The World Faiths Advisory Group exists to promote understanding and co-operation among faith groups on campus, by
- exploring spirituality in a multi-faith context
- welcoming students and staff of all faiths
- working towards equal opportunities in relation to all faith groups
This lecture is part of WFAG's programme of encouraging people of different faiths associated with the university to meet, mix and get to know each other better. Stephen Foster (Co-ordinating Chaplain) tells us that WFAG recently organized a "speed dating" event in this very room, involving representatives of several faith societies on campus (he apologises for using that term, but he can't think of a better one right now - and at least we all know what he means by that).
The title of today's lecture is "Forgive? Forget? Why I still teach the Holocaust". The speaker is Aubrey Newman, Emeritus Professor of History and Past Director of the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester.
Prof. Newman speaks in the Octagon from 1300, following a light lunch, in front of an audience two dozen strong, with Bahá'í, Buddhist, Sikh and several denominations of Christian representation.
Prof. Newman asks us to consider his talk as an Apologia pro vita mea: a defence of one's life. Technically speaking, he is still an academic historian of the 18th century. Even at this late stage, he ponders whether he has taken the right path or should return to a biography of George III that has languished, two-thirds finished, in a drawer for many a year.
He was first invited to teach a special course on the Holocaust at the University of Leicester in the early 1980s. He muses that we'd be hard pressed to find someone who has spent so long teaching a subject which he abhors.
Two quotations feature prominently in the presentation:
"Those who do not know history's mistakes are bound to repeat them." (George Santayana, 1863-1952)
"You are not obligated to finish the work, neither are you free to give it up." (Rabbi Hillel, c.110 BCE - 10 CE)
Turning to the title of his talk, he asks: can he forgive? No. Can he forget? Definitely not.
The refusal to forgive does not denote any kind of vindictiveness on the part of the speaker. Prof. Newman doesn't accept the notion of vicarious forgiveness, any more than he accepts the notion of vicarious sin. As we are responsible for our own behaviour, so the only people who can forgive are those against whom the act has been perpetrated. Therefore the only people with the right to forgive the Holocaust are the victims themselves - and forgiveness cannot be obtained from the dead.
And as far as forgetting goes, it appears that much of Europe has forgotten the lessons of the Holocaust, if the rise of far right extremism is anything to go by.
During the Q&A I ask Prof. Newman a question. In his answer he refers to the Jewish community in Scotland with what sounds like first hand knowledge. After the meeting is over, I push him a little on this and he tells me that his family went up to Glasgow to escape the Blitz (arriving just in time to experience Glasgow's own), that he was educated at Queen's Park School and took his first degree at the University of Glasgow.