Holocaust Memorial Day: 27 January 2016

                                            HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY: 27TH JANUARY 2016                                     

The London Borough of Sutton marked Holocaust Memorial Day with a ceremony held in the hall of Sutton Grammar School.  It was attended by more than 150 people, including the Mayor, Mayoress and Deputy Mayor of Sutton, the Borough Commander, Tom Brake (MP for Carshalton & Wallington), the Chief Executive of the Council and a number of Sutton’s Borough Councillors.

The Mayor welcomed those present, including students from Homefield, Sutton Grammar and Wallington High.  The main speaker was Mrs Eve Gill who, as last year, spoke movingly about her experience as a young girl in Vienna and how she sent to the UK on the Kindertransport (The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig: of these, some 669 came at the instigation of the late Sir Nicholas Winton).  Although silent during her narration, the audience accorded her a standing ovation before she answered questions.

Students from Sutton Grammar gave verbal, video and musical contributions on this year’s theme of “Don’t Stand By” and the ceremony ended with a short address from Rabbi Shmuli Sagal (SEE BELOW), who also recited the memorial prayer in Hebrew, which was followed by one minute of silence.  Those present were unanimous in their appreciation of the organisation of the event, and contributions made by students in the borough will be on show at the Europa Gallery in Sutton Library until Wednesday 10 February.

Eve also addressed an audience at Reigate School the previous evening at an event hosted by Reigate and Banstead Council, and we are enormously grateful for the opportunity to hear her speak on these occasions.


Theme: Don’t Stand By

It wasn’t long ago that I, like many of you in this room today, was in sixth form studying for my A-Levels. My school chose to teach Nazi Germany as one of the units for History A-Level. This happened to be taught by a teacher I really enjoyed and who actually inspired me to go on to study History at both undergraduate and graduate levels. So despite the depressing subject matter, it was this unit that I enjoyed studying the most, and if I remember correctly, got my best mark in! Of course, being a unit on Nazi Germany there was a chapter about the Holocaust, but to be honest I don’t recall much about that part of the course which obviously wasn’t particularly impactful.

A few years later when I was studying History at university I had the opportunity to take a course on the Holocaust. This happened to be taught by one of my worst professors from my time at university and the lectures were really hard going. The course material itself was not that drastically different from what I had learnt at A-Level. Both discussed the Versailles Treaty as a catalyst to the rise of Hitler and both included a discussion about the varying methods the Nazi’s used to carry out their genocide of the Jews. Yet, when I read the textbook and studied for the course on the Holocaust at university I was a changed person from it. It deeply moved me and to this day plays a part in how I think about the Holocaust and its ramifications.

What made all the difference between these two studies of the Holocaust was one chapter that my university textbook had and that my A-Level studies just didn’t mention. That was chapter eleven of the book ‘A History of the Holocaust’ by Yehuda Bauer entitled “Resistance”. Following page after page detailing what the Nazi’s cruelly did to the Jews and others, this chapter is the first that speaks about what the Jews and others did to resist the Nazis. The truth is only a very small number resisted with like for like, fighting the Nazi’s in the pathetic manner they courageously did. The movie Defiance starring Daniel Craig tells the story of the Bielski brothers who led a group of Jewish partisans in the Belorussian forests and is an amazing portrayal of this type of resistance.

The vast majority of those who resisted the Nazi’s, however, did so in a way that’s been called passive resistance. Whether it was simply maintaining their human dignity despite the depraved conditions they were subject to. Or even continuing religious and cultural advancement in the face of the threat of corporal punishment. These equally courageous resistors defied their Nazi oppressors. Holocaust survivor and world renowned psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, explained, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s Search For Meaning, 66). By not surrendering to the Nazi’s and allowing themselves to become dehumanised as their persecutors wanted, these people made the choice to stand tall, to retain their dignity and faith. Powerless in the practical sense of the word, these resistors exercised the ultimate power, and the one which in the end wins wars and guarantees survival. Their determination to live, lead them to stage orchestral performances in ghettos, to hold prayer groups on death trains and to practice charity in concentration camps. When I read about these types of heroic actions and discovered the other side of the Nazi onslaught against the Jews and others, it made me think differently about our humanity and gave me a new appreciation for what is possible in the face of all adversity.

