Please note that this section is currently under construction, and will be updated regularly with information on the previous lectures in the Holocaust Memorial Lecture series. This will include lecture recordings, transcripts and speaker information. 

2001: Genocide, Religion and Modernity

View the transcript of the lecture here: 2001 Genocide, Religion and Modernity

2003: The Holocaust in Court: History, Memory & the Law

View the transcript of the lecture 2003 The Holocaust in Court History, Memory and the Law.

2004: Genocide and Jewish Survival

View the transcript of the lecture here.

2005: Making a Killing: The Economics of the Holocaust

View the transcript of the lecture 2005 Making a Killing, The Economics of the Holocaust.

2006: Austria and the Holocaust: Coming to Terms with the Past?

2007: How Complicit were the German and Austrian Banks in the Holocaust?

2008: Shattering Nuremberg: The Holocaust and Law’s Response to Atrocity

View the transcript for this lecture 2008 Shattering Nuremberg: The Holocaust and Law.

2009: A German Pogrom: The Kristallnacht in History and Memory

View the transcript for this lecture 2009 A German Pogrom: The Kristallnacht.

2011: How should we write the history of the Holocaust?

View the transcript for this lecture 2011 How should we write the history of the Holocaust.

2016: How modern was the Holocaust?

Watch the full lecture here.

2017: East West Street: A Personal Take on Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity

On Tuesday 24 January, Professor Philippe Sands presented his lecture on the writing of his acclaimed new book - part historical detective story, part family history, part legal thriller. He centres on a remarkable, untold story of individual perseverance, how Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpacht - the lawyers who brought ‘genocide’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ into international law - learned  that the man they were prosecuting at Nuremberg – Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and Governor General of occupied Poland – was responsible for the murder of their own families.

2018: Exodus from Vienna

For the 18th Holocaust Memorial Lecture we were delighted to welcome Emeritus Professor Otto Hutter back to the University for his lecture Exodus from Vienna. Attendees heard about Professor Hutter’s escape from Vienna and the stories of his fellow classmates.

2019: Whose words, whose voices? What thinking about translation can tell us about the Holocaust

On Tuesday 22 January 2019, the University of Glasgow welcomed Professor Peter Davies (Professor of Modern German Studies, The University of Edinburgh) to present the 19th Holocaust Memorial Lecture. This lecture was entitled Whose words, whose voices? What thinking about translation can tell us about the Holocaust.

Almost everything we know about the Holocaust comes to us through translation; the Holocaust, as a multilingual event, is literally unthinkable without translation. For decades, thousands of translators, professional and non-professional, named and anonymous have made testimonies, documents, historical sources and works of art available and understandable in dozens of languages and for audiences across the world. So why is it that we talk so little about translation and translators? And why is it that translators only become visible when something goes wrong, accused of distortion, or worse, betrayal of the authentic voice of a witness?

This lecture set out the extent of our dependence on translation, discussed the ethics of translating, and paid tribute to the work of the translators who have made the Holocaust understandable for us. However it also suggested something perhaps more uncomfortable: that translators do not just transmit pre-existing knowledge about the Holocaust from one language to another, but they help to form that knowledge in the first place, and have had a profound effect on how the Holocaust is understood, interpreted and talked about.


2020: Final Solution. New Answers to Old Questions

For the 20th Holocaust Memorial Lecture we were delighted to welcome Professor Ulrich Herbert to the University of Glasgow to present his lecture entitled 'Final Solution. New answers to old questions'.

Did the National Socialists plan the murder of the Jews early on and then carry it out consistently? Or did the circumstances of the war and the competition for power within the Nazi system lead to a gradual radicalisation?

Over the last 25 years or so, numerous studies have been published that have found new answers to these old questions on a broader basis. On this groundwork, the way to Auschwitz was re-measured in this lecture.

2021: Researching the Nazi Dictatorship through the Lens of Primo Levi’s “Grey Zone"

On Tuesday 26 January 2021, the University of Glasgow welcomed Professor Volker Berghahn (Seth Low Emeritus Professor of History at Columbia University) to deliver a lecture titled “Researching the Nazi Dictatorship through the Lens of Primo Levi’s “Grey Zone”.

You can watch the full lecture here.

For many years now research on the victims and also the perpetrators of the Holocaust has been extensive and has provided valuable insights into the dynamics of this catastrophe. And research like this must go on. This lecture aims to add an under-researched field to this scholarship and academic debate by using as its starting point the notion of the “grey zone”, first mentioned by the Italian chemist and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. He pointed to the awful dilemmas that many in Nazi occupied Europe faced when they were forced to cooperate with the regime in the camps while being vigorously anti-Nazi and trying to undermine the Hitler dictatorship.

Accordingly, this presentation will begin with some recent research on Jewish prisoner-physicians who were forced to assist Nazi doctors in medical experiments, but also adhered to their Hippocratic Oath by helping inmates in camp hospitals to survive. It then extends the analysis to anti-Nazi Germans who did not leave the country after 1933 but protected and hid Jews while continuing in their civilian jobs, thus indirectly cooperating with the Nazi regime. The lecture thus examines the dilemmas of these men and women who, living in a “grey zone”, had to cope with a dictatorship that became increasingly lethal for all forms of dissent.    

Volker Berghahn is the Seth Low Emeritus Professor of History at Columbia University in the City of New York. For many years, he taught at the Universities of East Anglia and Warwick before moving to the United States in 1988 to teach at Brown University and at Columbia from 1998. After publishing a number of books on European-American cultural and business relations, he recently returned to his earlier interests in modern German history. His most recent book relevant to this lecture was published by Princeton University Press in 2019 under the title: Journalists between Hitler and Adenauer. From Inner Emigration to the Moral Reconstruction of West Germany


Lecture Manuscript

Thank you for your invitation to give this year’s 21st Holocaust Memorial Lecture

It is a great honor for me to join a long roster of scholars who gave this lecture in previous years.

