On the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops we came together to attend the Yom HaShoah commemorations in Hyde Park, London.

Over 1,200 people attended the memorial event including staff from The National Holocaust Centre and Museum. Also in attendance were survivors, British Jewry, the Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, the Ambassador to Israel Mark Regev, and interfaith representatives, as well as representatives from the many different charities and Holocaust Centres and Museums around the UK. Defiance was the overall theme of the day, defiance in terms of the determination to survive, to rebuild lives, and not to stand by when we see or hear about antisemitism or prejudice here within the UK and abroad. The most important message that we took from the memorial event was to remember and to pass memory to the next generation.

Henry Grunwald OBE (our Chair) opened the event in front of the Holocaust memorial. Grunwald spoke about how the 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Russian troops, has become embedded in our collective memory of the Holocaust. This day is the international day of remembrance where communities around the world come together to remember the Holocaust. This year over 11,000 events up and the down the country took place to commemorate the murder of 6 million men, women and children in the Holocaust. These Holocaust Memorial Day events also honoured the survivors and how they adapted to life after the war. Yet Yom HaShoah as Grunwald suggested is more ‘personal’ and more ‘introspective’. It is the day when the Jewish community joins together to mourn their loss, to tell the stories of those who survived and of ‘those who would have chosen life had that choice not been taken away from them in the most brutal of ways’. Grunwald also discussed how we came together for three reasons: to remember, to reflect, and to renew the pledge that the victims would not be forgotten. Richard Verber (Vice President Board of Deputies) then read the Yad Vashem Law which was passed by the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, in 1953. The document remembered those who resisted the Nazis and their helpers and the Righteous Among the Nations. Verber also spoke about the importance of Holocaust education and how we should not stand by when we see antisemitism.

Commemorative rock sculpture in the Holocaust Memorial Garden

The liberation of Bergen-Belsen was a key focus during this moving event. The audience heard the stories of the soldiers who liberated the camp. They had seen front line warfare but nothing had prepared them for what they witnessed when they entered the camp. The speaker gave thanks to these soldiers who made makeshift hospitals to help the survivors. It took over two weeks to bury the dead in mass graves. Many survivors were too weak to walk and many had typhus and were starving, around 10,000 died before they could be hospitalised. Gena Turgel MBE then spoke about her story of survival. She spoke about how she was separated from the other prisoners by Dr. Mengele. She said that ‘God must have saved [her] life and so many others’. From Auschwitz Gena was taken to Buchenwald and then to Bergen-Belsen. Her liberation day was the day that she also met her future husband. Gena spoke about how she was indebted to the British troops. When she arrived in England she had three ambitions: to learn English, to write about her story, and to never forget. She ended her speech with hope, asking the audience to not forget those who are less fortunate than we are.

We heard about the bravery and courage of those who resisted, especially those who fought during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The 16th May was the final suppression of the uprising, the Nazis murdered the few remaining survivors. But it became known that Jews had resisted, Jewish armed resistance had become a reality in this ghetto as well as in the many other ghettos in Central Europe. After this we heard a piece of music from one of the partisans which reflected upon the bravery of those who resisted. The Chief Rabbi talked about other acts of resistance such as the Auschwitz Sonderkommando revolt, the Sobibor uprising, and the Treblinka rebellion. In some ten countries across Europe some 30,000 people resisted by joining groups who fought against the Nazis and their collaborators, putting their lives in danger. The audience also heard about other acts of defiance such as a lady who wrote a final letter home which said that she was on her way to see Uncle Mavet. The meaning behind the letter was lost, the Nazi officials did not stop the letter from being sent. What they did not know is that the word Mavet is the Hebrew word for death. This act of defiance called for others to help, it is also significant because it also highlighted to people the true horror of the Holocaust. The Chief Rabbi’s speech ended with a message for today’s leaders that ‘antisemitism in all its forms will not be tolerated any more’.

