Today we had over 300 children in the Cathedral to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. They came from schools all over County Durham, and they were joined by the Chairman and the Leader of the County Council and other civic dignitaries. There were workshops in the morning, including holocaust-related art and storytelling and a visit to the Anne Frank for Schools exhibition in the Galilee.
The afternoon session was a plenary in the nave. It began with the recitation of the Kaddish (in Hebrew and English) for the victims of genocide given by an orthodox Jew. This was followed by an address from a survivor from the camp at Bergen-Belsen, Rudi Oppenheimer. He spoke about growing up in Berlin and in German-occupied Holland. Movingly, he passed round the yellow Star of David labelled (in Dutch) 'Jew' which he was forced to wear on his clothing. He described life in the relatively benign transit camp at Westerbork, and then facing the full horrors of Bergen-Belsen. He told us about the loss of his grandparents and parents, and about the long journey to liberation.
The children asked several questions. Three were especially telling: 'how did you feel when you heard about your parents' death?', 'did you think you were going to die?' and 'do you feel bitter towards the Germans?' Rudi answered these without evasion. He spoke about the suppression of emotion in the camps, how all effort was focused on staying alive for another day. He talked about the importance of not harbouring hatreds: he did not hold the German people of today responsible for the atrocities of the Nazi regime. But he acknowledged that for him it was impossible to forgive on behalf of others, such as his murdered parents. Only the victims can speak for themselves, he said.
Tough truth for school children to face, but necessary, for children and for adults alike. In my summing up, I spoke about my being a second-generation survivor whose Jewish mother fled from Nazi Germany and was given asylum in Britain. This has coloured my entire life. I then quoted Edmund Burke: 'for evil to flourish, it is necessary only that good men do nothing'. This is why Holocaust Memorial Day matters: so that we, who think of ourselves as good people, do not stand silently by, but do what we can by speaking up for victims everywhere, and speaking out against the wrong.
At evensong today, when the prayers focused on racial hatred and genocide, I pondered further the issue of forgiveness and the insights Christianity has to bring to the way we re-imagine a post-holocaust world. Except that Bosnia, and Rwanda, and the Sudan, and now northern Nigeria remind us that we have yet to enter that world.