Synagogue Address – Holocaust Memorial Day 2014

Honoured Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is nine years, almost to the day, since I stood in this very same pulpit to remember the recently deceased Sam Nirenberg, Bristol`s last direct link with the horrors of the holocaust.

 He had survived 2044 day in slavery. 

As a teenage boy he had witnessed many terrible things and had been forced literally to help bury more than 60,000 victims of the Nazis….. Forced at gun-point to bury the very evidence of the crimes that have given this day its name: Holocaust Memorial Day.

In some aspects the Holocaust is a unique event. Never before, and never since, had the extermination of a whole ancient people been made a central policy of government. Never before had whole communities, whole sections of the population,  religious minorities, ethnic minorities, social minorities, the disabled, the dissidents, all been loaded together into an industrial process of annihilation. Never before, had all the facilities of a world power been dedicated to such industrialised  destruction of civilian populations.  It was a particularly vast and well organised example of the type of event that now makes for bloody history books and thicker newspapers. 

How far back do we have to go? In each generation it has happened to someone…. somewhere. 

Ghengis Kahn probably killed a million people in the twelfth century. Simon De Montfort and his son, Simon Junior, in their so called crusade against the Albigensian  Heresy certainly killed 250,000 people including the inhabitants of the French cities of Albi and Carcassonne. When people cried out: ”You are killing the innocent:” De Montfort replied with the absolute confidence of the fanatic: “God will know his own.” 

Such is the product of Certainty. It was in such certainty, De Montfort Junior returned to England and to Leicester, where he put to death the Jewish community……before summoning the first English Parliament which also met in Leicester in 1266.

If these men didn`t have God on their side, they had the next best thing: Self-certainty. Who was it who said: “The opposite of Faith is not: disbelief. The opposite of faith is: un-questioning certainty!” Perhaps there really is more faith in an honest doubt than in half thy creeds.

 It is sometimes said that the holocaust was a collective crime, an institutional crime. But was it? How does it start? It finds its roots in individuals. I saw it in Yugoslavia, back in the late 1960s. Serbs and Croats were always willing to tell nasty stories about each other. 

It was always thus: First the rumours and murmuring in the street, then the scurrilous stories and newspaper articles. Next come the pseudo-scientific journals published by academics, who should know better, but rarely do. Then, the newly perceived grievances are added to old libels. The disorder in the streets soon follow, and it`s at that moment that someone in power decides it`s good political capital, and in no time at all you have corpses in mass graves; whilst the world press looks on with cameras going: click…… click…… click……….Something for the world`s breakfast table.

 And when we ask: How did this happen?  It`s like dealing with a committee. You think you are dealing with everyone, and suddenly you realise you are dealing with no one. “Every one was to blame”, is like saying: “No one was to blame.” “I was only obeying orders said one.” Another says:“ The others were doing it so I thought it would be safer for me if I joined in…” 

And then there are the others who just looked on. “We couldn`t do anything”, they say. “I was one individual watching the madness of others.” It`s almost a reasonable defence…Well, half-way there anyway.

  Some thirty years ago or perhaps a bit more, another person stood in this pulpit to give a sermon. He was Doctor Carlabach, brother of Rabbi Carlabach of Manchester, both were sons of the great Chief Rabbi, JosephCarlabach of Hamburg. On Kristalnacht, on 9th of November 1938, when synagogues, Jewish institutions, Jewish homes and Jewish businesses throughout Germany were sacked and burnt; on a night when any Jew caught in the street risked any fate between arrest and death;   Rabbi Carlebach, did not hide away. Quite the opposite: He went down to watch the storm troopers burning the great Borneplatz Synagogue. Inevitably, he was recognised by someone.

“Rabbi Carlabach, Rabbi Carlabach……What are you doing here? Get away before someone else sees you.” “No”, the Rabbi said, “I`m not going. I`m here to bear witness.”  The great Rabbi eventually perished alongside members of his congregation in the forests outside Riga, in 1942. But, his act of witness lived on and lives on again, with the telling. 