This year, of course, the format is very different, but I hope that, thanks to the excellent technical support that I have been given, you can see and – more importantly – hear me clearly, speaking to you, as I am, all the from across the Atlantic.

You have just been told about my career as a historian and the three different academic cultures in which I spent my life teaching and researching.

If I may just add two more sentences to my abbreviated c.v. that you have been given.

After beginning my studies at Goettingen University and the University of North Carolina where I received an M.A., I moved to London for my doctoral dissertation on the development of the anti-Republican right in Weimar Germany during the years before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

After this I developed a second project on the Nazification of the German armed forces before and during the Second World War.

In that latter context I read many accounts on the participation of German soldiers and officers in what has been called the “Holocaust in the villages”,

  1. e., the murder of millions of Jews, first in Poland and after the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 in the Ukraine and the Baltic states by rounding them up, taking them to nearby woods to shoot them and throw them into mass graves.

This was the program of mass murder that the Hitler dictatorship adopted before the deportation of Europe’s Jews and other minorities, such as the Sinti and Roma, to Auschwitz and other death camps began in 1942/43.


Looking back on those years of research and on what I published on this topic, I found it increasingly difficult to work with those heart-rending eye-witness accounts of this “Holocaust in the Villages” and, having moved from Warwick University to Brown University in the United States, decided to shift into the field of European-American cultural and business relations in the postwar period.

But as you may have seen from the titles of my most recent books, I began to return to modern German History around 2010 and after I had been offered access to recently catalogued papers of prominent West German journalists and business people.

However, the lives of these people led me back into the Nazi period and hence confronted me once again with the crimes committed during the Second World War.

In the meantime, research on the Holocaust had continued and many important works had been published on both the lives and fate of the victims as well as on the crimes committed by German perpetrators and their accessories.

Many of my predecessors in this Holocaust Memorial lecture series spoke about these topics, and you will also be familiar with other research, published for example by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

Let me stress clearly at the outset that I feel very strongly that this research on both victims and perpetrators must continue.

I do not wish to challenge its many important findings.

However, I would like to add a dimension to this research that has been opened up more fully only quite recently.

This research takes the writings of the Italian chemist Primo Levi as its starting point who was deported to Auschwitz-Monowitz, the camp just up the road from Auschwitz-Birkenau where the mass murder took place in the gas chambers.

Levi, as some of you will know, wrote about his predicament and his experiences in his 1986 book “The Drowned and the Saved”.

In it he introduced the notion of the “grey zone” in which he had been living during those traumatic years as a Jewish prisoner.

He was of course a determined opponent of the Nazi regime and wanted to see it destroyed as soon as possible.

However, at the same time he was working as a chemist in a factory at Monowitz that the IG Farben chemical trust had built to produce goods essential to the Nazi war effort, in particular synthetic rubber.

The terrible dilemma of living in a “grey zone” that Primo Levi faced has more recently been explored by a younger generation of historians, and Dr. Sari Siegel in particular, when she became interested in Jewish prisoner-physicians in Nazi camps.

They, too, she has argued, moved in a “grey zone” as doctors in the camp hospitals.

While they obviously hated the Nazi regime, they were forced to assist Nazi doctors with their totally unethical experiments  on prisoners, while at the same time trying, under most dangerous circumstances, to adhere to their Hippocratic Oath and covertly to provide medical support to sick inmates or to pregnant women in their wards.

I would like to argue that this new research should be added to the larger effort of past decades to comprehend the Holocaust as presented hitherto from the perspective of Jewish victims as well as perpetrators.

I have therefore encouraged Sari Siegel and others to continue to work with this “grey zone” question, as it also raises fundamental questions of medical ethics that are now being taken up more widely in the training of doctors.

It is no accident that the human experiments on the Africab-American population in the American South have again been critically studied and condemned in recent years.

However, there is a further expansion of the “grey zone” problem that I would like to broach with you in the hope that it will lead to a fruitful discussion following my lecture.

My focus is not on Jewish victims, nor on German perpetrators, but on those Germans who opposed the Nazi dictatorship, but did not join the active resistance.

As a result they, too, found themselves moving in Primo Levi’s “grey zone”.

A  brief preliminary comment on the active resistance.

Here three groups can be identified.


The first one comprised Social Democrat, Communist and trade unionist blue-collar workers who, straight-away in 1933, formed covert cells that went out at night to paint anti-Nazi slogans on factory walls or leave leaflets in public places.

They were often ill-prepared and ill-equipped, and by 1935 most of these men and women had been caught by the Gestapo.

If they were not sent to a concentration camp without trial, they were tried in conventional courts, charged with treason and mostly executed.

The second group that has been extensively researched comprised the conservative and military resistance that initially collaborated with the Nazi regime, but from the late 1930s developed an underground network to assassinate Hitler.

It was quite late in the war, in July 1944, that they finally acted, but failed.

Hitler survived the bomb plot at his Rastenburg headquarters and those involved were caught, tried, and executed.

The third group represents opponents of the regime who were often unorganized individuals of middle-class background.

Many of them at some point also fell into the hands of the Gestapo, often by coincidence.

However, I am concerned with a group of Germans who, instead of actively resisting the regime, lived in Primo Levi’s “grey zone”.

They steadfastly rejected the regime, its aims and propaganda and resisted pressures to join the Nazi party.

And yet they did not leave Germany, but went into what has been called “inner emigration”. 

This meant that they did not give up their civilian jobs and in this way sustained the Nazi regime, while at the same time being known in their family environment as critics who rooted for the Hitler dictatorship’s eventual collapse.

I would like to mention two case studies that illustrate the issues that I am trying to raise.

The first case deals with the predicament of a German journalist, Dr. Paul Sethe, who was the editor-in-chief of a local paper, the Oligser Nachrichten, in the steel-making town of Solingen in the Ruhr industrial region in the early 1930s.

At that time Solingen had become politically sharply polarized between Communists and Nazis, and Sethe found himself in the shrinking middle.

