Last weekend was the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Lucas Inman kindly delivered a thought-provoking talk on re-humanisation at Bedford Borough’s remembrance service at the Higgins, reflecting upon his own visit to Auschwitz last year. Lucas has stories from his own family history and today I will deliver a few of mine, one of which I have told some of you before; the others I have not. The Jewish people have the most marvellous tradition when someone dies of ‘sitting shiva’. The idea is that, once the dead has been buried, which has to happen (by tradition) within 24 hours of the death, the family then return home to sit and receive guests for several days. These guests drop by at any time, usually with food, and talk about old times and better times; in the evening there is usually a short prayer service, when the house is likely to be crowded. It was at one such event, the shiva which was being sat after the death of my Jewish father-in-law nine years ago, that an elderly lady came up to me and introduced herself. “Do you know why I am here?” she said. I replied that I did not, and she told me the most amazing story. She had been in Auschwitz during the war and had somehow managed to survive to see the end of it; liberation came and they were overcome with joy when the troops moved in. But, and this I had not thought about before, the reality soon hit them: what next? They had no money, no possessions, often even no clothes and perhaps most sinister of all, few had any relatives. They were free, but they had nowhere to go. Several weeks passed before a Red Cross officer came running up to her and asked her surname. She replied, and he gave her a parcel with £50 in it – untold riches in those days and especially in her situation. It turned out that the father of my father-in-law had sent bundles of £50 via the Red Cross to every living Jew in the camps who bore the same name as him. This old lady finished off by telling me “Since then, I have thanked him every single day of my life, and I now come to pay final respects to his son”.
As I mentioned, the liberation of Auschwitz took place 75 years ago last weekend. Now married to a Jewish wife, I have seen and heard many awful things about it. In the early days of marriage in the 1990s in Australia, I remember the first Jew I ever met with the camp branding on his forearm – he was revered by his fellow worshippers at synagogue in Sydney, but he re-lived his experiences every day. I remember seeing my wife’s family tree – it was completely decimated by relatives described simply as ‘killed in the camps’. I remember, too, visiting the Sydney Holocaust Museum on my own shortly after we got married. It was, as one can imagine, pretty horrific. Anyone who has ever seen Schindler’s List or visited a concentration camp will know that feeling when you leave of not wanting to have any contact with anyone for several hours – one feels almost a deep shame to be human. It turned out that this museum was manned solely by Holocaust survivors. At one point I was sitting in the corner of the museum watching some old black and white footage of one of the camps, when a finger came over my shoulder and I turned to see a woman of about 80 pointing at the screen, her eyes ablaze and with one word on her lips: Auschwitz. We talked for about an hour. It turned out that she had been in the camp, as had her twin sisters and her parents. Her parents had perished there, and her twin sisters had been taken off by Josef Mengele to be experimented on for his medical purposes – only one of those twins returned, but such a mess was left of her insides that she was never the same again. As I listened to her, I could not decide whether or not to tell her that I had married a Jewish girl. There are some Jews who would not countenance ‘marrying out’, as they call it, holding dearly to their customs and long held beliefs, and there are others for whom wartime experiences simply destroyed their faith in God altogether. When I did tell her, though, she could not have been happier; she explained that the only way to defeat such hatred and despair as she had witnessed in her life was by love and intermarriage. The reason she had spent all of her life, every single day, reliving the awful events of all those years ago, was to keep reminding herself, and others, that love alone can overcome the most awful things that life can throw at us. This woman, who had more reason to hate than anyone I had ever met, was the most kindly, loving, gentle, forgiving and determined person imaginable.
It is, if nothing else, incumbent upon us to remember the Holocaust; please do learn about what happened, grim though the subject matter is. No generation should ever forget it.