It was an emotional moment when, after 16 years, Aneesa Riffat left Beth Shalom. Yet it was nothing compared to the shocking news of her passing away, aged only 46.

Aneesa was central to the blossoming of this remarkable place from a Holocaust learning centre into a fully fledged, nationally accredited museum. She began with us as an educator and moved into the role of acquisitioning, archiving, preserving & curating the items entrusted to our care by our family of Holocaust survivors. She regarded the role as almost a sacred one. Her affection for, and dedication to, these survivors was the only thing to match her love and admiration for our founders, the Smith family. She recorded many of their testimonies. She zealously guarded their artefacts, photographs and documents. And she spent many, many hours talking with and visiting them.

To have devoted heart and soul to this mission is all the more admirable when we recall that Aneesa was an observant Muslim. There is no finer tribute to her than the outpouring of sadness and affection from those role models of humanity with whom she worked for so many years. Below are their eulogies to Aneesa. They are led by one from our co founder, James Smith.

Aneesa (right) with colleagues and survivor John Fieldsend on his 90th Birthday at Beth Shalom. Also pictured is Karen Becher (left) who we reported also tragically and prematurely passed away in January 2024.

Dr James Smith CBE, National Holocaust Centre & Museum co-founder and Life President:

"I first met Aneesa in her interview to be the curator of the fledgling institution that would become the National Holocaust Museum.  She became a central member of the team developing The Journey; a new permanent exhibition for primary children.  

Recently graduated with an MA in Museum Studies, she enthused about education in museums and was eager to work with children in addition to curating the archives.  Bursting with ideas and passion, she expressed strong opinions in her interview, though in a constructive way; thinking independently was Aneesa’s hallmark.

Over the years, I saw her build remarkable trust and friendship with Holocaust survivors, as can be seen  from the comments below.  She knew the significance of the fragments of their lives that some of them managed to bring with them to the UK after the horrors of Nazi occupation.  Whether a photograph, a toy or  a brush; all told stories that would connect future generations with a civilization that had been brutally destroyed. 

Understanding the responsibility to preserve these memories for future generations, she set about ensuring the Centre had the skills and policies to be entrusted with this legacy.  Working with the team at the Holocaust Centre, Aneesa guided the Centre through accreditation to become recognized as a National Museum, which was no small accomplishment.

Few people were as worried about the state of the world than Aneesa; the rise of extremism, racism, anti-Jewish hate, Islamophobia and the threat of wars.  She feared escalation of the Middle East conflict, but separated her concerns about State of Israel policies from recognizing the need to educate about the Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism; an exemplar in a world that all too often conflates the two, contributing to conflict and hate.  

All this while proudly wearing her own Muslim faith on her sleeve.

My mother Marina Smith saw in Aneesa someone who understood the same mission.  They both believed that the stories of the survivors are a lesson for humanity that there is a necessity to preserve the memory of survivors beyond their lifetime, while giving them due care and respect while they are still living.  

When my mother was in her final years a system had been set up to book visits.  Aneesa once tried to have an appointment.  My mother’s response: “Please tell Aneesa that she doesn’t need an appointment; she’s family.” 

A Christian woman, co-founder of the Holocaust Centre and Aneesa, a proud Muslim woman, curator of the Holocaust Centre.  Both dedicated to securing the legacy of Jewish Holocaust survivors and did so while building genuine respect and friendship.  In doing so, they were both gave a lesson for us all: It is possible to be loyal to your own faith while accepting and respecting others.  If community and political leaders followed this example there would be less war and the world would be a happier, safer place."

Martin Stern MBE, Theresienstadt survivor and National Holocaust Museum Trustee:

“Im sure I speak for all [our survivor family] in expressing our huge respect for Aneesa and our deep fondness for her.  She was a wonderful example to mankind in this time of mass horrors caused by hatred.”

Joan Salter MBE, Child Survivor:

"I was shocked and saddened to learn of Aneesa’s sudden and untimely death and am writing this tribute so that her family will understand how much I admired her. To those who did not know her as well as I did, her contribution to the organisation that the NHCM is today, might well be overlooked.

Aneesa was a quiet-spoken, self-effacing, and humble personality whose hard work and dedication to the Centre over several years is the bedrock of so much of today’s end product. In her role as the Museum’s curator, it was she who established its accreditation, without which so much of recent funding and expansion might never have been achievable.  

During periods of staff upheaval and changes in leadership, she remained the glue holding so much together; loyal and mindful of the Smith family’s vision for a centre dedicated to the memorialising and education of the Holocaust. 

I, like many of the survivors trusted the testimonies of our experiences and our precious objects into her care. Knowing they would be treated with respect and the dignity they deserved. We were her friends, not commodities to be used as springboards to her career. The results of her dedication are there in the archives which she created, and I can but hope that future staff will treat them with the respect which Aneesa gave to them and us.

After Aneesa moved on, we kept in close touch. The first year, she phoned me regularly during her long drive down to Bletchley Park. As her workload expanded down there, our promised meet-ups never happened but we kept in touch.

When the dreadful events of October 7 happened in Israel, Aneesa was the first person to phone me. She was as horrified as I was.  Her last emails to me were in January 2024. She spoke optimistically that the accreditation for the National Museum of Computing was due to be completed by June and that she would soon have a chance to meet up in February, Sadly this was not to be.