He was seriously worried about what to him was destruction from below of press freedom, guaranteed with other basic civil rights in the Weimar Constitution, by the dogmatism of militant right-wing and left-wing mass movements.

After the Nazi seizure of power in January 1933, with the Communists proscribed and put into concentration camps, the Solingen Nazi Party began to criticize what they called his paper’s “negative attitudes” toward Nazism and put pressure on the editorial positions that he had taken up.

By the summer this criticism had become very blunt.

The local and regional Nazi leadership went to see the publisher of Sethe’s paper and asked him to dismiss his editor-in-chief.

In short, Sethe was in trouble.

His job soon became so intolerable that he gave up and, through colleagues at Frankfurter Zeitung, got a job with a daily that had been a major liberal paper during the Weimar years.

Having written his doctoral dissertation on German and British naval history, Sethe thenceforth reported and edited articles on military affairs.

So, in a sense he collaborated with the Nazi regime.

However, the Frankfurter Zeitung had not been “synchronized” and turned into a Nazi paper.

Goebbels, Hitler’s minister for propaganda, kept the paper on a long leash because it was widely read not only by the intellectual and economic middle classes in Germany, but also by political and business elites in Europe and the United States.

Moreover, the paper was owned by IG Farben, the chemicals trust that gave its editors some protection against the kinds of pressures Sethe had experienced in Solingen.

Goebbels’s toleration lasted until 1943 when the Frankfurter Zeitung was closed down after Hitler and also Himmler’s SS paper, The Black Corps, had decided that the paper’s editorial board as unreliable.

Sethe, though still refusing to join the Nazi Party, was ordered to join the staff of Vὃlkischer Beobachter, the Nazi paper. But he delayed his move by joining a local paper just across the Rhine from Frankfurt in staunchly Catholic Mainz.

By that time he was also in touch with members of the anti-Nazi resistance.

One of them was Rudolph von Scheliha, who, after the invasion of Poland, was in charge of the information department in the German Foreign Office.

An opponent of the regime he was later caught, tried, and executed.

He and Sethe first met during the Polish campaign in 1939 and Scheliha seems to have given him information on the atrocities that the SS and the Wehrmacht had committed in Poland.

At any rate, Sethe returned from his trip to occupied Poland deeply shaken.

Even more revealing is Sethe’s relationship with Fritz Bartsch who had been a colleague at Frankfurter Zeitung, but in 1943 had become the Berlin-based executive director of an illustrated magazine, published in Sweden.

In the spring of 1944, the two men met regularly at a Berlin restaurant for an evening meal.

It was on one of these occasions, shortly after the failed 20th of July 1944 Plot to kill Hitler, that Bartsch told Sethe that this was “a bad day for us, especially for me.”  

The reason was that as late as 14 July 1944 Bartsch had kept up his meetings with Carl Goedeler, one of the leaders of the July Plot.

Since the Gestapo was following Goerdeler’s every step, Bartsch rightly assumed that they had been seen together and that they were now also after him.

To escape, he went on to a frantic journey that took him to Vienna and finally to Munich.

But even mingling with beer-swilling Bavarians in Munich’s Hofbräuhaus, there was no escape.

A Gestapo agent suddenly tapped him on the shoulder, asked him if he was Fritz Bartsch and arrested him.

When Sethe learned about his friend’s arrest, he moved heaven and earth to get his release and contacted Gűnter Lohse in the press department of the German Foreign Office who he knew from his time at Frankfurter Zeitung.

Lohse in turn knew one of the prosecutors at the People’s Court in Berlin where the July plotters were being tried.

This man now agreed to pull Bartsch’s file and mark it with a note saying “To be submitted after the end of the war”.

Consequently, Bartsch was never hauled before the People’s Court as a witness against Goerdeler or as a defendant.

Although he remained imprisoned until the end of the war, he survived.

What Sethe learned from him after 1945 was that Bartsch had suggested Sethe as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper that Goerdeler was planning to publish after the coup had succeeded.

But fortunately, Sethe’s name did not appear in any of the documents that Goerdeler had kept and that the Gestapo had found in Goerdeler’s home in Leipzig.

His papers included the names of many of the other plotters, all of whom were tried before the People’s Court, convicted of high treason and executed.

After 1945 Sethe admitted in a private letter that he wished he moved to Berlin sooner instead of staying in Mainz to avoid being posted to Vὃlkischer Beobachter.

This would have enabled him to meet Goerdeler earlier in the spring of 1944 to discuss the newspaper plan.

He then added what was, to be sure, the existential question of all anti-Nazis who were moving out of the “grey zone” to the margins of the active resistance:

As Sethe put it, he wished he had made a more courageous decision.

But then  - he added – “I would no longer be alive.”

It is these liminal situations that I feel should be studied more closely.

Sethe, reproaching himself for his lack of courage, clearly suffered from what is generally known as “the guilt of the survivor”.

I would now like to move to the case of a young anti-Nazi woman who after 1945 became one of the most influential journalists in the Federal Republic.

Her name is Marion Doenhoff who hailed from an old Prussian noble family with large estates near Kὃnigsberg in East Prussia.

She had been raised in a very conservative family, but as a teenager began to emancipate herself from this social background.

At one point, she even railed against the political narrowmindedness of “our caste”, the Prussian nobility.

Having been taught first by private teachers on the family estate and then at a public school for girls in Kὃnigsberg, she rebelled.

Keen to learn, she exploited her father’s large library and educated herself in world literature.

With her autocratic father having passed away, her mother relented when Marion wanted to transfer to a gymnasium for boys in Berlin.

It was certainly quite unusual for an 18-year-old to get her way.

Her move was possible due to the more liberal capital of the Weimar Republic that was run by Social Democrats and reformers of the Prussian system of education. 

Marion successfully finished her senior year in 1929 as the only female student when most high schools were still divided by gender.

