Holocaust Memorial Day: journeys of difference and similarity

"Journeys," a theme to encourage learning by the journeys people have made through experiences of persecution, genocide and terror.

January 29, 2014 19:40
3 minute read.
auschwitz sign

The sign "Arbeit macht frei" at the main gate to the Auschwitz concentration camp.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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On Monday I attended London City Hall’s Holocaust Memorial Day event. The well-chosen theme of “journeys” is the focus for Holocaust Memorial Day 2014 and HMD’s approach is to encourage learning around the various journeys people have made through experiences of persecution, genocide and terror as was the case for the so many people who suffered in the Holocaust under Nazi persecution.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, together with the Greater London Authority, hosted the event at City Hall. Present were the mayors of all the London boroughs and leaders of London’s borough councils, senior representatives of London government organizations, alongside numerous community representatives from a range of Jewish organizations and – most importantly – survivors of the Holocaust.

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The event was not your typical display of speeches and candle lighting ceremonies. Rather there was an eclectic assortment of speakers and presentations. The theme was heavy but it was executed beautifully and was a considerable tribute to the tremendous work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), who clearly had put a lot of thought into the morning’s repertoire.

Sitting in City Hall’s impressive “Chamber,” overlooking the River Thames, watching the many boats and vessels making their various journeys, it seemed particularly poignant to listen to the journey and testimonial of Steven Frank.

Steven, a survivor of the Holocaust, who as a child had considered himself more Dutch than Jewish, told his story of persecution at the hands of the Nazis, having gone through two camps and eventually losing his father, who was gassed in Auschwitz.

Boris Johnson read a sombre but poignant extract from If Not Now, When by Primo Levi – a story about the Jewish partisans and resistance fighters who struggled to survive and subvert the Nazi regime, making the journey from Russia to Italy, toward their ultimate goal of Palestine.

It was interesting to see Boris in this introspective and serious demeanor, a far cry from his usual jovial, provocative and satirical self; but it was executed well.

The gathering also heard testimonials from three students who had had the opportunity of visiting Poland with the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was inspiring to see how these students’ lives had been so greatly touched by the visits to Auschwitz and how they have now chosen to become HET Ambassadors. David Rwahama and Elias Surafel from Highbury Grove School felt that the trip had helped them understand the true extent of the atrocities that had taken place, and were particularly struck by the extensive collections of everyday objects like mounds of children’s shoes which had been removed from little children.

These experiences, coupled with one of the student’s own journey through – and escape from – the Rwandan genocide brought home to all listening the real need to remember and learn from those who have been persecuted. And crucially, to make every effort to stand in the way of history repeating itself, which the youngsters plan to do through their involvement with HET.

The musical and cantorial elements of the ceremony were carefully chosen and beautifully executed. Sophie Solomon, director of the Jewish Music Institute, chose classical yet renewed Jewish refrains. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, of the Movement for Reform Judaism, sang a loud and heartfelt memorial prayer, retelling her journey back to Lithuania – the homeland of her ancestors.

This was followed by the telling of another journey, by Sophie Masereka, a Rwandan genocide survivor whose remarkable journey has brought her to the UK where she now lives with her three children and husband. Sophie’s story is most likely similar to that of many who escaped Rwanda, but her gratitude and strength are noteworthy, as is her mantra that although we must not forget the past, we must – all of us – formulate ways to enable us to go forward.

This year commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. And thus we are provided with a poignant reminder that genocides and crimes against humanity have happened since the atrocities and ruthless extermination of the millions of Jews, Blacks, Homosexuals and Roma in the Holocaust. Certainly, the journeys theme helps highlight our collective responsibility, to remember and keep alive the memories and experiences of those whose journeys to safety and freedom have not been as easy and accepted as our own.

The author is the public and parliamentary affairs officer The Board of Deputies of British Jews.

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