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The University of Southampton
The Parkes Institute

David Cesarani OBE (1956 to 2015)

Published: 2 November 2015

From 1996 to 2004 David Cesarani played a key role in the Parkes Institute, first as Parkes-Wiener Professor in Modern Jewish History (a position in the History Department at the University of Southampton he held in conjunction with being director of the Wiener Library) and then as the Director of the AHCR Parkes Research Centre (2000 to 2004). In both roles David was a dynamic and inspiring figure, helping what became the Parkes Institute to gain its global reputation. The work of the AHRC Parkes Research Centre was wide ranging, covering antiquity through to the twenty first century. David’s own particular contribution to the Centre covered two areas – Holocaust studies, as detailed below, but also the Port Jew project which led to a series of remarkable conferences held first in Southampton and then in Cape Town, enthusiastically supported by the Director of the Kaplan Centre there, Milton Shain. They brought scholars from young postgraduates to established academics from all parts of the world together in stimulating debate. In turn, these conferences were the basis of important publications and the further evolution of this project with our partners in Cape Town and the Jewish studies department in the University of Sydney. Today, David’s legacy lives on with regard to Port Jews in the Parkes Institute’s work on Jewish maritime studies led enthusiastically by its current director, Joachim Schloer. We intend to have a workshop in 2016 revisiting the Port Jew, in memory and recognition of David’s commitment to this exciting field of study.

In relation to Holocaust studies, which is now firmly part of the wide teaching, research and outreach programme of the Parkes Institute, David’s wider contribution was equally important. From the perspective of 2015, the state of public consciousness of and engagement with the Holocaust in Britain is remarkably different from the later 1980s. Today, the Holocaust is part of the National Curriculum, Holocaust Memorial Day is commemorated across the country and there are permanent exhibitions on the subject in both Jewish and non-Jewish museums. This was simply unimaginable less than forty years ago. In explaining this transformation, whilst global and local factors were at play, David Cesarani played the key role in facilitating what appears now as uncontroversial but was far from the case at the time.

David Cesarani did not train as a Holocaust historian – his initial expertise was in the Jewish (and specifically British Jewish) experience. His work on British Zionism inevitably drew him into the politics of Palestine and Jewish immigration during the Nazi era, but his interest in the Holocaust was to come later.

The debate on British war crimes legislation was the first major point of entry which went alongside his critique of Jim Allen’s polemical and ignorant play on Hungarian Jewry during the Nazi era – Perdition. Both erupted in the later 1980s and David played the role he was to master thereafter – bringing scholarly knowledge and deep research into controversial debates that were in the public and political realm. Without his skills and intelligence, the level of debate would have been of a basic level, exposing as these two controversies did deep seated ignorance and prejudice.

Thereafter, the climate changed and David played a key role in the Imperial War Museum’s permanent Holocaust exhibition which opened in 2000. Up to that point, the Holocaust had hardly featured in this museum which represents in many ways the way the nation views itself. That such an extensive extension was added without any public concern reflects not only a greater sensitivity to the Holocaust in British society and culture, but also David’s talents as the exhibition’s leading historian, always demanding rigour and avoiding simplistic approaches. Likewise, David was central in the creation of Holocaust Memorial Day from 2001, an annual event that is an accepted part of the calendar locally and nationally. By then, he had already emerged as a leading Holocaust scholar, a reputation that has grown and grown until his untimely death. It will be reflected in a huge monograph on the subject due to be published early in 2006 by Macmillan.

It is no surprise that he was also a major figure in the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission (2014 onwards) which has pledged £50 million of public funds to develop Holocaust education and commemoration in Britain.

As someone working alongside David in this field, if in a less overtly public capacity, I can attest to the unpleasant arguments in the 1980s/early 1990s that we faced to get recognition of the Holocaust, arguing against the grain of why it was relevant for Britain to engage with the subject. I was one of the first to teach a special subject on the Holocaust and for those of us so doing, there was unease about the academic worth of such teaching from others. Today, universities do not seem to be able to get enough of the topic. David, I should add, taught it with his usual energy and engaged a new generation of scholars through his charisma. On hearing the news of his tragically early death, several of his old students from Southampton days have contacted me to say how much they were inspired by David and encouraged to take their work further. Once taught by David, they never forgot his lectures, seminars and supervisions whether at undergraduate, MA or doctoral level.

It could and perhaps should be argued that we need now to have more debate and discussion about the form of Holocaust education and memorialisation that is taking place: it is not per se a good thing in itself, or certainly not if done thoughtlessly. But that we are in this privileged position of being able to be more selective and critical is only possible because of those who fought hard to place it in British consciousness. And outside the survivor community, no one did so more effectively and maturely than David Cesarani.

David and myself came to the Holocaust indirectly but found it became a large part of our work as historians with a commitment to a wider world. It was a privilege to have David not only as a friend for over thirty years but also for a long period as a colleague. Working together first through partnership between the Wiener Library and the University of Southampton’s Parkes Institute, and then with David as the first director of the AHRC Parkes Centre, a series of conferences and workshops helped put Britain on the Holocaust studies map, as did the formation of Holocaust Studies, first edited by Jo Reilly and still published in conjunction with the Parkes Institute. It was a journal in which David played a key role in setting up.

In terms of his academic work, I will close with the work that David started with and which will also be reflected in another posthumous work – a study of Benjamin Disraeli – that of British Jewish studies. David was part of a dynamic and critical new generation of scholars of this subject who emerged in the 1980s. Although still a little unfashionable within the wider world of both Jewish studies and British studies, David created the space for the study of British Jewry to grow, prosper and become a professional area of study, albeit one in which many of its practitioners have a wider commitment with regard to its relevance to our multicultural world and the challenges and opportunities it offers.

Life around David was never dull. He could argue passionately for a case one week and equally against it the next. Each was equally convincing. But rather than contrary, his approach was almost Talmudic, forcing us all to test our ideas and to avoid sloppy or lazy thinking. He will be deeply missed.


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