The Holocaust was not the first genocide the Jew’s suffered. Three and half millennia ago, at the dawn of Jewish history, the Children of Israel were enslaved in ancient Egypt. Playing upon fears of an uprising by a hidden and dangerous other within Egyptian society, Pharaoh ordered that all Jewish boys be murdered upon birth. The Bible tells us how the dispirited masses, broken by centuries of back breaking labour, were not able to fathom the notion of fighting for their freedom. One man, however, found this degradation of the Israelites to be unconscionable. Moses, who had grown up in Pharaoh’s palace, far away from the atrocities being committed, would not stand by when his brothers were suffering in the most inhumane way. His anti-establishmentarian activities landed him in trouble and he was forced into a prolonged exile. Yet Moses’ sense of responsibility did not absolve itself so easily. With God’s guidance, he returned to Egypt to stand up to Pharaoh and eventually secured the Jewish People’s emancipation. Moses actively resisted.

There were others, though, who passively resisted the brutal Egyptian regime. Jewish tradition teaches that on the forced labour building sites it was Jewish foreman who oversaw much of the work. When the unrealistic production targets were not met, it was these foreman who took the beatings from the Egyptian taskmasters. Rather than laying the blame on a particular slack worker under their watch, they bore the whip instead. In this way they refused to allow their fellow victims to suffer more pain and indignity than they already were. The Rabbi’s reveal to us that when it came time to appoint leaders who would stand at the helm of the newly freed Jewish Nation, it was these foreman who were chosen.

Like Moses and the Israelite foreman, seventy years ago there were those who refused to stand by as European Jewry was being systematically annihilated by the Nazi killing machine. Unfortunately, these brave men and women were few and far between. This past year we lost one of these outstanding individuals, Sir Nicholas Winton. He was a young British stockbroker who could have easily minded his own business and got on with his life. Yet, he refused to stand by. Through his tireless efforts 669 children were saved from the Nazi inferno and gifted the golden opportunity to make a life for themselves in this country. Sir Nicholas Winton didn’t do this for the recognition or the honour it might bring. He did because it was the right thing to do. There were others like Sir Winton who stood up to the Nazi’s and brazenly sabotaged their genocidal plans. There were even more who stood up to the Nazi’s in discreet and passive ways. Some lobbied Western governments to bomb the railroads leading to the death camps and some donated to aid agencies which provided help to those behind enemy lines. All did their bit in defeating Nazi Germany and ending one of humanities worst nightmares.                                                                                        

Today we remember the victims of the Holocaust and shed a tear for the mindboggling loss inflicting on humans by humans. In recent years the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has focused the memorial services by giving them a poignant theme. This year it is ‘Don’t Stand By.’ Truly remembering the Holocaust should hopefully lead us to learn its lessons. These lessons of our recent history are as pertinent today as they have ever been. Sadly, persecution and injustice are still rife in our world and millions of innocent people face the suffering and insecurities that our parents and grandparents hoped would end with WWII. More specifically, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism - which is more often than not a veneer for the former - are on the steep rise in Europe and around the world. Never again is looking increasing like ever again. Therefore, we must remember the Holocaust and those who resisted Nazi Germany, be it actively or passively, and not stand by on these difficulties that plague the world today.

You might rightly ask yourselves: what can I, a teenager living in South London, do about these enormous and weighty issues? Surely it’s the political, cultural and business leaders that are the only ones who can actually make a difference? But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, today, more so than seventy years ago, an individual - irrespective of age, race or socio-economic background – can fight hatred and injustice. No longer do you need to enlist into the armed forces or take to the streets in protest in order to fight the enemies of our society. From the comfort of your bedrooms and with the ease of a tap on a screen you can stand up to the evils of our world. By using social media and the internet to respond to things like racism, bullying, incitement of hatred and human suffering you can resist and not stand by. Indeed, first we must become aware and educate ourselves about the issues so that we have with what to fight for our values.

Who knows, had Moses had Facebook maybe he would have been able to bring down the genocidal Egyptian Pharaoh sooner?!

Who knows, had there been Twitter and Instagram in the 1930’s and 1940’s, perhaps the atrocities being carried out in Nazi concentration camps would have been exposed earlier, thereby saving many thousands of lives.

We will never know what could have been in the past. But we can promise to make sure things will be different in the future. So, on this Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, let us recall the heroic resistors of the past and pledge Not to Stand By in the future. 

In Judaism we believe that death is not the end of the road. Our tradition teaches that our time on this earth is but a stage upon the journey of life. Death is the gateway into a better place and one where the soul experiences its true reward. This is all the more so for those who have been murdered for the sake of simply being a Jew. We are promised that their souls ascend to heights of heaven. Therefore we will now recite a memorial prayer for the 6 million, amongst them 1.5 million children, who were brutally murdered during the Holocaust. We ask G-d to grant them peace and for their souls to be bound up everlasting life.

This site has been presented in loving memory of Eva and Joe Sarfaty

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