Having gained her high school Abitur certificate, she took some time off and traveled in the Balkans and East Africa before registering at Frankfurt University to study economics with Professor Edgar Salin.

When Salin moved to Basle University, she joined him there to begin work on her doctorate, but not before she had become involved at Frankfurt University in arguments with Nazi students.

It was then Salin who suggested to her that she should write her doctoral dissertation on the economic history of the Doenhoff estates in East Prussia.

Having access to the family archives, she accepted and retreated to Friedrichstein near Kὃnigsberg.

I think her family were quite relieved that she lived far away from Berlin, as the Nazi regime continued to gain an ever closer grip on all sections of society.

Having received her degree in Basle, she agreed to stay in East Prussia to take over the management of the one of the Doenhoff estates at Quittainen. This meant that she continued to live in a “grey zone”, opposed to the regime and yet indirectly contributing to its aims.

However, she also kept in touch with her family, especially with her brother Dietrich who had married her best friend, Sissy von Lehndorff.

She was also close to her cousin Heinrich von Lehndorff who managed the Lehndorff estate in the 1930s and, once the war had begun, was drafted into the army.

Posted in the East after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Heinrich learned about mass shootings of Jews and partisans which so appalled him that he decided to join the military resistance that finally staged July 1944 coup.

As mentioned above, after its failure the conspirators were all caught and subsequently tried and executed, including Heinrich von Lehndorff and Heinrich Count Dohna von Trolksdorf who Doenhoff had been asked to recruit for the active resistance. 

On a later occasion, she remarked: “I should have liked to have shot Hitler myself. The fellow has of course got to be killed’.”

But then she added: but “I don’t know if I would have done it myself.”

In a regime as lethal as the Hitler dictatorship, it is indeed not just a question of access, but opposition also become something very personal.

After the July 1944 coup, Marion Doenhoff was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo in Kὃnigsberg after a relative, Bogislav von Doenhoff, who was an ardent Nazi, had denounced her.

Suspecting her of subversive activities, he had rifled through her mail and noted the names of people who had sent her letters.

These names he now handed over to Bogislav’s friend Erich Koch, the East Prussian Gauleiter.

After being questioned about her correspondents, she was kept in a Gestapo cell for the night, uncertain what would happen the next day, but then released.

As she gathered from their questions, they did not have much evidence on her.

So, she convinced her interrogators that Bogislav had intended to take revenge against her, following a family dispute about the Doenhoff estates.

Still, she had been held for 24 hours that she would never forget.

Marion Doenhoff survived the war by fleeing to the West in advance of the Red Army who razed Friedrichstein to the ground..

The cases of both Sethe and Doenhoff show that by continuing to live and work under a totalitarian dictatorship they also indirectly sustained it, their anti-Nazism notwithstading.

And they were faced with a horrific dilemma of how far to commit themselves to the active resistance that ultimately involved a preparedness to stand before the executioner if they were denounced.

After all, making no more than an off-the-cuff critical remark or joke about Hitler could be fatal.

Let me give you a third illustration of the predicament in which “grey zone” men and women found themselves during the Nazi dictatorship.

I mention this case study because it also touches upon the question that the Israeli-American historian Saul Friedländer, has raised relating to what he called the “limits of representation”.

What he meant by this was that there are horrors that words, whether in fiction or scholarly studies, just cannot adequately describe.

In this respect film may be a better medium to tell a complex and heart-rending story in pictures and dialogues in two hours than an academic historian can in a 500-page account of a life, whether of a victim of persecution or of men and women living in the “grey zone”.

This is why I would like to discuss, however briefly, the 2003 movie “Out of the Ashes” which is based on the experiences of a woman who published a harrowing book entitled “I was a doctor in Auschwitz”.

In terms of its realistic depictions of the Holocaust it is similar to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” that many of you will have seen.

But it is not a feature film centered on a non-Jewish rescuer like Oskar Schindler.

Very powerfully acted by Christine Lahti, it is focused on the hospital at Auschwitz, if this is how it can be called.

And it is about the Jewish gynecologist Dr. Gisella Perl from Romanian Sighet, then under Hungarian rule.

Hailing from a well-to-do middle-class family, she had been deported to Auschwitz in 1944, but, after identifying herself as a medical doctor, selected to work in the camp’s main hospital.

There she was forced to assist the notorious SS doctor Josef Mengele in some of his human experiments on pregnant women and recently born twins.

If she refused, she would forfeit her life and be sent down the line to the Birkenau gas chambers.

Worse, Dr. Perl was confronted with another horrific choice: women prisoners arrived in her ward who were in their early pregnancy.

If this became known, they and their embryo would either be murdered strait-away or be used in Mengele’s experiments and then murdered.

So, in order to save these women’s lives, Gisella Perl decided to abort the fetuses.

It was a truly awful choice.

Yet these were the “choiceless choices” that the American psychologist and philosopher Michael Rothberg has written about in a book that tries to reach, as he put it, “beyond victims and perpetrators”.

It was as an “implicated subject”, as Rothberg called it, that Dr. Perl survived.

Consequently, this movie is not about criminal guilt, but ultimately about moral ambiguity.

Having left Auschwitz on one of the death marches and liberated in 1945 she decided to immigrate to the United States.

And on her arrival in New York she ran into enormous difficulties with the immigration board that considered her application for US citizenship.

In her application she first had to confirm that she was a moral person who had not collaborated and had hence not been involved in crimes.

The Board had learned that she had been a prisoner at Auschwitz, as the tattooed number on her arm confirmed.

But when asked about her work in the hospital, her compulsory assistance to Mengele had already put her under a cloud with the three male Board members.

Questioned further about her work, she confessed to the abortions she had performed which - this procedure being illegal in the United States - the Board had enormous difficulty to comprehend.

Compared to other inmates, she also was a “privileged” beneficiary of an inhuman system, but she was not complicit.

