Holocaust Commission event is a day to remember
The unique gathering of survivors at Wembley proved to be an emotional occasion
The guests in the Bobby Moore conference suite, where 250 survivors debated Holocaust remembrance. Natasha Kaplinsky leads the discussion
They came from every corner of Britain, drawn to the national stadium through a sense of duty and pride.
As 250 Holocaust survivors filed under Wembley Stadium’s famous arch, a sense of poignancy filled the venue.
Monday’s landmark Holocaust Commission event was thought to be the country’s largest-ever gathering of those who suffered persecution in the Shoah.
In many cases poor health and old age stood as no bar to the survivors’ determination to contribute to David Cameron’s national consultation on how the Holocaust should be remembered — and taught — in Britain for the next 50 years.
Eighty-seven-year-old Gerda Rothberg travelled from Crumpsall, Manchester to take part. She had fled to Britain on the Kindertransport as a 13-year-old. “Today’s generation should be told all about the Holocaust — how it happened, how it started because of Hitler’s hatred of the Jews,” she explained.
“It should be taught to everyone — repeated, repeated and repeated for generations to come.”
Her partner, Vienna-born Josef Berger, said he wanted to “look forward positively. We need to get our testimonies recorded on video”.
The Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales sent messages of support, thanking participants for their contributions.
Mick Davis, the chairman of the Commission, told the survivors they were “shining examples to the nations of the world that whatever was done to you, no matter how much suffering you have survived, you are here today to tell your stories”.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles (centre) with award-winner Ben Helfgott and his sister Mala Tribbich
Television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, who hosted the event in association with the JC, read out a message sent by film-maker Steven Spielberg.
Mr Spielberg, who founded an institute for virtual Shoah remembrance in the United States, said the “singular perspective” of those who had experienced Nazi persecution was vital.
“With the support, wisdom and experience of survivors to guide the commission, we will aspire to reach classrooms, museums and homes everywhere with a message of tolerance and mutual respect,” he said.
A total of 500 guests gathered in the Bobby Moore conference suite, seated at tables alongside Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors and scribes who recorded the survivors’ views.
Although many attendees expressed disappointment that Mr Cameron was not present, there was a warm welcome for Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who spent two hours listening to survivors debate the issues. “The act of remembrance is itself a defiance of the Nazis,” he said.
For many survivors the sharing of their stories was a deeply emotional experience, with the memories being recounted often in barely audible whispers.
Among the strongest applause of the afternoon came when Stamford Hill community stalwart Ita Symons addressed the gathering.
Ms Symons, who came to Britain as a baby to escape the Nazis, said: “To teach Holocaust education without the root of it — pure, undiluted antisemitism — you will not achieve very much. We are lucky to live in a country where the government fights to stop antisemitism showing its face. But we have to get the facts straight.”
Abdi Hussein, a volunteer at Jewish Care’s Holocaust survivors’ centre in Stamford Hill, north London, said the efforts of the Commission were appreciated.
“It increases the survivors’ morale to know people care and they are not forgotten,” Mr Hussein said.
The event marked the presentation of the Point of Light award to survivor Ben Helfgott, recognising his 50 years of voluntary work. He is only the 11th person in Britain to receive the accolade.
The commission’s consultation process ends later this month, with the findings due to be reported to Mr Cameron before the end of the year.