I've had an extraordinary life. Much of it was political as well as fashion; experiences that don't come very often to too many people.
Vidal Sassoon redefined the architecture of women’s hair, but his “extraordinary life” extends beyond the world of hairstyling. Dubbed the “anti-fascist warrior hairdresser” by Britain’s The Telegraph, Sassoon was the youngest member of an underground Jewish veterans organization fighting antisemitism and fascism in postwar London. In 1948, he joined the Haganah, which would soon become the Israel Defense Forces, and fought in the Arab-Israeli War. And in 1982, he helped found the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Although Sassoon has stopped cutting hair himself—he jokes that no one wants an 84-year-old cutting hair—he maintains a strong pride in his Jewish identity, a robust sense of political activism, and a vigilance toward antisemitism.
Welcome to Voices on Antisemitism, a podcast series from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum made possible by generous support from the Elizabeth and Oliver Stanton Foundation. I’m Aleisa Fishman. Every month, we invite a guest to reflect about the many ways that antisemitism and hatred influence our world today. From his home in Los Angeles, here’s Vidal Sassoon.
I was born in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, in 1928. And the period of my childhood was very interesting, because Britain never went Fascist or Communist. But antisemitism was absolutely rife. I mean, it was nothing for another kid to say to you, “Dirty Jew.” And although England was a good place to be, especially with Churchill and the fight against the Nazis, there was always that sense of the Jews being second-class citizens.
Even now, you somehow draw back and say, “How could a nation, which had one of the most… had the strongest cultural obligation to the West, how could it turn as it did, and be as inhuman as it did?” I think it doesn’t take too much. It takes a charismatic leader, which people will listen to and say, “Ah, they have a point. Yes.” They’ll listen to them again and say, “Hmm, I think they’re right in this certain subject matter.” And then they’ll listen to them again, and suddenly they’re Nazis.
Of course there were Germans who had a sense of civilization, because that’s all it is, a sense of civilization. But the majority went for Hitler, not at the beginning, he just got 30 percent of the vote, or 33 percent of the vote eventually. Now obviously, there were many many who were totally ashamed of their German background, for a long, long time, and possibly still are today. They have the most stringent laws against antisemitism, against racism, and it’s a forward thinking country, because they realize that nationalism, once it gets going, is a very hard thing to stop.
Voices on Antisemitism is a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Join us every month to hear a new perspective on the continuing threat of antisemitism in our world today. We would appreciate your feedback on this series. Please visit our website, www.ushmm.org.