When the three men accused her of having aborted hundreds of fetuses, Dr. Perl in one of her very moving emotional outbursts insisted that she had in fact saved hundreds of women’s lives who survived to have children once the Nazi nightmare was over.

Close to a breakdown, she added at one point that she wanted to live, also to be able to work as a gynecologist again who would bring babies into this world.

There is, as you will be relieved to hear, a positive ending to this movie: The Board finally approved her application for citizenship, and Dr. Perl continued her work as an obstetrician-gynecologist in the United States. 

Even if this movie is an extreme case of the life–and-death problems women and men faced in Nazi Germany and Nazi occupied Europe, I hope that it, too, illustrates why I believe these case studies should make us look more extensively at Primo Levi’s “grey zone”, without abandoning the many years of research on both the victims and the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

And this relates not just Dr. Gisella Perl, but non-Jewish Germans who were anti-Nazis but did not join the underground or went to into exile should also be considered on a careful case-by-case basis.

Allow me to make one final point at the end of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Lecture: on “the Nazi dictatorship through the Lens of Primo Levi’s ‘Grey Zone’: The movie “Out of the Ashes” can be viewed for free on Tubi TV.

 It is superbly acted and badly underrated.

In my view, Christine Lahti deserved an Oscar.

Viewing “Out of the Ashes” you will be deeply moved, also because it reminds us again of tomorrow’s annual Holocaust Memorial Day

And it reminds us how important it is for these crimes never to be forgotten and its lessons and insights to be passed on to future generations.

2022: My Family In Exile

On Tuesday 18 January 2022, the University of Glasgow welcomed Dame Stephanie Shirley CH to deliver her lecture titled “My Family In Exile".

You can watch the full lecture here.


Dame Stephanie Shirley CH, also known as Steve, is a workplace revolutionary and successful IT entrepreneur turned ardent venture philanthropist. At 88 years old, her story has many strands which, woven together, have produced a lifetime of exceptional achievements.

Dame Stephanie’s story begins with her 1939 arrival in Britain as an unaccompanied five-year-old Kindertransport refugee. This defining experience equipped her with fortitude at a very young age and made her determined to live a life worth saving.

In 1962, she started a software house, Freelance Programmers, and pioneered radical new flexible work practices that changed the landscape for women working in technology. She went on to create a global business and a personal fortune which she shared with her colleagues, making millionaires of 70 of her staff at no cost to anyone but herself.

Since retiring in 1993, Dame Stephanie’s life has been dedicated to venture philanthropy in the fields of IT and autism. She initially founded Autism at Kingwood in 1994 to support her late son Giles, and her charitable Shirley Foundation went on to make grants of nearly £70 million.  It spent out in 2018 in favour of Autistica, the UK’s national autism research charity founded by Dame Stephanie. In 2009/10 she served as the UK’s first ever national Ambassador for Philanthropy.  

Dame Stephanie’s memoir Let It Go was first published in 2012 and re-published in 2019 for worldwide distribution. The first translated version was launched in Germany in 2020 and a Spanish translation is coming soon. Dame Stephanie is currently working with The Development Partnership, Producer Damian Jones and Director Haifaa al-Mansour, to make a multi-part TV series with one of the major streaming services. During lockdown in 2020, Dame Stephanie produced her second book, So To Speak, a collection of 29 of her speeches given over the last 40 years. All proceeds from the book go to Autistica. 

Dame Stephanie has been much honoured.  In 2013, she was named by Woman’s Hour as one of the 100 most powerful women in Britain.  In 2014, the Science Council listed her as one of the Top 100 practicing scientists in the UK. In 2015, Dame Stephanie was given the Women of the Year Special Award, and in the same year her TED Talk received a standing ovation from more than a thousand of the world’s most recognised technical entrepreneurs, thinkers, creators and doers. It has since received 2.2m views on YouTube. In 2017, Dame Stephanie received a Companion of Honour (CH), a membership limited to only 65 individuals globally, for her services to the IT industry and philanthropy. 

Lecture Manuscript

The music you’ve been hearing comes from Carl Davis’s choral work “Last Train to Tomorrow”. It was composed ten years ago to commemorate the Kindertransport, that remarkable, largely improvised rescue effort which brought thousands of Jewish children from Nazi Europe to Britain in 1938 and 1939, on the very brink of war.

I was one of them, and today I want to tell you my story.

Of course, hundreds of thousands of children never had the chance to make it to safety. They were left behind and later, with their parents and grandparents, faced deportation and near certain death. The Nazis created a regime of systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder worse than any the world had seen. It killed two out of every three European Jews – and hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people too. The Nazis called it the Final Solution. We call it the Holocaust or Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe).

A week on Saturday is Holocaust Memorial Day. The candle marks Britain’s Promise to Remember the millions who suffered. Candles play a part in many different cultures. Their effect is soothing, and they act as symbols of light amid the darkness of life.

There is a purpose in these ceremonies, in the act of remembering. The Holocaust was the worst genocide in history. One of its lessons is that genocides don’t just happen. They only occur when people stand by, afraid to speak out – or worse, when they are indifferent. By remembering the Holocaust we keep the knowledge of it, and the lessons that it can teach us, alive in our minds and in our wider discourse.

It is my privilege to deliver this 22nd Holocaust Memorial Lecture at this university (albeit virtually), and I thank you for inviting me. I am not an academic but believe my talk will be valuable to social historians.

The Jewish population in Scotland is small. It’s possible that the first Jews arrived in the country in the 12th century, fleeing persecution in England, but it wasn’t until the 19th century that Jews settled here in any numbers. The first Jew graduated from this university in 1797. There has been a Jewish congregation here in Glasgow since 1821, and the historic cathedral synagogue of Scotland at Garnethill.

There is also a memorial in Queen’s Park in Govanhill to the Roma victims of the Holocaust’s ethnic cleansing – between half a million and a million and a half of the Holocaust’s six million victims were Roma.

