Although HMD is normally commemorated on the twenty-seventh, that being a Friday this year, the commemoration was brought forward to the Thursday evening so as to ensure that Sabbath observant Jewish people would be able to attend.
The event was held in the Conference Hall of the Brent Civic Centre. The organisers estimate that there were probably in excess of 200 there on the night, filling the hall. The excellent sound system certainly enhanced the experience for the audience.
The theme of the commemoration this year was encapsulated in the question: how can life go on after the Holocaust? The survivors’ response – my parents’ response – was that having survived, through whatever fortune of chance, failing to go on to re-establish communities, to build new families, and to believe in a better future, would have given their persecutors too easy a victory.
The programme was once again this year introduced by Carolyn Downs (CEO of Brent Council) and we were clearly in the hands of a highly competent and thoughtful presenter. Those of us who are children of Holocaust survivors, have considerable sensitivities to things which are said about the experiences that more or less defined our parents’ lives and I found myself very grateful for the tone, the content and the evident sympathy that came across.
There were strong and clear opening statements both by the Mayor of Brent, Councillor Parvaz Ahmed and Councillor Muhammed Butt (Leader of the Council). In this day and age when the British Jewish community is once again feeling the cold winds of prejudice, it is heartening to hear the leadership of Brent condemning such unreasoning hatred in no uncertain terms.
If HMD is to have any purpose, I have always believed that it must be to educate the young. Representatives of the 78 (Wembley) Squadron of the Air Training Corps came up to light six memorial candles and briefly to explain the significance of the Holocaust from their own viewpoint. Later on in the programme, two young men from a local secondary school (St Gregory’s) related their experiences and conclusions based on their visit to Auschwitz under the Young Ambassadors programme. It is clear that Michael McCafferty and Thomas Teinovas had both understood what had been done there and to whom and had taken away and passed on the lessons to be drawn. The young choir from JFS performed a similar role. For us in the audience they stand for so much. Here they were, Jewish children, 72 years on from the liberation of the death camps, singing Hebrew songs in praise of their Creator.
For me and I believe many others there that evening, all of these children were both a reminder of the one and a half million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators, and a beacon of hope for the future.
The main speaker for the evening was Mr Manfred Goldberg, a survivor from Germany. Like many other survivors, Mr Goldberg had not spoken of this period in his life to anyone until recently. It was clearly very important to him to keep to facts and to leave analysis to the audience. He had been just a child on Kristallnacht. His father had been forced to flee Germany as a consequence of the round-ups which followed, leaving his mother, younger brother and himself behind. It takes very little imagination to understand the frantic and heart-breaking efforts of the father to extract his family from the coming nightmare and the consequences of the failure. Eventually there followed deportation to Stutthoff, then transfer to the Riga Ghetto, Mr Goldberg’s mother was a slave labourer in both Stutthoff and in Riga and, thus, they were spared from execution. As the Russians neared, the survivors of Riga were returned to Germany and so they found themselves back in Stutthoff. By this time he was also able to work, but they had to leave his younger brother in the barracks. One evening they returned to the barracks and his brother was nowhere to be found. They have never been able to find any information as to his fate and continued to look for him long after liberation.
After its poignancy and the tension Mr Goldberg’s presentation had created, the London Cantorial Singers provided a few minutes of much needed relaxation. Particularly, their choral rendering of “Lo Teida” was a wonderful experience.
If we still needed any reminder at all of continuing genocide in the World today, there was Rehab Jameel to tell her tale; a child of survivors from Darfur (in Northern Sudan), where the Arab Muslim inhabitants to this day are waging an unremitting war of extermination against the non-Arabised Muslim tribes of the area.
Before drawing the ceremony to its dignified closure, Mrs Downs called on Rabbi Simon Harris (of Wembley Synagogue) to intone the Memorial Prayer for the six million victims of the Holocaust. In the two minutes of silence which followed, I am sure that the thoughts of many of us strayed to individual members of our families who were counted in that number. They were not the faceless victims of unreasoning hatred but our grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins, and distinguished rabbis of communities. The most important lesson of HMD is that all of them were ordinary human beings - people just like us - and were entitled to live peaceful and productive lives without fear. The crime of their murder cannot be forgiven and must not be forgotten.