti-Semitic, just a near-the-knuckle nickname for a rival football club.

I’ve stopped now. The eureka moment for me came when I was at a game in the mid-90s. Chelsea fan David Baddiel, who is Jewish, was spotted by the crowd after half-time as he returned to his seat with a cup of tea, and several hundred people began chanting ‘Yiddo, Yiddo’ at him, in what I imagine they considered to be an affectionate manner. Baddiel smiled it off – but the penny dropped that this was straightforward racist abuse. Baddiel later wrote:  ‘I told myself that it didn’t matter, that for most of these fans, “Yiddo” simply meant a Tottenham player or fan and that the negativity was about that and not about race.’ However, when Chelsea fans aimed the chant at non-Tottenham Israeli players, Baddiel ‘realised “Yiddo” may mean Tottenham fan but it also means Jew.’ He has since become an outspoken opponent of the use of the word by all supporters, earning him much scorn from Spurs fans. 

It used to be worse. In the 1980s hissing to imitate the release of gas was said to be commonplace, but I have never heard this – or chants about Auschwitz, bar from two drunks on The Shed in a League Cup tie in 1990 –  in more than 25 years of attending Chelsea-Spurs fixtures home and away. By the early 1990s, many fans had realised that was a step too far. I’m sure it still occurs but, in my experience, it’s pretty rare. Although by all accounts, West Ham are still at it. 

The canard that hissing is regularly heard at Chelsea games is often used by Spurs fans, as they attempt to defend their own use of ‘Yid’ but Jeremy Vine, a former Times journalist and another Jewish Chelsea fan, agrees it doesn’t happen often. ‘I’m sure I would notice hissing as it would most likely come from the Matthew Harding Stand, where I sit.’ Vine stopped attending games in the 1980s due to racism and says: ‘Without doubt some of those who chant “Yid” are anti-Semites at heart… but I don’t believe all are.’ The problem is that ‘personal jibes are part of the language of the terraces. Anything goes. And so the boundaries of decency and offensiveness become blurred.’

What muddies the water further is that since the 1970s, Spurs fans have reclaimed what was originally coined as a term of abuse (nobody knows why, Tottenham being no more ‘Jewish’ than Arsenal or Chelsea). Former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates, always torn between defending Chelsea supporters while confronting their excesses, argued that, ‘It is hard to criticise Chelsea fans for calling Tottenham supporters something that they call themselves.’ Chelsea have since rejected this line and now take a zero tolerance approach. It’s worked, to some extent. My old favourite, ‘He’s only a poor little Yiddo’ is rarely heard at Stamford Bridge these days. Spurs still get plenty of abuse, but – within the ground, certainly – the tone of it is much changed. 

A few years ago, Spurs conducted a ‘full consultation exercise’ over the use of ‘Yid Army’ because of fears it led to ‘casual anti-Semitism’, but this was criticised by many of their own supporters who felt the chant united Jewish and non-Jewish Tottenham fans. ‘If you are Tottenham, you are a Yid,’ is the line many take. That is what annoyed them so much about the recent FA instruction that all uses of Yid must cease, an argument that David Cameron has now blundered into. Many argue there’s a distinction between chanting ‘Yiddo’ and singing about concentration camps, which is broadly true – unless you’re racist. I’d even go so far to contend that Spurs have won the argument – they’ve reclaimed a term of abuse. But when it leads to casually racist headlines like that published above – and let’s remember that most Jewish people who see that headline will not support Tottenham –  one wonders quite where this will end.

It is, as Joanne Rosenthal, the Jewish Museum curator, told me ‘very complicated. Even if it appears black and white the two poles are very strongly opposed. Fan culture has this nastier side and we can’t ignore it. It’s now become part of Tottenham’s heritage. It’s difficult to tell people what they can or can’t do.’

Perhaps not, and I’m a huge fan of tribalism at football, but sometimes everybody just needs to grow up and move on. Maybe that Metro headline, as trivial and offensive as it is, will give people pause for thought.


Nazi Olympics at the Wiener Library

This article first appeared in a recent issue of Time Out London.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics are often presented as a disaster for Nazism thanks to Jesse Owens, who won four golds and shattered Hitler’s fantasies about Aryan superiority. But the truth is a little more complex. Germany actually won the games: they had the most medals and also won more golds, more silvers and more bronzes than anybody else. They were praised for the way the tournament was held, there were no boycotts, innovations like the Olympic village and the torch relay were adopted by the Olympic organisation and the event even turned a profit. So was it really an unqualified sporting, diplomatic, economic and propaganda success for Hitler?

Toby Simpson is curator of The Nazi Games: Politics, The Media And The Body, an exhibition at the Wiener Library, London’s Holocaust library (the oldest in the world). He says, ‘The games were actually received very positively and Hitler’s standing improved as a result. On the whole it was positive for the Nazis and they were pleased with the results.’

