Written by:
Amy Jaffa

Reflections on A Small Light

Read time:
7 minutes

Reflections on A Small Light

Focusing on the story of Miep Gies, who played a crucial role in hiding Anne Frank and her family during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, the Disney+ series A Small Light illustrates how dehumanising discourse can quickly become normalised in society. It is a message that has a powerful resonance today, writes Amy Jaffa.

Fifteen years ago, as part of a Holocaust Educational Trust programme, I was selected as one of two students from my college to join others from around the country on a day trip to Auschwitz. Amidst the blurred recollections of travel, emotion and new faces, a few vivid snapshots remain with me. 

I remember the heavy train tracks crawling up to the arched entrance, the desperate scratches on the inside of the gas chamber doors, and the piles of shoes, glasses and suitcases that lay behind glass screens. I remember sitting on the ground as night fell, with flickering candlelight illuminating the faces around me, as a nearby rabbi sung a prayer for the dead. 

I thought about the prisoners who may have sat in this same darkness, listening to the same prayers. I thought about my grandparents, who would likely have been in a similar darkness had their families not boarded boats to seek refuge before the war. 

I remember standing at the back of the camp looking out at the farmhouses that border it, unable to comprehend how people in so many homes, cities and countries could have witnessed the routine murder of six million – children and the elderly, men and women – and done nothing to try to stop it. 

I felt rage at the world of bystanders, at the people who had raised an arm in salute to Hitler, at the countries who had refused entry to Jewish refugees, at those who had forced boats of desperate humans to return to Nazi territories and, in many cases, their deaths. 

‘Moments of struggle and defiance took place in the midst of mundane, messy, everyday life’

The new Disney+ series A Small Light deals with these themes. It centres on Miep Gies, a young Austrian woman who helped to hide eight Jewish people in Amsterdam. After they were discovered by the Nazis and taken to various concentration camps, she saved a child’s diary from their ransacked hiding place. It would later be published by the only surviving member of the group, the diarist’s father, and is now widely known as The Diary of Anne Frank

The series highlights how dehumanising, criminalising discourse can so quickly become normalised and accepted throughout society and speaks to the bravery of those who act against it. It depicts how these moments of struggle and defiance took place in the midst of mundane, messy, everyday life. Fears of how to feed eight people in an attic coexisting with marital issues, dental work, nights out with your best friend, and a desire for a pair of shoes you can’t afford. 

The relevance to today is clear. Whilst comparisons to the Holocaust can understandably spark strong emotional responses, it is not hard to see how the same processes that underpinned the horrors of the Shoah, of constructing certain lives as disposable due to characteristics such as race and religion, are still present now, with lives still impaired and lost as a consequence. 

In the UK we are not currently at the extremes of genocide, but the scaremongering, dehumanising and criminalising discourses that enabled these atrocities to take place are still used to justify the abandonment of people based primarily on characteristics such as their race, religion or country of origin. The current rhetoric on ‘illegal immigrants’ – frequently used as a veil for asylum seekers, who are in fact legally entitled to claim asylum in this country – is built upon this dehumanisation. 

The difference between the recent rescue missions and media coverage of the sinking of the Adriana – in which as many as 750 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean – and the implosion of the Titan submersible highlights this clearly. 

‘A Small Light invites the audience to view the Holocaust from a less popular perspective – that of the everyday citizens’

‘Never again’ is a mantra often repeated within Holocaust education. Detailed descriptions of the extremes of human cruelty and suffering are concluded with a message of hope, that together we must fight state violence in the hope that further cases of genocide can be avoided. This message is often emphasised with survivors’ personal accounts – incredibly moving first-hand narrations of pain and hardship.

Victims’ experiences such as these are often placed at the centre of media or literary representations of the Holocaust. Unquestionably important, they are powerful reminders of the dangers of discrimination and the importance of the ‘Never again’ imperative. But at the same time, the tendency only to focus on them can feel overwhelming and make it harder to relate the developments of the 1930s and 40s to our lives and choices today. The Holocaust risks becoming constructed as a case of exception – unimaginable cruelty, perpetrated by monsters, existing in an alternate reality, far from ours. 

A Small Light invites the audience to view the Holocaust from a less popular perspective – that of the everyday citizens. Those who were not forced into the category of victim as a byproduct of their identity but could make choices that would determine their position as bystander, perpetrator, member of the resistance. 

Viewers aren’t exposed to images of dead bodies, concentration camps, emaciated prisoners, or graphic depictions of the horrific fate of so many Jews, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, political prisoners, and members of the LGBTQI+ community. Instead, we see the everyday interactions that took place for the majority Dutch population and are reminded that it was within this space that the roots of dehumanisation were either grounded or rejected. 

It is not set out as a story of heroes and villains, but of complex humans making momentary decisions with huge consequences. It is a reminder of the power that our everyday decisions hold, whether we choose to stand against persecution or comply in real or feigned ignorance. 

‘Dehumanising discourse continues to be normalised’

The ‘never again’ assertion has not been accurate so far. There have been multiple cases of genocide since the Holocaust and there is no reason to believe there won’t be many more. Racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, anti-semitic and anti-LGBTQI+ hate crimes continue to rise. Dehumanising discourse continues to be normalised. Policies that disproportionately negatively impact minority social groups continue to be promoted.

The perspective highlighted in A Small Light is important if this is ever to change. It encourages viewers to feel the anger and upset that I describe feeling at Auschwitz, but also to reflect on the complex, permeable nature of the distinctions between the resistance-bystander-perpetrator roles and recognise our daily decisions as the thin lines that separate them. It reminds us that, depending on context, we all have the potential to edge into any one of these categories. 

Our choices are never neutral. We can either step outside our comfort zones and risk our safety – albeit to different degrees depending on our identities and the societal protections and risks that accompany them – or take what we are told at face value and instead focus on the many other distractions that can fill our days. 

It comes so naturally to identify with victims of persecution, to feel intense anger at those responsible. But equally important, if we are to work towards an ideal of ‘never again’, is that we also see ourselves, and the small-scale decisions we make on a regular basis, within the bystander-and-resistance paradigm. 

Miep Gies’ own writings suggest this is the mark she wanted to leave. She did not want to be seen as a heroine or for her experiences to be seen as an exception that we will never arrive at again. She wanted to be understood as a regular human being with the same capacities for action as everyone else. She wanted everyone to be conscious of their own choices of response and the potential power that these can hold. 

As she said: ‘Even an ordinary secretary or a housewife or a teenager can, within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.’

Amy Jaffa works as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking children teacher/caseworker for a London local authority, and is a PhD candidate at Oxford University’s Faculty of Education.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo © martin-dm/iStock 

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