Thu | Aug 17, 2017

Diana Cooper-Clark unearths buried stories

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2016 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams
Professor Diana Cooper-Clark of York University, Canada, presents a copy of her book, ‘Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica’, to the principal of the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies, Prof Archibald McDonald, as Camille Bell Hutchinson, UWI Mona campus registrar, looks on.

When Diana Cooper-Clark was a little girl living on Swallowfield Avenue in St Andrew, she was a "voracious" reader. One day when she ran out of books, she randomly selected one of her father's and went into her yard to read under a lignum vitae tree. The book was about the Nazi who kept the train running on time.

The Nazis were Germany's Adolph Hitler's World War II soldiers, who, among other things, exterminated Jews, gypsies, et al, who were taken to extermination camps by trains. It is said that more than six million Jews were killed in what is known as the Holocaust of which there were pictures of gruesome sights in Cooper-Clark's father's book, which she spent several non-stop hours reading under the tree. When her family found her with the book, they promptly took it from her. They were worried that it would have upset her, she told a gathering at the Courtleigh Hotel and Suites in New Kingston on Sunday, November 13.

"But rather than paralyse me, it galvanised me," she told the audience, which was there to hear her talk about researching and writing her book about the Holocaust, Dreams of Re-Creation in Jamaica Holocaust, Internment, Jewish Refugees in Gibraltar Camp, Jamaica Jews and Sephardim.

Cooper-Clark's book is the product of years of research motivated by what she read and saw in her father's book. She had sworn to herself then "to bear witness for the rest of her life to answer two questions" - how and why the Holocaust happened - and she committed her life to answering these questions.

She said she did not have the "language" at the time to describe what she had learnt from the book, but she knew that the murder of the innocent, racism and marginalisation were evil, and so she embarked upon a quest to find some "psychological" and "spiritual explanation" for the Holocaust. Thus, she read everything she could find about the Holocaust. And over the years, she, who teaches several courses in English and the humanities departments at York University in Toronto, Canada, has evolved into a committed Holocaust scholar and researcher.

Yet, she said that there was "no one reductive essential answer" to her questions of how and why the Holocaust had happened. "The Holocaust was painful. How do we get a language to describe it?" she asked. "It is a mockery of reason; it is beyond rationality. it is beyond the language. It is a betrayal of the language," she asserted.

And while she could not find a "language", she stumbled upon "extraordinary" anecdotes and narratives about the Jamaican connection to the Holocaust. About 1,500 World War II Jewish refugees were housed at Gibraltar Camp, established on lands near August Town in St Andrew, where a section of the Mona campus of The University of the West Indies is located.

Cooper-Clark's interest in the camp was piqued by a 1994 article titled 'From Lisbon to Jamaica: Study of British Refugee Rescue During the second World War', written by Paul R. Bartrop, an Australian Holocaust scholar and researcher who had met two former Gibraltar Camp refugees and travelled to Jamaica to research Gibraltar Camp.

Apart from the article, Cooper-Clark said there was absolutely no significant academic material about the camp, "no sustained scholarship" about Jamaica's connection to the Holocaust, and that is how her book came about.

It is a composite of Cooper-Clark's own perspective about the Holocaust, commentaries, reflections, and poignant narratives by some of the camp survivors whom she met through various means, some exhaustively, others serendipitously. Their stories are the focus of the book. Some had never told their stories before they did so to Cooper-Clark.

VERY VALUABLE

While policy documents, historical data, scholarly research, etc, are "very valuable to ground the context of the work, without the personal stories, rather than the public ones", she said her work would have been a "history without heart", "abstractions and generalities with no life", as well as "statistics, dates, policies, and numbers with no soul".

So she got the some of the Jewish refugees to open upon their heart and soul and unearth their stories, and the stories of the 17 survivors in the book are the stories of the last witnesses to the Holocaust, she said. In the audience was Inez Baker, a Dutch Holocaust survivor who lived at Gibraltar Camp, her two sons; and a nephew. They were in Jamaica on a Gibraltar Camp reunion programme organised by Cooper-Clark and Ainsley Henriques. Inez's story is told in the book.

"Their stories need to permeate the centres of historical and Holocaust consciousness so that their testimony can penetrate the silence of ignorance or guilt and resurrect lives lost and lived," Cooper-Clark writes in the book, which also discusses the relationship between the Jewish refugees and the Jamaican Jews.

In her presentation at the Courtleigh, she, who is not a Jew, said we must never forget Jamaica's role in the Holocaust narrative. It is a story that was "invisible" and "marginalised" up until recently, she said. Cooper-Clark's seminal piece of work has certainly shed much light on the little-known story of Gibraltar Camp. It is a very interesting and educational publication.