Holocaust Remembrance from ‘a practical point of view’: James Parkes, the Parkes Institute, and Public History


Dr Chad McDonald, University of Southampton

In this blogpost, Dr Chad McDonald discusses the work that led to him winning the inaugural Pamela Cox Public History Prize. He focuses on his travelling exhibition, James Parkes and the Age of Intolerance, whilst also reflecting on his social media and school outreach activities.

‘James Parkes and the Age of Intolerance’ exhibition at Southampton city’s Holocaust Memorial Day event in January 2019.

On 27 April 1935, a man was beaten unconscious in the stairwell of an apartment block on the Place du Grand-Mézel in Geneva’s Old Town. This attack was an assassination attempt gone wrong. The victim, dressed in a suit, looked the part of the English gentlemen that the assassin had been sent to kill. But, in reality, the individual left for dead was the intended target’s assistant. Reverend Dr James Parkes, the real target, adopted a rather more informal dress sense, befitting a man known for his eccentricity.

Throughout the 1920s, Parkes travelled across Europe organising conferences. During this time, he regularly observed incidences of antisemitism, particularly on university campuses. His experiences deeply concerned him and led to him becoming one of the few activists campaigning for European Jewry from the 1920s onwards. As part of his work, Parkes embarked on pioneering research into the causes of antisemitism. Parkes acted as a witness during the Berne Trial (1934–35), where he exposed the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an antisemitic forgery. It was this work that led to Parkes receiving death threats and the botched assassination attempt.

The ‘Geneva Incident’ was the only time that Parkes made a splash in the press during his lifetime. Yet, throughout his career, he became a pioneer on multiple fronts. He wrote approximately 400 texts examining Christian-Jewish relations, becoming one of the first individuals to identify the long history of Christian antisemitism. Parkes’ findings sharply contrasted with the views of the established Church, which still promoted the conversion of Jews to Christianity. His work was even more remarkable given his ordination as an Anglican clergyman in 1926.

Parkes shunned the limelight. He never held an academic position, never led a parish, turned down a peerage, and declined a senior position on the League of Nations’ Commission for Refugees. Throughout his life, he remained an independent scholar. He was not a hermit, but he disliked institutional politics. Parkes’ lifework was geared towards purposeful action. He was amongst those remarkable individuals who helped bring approximately 80,000 Jewish refugees to Britain during the 1930s, including the mother and grandparents of actress Rachel Weisz. As part of his work, Parkes turned his home in Barley, rural Hertfordshire, into a Christian-Jewish research institute. His home and library were used by scholars, refugees, and, after the war, Holocaust survivors, including Else Rosenfeld, who wrote her memoirs there.

There are those who know of Parkes’ endeavours, and then there are most people. Since his death in 1981, Parkes is only remembered in limited circles. Even those working in the field of Christian-Jewish relations are not always aware of Parkes’ accomplishments. When I started my PhD in 2015, undertaken between the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton and the Department of History at the University of Bristol, I only had a faint idea about who Parkes was. As my PhD research continued, and my appreciation for his work grew, I felt more should be done to raise his profile.

My exhibition was designed to challenge the lacunae surrounding Parkes’ legacy. In 2018, I was awarded a grant by the South, West, and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (AHRC), my PhD funder, to create the exhibition. The University of Southampton agreed that I could use materials from their Special Collections in my exhibition. I worked with the Council of Christians and Jews, which Parkes helped to establish during the Second World War, to co-ordinate the exhibition’s tour. The exhibition was launched in Southampton as part of the city’s Holocaust Memorial Day events in 2019.

Visitors to the exhibition and associated talks. Clockwise: Southampton, Winchester, Barley, London, and Barley (again).

By the end of 2021, the exhibition will have visited nearly 20 locations throughout Britain, including cathedrals, parish churches, synagogues, and civic venues. The exhibition’s tour includes many places that were important to Parkes during his lifetime. As we approach the fortieth anniversary of his death, in 2021, it is a pertinent time to shed light on Parkes’ lifework in the places he lived. In this vein, special events were held in Barley, where Parkes had lived for many decades, to mark Remembrance Sunday in 2019.

Ian Karten understood the importance of Parkes’ work. The two men only met once, in 1939, shortly after Karten’s arrival in Britain as a Jewish refugee. Karten was hugely impressed by Parkes’ campaigning on behalf of European Jewry. This admiration would be repaid many times over in later years. Throughout his life, Parkes created a library and associated archive, which transferred to the University of Southampton in 1964. Decades later, in the 1990s, the Ian and Mildred Karten Trust formed a long-standing partnership with what has since become the Parkes Institute. The Kartens helped to transform the Parkes Institute into one of the largest Jewish documentation centres in Europe and the only one in the world devoted to Jewish/non-Jewish relations.

The Kartens’ generosity has emphasised the importance of outreach, such as through their funding of Outreach Fellowships within the Parkes Institute. I was appointed to one of these posts during the 2018–19 academic year. The institute’s emphasis on outreach connects to Parkes’ understanding of his research. During his lifetime, Parkes stressed that he didn’t want his books and papers to be locked away; he wanted them to be used by future generations. As an Outreach Fellow, I visited schools and colleges across Hampshire to teach sessions about Jewish life and the Holocaust. The school-based work and travelling exhibition are coming together through the development of a Parkes Institute MOOC about Jewish and non-Jewish Worlds, which will be available soon.

Chad McDonald with the ‘James Parkes and the Age of Intolerance’ exhibition.

My work promoting interfaith dialogue connects to my wider work challenging all forms of racism in the UK and beyond. Since 2018, I’ve been the Social Media Editor for Patterns of Prejudice (@POP_Jrnl), the world’s oldest journal devoted to the study and combatting of racism, antisemitism, and fascism. Like Parkes, the journal’s editors emphasise the importance of sharing research beyond the academy. As Social Media Editor, I work with the journal’s authors to promote their work in different formats, including as short videos and ‘tweetable’ abstracts.

Writing in the late 1970s, Parkes emphasised the importance of remembering the Holocaust ‘from a practical point of view’. I hope that my work has followed this tradition. I am delighted to have won the Pamela Cox Public History Prize, particularly due to its focus on demonstrating excellence in taking research beyond the academy and fostering dialogue with different audiences. In an age where intolerance is sadly all too common, I believe that bringing communities together and building bridges continues to be of the upmost importance.


About the author:

Dr Chad McDonald is a Visiting Fellow in the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton and learning developer in the Learning and Teaching Institute at the University of Chester.  His article exploring the use of distance and rupture in oral history testimonies given by Kindertransport refugees is freely available to read in the journal Holocaust Studies. If you are interested in hiring the James Parkes and the Age of Intolerance exhibition, please contact Chad using the details at the top of this post.


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