This was much as Hitler had hoped when the Nazis inherited the games in 1933. ‘The German organisers were worried he would scrap the games because he wasn’t internationalist in the slightest,’ says Simpson. ‘But he realised that this was a huge propaganda opportunity and began putting pressure on the organisers to shape the games around Nazi interests.’

The results are displayed in a small, compelling exhibition. There are dramatic stills by Leni Riefenstahl, who also filmed the monumental Olympia using new techniques such as slow-motion and tracking shots. Much of the imagery presented the German team as perfect Aryan specimens, evoking Spartan concepts of athleticism, while a neo-Roman bombast was visible in everything from the architecture to the opening ceremony. Hitler wanted to exclude Jews from the team, but under pressure allowed one, Helene Mayer, to take part. ‘Mayer won gold in fencing for Germany in 1928,’ says Simpson. ‘Under Hitler, she had to go to the US to continue her career, but came back to Berlin to compete in the German team.’ A photograph shows Mayer on the podium giving a Nazi salute. All successful athletes were presented with an oak sapling – until 2007, one won by Harold Whitlock, a long-distance walker, grew in the grounds of a school in Hendon.

US team – including Owens with their oak saplings

Mayer’s presence was a sop to a small but persistent anti-Nazi campaign. ‘This was the first Olympics with a boycott movement,’ says Simpson. ‘America was criticised for participating because it was believed they could influence the International Olympics Committee to withdraw the games from Berlin.’

The exhibition features an American pamphlet called Preserve the Olympic Ideal, which made the case against American participation. There’s also an extraordinary camouflaged pamphlet produced by resistance movements in Germany. It looks like an Olympic souvenir but ‘inside talks about soldiers bleeding to death on the fields of Spain. Germany was not yet involved in the Spanish Civil War, but this was being distributed to inform people about what was going on.’

The exhibition has a range of bona fide souvenirs produced to cash in on the games, often incorporating Nazi imagery, and there’s also material produced by travel agents like Thomas Cook, hoping to persuade reluctant tourists to make the journey. ‘Ticket sales were slow at first,’ says Simpson. ‘The Nazis had come to power on a wave of mass unemployment and people worried the country was unstable. Companies offered huge reductions in an unprecedented advertising campaign.’


The public had fewer concerns politically. ‘The Nuremberg Laws had turned Jews into second-class citizens, but public consciousness was slow to catch up with reality,’ says Simpson. During the games, the Nazis removed anti-Semitic signs in a ‘conscious attempt to cover up the truth.’ At the same time they put 800 Sinti and Roma into camps. The Wiener Library has a game on permanent display in which stereotypically Jewish-looking characters are chased around a board – it was made in 1936. ‘Even as the Olympics were taking place, this game was being produced and people were being put in concentration camps because of their race,’ says Simpson.



The exhibition ends on a positive note. ‘We highlight the story of Dr Guttman, a German-Jewish refugee who came to Britain in 1939 and set up a spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville hospital for veterans. There he introduced a sporting contest that eventually became the Paralympics.’ Some of Guttman’s documents are on display, including call-up papers from the First World War. ‘He volunteered in 1914 to serve in a medical capacity. Like many Jewish Germans he was incredibly patriotic but still exiled.’ It was an exile from which the Olympic movement would eventually profit.

The Nazi Games: Politics, The Media And The Body at the Wiener Library until October 3. Free. 

How a shoe can teach the Holocaust

It starts with a shoe. An old shoe, scuffed, brown and small. It’s old and battered, and has been carefully re-stitched at the back where the seam has come apart. A classroom of Year Nine schoolchildren are asked what they can tell from the shoe just by looking at it. They agree it once belonged to a boy and that it’s been repaired a few times – perhaps by a family too poor to buy a replacement – but at some point was lost or thrown away.

Then the teacher tells them where the shoe was found, in Poland, outside a village called Oswiecim, and that it probably belonged to a boy from Hungary, who would have arrived there on a train with his parents nearly 60 years ago. After getting off the train, he would have been told to remove his shoes while he went to take a shower from which he would never re-emerge. Oswiecim is the place that we now call Auschwitz.

The Holocaust is a daunting topic for schools. Pupils can be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the genocide, and troubled by the complex emotions it can raise. For their part, teachers can struggle to define the Holocaust correctly, or explain why it happened and what made it so uniquely horrific.

Which is where the shoe comes in. ‘There are lots of issues when teaching emotional subjects like the Holocaust,’ says Paul Salmons, who created the Holocaust Education Development Programme (HEDP), a course prepared by the Institute of Education to help secondary school teachers. ’It has the potential to raise profound questions and move children very emotionally. This course tries to balance an emotional engagement with a cognitive reflective approach.’