Our Sam Nirenberg witnessed a lot, too. Over the years he told me of some of the nightmare events that he had witnessed. It was the time when the slave labour camp at Cracow Plazow was being liquidated: ”Liquidated” Now,  there`s a weasel word if every you heard one……….

It was March 1944, and Nazi tyranny was having time to reflect, Things were no longer going to plan. But the last thing the tyrant surrenders is: his victim. And, the tyrant is usually a HIM and only very rarely a HER. Anyway, Sam and his fellow work unit had been ordered to dig deep pits in clearings in the forest. The Jews of Cracow Plazow were brought to the appointed killing place, stripped, brought to the edge of the pit in pairs, and shot. When each pit was full: Sam and his fellow slaves were told to back- fill it.

But all was not finished. The dead began to decay and as they decayed they swelled and as they swelled; the very pits heaved. Sam said: As high as a house. The earth herself,  creation herself…………had vomited the Nazi crime back into the daylight. Sam and his fellow victims were then told to cut down the forest, and build great pyres, then to dig up the dead and burn them: All Sixty  thousand of them. We can`t cope with number like that, can we?

So let`s get back into scale. Sam told me of one particular incident that had recurred in his mind for every day there after. When all those people were being shot, in pairs: There was one moment when an elderly couple were pulled forward; obviously they were husband and wife of many happier years………They held hands,looked each other in the eyes and smiled They almost embraced and  then they were gone. It was a moment of unmatched love that should echo through eternity. It was also a moment unmatched by even a single instant of mercy on the other side of that deadly machine gun. Yet, that couple was not forgotten. There was a witness who was destined to live and to pass the story on; as I now pass that story on to you six decades later, in the warm comfort of a beautiful building, in an orderly city, in a peaceful and mostly tolerant country.

But it`s not always like that for everyone, is it? No, the bleeding, bandaged fingers of humanity really do go wobbling back to the fire. Hitler`s ashes were hardly cold when hundreds of thousands died in the partitioning of India, train-loads of refugees slain on very the trains that were meant to take them to safety……..Less than two decades later we have Biafra: Nigeria`s civil war. Who now remembers the million people left to starve to death by an international political community that raised not a finger to save them. Then came the failure of Yugoslavia, where neighbours rounded up their neighbours of many generations. Men and boys were shot by other men and boys. Yet one more instance of young men and boys being sent by old men to commit the atrocities that they themselves are too old and too perfidious to perform. Now, there`s a form of abuse that too few are addressing. 

 When I had a shop in Leicester, we had a frequent visitor. His name was Sidney Brandon; and he was professor of Criminal Psychology at Leicester University. We didn`t see him for a few months, and then one day, he came back in. But, he was a changed man. He looked ill and he seemed unwilling to engage in any form of conversation. “Sidney, what`s wrong?” We eventually asked. “My faith in humanity is broken.” He replied. Then he went on: “It was in connection with my work as a criminal psychologist, that the government sent me on a fact finding mission: to Rwanda.” Where once again neighbour had butchered neighbour with machetes supplied as aid by foreign powers. Eight hundred thousand dead, in eight weeks. 

Poor old Sidney died a few weeks later: probably of a broken heart. Being a witness changes the witness, too. Four decades earlier, British troops liberating the Belsen concentration camp also found their lives changed by what they witnessed there.

What constitutes being a witness? We all read the newspapers and watch television. It`s easy to mutter our disapproval of old and new atrocities. But so often it become, at best, an intellectual exercise, or at the worst: a peep show on the misery of others. We see, we listen, but we don`t really hear; we don`t see with eyes and hearts open. We`ve all done it; me included. I was brought up amongst survivors, escapees and refugees. They all had their extraordinary stories to tell. Yes, I listened, I even remembered: but did I really hear and see? I could look into the abyss and then turn away. Then came the moment when the abyss looked into me, the moment when I became the witness.

