The Revd Lucy Dallas is a Church of England Priest and Director of Pastoral Studies at the Eastern Region Ministry Course. Lucy participated in CCJ’s 2018 Yad Vashem Seminar at the International School of Holocaust Studies.
The sky darkened as I followed the winding path down to the Valley of the Communities. It was the last day of our ten-day stay in Jerusalem as guests and students of the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem. We had been here before; on the first day of our seminar, we had walked together down past the sculpture that looked from afar like a tree but, closer up, was made entirely out of iron people connected by a hand here or a foot there.
On that first day, we had learned about the Valley of the Communities; we had heard that it was inspired by Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones, that it was the lowest point of the hilly campus of Yad Vashem, and that each one of its enormous stones with place names carved in its local language and in Hebrew represented a community of Jewish people who had been murdered in the Holocaust. We had listened to the painful stories of some of these people on that first day, but now, as we prepared to fly home to our own communities, I was compelled to go back.
I read, once again, the inscription recalling the home that Jewish people had found, and made, in Europe over more than a millennium, and I thought of the stark challenge posed by our sessions on antisemitism, past and all too present. I remembered the things I’d learned about Judaism in Jerusalem, the wide-ranging, enjoyable conversation with members of the Orthodox congregation over Friday night Shabbat dinner, the beautiful, reconstructed German, Italian and Keralan synagogues in the Israel Museum, the lively classroom presentation of Judaism ‘on one foot’, even the food at the hotel buffet.
I walked among the stone memorials and read all the place-names, some poignantly familiar to me personally, others about which I had written pages of notes in the lectures and workshops of the past ten days. As I walked, I recalled the stories we’d heard; the callous deportation from Dusseldorf, the squalor and spirited resistance of the Warsaw ghetto, the cruel collusion of civilians and Nazis in Lublin, the open-hearted kindness of Albanian Muslims who sheltered Jewish families.
Instinctively, I wanted to try and get a sense of scale of the lives, and deaths, of the people about whom we had been learning, to feel the weight of the heartbreaking loss, to remember the acts of courageous defiance, to offer silent prayer in this valley of dry bones. I walked, thought, pondered and prayed until the rain started. I heard later that two others in out group had done the same. ‘I had to stop in the end’, one of them told me. ‘It just got too much.’
The photos I took, the notes I made, the books I bought and was given, the conversations, learning and reflection of this unique and profoundly impacting visit will stay with me for life. They won’t just stay with me, though; as a theological educator and priest in the Church of England, I am glad to have opportunities to share this learning with others, as well as using the trip as a springboard for my own continuing learning. I am planning a Holocaust Memorial Day lecture at St Edmondsbury Cathedral, a five-week study course on the Holocaust at St Albans Cathedral Study Centre to tie in with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a webinar for ministerial students on post-Holocaust readings of the Bible and an old-fashioned ‘slide show’ evening at my church, complete with an Israeli-inspired meal (I am a firm believer in the community-bonding power of food, so I’m dusting off my Ottolenghi cookbook!) I hope to share some of what I’ve learned with the students of my local Church of England secondary school, too, and I have signed up for Yad Vashem’s free online eight-week course on anti-Semitism. What I was trying on that last rainy afternoon in the Valley of the Communities – to get a true sense of the reality and impact of the Holocaust – is, I’ve realised, an unfolding process; one which I am grateful to be part of.