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Holocaust Memorial Day reminds me why I became a social worker

BASW Professional Officer Joe Godden reflects how his family’s experience of persecution in Nazi Germany had a major impact on his life and choice of career.


When I decided I wanted to become a social worker in the 1970s, there were a number of factors that lead me in that direction. I wanted to get involved in community engagement; I wanted to make a difference for those who were disadvantaged and – perhaps like many in my era – I didn’t want to work for private capitalism

At the time, however, I didn’t realise there was another important factor pushing me in the direction of social work, which was the experience of members of my family in Germany in the 1930s.

My mother and most of her family managed to escape Nazi Germany in 1939. She was 15 at the time and although she has never talked much about this period, it was clear that the impact of living under and fleeing that totalitarian regime had a profound impact.

As a teenager growing up she experienced not being allowed to use public swimming pools, sports facilities and other public recreation areas. She saw “friends” and their families turn their backs on her. Jews and other groups persecuted by the Nazi regime were forbidden to work in many occupations – my grandfather was removed from his teaching job. In early 1939, with the family getting desperate, my mother wrote a letter addressed only to “Mr Rothschild, London” pleading for help for her parents and the residential school for Jewish boys that they were running. The letter was brief, describing how they all feared for their lives and that unless they had a sponsor in another country they had no chance of leaving Germany. She also asked for help to get her father out of a concentration camp.

The letter reached its destination and the Rothschilds arranged for the family to come to England as refugees, along with 28 boys aged five to 16, who were being looked after by my mother’s family. Many of the boys’ parents had disappeared into prisons and concentration camps by that time. They all arrived in Waddesdon in Buckinghamshire in June 1939, following a scary journey on one of the last trains carrying children to England via the Kinder Transport.

Some of the boys were re-united with their parents after the war, but others weren’t so lucky. I have kept track of what happened to many of the boys as they lived their lives in this country and abroad – a study of survival.

So my motivation for going into social work in the 1970s was more profound than I then realised. The spectre of human rights abuses, the impact of war and racism, of family members having to deal with massive disruption and loss; all are deeply lodged in my psyche.

Today in many parts of the world, including even too some extent here in the UK, we see human rights abuses. Attacks on minorities and anyone who is different. We are all complicit in this, whether it’s ignoring how products that we buy are produced, or not campaigning to right the media stereotypes of people who the media love to castigate. Which so often ends up being the poor and the vulnerable.

And so, on Holocaust Memorial Day, I hope we can all take some time to think about those groups of people who are persecuted and alienated within our own countries and around the world. For if history has taught us anything, it is that complacency towards the suffering of others can only end tragically.