The story of the shoe, explains Salmons, ‘isn’t just intended to get an emotional reaction, it is to raise questions in response to the children’s emotional encounter.’ So after the children are told about the shoe, they are encouraged to ask questions. What happened to the boy’s parents? Why did they allow him to die? Why was he killed at all? From here, a discussion about the Holocaust and its repercussions can begin, with teachers using material taken from the HEDP website. It is a fascinating and intuitive way to introduce the subject, immediately bringing something huge and monstrous down to a level that a child can comprehend.

The course was developed in response to research conducted by the IOE in 2006. This showed that while the Holocaust was widely taught in schools – it has been on the National Curriculum since 1991 – there were many areas where knowledge was lacking. The research also revealed that 77.5 per cent of teachers wanted professional guidance, finding it difficult to convey the enormity of the genocide without inundating children with brutal images.

‘It is important children learn about the Holocaust because of its significance in world history, but it’s equally important not to traumatise them,’ says Salmons. ‘We have a history of human atrocity that’s also a history of forgetting and until the Second World War, nobody tried to analyse man’s capacity for self-annihilation. So we see the Holocaust as pivotal in understanding certain things about human nature and important for children’s social and political education and historical literacy.’

The Jewish Museum

This is done without using images of heaped corpses or film of mass executions. On the first day of the course at London’s Jewish Museum, tutor Kay Andrew tells the 15 teachers that this is ‘not about threatening or graphic images. Traumatic images can be seen as leading material.’

Peter Sullivan, a history teacher at Forest Gate Community School in East London, concurs. ‘These images can actually lead to arguments about holocaust denial – kids will say that they were staged or are of prisoners-of-war who died of natural causes – so we try to use more specific material to avoid pointless arguments.’

Is Holocaust denial really a problem in secondary schools? ‘You do get some of the Muslim kids, not so much in denial, but arguing that they deserved it because of the way they treated Palestinians. A percentage cannot differentiate between Jewish and Israeli and don’t have the life experience to put it into the proper context. It’s not just the Muslim kids, just up the road is Barking and Dagenham where the BNP are active, and when Nick Griffin says “I can’t deny the holocaust because it is illegal to do so” you know exactly what he’s saying. We have to combat that.’

Salmons says ‘The issue is more Holocaust diminishing or trivialisation,’ he says. ‘The way it can be used to suit different agendas or to promote a cause.’ He cites the example of the invasion of Iraq, when ‘there was a tendency to equate Saddam Hussein with Hitler in a fairly unreflective way perhaps designed to mobilise people behind a policy, which should have been argued on the merits of whether it was right or not, not by appropriating something powerful from the past. If young people are aware of what really happened, then they are better equipped to make that judgment for themselves.’

Leon Greenman

The course puts the Holocaust into context. On the first of two days, Andrews covers a number of different topics that have little to do with genocide itself. Teachers look at the diversity of pre-war Jewish life to ensure teachers don’t present the 6 million as a faceless monolith, and are asked to consider different forms of resistance and resilience to escape notions of the Jews as passive victims. The story of Leon Greenman, a British-born Jewish man who lived in Holland and whose family was killed in Auschwitz, runs throughout the course. ‘Leon was taking about his experiences from the very beginning,’ says Andrews. ‘We have archive of him talking to the BBC in 1945. He remained active in anti-fascist politics and received an OBE from the Queen, so you can explore the influence of the Holocaust through the life of this one man.’

The course does not neglect the other Nazi crimes, including the persecution of Jehovah Witnesses, Communists, homosexuals, the disabled and the Roma. Salmons explains, ‘We take an academic definition of what the Holocaust was – that it was the genocide of European Jewry by the Nazis and their collaborators – but you have to look at other victims. They are part of the broader context and a lot of these crimes overlapped, but if you lump them together and call them the ‘Holocaust’ it ceases to have much meaning, because the differences are as important as the similarities. With the genocide of the Roma-Sinti, there is a parallel to the Holocaust but one that has its own name – the Porajmos – and it needs to be studied with its own significance.’

The course is part-funded by the Pears Foundation, a philanthropic venture who have recently invested £1.5 million in the UK’s first Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck and donated funds to London’s Wiener Library, the world’s oldest Holocaust library.

Improved understanding of the Holocaust in schools could help combat increasing anti-Semitism, but Salmons says it isn’t as simple as that. ‘We don’t cover contemporary anti-Semitism, but do try to understand the historical and ideological anti-Semitism of the leading Nazis. But we also explore how you didn’t have to be anti-Semitic to be complicit in genocide, you just had to benefit from it. Many Germans bought the goods of Jewish neighbours in auction, which means they give tacit approval. We hope that young people aren’t racist, but they can still be unwittingly complicit in all sorts of injustices without having any personal or ideological prejudices.’