Monday, 28 January 2013

Holocaust Memorial: at a Jewish-Christian Commemoration

Tonight’s readings have moved me deeply, but none more so than the railway meditation ‘Winton Train: Kindertransport revisited’.* The train journey is one of the emblems of Holocaust memory: transportation away from the horror into a kind of freedom for the fortunate few (though when are exile and asylum ever a true release?); delivery to the death camps for the many, the trucks freighted with human cargo deposited like cattle at the gates of Aushwitz, Buchenwald and Treblinka. When I see the rails of the East Coast Main Line almost but not quite buried in snow, I always think of those unforgettable wintry photographs of the railway tracks that ended at Auschwitz and wonder how the railway, one of England’s greatest gifts to the world, could become so efficient an engine of destruction.  

But I have a more personal reason for being touched by Winton Train poem.  It is the reference to cathedral-spired Cologne. This was my maternal grandmother’s birthplace, her home before she married and moved down the Rhine to Düsseldorf where my mother and my uncle were born. Theirs was a prosperous middle-class Jewish family: 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.  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 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 mother and uncle were sent to England to complete their education. My grandparents fled to Holland, leaving behind family and friends most of whom ended their days in Auschwitz.  After the German invasion of Holland, they went underground, being hidden by a couple of extraordinarily courageous evangelical women in Edam.  At the liberation 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.  Out they came. What a recognition scene it must have been, this family embrace after so long. My grandfather died shortly afterwards, broken by what he had lived through.  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. I doubt if I would be standing here as a priest today were it not for her. 

It did not dawn on me at once that the Holocaust was part of my own formation, though I had always known that as a child of a Jewish mother, I was Jewish too.  It was only as I became a teenager that I became curious about my family’s story and my own identity.  Much later still I learned about the psychoanalytic study of holocaust survivors and their families and realised that I was one of the so-called second-generation survivors.  Understanding what this means is at best a work in progress – deep, difficult and complex. Like those readings from Lamentations, experience of trauma - physical, emotional and spiritual - poses life-questions about who and what we are, and where God is in all this. And because these questions go to the heart of our existence, they are remembered and passed down the generations. We read those texts from the Babylonian exile and recognise in them the universal pain and longing that follow traumatic human suffering of any kind.  

Genocide is never an accident.  It is deliberate, calculated, systematic and precisely executed.  It has to be to succeed. But it needs soil in which to grow. That soil is a community that is prepared, consciously or unconsciously, to permit it, collude with it.  In 'The Prophet' it says that 'the leaf does not turn brown without the consent of the whole tree'. Nazi evil triumphed, as evil always does, because so many stood by and did nothing.  As we heard in the words of Martin Niemöller, that courageous pastor of Dahlem: ‘First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for the socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.  Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.  Then they came for me, and there was no-one left to speak out for me.’  As Edmund Burke famously said, ‘for evil to triumph, it is enough for good men (and women) to do nothing’. 

The holocaust stands as a symbol for all time of what human beings are capable of doing to one another, men and women like you, like me.  Don’t ever say: I could never let this happen here.  Have we ever dared to speak out for another person against the fashionable group-think of the day: a black person, a gay man or woman, someone who protests innocence when the world says ‘guilty!’?  Then you will know the cost of doing that.  It is far easier not to get involved, say nothing, comfort ourselves that someone else will take responsibility.  I look into my own heart and see it all there: the fear, the cowardice, the wish for a quiet life.  Out of that attitude, prejudice is given house-room.  And prejudice is the parent of discrimination and discrimination hatred, and hatred, when it is full grown, throws off its mask so that its awful face can be seen for what it is: genocide, ethnic cleansing, the final solution.

What we say today we must imagine being able to say in the presence of the victims of the death camps.  That is to say, we must not, cannot, offer easy answers, imagine we know or can guess how God could permit this, try and say that we understand what ordeals the victims had to endure.  Elie Wiesel courageously said he wondered whether even God could understand it. We don’t, and can’t. Better not to speak, and to keep silence as we peer into this abyss that opened up in our recent history. Better to weep and lament as we have done in some of the readings tonight for the cruelty of this world.  Better, in our imagination, to step into those lines of fatal selection, like Maksimilian Kolbe and Mother Mary Polenko, and smell the fear for ourselves.  And then, when we can speak again, better to name evil for what it is and fight the demonic powers with all the weapons God gives us.  

But as they tell you when you go to Auschwitz, or to the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, you are not here simply to stand and observe. You are here to bear witness.  You are here to take in all that you see, and be ready to help others grasp its important for the world today. This is why we are holding this commemoration tonight: so that we can bear witness to the extent human madness and cruelty reached in the Shoah, and also to bear witness to the beautiful dignity and worth of each of its victims. Tonight we are especially remembering the children of the holocaust.  We are here to say and to pray ‘never again! Not in a world I have anything to do with.’ For as people of faith, we bear witness to a suffering God, El Adonai, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, worshipped alike by Muslims, Christians and Jews, who himself becomes a victim and is therefore himself a witness of this holocaust and who stands  alongside all victims as a wounded healer. 

Here are some famous words found written on a scrap of paper beside the body of a dead child at the Ravensbrück concentration camp.  

Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will.  Do not remember all the sufferings they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we bear, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, courage, generosity, the greatness of heart that as grown out of all this.  And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.

And let us say: Amen. 

Michael Sadgrove, Keble College Oxford, 27 January 2013


*Winton Train, September 1-4 2009: Kindertransport Revisited

Smelling again
The steam train smells
Soot through the window
Crossing the landscape
Of the Czech lands,
Woods and rolling fields,
To Nurnberg of dark memories,
The banks of the Rhine,
With a choir of elderly kinder
Singing: Kde moj dom....
Cathedral-spired Cologne
And the level plains
Of placid Holland,
A sea crossing to Harwich
With English grey-morning gulls 
Screeching, as our train
Pulls out of the platform,
Rushes over fens and fields
Coming at last, steam wreathed
Into Liverpool Street Station.
A voyage re-enacted,
Passing on the message
To a younger generation.

So many stories,
Trajectories of scattered lives,
Chance coincidences
Punctuated with jazz sessions
By the Hottentot Band,
Much laughter, tears
And a kaleidoscope
Of memories shared,
Old friendships found
And new bonds made.

"Inspired by Good"
A voyage re enacted after seventy years
Re-telling the tale to a younger generation.
Sending forth Nicky Winton's message of
Tolerance, compassion, kindness, humanity, humility, humour. 

Winton was responsible for organising the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia in 1939, thereby rescuing about 689 children from certain death. In September 2009, as an educational project, a Kindertransport train with 22 of the original children on board, re enacted the original journey from Prague to London . This poem is by one of them, Sandra Dwek. 



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