 You don`t expect it on holiday do you? I was swanning around in Prague: just one of my ancestral cities. The old Jewish quarter was fascinating.  There is the cemetery, with its crowded grave stones. The Alt Neu Synagogue with the chair, the cahedra, of the mysterious, alchemical Rabbi Lowe. Then, back into the sunlit  street, ……and……. then I took three steps down out of the sunlight into the gloom of another ancient building: The Pinchas Synagogue. It is silent and empty now. The old men who once quietly studied the Talmud there are ashes, elsewhere. Then, my eyes were opened as I stared round the walls of a building nearly as large as this one. The walls are covered from floor to roof in neatly painted line upon line of names and dates. Seventy seven thousand, two hundred and ninety seven names, of men women and children; with the dates that they were born and the dates when they were murdered. The writing was a labour of love by the artist Vaclav Bostik, in the 1950s. The communist regime responded by closing the building to the public. There the name still there: The Jews of Moravia and Bohemia.

Is it strange how your eyes are opened when they are blinded with tears? Eventually, I found the names of members of my own family. There were no prayers, no words to be said; not in that place. I was looking into the abyss and the abyss was looking back into me. We can all look into the abyss and give ourselves a gratifying little fright. But the moment of vulnerability: the moment of utter loneliness; the moment of utter alone-ness. That is the moment when the abyss presents us back to ourselves.

So, where does that leave me…and you? At some time, most of us face petty tyrannies, small time evil men. It can be frightening enough just standing up to them, Can`t it? You have to admire the witness who steps up into the witness box in even this country, to tell the truth about some gangster being called to account. And what can we do, when we see evil on the vast scale? It`s going on even as I speak to you: its going on in Sudan, in Saharan Africa, in Syria, almost secretly in Burma and there is nothing physically that we, here tonight, can do to stop it. After all, it took the armed forces of three world powers to bring Nazism down; and it took NATO to side-step the European Union to bring the carnage in Bosnia to a stop. None of us here tonight can stop what goes on. When the tyrants have taken power it takes a great deal to dislodge them.

But there is something else you can do and it is something that tyrants really fear. You can stop just passively watching what happens. You can step forward and be prepared to bear witness. Tyrants hate witnesses. Witnesses remind them that they are not all-powerful and, that they may one day be called upon to give an account. Without witnesses there can be no justice, and without justice there is no reconciliation. and without reconciliation there can be no peace.

 By Justice: I do not mean revenge. Justice: is when the perpetuator of evil is called to account………..Justice: is in the verdict of the court. There is no such thing as condign retribution for the heinous crime of mass-murder. Hanging a war criminal never brought a single victim back from the dead. Punishment, when meted out. is our only effective way of drawing a line beneath an appalling event. It leaves those who did evil, to remain in the personal hell of knowing that their will to do even more evil is frustrated: by Justice. Thus, we clear the way for the world to reconcile.

 Of course, Reconciliation may not occur for years or even decades. I remember well the unease that was felt in so many quarters when: in the early 1960s, Israel and Germany finally established diplomatic recognition. What is certainly is that after justice and reconciliation…and the difficult peace; eventually, there comes the easier peace. That`s the peace where no one need be afraid.

Reconciliation can be hard. Look closer to home: look at the Good Friday Agreement in Ireland. A difficult peace is still better than a nasty little war………..and a lot better than old men bequeathing their grudges to misled and morally abused young men dressed in baggy, ill-fitting uniforms. Young men who would do so much better for themselves and others, if they just stayed at home and dressed in purple hair and outlandish clothing: even if only to irritate their parents and teachers. 

The other day, I read an old rabbinic comment. It said, that if we failed to greet even a stranger with the traditional greeting of: “Peace”or ”Shalom”, in Hebrew; we were committing a form of robbery because we rob the stranger of his self dignity. As it said: The greeting is: “Peace”………..It`s “Salam” in Arabic…………”Shalom”,  in Hebrew.

So, tonight: I wish you all:  “Shalom.”

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