Professor David Cesarani OBE, 13.11.1956 - 25.10.2015

The first time I met David Cesarani was in 2013, when my father and I travelled to Royal Holloway to discuss the MA in Holocaust Studies that he ran. I’d seen him in documentaries, heard him on the radio and read his articles in newspapers and magazines; in short, I knew he was something of a Big Deal.
So there I found myself, sitting opposite him in his rather cramped office on the university campus, expressing my interest in the Holocaust and learning more about it. He seemed somewhat amused when he asked what academic books I’d read on the subject and I replied that I’d just finished Laurence Rees’ ’Auschwitz’… erm, but I’d been to Auschwitz and Dachau. At the end of the meeting, however, he smiled and said he looked forward to welcoming me in September. My father was extremely proud that I was going to be taught by the Professor David Cesarani, such an eminent historian and someone who would surely lead me to great opportunities in my studies and beyond.

He was right, on both accounts. During my MA, David taught two of my courses – ‘The History of the Holocaust’ and ‘Faith, Politics and the Jews of Europe, 1848-1918’. He would usually have a page of a few, short notes (although, to his detriment, had sometimes misplaced them, to great cries of, “Oh, damn! They’re in here somewhere!”) but hardly ever referred to them during the two-hour seminars he held. His knowledge of both subjects was vast; he peppered the facts with details, anecdotes and often humorous impressions of everyone from an Orthodox German Jew to Count de Clermont-Tonnerre of France. His recommended reading list for each course, however, certainly said something about his expectations of his students. More than once we all had the fear of God put into us when we couldn’t answer a question such as, “What were the details from the minutes of the meeting in the Berlin Air Ministry on 12th November, 1938?” David was not a teacher that you wanted to disappoint, but trying to match him on his expertise was an impossible task!

Aside from course seminars, David gave me a number of opportunities for which I am truly grateful. He would often pass on details of events and conferences that his students might find useful or interesting. David was keen to introduce me to others in the field of Holocaust Studies and education, and he often attended events run by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
Furthermore, David offered me the role of part-time Programme Manager for the Summer Institute on the Holocaust and Jewish Civilisation, held on the Royal Holloway campus in summer 2014. This almost definitely helped me gain a place as a Fellow on the American version of the Institute this year. Just before the beginning of term, David offered me a permanent part-time position as Administrator of the Holocaust Research Centre at Royal Holloway. “I could have sifted through hundreds of CVs and conducted interviews,” he told me, “or I thought I could give it to you, because I know you can do it. It was a very easy decision.” I was incredibly touched by the faith that he put in me for the job, and of course, I am now even more determined to promote the HRC and solidify its status as a renowned academic resource.
Finally, after I got myself into a panic about which topic to choose for my PhD, David assured me that no, my change of heart wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, no, the idea itself wasn’t terrible and that yes, he’d be happy to supervise my project. I was very much looking forward to starting my research in January of next year and I know the suggestions he would have brought to the project would have been incredibly valuable.

I last saw David exactly a month ago today. He was dining with the Principal of Royal Holloway, Sir Mick Davis and Barbara Davis, to acknowledge the Davis’ incredible £180,000 donation to the Holocaust Research Centre, the money which enabled David to grant me my new administrative role. He seemed in good spirits, but I already knew that he was unwell, although I did not know the full extent of his illness. As a parting gesture, I quietly presented him with a ‘Get Well Soon’ card, which now, of course, seems rather inadequate. He was visibly moved and made a point of saying “thank you” before I left.

Clearly, however, it is all of us that should be thanking him: all the students, colleagues, academics, friends and family in whose lives he played a part, however small. David brought a passion and an energy to teaching about the Holocaust, a subject that is so complex, difficult and important. Yet he never boasted about the remarkable work he did. His most recent book, due to be published in January 2016, sounds like it will be something of a tour de force, and I am only too sorry to think he will not be here for its reception.

David was a warm, generous man with a sense of humour and a wealth of knowledge. His loss will very much be felt in the History department at Royal Holloway and the wider Holocaust Studies and Jewish Studies communities. My thoughts are with his wife and two children. I hope they will be proud of the legacy that David has left, both through his academic work and the people he inspired during his lifetime. He will be missed.