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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Why We Need Holocaust Memorial Day

Next Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day. So I thought I would blog a few reflections on it, partly to help me prepare for a sermon I am preaching in Oxford on the day itself. Last year I blogged about the big schools' event we have in the Cathedral to mark the day each year. But here are some more personal thoughts.

Lost in Translation is a book by Eva Hoffmann, published in 1989.  She was born in Poland just after the end of the war.  Her Jewish parents had been victims of the Holocaust who had lost family members in the death camps.  They were among the few survivors of a once flourishing Polish Jewry.  Her parents decided, like many of their generation, that there was no future for them in Poland.  So they emigrated to the new world to make their home in Canada. 

She had a dream a few days after arriving there.

I’m drowning in the ocean while my mother and father swim further and further away from me.  I know, in this dream, what it is to be cast adrift in incomprehensible space; I know what it is to lose one’s mooring.  I wake up in the middle of a prolonged scream.  The fear is stronger than anything I’ve ever known…. I try to calm myself and go back to sleep, but I feel as though I’ve stepped through a door into a dark place…and from then on fragments of the fear lodge themselves in my consciousness, thorns and pinpricks of anxiety, loose electricity floating in a psyche that has been forcibly plied from its structures.  Eventually I become accustomed to it; I know that it comes and that it also goes, but when it hits with full force, in its pure form, I call it the Big Fear.

This is the voice of a Holocaust survivor, in her case of the second generation.  It is the inherited memory of the ordeals either or both parents underwent during the Nazi Shoah.  It is only recently through psychoanalytic engagement with children of survivors that such memories can be unconsciously transmitted to the next generation.  This ‘colouring’ of life is frequently described as an unexplained shadow that haunts existence.  Although it is not restricted to the holocaust (the memory of any terrifying experience, particularly if endured for a long period of time, may well be inherited by children), the events of the Shoah provide the most extreme instance of it in the history of the west in the past century.

I recognise an echo of Eva Hoffman’s story in myself.  My mother was born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Düsseldorf.  Her father owned a thriving business in the town.  He had fought for Germany in the Great War and was proud to be an assimilated Jew in a civilised and flourishing nation.  They were liberal Jews who observed Passover, did not eat pork and would not have been seen shopping on Yom Kippur, though they did not attend synagogue regularly.  They loved what Richard Wagner called in Die Meistersinger ‘holy German art’: it was a cultured home full of books and paintings and music.  The 20th century was for them a time of optimism.  Then came the rise of Hitler.  Like most of their family and friends in the Jewish community that time, they did not at first see in Nazism more than a temporary aberration from the historical values of a great nation, a fit of madness that would soon exhaust itself. 

Almost too late, they realised that they must act to save themselves.  My grandparents fled to Holland, leaving behind family and friends most of whom ended their days in Auschwitz.  After the invasion of Holland, they went underground, being hidden by a couple of extraordinarily courageous evangelical women in Edam.  In 1945, my uncle who had been sent out of Germany before my mother and joined the Black Watch drove his tank into the town square of Edam, and calling through his loud-hailer asked if anyone knew the whereabouts of his parents.  My grandfather died shortly afterwards, broken by the war.  But my grandmother lived on to a great age, first in Holland and then in this country where she exercised a deep influence on all her grandchildren, particularly this one.  I paid tribute to her in a blog last year.

It didn't dawn on me at once that the Holocaust was part of my own formation.  My mother had married my father in 1947.  He was an Englishman she had met during the war.  He was a disenchanted Anglican who had discarded churchgoing along with short trousers and model railways.  He regarded religion as a principal cause of human division and conflict, of which the war was a recent instance.  Any vestigial faith my mother might have had was shattered by the experience she had lived through.  So I grew up in a home in which religion was not to be spoken about: at best it was an irrelevance, at worst, malignant.  But we did not speak much about the Holocaust either.  It was one of those ‘secrets in the family’: it was simply too painful.  At times the spectre of anti-semitism would come up, and I was reminded by my mother that as a child born to a Jewish mother, I was myself Jewish according to rabbinic law and while this was not something to make too much of, neither was it to be forgotten. 

It was only as I became a teenager that I became curious about my family’s story and my own identity.  Even now, I can only say that at best it is work in progress.  For instance, I was not expecting when I first drove my family through Holland on holiday in the 1990s how moved I would be to find myself in the country that had taken in my family when they needed asylum and kept them safe.  Again, when I led a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2000, and we visited the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, I was not anticipating that I would be incapable of speech in the face of what overwhelmed me there, particularly the memorial to the millions of children who perished at that time. 

I began to understand three things.  Firstly, that I was a ‘survivor’, and that it was really rather extraordinary that I was alive.  Second, that the personal history I have been describing was for me a participation in the fragility and dislocation that so often emerge as the dark heart of things in a broken world, Eva Hoffmann’s ‘Big Fear’.  But third, that we must never succumb to despair: tragedy must always purify our vision and point us towards redemption.  If it does not do this, if it does not lead to a more just and humane aspiration for life, then the last word will have been uttered by all that is evil and destructive. 

This is why we need Holocaust Memorial Day. In the well-known tag, if we do not learn the lessons of history in this generation, we are doomed to repeat them in the next....and we have: in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Sudan and so many other places that have become part of the litany of places where innocents have been massacred not just in recent years but today. 'All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.'


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