Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Yom haShoah: Living Memory

International Holocaust Memorial Day has in recent years been observed on January 27, the date troops entered the camps. In Israel, Yom haShoah is timed around the anniversary of the rising in the Warsaw Ghetto of 1943, but its closeness to Pesach can lead to some variation. I was immensely honoured and moved to be a guest at the Council of Christians and Jews celebration of Yom haShoah yesterday in Oxford. The Oxford Jewish Congregation is a vibrant and extrordinary outfit which encompasses a wide range of expressions of Jewish practice under one roof.

Proceedings began with the simple but compelling voice of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, played on the cello by Lynton Appel — music reflecting traditional chant from the eve of the Day of Atonement. Another unforgettable part of the evening was an address by Ruth Shire, a refugee from Nazi Germany, evacuated with other children in 1937. Ruth put everything in historical perspective, briefly, then told her story — of living with a family near Oxford, of the internment of her father during the war, and of the life she had built in this country.

Ruth’s story reminded us that amidst evil, the kindness of strangers and the resilience of the human spirit make for an everlasting remembrance. Her simple words reminded us that we all have stories that can bless us or curse us, by informing the decisions we make and the attitudes we take. Worst of all is to travel in ignorance of one’s own story. This being a Jewish community, there was, of course, a prodigious family party afterwards.

The memorial included the recitation together of the Kaddish, two minutes silence and the lighting of candles around which we placed stones. In Bible times graves were marked by cairns. Placing stones on them was a way of making them more permanent. Stones do not fade like flowers, and bear witness that others have visited and not forgotten. It was immensely significant to leave stones for those millions who were denied the basic dignity of a grave — an expression of the respect they were denied by their persecutors.

It is important to focus on the historical aspect of this, all the more as time passes. However it added a very special additional dimension to be a guest within a resonant community, in which memory is not a museum piece, but living consciousness. The evening was not simply about feeling sad, but also about identifying with those who died and those who suffer injustice and genocide in the world today:

We remember those who died in the Holocaust,
when madness ruled and evil dwelt on earth. We remember those of whom we know, and those whose very names are lost.

We cherish the memory of those who died as martyrs, those who died re
sisting, and those who died in terror.

We mourn for all that died with them; their goodness and their wisdom, which could have done so much to enoble and enrich humanity. We mourn for the genius and the wit that died, the learning and the laughter that were lost.

We stand in gratitude for their simple, decent lives. Their spiritual resistance remains an enduring testimony to a community where light persisted in darkness. Each person was unique, and we remember them all in love and compassion.

We salute those who had the courage to stand outside the mob, to save us, and to suffer with us. They too are God’s witnesses, and a source of hope when we are tempted to despair.

Because of the suffering, may such times never come again, and may their sacrifice not be in vain. In our daily fight against cruelty and prejudice, tyranny and persecution, their memory gives us strength.

In silence we remember those who sanctified God’s name.


Many thanks to Alison Ryde for the picture of candles and stones afterwards, and to the community of the Oxford Jewish Centre for their generosity and hard work.


Pam Smith said...

Very moving - thank you.

'A resonant community, in which memory is not a museum piece, but living consciousness' will stick with me.

Erika Baker said...

Thank you for this.
I have just translated some handwritten letters from 1939 written by an elderly Jewish lady to her sons in London. In them, she speaks in a matter of fact voice of having to go to “the place where you hand in your property”, of having lodged an appeal against an order to leave her flat of 31 years and move into one room in a shared house – 2 letters later she talks of living in that one room, and of an uncle who had “moved to Poland”.
These vignettes of daily life and the slow but sure deterioration of conditions have been truly moving and shocking.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Many thanks, Pam. There's something about the banality of evil revealed in the ordinary little daily results of genocidal mania. We see the whole, and the people experienced the small packets... Many thnks, Erika.

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