Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

“I didn’t feel like I had a home after the genocide because everything was destroyed. I had no home at all. I had nothing.” writes Marie Chantal Uwamahoro, survivor of the genocide in Rwanda, recounting how she was Torn from Home, the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day 2019. Yet our homes and communities are filled with precious memories and family and friends. We were asked to imagine for a moment that the country in which we were born, which we thought of as home, decides that we are not only unwelcome but actively seeks to wipe us and our family from the face of the earth.

In Marie Chantal’s story we were reminded that genocides did not stop after the Holocaust: 2019 marks the 25th anniversary of genocide in Rwanda as well as the 40th anniversary of genocide in Cambodia. For me (my youngest son recently returned from a trip to Auschwitz), perhaps the most moving account of being torn from home came from Mindu Hornick. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 she was transported to Auschwitz in 1942, where her mother and brothers were murdered. She survived because a well wisher told her to lie about her age making herself much older and therefore useful for forced work in a factory. Others, not useful, were gassed.

As the commemoration unfolded we heard stories about the persecution of the Sinti people of Europe (Romany) and the LBGT+ community during WW2, from those caught up in the genocides of Srebrenica and Darfur along with an account from a Rohingya refugee in Myanmar. As I listened I was transported back into the present with the words ‘never again’ echoing around the auditorium as they had decades ago. As candles were lit by survivors of genocide we stood in silence as the cantor led us in the El Male Rachamim:
God, full of compassion, who dwells on high, may He grant perfect rest on the wings of Your Divine Presence…. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden. The Lord is their portion. And let us say, Amen.

Home should be a safe, comfortable, secure place. Yet, in the Holocaust and more recent genocides, this has been brutally torn away from so many people. Our world often feels fragile and broken and the message I took home with me is that, regardless of whether we are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or of no faith, we cannot be complacent. Even more so in 2019 where prejudice and the language of hate is on the rise in the UK. We were reminded that we gathered together at the start of this restless and divisive year when anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred, racism, gender-based violence, homophobia and many other forms of hostility threatened parts of our society. Where these dangerous prejudices present themselves, then from whatever end of the faith or political spectrum we may be, we must challenge them for a better future for all.

Nicola Furley-Smith
Moderator, Southern Synod

For more information about Holocaust Memorial Day, please visit the website here.

 

Auschwitz Berkenau visit for website 2019 03Auschwitz/Birkenau visit 

“Enjoy your holiday” beamed the cabin crew as we left the plane after landing in Krakow. Eighteen people, some who knew one another well, others who had never met, travelling to Auschwitz and Birkenau. It felt a very inappropriate if well-meant comment, and to a person we uncomfortably looked down at our feet.
Our group was a mix of people: some with no religious affiliation, Christians, Jews and Muslims, a handful among us being Newcastle City Councillors, all wanting to experience a study week as a group staying at the Roman Catholic Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, our home across the road and boundary fence from the old Camp Commandant’s home for the coming five days.
The weather was mid-winter Polish: minus 9C, grey, cloudy, with a biting wind chill. I averaged 6 layers of clothing as we walked around the large sites of Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau for two solid days, and tried to imagine what it was like to be there in little more than pyjamas on a starvation diet, being beaten, with an average life expectancy after imprisonment of 2-3 months. The majority sent to the death camp of Birkenau lived no more than two hours after getting off the train. Such statistics seared the mind. ‘Unrelentingly bleak’ are the two words which stick in my mind; and yet, there were moments where the strength of love and resilience of the human spirit still shone through. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.’ (John 1:5).
Our party stopped and reflected, prayed and meditated at certain points around the site being led by Muslim, Jewish, and Christian voices. We were there to reflect on the holocaust, and subsequent genocides, and to apply what we discerned together to our contemporary context of the City of Newcastle upon Tyne. How could we help prevent any descent into such terrors in our own community today, learning from the lessons of the past?
We were also in the capable hands of Sister Mary, from the Sisters of Mercy. Her long ministry of overseeing survivors and descendants along with other visitors ranging from the Pope to people like us has not dimmed a light shining bright within her, determined as she is that visitors come away not traumatised and broken by what dehumanisation of the other can lead to on an obscenely industrial scale, but instead inspired to make a difference and prevent such things happening again within their spheres of influence at a very human level wherever and whoever we might be.
Our group found the experience of coming away together and being prepared to enter such bleak terrain in order to strengthen our work together for the common good of our whole community in Newcastle was inspirational, and for most of us, a quite unique experience. The impact of such a shared experience is difficult to quantify, but sitting in the heart of the City nearly two months later in bright early Spring sunshine and reflecting back, I am confident that the impact is lasting and profound, and will both inform and steer policy decisions and strategic thinking for years to come. It was an initiative I would recommend to any diverse urban community as we resist those forces which feed on fear, prejudice, displaced frustration and anger. Although such a diverse group, we came away better informed and equipped to continue to serve the City of Newcastle, and appreciating a lot more about one another.

David Herbert
12 March 2019