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day for 2022 is One Day. My One Day is 6 July 1939 – the day I arrived in my new home in Britain. A refugee, asked recently what “home” meant to them, replied “home is where, when you go there, they have to let you in”. Such a sad remark.

Our world today is full of refugees, migrants, asylum seekers fleeing war, civil unrest, poverty or the effects of climate change. The days running up to Holocaust Memorial Day offer a chance not just to remember those who died in the Nazi genocide, but to think about all those suffering today the fear and anxiety that goes along with displacement, with being forced to abandon one home and, (if you are lucky), to make a new home somewhere else.

I was once a refugee, and shall speak today about my family’s experiences as refugees. Our story may serve as a commentary on love and hate.

The number of the dead is not the sole measure of the Jewish tragedy. I shall tell the personal stories of my secular Jewish father, Gentile mother and my sister and I – offensively called crossbreeds – who all came to Britain as exiles in 1939, and survived.

I am one of the few still alive to bear witness to that dreadful time. And you therefore are the very last generation to hear these stories first-hand. As the so-called Third Reich slips from human memory, I join in Britain’s Promise to Remember.

We started off a respectable German family in Dortmund which lies in the centre of Europe. The four of us lived in a “nice house” in a fashionable part of the city and my elder sister Renate went to school with the children of other prosperous, bourgeois families.

We never know what life holds for us. If all had gone according to plan, we would have remained in that comfortable world indefinitely. But the shadows had been gathering since shortly before my birth in 1933 and it was not a good time to be Jewish.

My father, Arnold Buchthal, was a young judge: a brilliant but rather distant man with a single-minded devotion to principle that was slightly unworldly.  I have a vivid early memory of going for a family walk in one of Dortmund’s famous parks – and stamping, for some reason, on a beetle. My father exploded into a blazing fury. “How would you like it if a great big foot came down and stamped on you?” he shouted. It was an extraordinary rage to direct at a mere toddler. Yet he did get his point through to me.  My ethical compass certainly stems from him.

In 1933, he was fired by edict of the Third Reich because of his Jewish ethnicity. Again and again, we were forced to move – from city to city and eventually from country to country – in search of work and security. We eventually settled in Vienna (my mother’s home city). When the Nazi plague infected Austria as well, the writing was on the wall for anyone who dared to read it: Jewish families who stayed in Central Europe faced catastrophe.

One of my clearest recollections of that time is of walking with my mother to fetch my sister from school; I particularly remember part of the route going along a huge stone wall. I discovered two things about this memory when I revisited the city a few years after the war. First, the wall wasn’t huge at all. It was I who had been small. More importantly, there was a reason why we always went to collect her. It was because, even as a child, Renate was beginning to suffer from anti-Semitism. She was lucky to have a kind teacher, who used to let her out early so that that she could get home – under our escort – without having ‘dirty Jew’ shouted or stones thrown at her by her fellow pupils.

It was my father who first faced up to the unthinkable reality that the once solid social framework in which our lives had been built had collapsed, leaving a choice between escape and eventual extinction. It was to be a descent into barbarism.

By 1939 the borders were gradually closing. When my parents heard about the Kindertransport, they made the desperate decision that my sister and I should be sent to England, into the arms of strangers, in order to save our lives.

The Kindertransport organised its trains from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Free City of Danzig.  Each train had about 1000 children aged five to 16 (some short 17 year olds also snuck in) with just two adults.  There were also some girls, aged 16 plus, caring for babies.  Of course I did not know at the time that they had volunteered to travel under a concession dependent on their return to what they must have known was almost certain death.  Courage takes many forms and I always salute the sheer heroism of those young carers. And recently learnt of one of them – let me introduce Lily Reichenfeld – who made two such journeys of loving kindness, and honoured the guarantee given by a non-Jewish friend. Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and oblivion followed.

Let me thank the Christian and Jewish activists who set up the Kindertransport, the Quaker Society of Friends who kept it going when it ran out of money and the many volunteers who administered that largest ever recorded migration of children.

But it was not a simple matter. Forms had to be filled in, documents stamped, permits queued for at seemingly deliberately inconvenient times, guarantees provided. We spent several weeks in a children’s home so that my mother could devote herself full-time to grappling with the obstacles of Nazi (and British) bureaucracy. As time ran out people started to forge Home Office entry permits. No limit to the permitted number of children to be rescued was ever publicly announced. Britain capped its number at 10,000. Compare that with the number of refugees Britain talks about admitting today.

While some children had to go into hostels, the Refugee Children’s Movement had found Renate and me foster-parents in England who were prepared to pre-pay our future repatriation costs (about £5,000 in today’s currency) and to guarantee that the two of us would not be a burden on the state. Thank you, thank you, Guy and Ruby Smith. We called them Uncle and Auntie.

They nurtured us as they would their own children and certainly I am their child in all but birth.  Everyone told me to be grateful.  Indeed I am grateful. But also loved them dearly, cared for them in their old age and honour their memories as I do all the Uncles and Aunties who helped us children through those terrible times.

The fact that people I did not know saved us, by doing what selfless, generous people do, made a deep impression.

We progressed from “enemy aliens” to – once someone realised we were children “friendly enemy aliens” – and – postwar – to being “friendly aliens”. The shifting identity captures hate and happiness, villains and good guys. The “fifth columnist” or suspected terrorist, the refugee, the unwanted migrant, the asylum seeker, all present a useful outlet for people’s fears.

We were doubly lucky in that – unlike most of the parents who sent their children away on the Kindertransport – ours survived. Though, sadly, I never bonded with them again.

Moving now to Grete my Austrian mother. She was the younger daughter of an established Gentile family who had educated her to be a middle-class wife.

Altho’ my father wrote in 1940 that he feared my mother was “lost” (a euphemism used in front of children) she managed her own desperate escape to England by train – bribing her way across Europe – at one vital stage with the coat she was wearing.