Bless you my dear friend, Aneesa.  I and many others will not forgot you and all the work you did for the NHCM."

John Fieldsend BEM, Kindertransportee:

“I have many wonderful memories of the times I spent working with Aneesa at Beth Shalom. She was a lovely lady.

Strangely after leaving Beth Shalom, she worked with my brother-in-law Ted Coles at the National Computer Museum, so we were able to continue to exchange greetings.

Aneesa was greatly appreciated and respected wherever she was. We have all lost a wonderful and exceptional lady."

Steven Frank BEM, Theresienstadt survivor:

“It must have been in the early 2000’s, certainly many years ago that I came across Aneesa when she joined the Centre as the Archivist and was instrumental in setting up the museum as we know it today.

She was highly efficient in the care she gave for the artefacts that we handed over into her safe hands. For some of us we were loosing part of our history as it sat in a drawer in a room at home, but felt secure in the thought that they were in her safe hands at the Centre. I particularly remember the sledge from which we had so many happy memories before the war, which she had repaired and restored and now enclosed in an atmospheric glass container and beautifully displayed for all visitors to view.

She was such a sociable and warm person and often would welcome us as we emerged from giving our testimonies with a smile and a welcome chat.

I will miss her dreadfully for her love and kindness she alway showed when we met.

The museum fraternity have lost a valuable professional of its membership and for me personally, a good friend. She will be much missed by all who came in contact with her.

May she rest in peace."

Mala Tribich MBE, Bergen-Belsen survivor:

“I was so shocked to hear the sad news of Aneesa's unexpected death.  Although she left Beth Shalom a while ago, I still remember various conversations and what a pleasure it always was to have a chat with her. She was very warm and friendly and it was a joy to be in her company.

Please convey my heartfelt condolences to her family.

With sympathy."

Simon Winston BEM, Radzivilov Ghetto survivor and Hidden Child:

“I was so sorry to hear that Aneesa had passed away so early. She was indeed a good person, worked hard and well as curator at the Holocaust Centre, and I always considered her to be a dear friend. For so many years she had the delicate duty of reconciling the terrible experience of the Jewish Holocaust and its survivors, and her own orthodox Muslim faith. And she managed this sincerely and well.  I well remember the day when she protected her faith so brilliantly after a mistimed and inappropriate comment by someone who should have known better.

As well as her work commemorating the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, she was concerned about all unjustified prejudice, discrimination and hate crime. I remember one day, after she sat in during one of my talks, she commended me for making a statement which she thought was profound:  "Don't let anyone tell you that a racist joke is funny, because it's not!  It hurts."  From that day I've included that statement every time I tell my story.
My condolences to Aneesa's family. You have lost a precious member. So sad."

Hanneke Dye, Hidden Child:

”Aneesa welcomed me to Beth Shalom when I first arrived to speak. There was an immediate affinity which grew into a friendship.

She visited my home on a number of occasions, not only to interview me, but also to get to know me better. Her dedication to her job as a curator, her religion, and to the speakers, who regularly come to give their testimony, was praiseworthy - an inspiration how people of different religions can work together in peace and harmony.

We stayed in touch after she left to start a new challenge at Bletchley Park.

I have been privileged to have known Aneesa."

Janine Webber BEM, Lvov Ghetto survivor and Hidden Child:

"I felt very sad to hear about Aneesa’s passing away. She came to see me on two occasions [in London]. I did not know her very well but she was friendly and warm and very keen to know more about us Survivors. I was very touched by her interest in my story. 

She was a kind and thoughtful person. Thank you for letting us know and expressing our fondness for her." 

David Brown, colleague:

Aneesa should have been part of the Holocaust Centre’s future, not its past. And I should not be mourning a colleague and friend my own age.

Aneesa was more than a brilliant professional museum curator. She was a true friend to Holocaust survivors, a documenter of their stories and artefacts, a guardian of memory; someone who deeply cared and understood the lessons of the Holocaust for humanity.

Sixteen and a half years at the Holocaust Centre, dedicated to the vision and mission of its founders, powerfully shaped and informed Aneesa’s life and outlook. In return, she gave back so much - to humanity, to the field of remembering and preventing identity-based violence, to the Centre, to survivors, and to colleagues and fellow peace builders likewise committed to the cause.

The fact that Aneesa did all of this as a devout Muslim is in itself a contribution to interfaith understanding which will live on in the hearts of all whose lives she touched here. It is a story the Holocaust Centre should celebrate and share.

Equally at home engaging on the deepest issues with Jews, Christians, people of all faiths and none, Aneesa helped me to understand that the divine transcends the faith traditions into which we are born, or into which we choose to enter. When we meet again in eternity, Aneesa, I’ll know I’ve come to the right place.

Apparently the term ‘soulmate’ may have been stolen from the Jewish poem ‘Yedid Nefesh’, referring to the Almighty - the ‘Father of compassion’ - as a dear friend of the soul. This is what we have lost; not just a colleague, but someone whose soul found their deepest fulfilment in being part of our shared mission to repair a broken world.

If only the Father of Compassion had given Aneesa time to continue doing so, but - as she wrote in her tribute for Marina Smith - ‘Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un’ – Verily we belong to G-d, and verily to him do we return.