Remembering the Holocaust: an alumnus of CCJ’s Yad Vashem seminar reflects on her experience and what we can do today with our memory and our learning
Rev Jessica Foster
Last night I was asked to speak, after an incredible testimony from Dr Martin Stern, a Holocaust survivor, at a meeting of the Birmingham branch of the Council of Christians and Jews. The night before I had been asked to speak at a protest against the Executive Orders banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US and the ending of the refugee resettlement programme. There were many themes that resonated between the two gatherings.
This is what I said last night:
I grew up in a vicarage with parents who were keen for us to know about our heritage. I was told as a small child that I am a quarter Jewish, an eighth Irish, and eighth Scottish, an eight welsh and three eighths English. It was always in that order. My Mother’s father was a Jewish man called Lewin Phillips, his parents lived in Frederick Road in Edgbaston and he was a teacher. He had converted to Christianity at Cambridge University and died when my Mum was three – he was in the RAF and died on a bombing raid. My Mum always remember receiving a Christmas present from him after his death. I know very little more about him except he is remembered as a lovely, kind man, a devoted husband and a dedicated father. I also know that very few people attended my Grandparents’ weddings – neither families being happy with the match.
My family formed me into an active left wing Christian who campaigned about apartheid, went on anti-nuclear marches and saw politics as integral to my faith. Eight years ago, when I was working as the Director of Communications for the Diocese I received an invitation to go to Israel/Palestine with Christian Aid and I leapt at the chance.
We stayed in Bethlehem and Nazareth, visiting the holy sites, tourist sites as wells as NGOs, schools and hospitals in the West Bank. I loved my visit, I especially felt at home in Bethlehem and I was impressed and inspired by some of the people I had met and the projects I had seen. However I did feel that part of the story was missing and I regretted that we had not had the opportunity to meet some ordinary Israelis and hear more of their perspective on the conflict. So when I returned I met Ruth Jacobs who then ran the Israeli Information centre in Birmingham. Ruth encouraged me to think about my Jewish roots, and I began to learn more about the Jewish community in Birmingham – through interfaith dialogue, attending events in Birmingham synagogues and building friendships.
My ordination followed and then I saw the opportunity to join the Clergy study tour to Yad Vashem – I think the reasons I wanted to go were both personal and political.
So at the very end of October I arrived in Jerusalem for the study tour organised by the Council of Christians and Jews, based at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum just outside the city in Ein Karem. The name Yad Vashem means a ‘place and a name’ and is taken from a verse in the Book of Isaiah: “Even unto them will I give in my house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5).
The museum includes the valley of Destroyed Communities which represents Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones and contains the names of every Jewish community in Europe affected by the Holocaust, the Children’s memorial remembering 1.5 million children who were murdered, the hall of memories and the memorial hall which contains ashes from the crematoria at Auschwitz.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that Yad Vashem broke my heart as the reality of six million murdered people hit home and vague statistics assumed their rightful humanity. I am the sort of person who cries at the news but to confront both the depth of evil and breadth of suffering over a ten day period wrought a deep transformation.
The course was carefully structured to give us a three day ‘break’ in the middle where we could reflect on what we had heard and let it settle before our final three days at Yad Vashem. In those three days we visited Galilee, explored Jerusalem, went to church and synagogue.
Lectures at Yad Vashem gave us a historical insight into the Jewish life and culture of Eastern Europe before the Shoah. We had the chance to think about the theological origins of Judaism, the contemporary conflict and the politics of Zionism. Lectures were interspersed with visits to the museum itself and the surrounding exhibitions and concluded with an incredible testimony from an 89-year-old survivor who spoke with such bravery and resolve. She spoke of her experiences as a young woman living in Hungary and then being deported during the end of the war – the details of her testimony gave us a shockingly clear picture of the brutality of the camp and the climate of antisemitism that grew up in Europe, leaving her and her family without a place to call home, even after liberation.
Staying in Jerusalem was an interesting experience in itself, although opportunities to get to know the city were slightly limited by the intensity of the course. It was brilliant that our time included a Shabbat service at a local synagogue and a meal afterwards with a Jewish family. Our hosts were very open and had invited friends to join the meal. It was clear that there was not political agreement around the table and issues of religion and faith were also hotly debated. It was brilliant too to see the Jewish faith practiced at home and the way children were included in Shabbat.
Since returning many questions have been buzzing round my head, including how far did Christian beliefs contribute to an environment in which virulent antisemitism could flourish? What drives human beings to so fear the ‘other’ that they want to kill them? What makes someone a perpetrator, a bystander or a rescuer and which would I be? How do we, as parents and religious educators, nurture character so we have far more rescuers and far fewer bystanders and perpetrators?
Reading around this I have come up with three ideas suggesting how we might prepare ourselves to have moral integrity in a crisis.
Firstly: We need to draw from our faith and then be ready to rely on God. There are resources available to us when we are beyond our own human resources. But we make ourselves ready to receive from God by rooting ourselves in the practice of faith.
John Weinder – a rescuer of Jewish people – says this: “My family was Dutch and Christian. Even when we were quite young my parents always encouraged us, my sister and me, to read the Bible and to believe that love was the aim of our lives. My mother and father taught us that Moses got the instruction from God that tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves and we also knew from the Bible that Jesus Christ, who was himself a Jew, had said that the greatest commandment was to love God and to love your neighbour as yourself. Both at home and at school, our education was directed toward love, compassion and service to others.’
Secondly – and I don’t think this contradicts my first point – we need to not belong to anything so completely that we stop listening to our own soul and conscience. Researchers found that Christians who rescued Jews all shared a sense of separateness or individuality. They were people who were not unduly influenced by their social environment. They were people who were motivated by moral values that did not depend on the support and approval of others. They were usually at peace with themselves and with their own idea of right and wrong and their character had been formed by a long-standing commitment to protect the needy.
Thirdly – we need to remember. To remember means literally to put back together. At Yad Vashem the purpose of the museum is to restore humanity to those who had everything taken from them. We need to remember that humanity is capable of great evil and cruelty and that goodness in the private sphere is not enough to stop political evil from taking root.
Understanding what happened to Jews in Europe on a deep level is terrifying. My own family in England have had an unbroken history in Birmingham that spans several centuries. A picture of a girl in Poland taken between the wars looks like a photo of my mother as a small girl. They share a heritage, they share the same time in history but their futures were worlds apart.
What happened in Europe was cataclysmic. Neighbour turned against neighbour. Cultures and communities were destroyed. Hate and fear fuelled a murderous system. Seventy years on it seems impossible to believe it could happen again yet the signs of xenophobia are becoming more and more visible. With policies banning refugees from America and anti-Muslim legislation passed, as antisemitism grows and the refugee crisis in Europe shows no signs of lessening once again, I feel we are being asked – as individuals and as a Church – will we be perpetrators or bystanders or will we embrace our calling to be peacemakers?
I want to leave you this evening with a poem – this is inscribed into a wall by the Memorial to Deportees. It reminded me of the simple fact that humanity is one family and our conflicts are often caused by sibling-like rivalry. The poem is called Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car and was written by Dan Pagis and is simply this:
‘here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my other son
cain son of man
tell him I…’