Next Saturday, exeat weekend, is Holocaust Memorial Day. Like Remembrance Sunday, this is a day which has taken on a far wider remit than its original intent – it is, of course, a memorial for those six million Jews (two thirds of the Jews in all Europe) murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War, but it is also there to remember the half a million gypsies who were murdered alongside them, and more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. And with respect to these later events, it is amazing to think that there were Jews who survived the horrors of the 1940s who lived (and indeed still live) to see the unthinkable nature of genocide repeating itself again and again elsewhere in the world in their lifetime. I have had the great honour of meeting some of these survivors, and I hope that you find a chance to do so while they still have life. Two stories spring to mind more than others. At the funeral of my father-in-law a few years ago, an elderly lady came up to me and said “do you know why I am here”? I confessed I did not and so she told me. She had been a sixteen year old girl in Auschwitz when the Russians reached the camp to liberate them. In fact, there were few of them left. In one of the most unimaginable atrocities, when they realised the war was lost the Germans stepped up their persecution of the Jews to kill as many as they possibly could before they succumbed to the allies. This led to the so called “death marches” and only 7,500 were left in the camp at Auschwitz on liberation. Only ten days before, as part of Hitler’s attempt to hide the evidence, the majority of them, almost 60,000, had been evacuated in the middle of winter and marched west, where thousands more died. So here was this old lady now, telling me about being liberated. It was a strange feeling, she said; initially, we were elated, but very quickly we realised that we had nothing. We had no money, no clothes, no possessions, no relatives and no home. It is all very well to be liberated, but what were we to do? Where were we to go? Well, most of us, she said, simply stayed in the camp at Auschwitz for a while. I had been there for two weeks, wondering what would happen to me, when a Red Cross man came up to me and said “what is your surname”. I replied and he gave me a Red Cross parcel. Inside it was £50 – it was quite a lot of money in those days – and a note asking the Red Cross to find all those with the same surname as the note-writer in the camps and to distribute this money to each of them. That man, she said, was your wife’s grandfather and I have thanked him every day for the rest of my life – and I am here at the funeral now to pay my respects to his son.
A second story involved the family of some friends of ours. These were Hungarian Jews. At the start of the war, they sent their daughter to England because they feared that Hungary would become quickly unsafe. The parents stayed at home themselves to manage the business and, as many Jews did, hope for the best. Sadly, the best did not happen. When they realised that they were being rounded up for deportation, they wrote to their daughter to say that they loved her and that they were leaving Hungary, but hoped to be okay. They gave her some news about home and in the letter they mentioned that they had planted a third tree in the garden, between the other two. That girl never saw her parents again, but about twenty years later she did go back to the home she grew up in in Hungary. The current occupants were very pleasant, welcomed her in and showed her around. One thing she noticed was that there were only two trees in the garden. She assumed at first that the middle one had simply been cut down. When she got back to her hotel later that evening, she thought about this curiosity further and, the following day, she returned to the house and asked, rather sheepishly, whether or not the family would mind her digging a hole in their garden between the two trees. She had a theory, and sure enough it proved correct. When she dug down a foot or so, she hit something hard and there was a box. Pulling it up, inside there were pictures of her parents and some family jewellery, amongst other memories from her early childhood. An emotional moment indeed.
There is something unimaginably awful about genocide, the mindless slaughter of people like you and me, with families, friends, happy lives and normal childhoods, for no reason which anybody can fathom. I was in Berlin over half term, and to the great credit of the German people, there are extremely moving museums and memorials to the slaughter during the war, all designed to make sure that nobody forgets the horror and that it is never repeated again. But the awful fact is that it is repeated again and again. In 1994 (under half of my life ago), almost a million Rwandans were killed by their own countrymen, townsfolk and neighbours in only one hundred days. They were killed with machetes, kitchen knives, fists and boots. Just normal people caught in a frenzy of violence between groups known as Hutus and Tutsis, people who even shared a language and religion. Even today, in your lifetime and mine, a million Rohingya Muslims have been driven away from their home country of Myanmar since August, amidst reports of systematic murder, rape and burning, in a very real form of ethnic cleansing.
So, next Saturday, spare a moment’s thought for this. These awful events remind us how important it is to seek peace amongst humanity, to foster civility and kindness towards others, and to (in Christian terms) love thy neighbour. I will attend a service to remember the Holocaust and other such atrocities in the Corn Exchange next Saturday evening at 6.30pm, alongside other members of the local community. I know they are looking for children volunteers to be readers and if you wish to attend too – and maybe read a lesson, or light some memorial candles – then do let me know.