Yesterday, at a ceremony hosted by the Association of Jewish Refugees at Belsize Square Synagogue, I listened to testimony from Frank Bright, a survivor of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Aged 91 and frail, he began by asking the room “Can you hear me?” The plaintive yet essential nature of his question took me aback for a moment.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day asks us to #StandTogether, but what does this mean? Are we listening?
In the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on the aboutholocaust.org project for the World Jewish Congress and UNESCO. The website contains a range of questions and answers which aim to explain key concepts and key events, and which illustrate them through the life stories of individuals.
As part of this, individuals who have been familiar names have also been developed into full personalities: the humanisation of the Holocaust is more than knowing a name, it is becoming aware of who that person was. The American science-fiction writer Orson Scott Card has many views which I profoundly reject, but his description in the novel Speaker for the Dead of how we should understand the people of the past continues to be something I try and live up to:
…to understand who a person really was, what his or her life really meant, the speaker for the dead would have to explain their self-story – what they meant to do, what they actually did, what they regretted, what they rejoiced in. That’s the story that we never know, the story that we never can know – and yet, at the time of death, it’s the only story truly worth telling.
To fulfil this task for the victims of the Holocaust would take centuries. The Book of Names produced by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, and kept in the Jewish Exhibition at Auschwitz, contains four million names of victims. Speaking to students, I point out that it actually commemorates three groups: those who died and whose names are recorded (Yad Vashem is taken from the Book of Isaiah and means “a monument and a name”); the space at its front where the other two million names we may never know, or even be able to guess at, should go; and the surviving family members whose pages of testimony are condensed into this vast artefact. And these are the barest of details: names, dates, place of birth, place of death (if this is even known). Their hopes, their fears, their aspirations and their regrets all went up, quite literally, in smoke. Telling some of their stories is the only way I can stand with them.
Three of the questions I have answered this year for aboutholocaust have stuck in my mind as I’ve reflected upon the idea of standing together.
Firstly, “Did you know that thousands of Jewish children left Germany without their parents to escape Nazi persecution?” The story of the Kindertransport is well-known and often used to justify a narrative of British moral superiority. The footage of the late Sir Nicholas Winton on That’s Life! in the 1980s, surrounded by the adults he saved as children, is incredibly moving. But for every child who came, many more did not, to say nothing of the parents who were forced to accept separation, usually permanent, as the price of securing their children’s safety. This week, as I sat in a room with some of them in Belsize Square, another of those children, Lord Dubs, was definitively frustrated in his campaign to ensure the safety and security of child refugees separated from their families. We must ask with whom we are standing, and why, and whether the cause of unity for its own sake is worth it. I stand with the children.
Secondly, “Why were there more Jews in Albania in 1945 than before WW2?” in 1938, the Jewish population of Albania was around 200 people. At the end of the war, it was around 1800, as Jews from Germany, Austria, Serbia, Greece and Yugoslavia arrived, in transit to the Americas, Turkey and Mandate Palestine. They had been kept safe by a code of toleration and hospitality called Besa, which means “to keep the promise”. As Lime Balla, one of the rescuers, described it:
We were poor – we didn’t even have a dining table – but we never allowed them to pay for the food or shelter. I went into the forest to chop wood and haul water. We grew vegetables in our garden so we all had plenty to eat. The Jews were sheltered in our village for fifteen months. We dressed them all as farmers, like us. Even the local police knew that the villagers were sheltering Jews.
To stand together is not just a matter of symbolism. It is to act as well, whatever our circumstances, recognising the capacity that each of us has to do something.
Finally, the work on Rabbi Leo Baeck was inspiring. The leader of German Jewry in the 1930s, Baeck chose to stay with his community, as did Rabbi Regina Jonas, a pioneering female rabbi. Both were deported to Theresienstadt, from where Jonas was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in late 1944. I searched in vain for a statement of why they chose to stand together with their community, when in both cases they had options of hiding or escape. The closest I came was the prayer written by Baeck for Yom Kippur in 1935:
Our history is the history of the grandeur of the human soul and the dignity of human life. In this day of sorrow and pain, surrounded by infamy and shame, we will turn our eyes to the days of old. From generation to generation God redeemed our fathers, and he will redeem us in the days to come. We bow our heads before God and remain upright and erect before man. We know our way and we see the road to our goal.
In short, to stand together is sometimes all we can do, recognising that we do so on a road whose ultimate destination is impossible to know. So we must hold hands as we go.