What happened to her when she finally got to England, penniless and homeless, four days before war was declared?  The regulations were such that she was only allowed to work in agriculture or domestic service.  She chose the latter, and cleaned somebody else’s “nice house” before moving after some years to be resident cook for a hostel of 40 schoolgirls.

In 1951 she and I went through the naturalisation process together.  When the interviewer asked for her views on the 1948 Partition of Israel she paused before replying: “I think Britain behaved disgracefully”.  But this has always been a country of free speech – and we were granted citizenship.  I was registered as a British minor and it was my mother who took the Oath of Allegiance in front of a Justice of the Peace “I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Sixth, His Heirs and Successors, according to law”.  To further ease our integration, we took the opportunity to anglicise our names. And chose Brook to honour that most English of poets: Rupert Brooke.  I found that name change empowering.

One summer we went to Vienna together. Partly for her to search for family and friends; partly to dig up the silver which had been buried for safety.  We made a grim train journey across Europe, weighed down with emotional baggage and expectation, before finally emerging in the glorious historic city from which we had escaped 20 years earlier. I was accosted – kindly – by a couple who asked: “excuse us, are you from the camps?” Vienna had not seen a face like mine for some time. I looked around at its gracious avenues, ancient walls, grand palaces and elegant squares. While previously I had wept sentimentally on hearing Viennese music, now I realised in an instant that, lovely as it all was, the city meant nothing to me.  And felt the weight of my past diminish. 

Was my mother happy?  I remember her inconsolable tears when one of her few items from the past got broken. Her Will asked us to scatter her ashes in the Vienna Woods – which says a lot about how she felt about her long exile.

My main memory of that filial visit is of my sister’s preoccupation with evaluating the likely role of people we saw in the streets who would have been adult in the 1930s.  “What were you doing when they were throwing stones at me?”

Going back to my father, the Jewish one of the family so necessarily the first to escape. Having walked to Switzerland and thence by train to England, he finished the war wearing a British Army uniform, which he had acquired after a painful journey round the world.

Stephen McKinney of the School of Education of this university has written about the widespread failure to differentiate the genuine refugees from Nazis. As an adult male German refugee my father had been briefly interned before being deported, in July 1940, to Australia. He went from Liverpool on the transport ship Dunera. They were guarded by soldiers on light duty after being shell-shocked at Dunkirk.  In any event they ran amok, locked the internees below deck for most of the 58-day voyage to Sydney, stole their valuables and threw their suitcases overboard …

The conditions on the grossly overcrowded voyage were so appalling that – to Britain’s everlasting credit – Parliament found time in the midst of the war to debate the scandal.  Those deportees who survived the journey (two died and more than 50 had to be hospitalised) then travelled to an internment camp in Hay, New South Wales, so in the middle of an inhospitable nowhere that the high security fence was almost unnecessary. 

The largely middle-class inmates made the best of their plight, printing their own money, creating their own system of law and order (my father served again as a judge) and developing not merely a café society but also an unofficial university with remarkable educational and cultural programmes, concerts and much else.

By May 1941, partly as a result of the outcry in Britain as families heard – despite all mail being censored – about the iniquity of their treatment, a substantial number of internees were released to join the Pioneer Corps.  My father was among them (his release papers formally recorded his personal effects as ‘nil’) and so he found himself again in the UK. The Pioneer Corps was a relatively new auxiliary force, dubbed “The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens”, which provided back-up work for the conventional armed forces. 

He started off digging ditches and suchlike. He was later transferred to head what became the Mid Wales Psychiatric Hospital which was used to treat several hundred mentally ill Prisoners of War.  He used a pseudonym so that German patients would not know his original nationality.  Some VIP visitors were surprised to meet a lowly Staff Sergeant in such a responsible role but apparently that was then the highest rank permitted to a non-Brit.

Hitler had taken nationality away from Jewish families so we had all arrived stateless – but received some modicum of paperwork from Britain formally acknowledging that we were displaced persons registered here. This was the so-called Nansen passport. I have always admired the polar explorer Nansen who became such an effective diplomat and humanitarian.

How glad I was later to get my British passport with its reassurance that “His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of His Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”.

To a certain extent, we became just another group of evacuees.  Starting August 1939 – the three and a half million people, mainly children, evacuated into safety from areas of danger.

My image of wartime Britain is of a quiet country, where even outsiders like me could be confident that those in authority would generally do their best to do the right thing by us. 

After the war, my parents were free, in theory, to return to the homeland from which they had been driven six years earlier. 

My father was desperate to rebuild his legal career in Germany. To move permanently to England would mean giving up the career dreams that defined him.

My mother saw it differently.  She had had a world in Germany – a life of comfort, status, and material security – and, bit by bit, it had been stolen from her.  Perhaps some of her very identity had been stolen with it.  Having escaped with her life and little else, it was unthinkable to her that her husband should do anything but build a new life from scratch in England, just as she had done.

The outcome was – to modern eyes – predictable. They divorced and my father returned to Germany more or less immediately. 

Germany had entirely broken down.  The contrast to the orderly societies of Britain couldn’t have been stronger – or more nightmarish.  There was no money, no gas, electricity or clean water.  The only semblance of civil structure was the crude military authority of the occupying allies.  People were living in the cellars of ruined buildings, bartering sex for food to survive and using cigarettes as currency.  Black marketeer, white slaver, there was no warmth in anyone’s faces; most were just blank from hunger and fear.

We had lived through six years of the most devastating war in human history, but this was our first glimpse of its utter, dehumanising horror and destruction. 

Shortly before the German surrender my father had left the Pioneer Corps; collected his demob suit; and transferred into the US Army, which needed educated German-speakers to help with the post-war administration of what remained of the country. He was employed as a junior researcher but, at least from his point of view, it was a step back into a world he understood – especially when mechanisms began to be set up for putting Nazi war criminals on trial. He worked on the role Adolf Eichmann had played at the infamous Wannsee Conference at which the Final Solution was agreed. At one point my father was called to give expert evidence on the precise linguistic nuances of the phrase  “Polish subhumanity” and its use in German legal circles in the 1930’s. 

