SOAS University of London

Tribute to David Cesarani

30 October 2015

Professor David Cesarani, who has died at the early age of 58, was an international expert on the Holocaust and on anti-Semitism who spoke on several occasions to the Centre for Jewish Studies at SOAS. During his career, he held posts at Leeds, Manchester, QMC, Southampton and finally at Royal Holloway. He was an advisor to government to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and to the Imperial War Museum. He was also a frequent contributor to the Guardian and to the BBC on issues that concerned him.

He campaigned strongly to ensure that the War Crimes Act (1991) was passed in Parliament. This meant that British courts could try those accused of war crimes during World War II – those who had escaped and subsequently came to the UK to become citizens or residents. His book 'Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals' summed up this struggle.

He was also the author of a fine biography of Arthur Koestler and a work on Disraeli will be published in the near future. He recorded the history of the Anglo-Jewish community in his book which marked the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish Chronicle.

Unlike some academics he was not guided by rules and regulations, but by instinct. He often gave students an opportunity to prove themselves – and encouraged them beyond the call of professional duty to attain their goal. He worked hard for his students and this produced life-long relationships.

David was a man of the Left who supported the Labour party. He also identified with the Israeli Left and was a founder of the British Friends of Peace Now, established during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He was a severe critic of the British far Left which he regarded as reducing the complexity of the tortuous Israel-Palestine conflict to simplistic slogans and soundbites and castigated them for refusing to bring together supporters of the peace camp on both sides.

David possessed a wicked sense of humour and an unpredictable sense of fun. He exhibited a great generosity of spirit and an intellectual curiosity which made him a wonderful conversationalist. He loved the cut-and-thrust of debate.

I participated with him on a BBC television programme about the sentencing of a 94 year-old German war criminal, Oskar Gröning, just a few weeks ago. It was a lively exchange and a positive encounter. I hesitated before accepting the BBC’s invitation since this was not my area of expertise. I am now very pleased that I did so since it allowed for such an unexpected leave-taking on such warm and amicable terms. I will always remember his parting laughter and wit.

His loss is personal and professional. He leaves behind a young family and an army of devastated friends and colleagues. He still had many books to write, but he packed into just over half a century far more than many who attain three score and ten – and beyond. He used his time well. May his memory be for a blessing.

Colin Shindler
Emeritus Professor