Six commemorative candles

The candle lighting ceremony was very moving because survivors, second, third and even fourth generations were invited to light six candles in memory of those who were murdered. One candle was lit to remember the 1.5 million children who were murdered in the Shoah, a second candle was lit in honour of those who managed to survive this dark hour of history, the third candle was lit in memory of all the innocent victims (Jews and Gentiles) who were murdered in the Holocaust, the fourth candle was lit to ensure that memory will live on, the fifth candle was lit to honour the Righteous Gentiles who rescued Jews, and the sixth candle was lit for the lost generations. Zdenka Husserl, who survived Terezin (Theresienstadt), lit one of the candles. Zdenka regularly speaks at the Centre and has donated many of her objects. Zdenka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1939. Her father was taken to Lodz Ghetto in Poland. Zdenka and her mother were taken to Theresienstadt in November 1942, by which point Zdenka was three years old. After spending three and a half years in Theresienstadt, Zdenka was liberated in May 1945. Zdenka's parents were both murdered by the Nazi regime. In 1945 Zdenka came to England where she eventually resided at Lingfield House in Isleworth, under the care of Alice Goldberger and her team. The candle lighting ceremony concluded with a minute’s silence and the memorial prayer – Kaddish. The sense of loss was significant because the speaker talked about silence, the silence of grief, the silence of trauma when there are no words to express how we feel, the silence of victims who are no longer here to speak or write about their experiences, the silence of death as well as the silence of memory. The speaker noted that if we stood silent to remember the 6 million men, women, and children who were murdered in the Holocaust we would remain silent for eleven and a half years.

People lighting candles for Yom HaShoah 2018, Hyde Park, London

Rescue was also an important part of the day as many survivors after the war travelled to Britain to rebuild their lives. Prior to the war, Britain allowed 10,000 Kinder to enter the country on a temporary basis. We have come to know this historical event by its German name – Kindertransport. The speaker also talked about the difficulties of adapting to a new way of life, not knowing the language or the customs and being placed with people who were not always suitable. We heard next from Jacques Weisser who was hidden as a child in Belgium by a Catholic lady. He spoke about how he was reminded of the story about Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued Moses – was she the first Righteous Amongst the Nations? Jacques also gave thanks to all those who helped Jews during this time. He also very movingly spoke about the physical and mental scars as well as the many achievements and contributions survivors have made in Britain and around the world. Jacques’ final message called for us to remember survivor testimony.

Laura Pradelska, third generation, talked about her family’s history and how the next generations have a responsibility to pass memory on. She talked about how proud she was of her family and how the label of survivor or refugee has not defined them or held them back from achieving their goals. She spoke about how many survivors had to piece their lives back together and how many have become leaders within the community. Her message was one of hope and she thanked the survivors for everything that they had done. She ended her speech by stating that she will never forget. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, spoke at the event for a second year. He talked about how difficult and painful it is to remember the horrors of the Holocaust yet it is important to remember and to reflect and to especially recommit the pledge of never forgetting about this historical event. Khan stated that ‘we must confront the reality that around the world antisemitism and hate crime is on the rise’ and that ‘this is completely unacceptable and it must not go unchecked’. He continued that we should be definite and learn from the past, remember the stories, and hope that an event like the Holocaust will not happen again. We finally heard from the Ambassador of Israel, Mark Regev, who spoke about his father’s liberation. He was liberated by the US Army. He exchanged with one of the soldiers the Star of David for the emblem of the American 102 Infantry Division. He kept this emblem until he passed away in 2015. Regev also pledged that he too would never forget. He also questioned whether we have truly learned from the past.

We also pledge to continue to remember the Holocaust and we will also continue to attend events like Yom HaShoah so that memory lives on. Another important message from the event was that we need to collect testimony and objects and that we also need any and all resources available to do this. The National Holocaust Centre and Museum is making a significant effort to ensure that the legacy of survivors is collected before it is too late.

Last week the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust announced the 2019 theme – ‘Torn from Home’. This theme will be challenging to represent as many survivors were unsure of where home was and what home looked like after the war. I look forward to working with the Centre in telling stories around this theme next year.

Banner for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019: Torn from home