Let me re-focus on the shared Kindertransport experience of we two sisters.  Me at age five, clutching the hand of my nine-year-old sister.

It is hard, after all these years, to be certain how many of the remembered details of the 2½ day journey are real and how much I have added to my mental picture from other sources. Was the July weather outside really grey? Or have I just seen too many black-and-white photographs of the Kindertransport? I have read that some of the trains were sealed.  But surely one boy in our carriage kept getting off to be sick during the train’s many unscheduled stops. Or was that just a dream?

I am pretty certain that we slept on large strips of corrugated cardboard – on the floor as well as on the long wooden benches that lined the sides of the carriages.  I believe that, at some point in the train journey, children also slept on the overhead luggage racks although the scene in my mind’s eye is different from the archive carriage photographs I have since seen.  I presume that I slept too, although I cannot remember doing so.

I think my mother had given us food for the journey; but, again, I may be wrong.  I remember the occasional frightening interruptions from uniformed guards. I recall vividly the cold, oily smell of the sea – an entirely new experience – when we eventually reached the Channel (at the Hook of Holland); and vaguely remember the nauseous night crossing to Harwich.

But what about my sense that, when we finally arrived by train at London’s Liverpool Street station, the platform was silent? Silent. It seems somehow implausible, and perhaps I have merely projected the numbness of my emotions onto the past. Nonetheless, that is how my mind has preserved it. Hundreds of children spilling out on to the platform, speechless and wide-eyed.

We had numbered labels hanging around our necks as if we were lost property.  In a sense, we were.  Renate also had an expensive Leica slung round her person – to be later sold of course because one was permitted to bring out a camera, but effectively no money. We waited to be claimed, sitting on strawfilled mattresses in a cavernous hall. 

There are two Kindertransport memorial statues at Liverpool Street Station, the smaller one of a small boy with a suitcase by Flor Kent and the other of a group of child refugees by Frank Meisler who was himself one of those saved.  The 2006 plaque dedicated by the Association of Jewish Refugees reads:

In gratitude to the people of Britain for saving the lives of 10,000 unaccompanied mainly Jewish children who fled from Nazi persecution in 1938 and 1939” and quotes the sacred Talmud “Whoever rescues a single soul is credited as though they had saved the whole world”.

In 2011 a Kindertransport memorial bench was unveiled in Harwich, located to face the shipping lane in the North Sea. That was from where most of us first saw this green and pleasant land. Later this year Harwich’s important role in the Kindertransport will be recognised with a beautiful memorial on the quayside. May Ian Wolter’s sculpture – this is part of the mold – stimulate the next generation to learn about the Kindertransport and to support today’s child refugees.

Britain was one of the very few countries who allowed us refugee children in in 1939. What have we contributed in return?

My sister Renate never settled as well as I did and remained an exile in spirit. Unlike with the Windrush generation, the Home Office got it right. When she was 18 she declined several Home Office invitations to apply for British citizenship until its final letter suggested that if she did not wish to become British then (by implication) she “should go back to where she came from”. And that she certainly did not wish to do. She emigrated to Australia on a £10 assisted passage. And applied for Australian citizenship after only six months.

I’ve often thought about this. We didn’t choose to come to Britain, the exile was done to us children. As now an adult, she had ceased to be a victim and could make things happen rather than having things happen to her. She chose Australia and, having re-qualified there, contributed significantly to its childcare practices, sublimating the trauma of her own childhood by helping children (including many of the Vietnamese boat children) into adoptive and foster families. Married to an Australian, she adopted a baby girl and fostered two brothers – just as we two sisters had been fostered a generation back.  

As for me, I was now a British citizen and at 18 started in the family tradition of public service; later to go into business to get round all the gender issues of the time. Like many refugees, migrants and exiles, I have an uncommon level of drive and determination and choose to contribute to the society in which I live. Thus my childhood trauma was transformed into entrepreneurship.

I was a pioneer of computing and a pathfinder in the professionalization of women; an entrepreneur in the early 60’s, sharing ownership with the staff.  When the company was acquired after 45 years, it was a public company in the FTSE 250 employing over eight thousand people; and I’m a strategic giver-away of my self made wealth.

Let me come to my conclusion.

It would have been good to be able to say that the exile of our nuclear family led to a vibrant new dynasty in Britain.  But not one of us refreshed the gene pool.  My father resettled in the land of his birth.  Amazingly after his round the world travels, his 1933 dismissal letter (one short paragraph officiously rubber stamped) was found among his papers when he died. My sister migrated to Australia; my mother and I remained here, though she would have scored high in any measure of nostalgia and never understood the British sense of humour. My only child died.

The story of the Holocaust is a terrible one. But where there are shadows, there must be light. So let us remember the many beautiful stories from those terrible times. Not only the Kindertransport but also other escapes such as the 600 children saved by Sir Nicholas Winton (and his mother) from German-occupied Czechoslovakia and the 300 children who had somehow survived in concentration camps who were brought to England in 1945 …. the so-called Windermere children …. to be later integrated into British society. And the 180 ultra Orthodox Kindertransportees who found safe haven in a castle in Wales and trained in agriculture toprepare for their future life on a religious kibbutz in Israel.

As part of Britain’s Promise to Remember, we honour all victims of Nazi persecution and the genocides in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Darfur …. the list goes on.

Let our words and deeds be of love for our neighbours, respecting and cherishing our differences.

2023: Music on the Brink of Destruction

On Tuesday 19 January 2023, the University of Glasgow welcomed Professor Shirli Gilbert, University College London, to deliver the 23rd Holocaust Memorial Lecture, entitled Music on the Brink of Destruction, in which Professor Gilbert explored the role of music in the Nazi ghettos and camps.

If you would like to hear from the University of Glasgow on our future Holocaust Memorial Lectures, please sign up to receive future communications here.