The baton is falling to us to remember the Holocaust

Each Yom HaShoah we are reminded of the dwindling numbers of survivors and our duty to them

April 18, 2023 10:18

On 15 April we marked the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, followed a few days later by Yom HaShoah.

These dates hit hard. They force us to confront the past. But this year, I couldn’t help but also confront the present and indeed the future.

As I reflected on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, I immediately thought of my dear friend and much-missed Holocaust survivor, Gena Turgel. She told and retold her unimaginable story of loss - to school students, teachers, historians. She shared her experience with Rabbis, diplomats, politicians and royalty. She spoke to Jews and non-Jews alike. She talked of arriving at Belsen and seeing ‘walking skeletons, in every sense of the word’. She recalled the moment the 11th armoured division entered Bergen-Belsen.

She remembered meeting a young soldier, Norman, and being invited to dinner. She always told the story of arriving at the dinner and realising it was her engagement party - despite him not having asked her the all-important question! She dazzled us all with her account of her unique wedding, wearing a dress made from a British army parachute at one of the first Jewish ceremonies held post-war, officiated by the Jewish Army Chaplain, the Reverend Leslie Hardman.

The liberation of Bergen-Belsen was a pivotal moment - it gave Gena and her fellow survivors the opportunity to build new lives from the ashes of the past – not that they knew that then.

Gena always said that she was a voice, not just for herself but for 6 million Jewish men, women and children. In June it will be five years since she passed away.

Just days after this anniversary we mark Yom HaShoah. We came together to reflect on the immeasurable pain inflicted upon our community. We remembered the victims, and the heroes who despite everything, stood up against their Nazi oppressors.

This Yom HaShoah is the first that we mark without Zigi Shipper – a survivor known and loved by so many of us. His story of survival as a young boy and his eventual reunion with the mother he thought had died never failed to move anyone who heard it.

His message: do not hate, resonated with the tens of thousands he reached – whether students, teachers, football stars, princes or princesses - and will be passed on for years to come. But on Yom HaShoah, as an ever-dwindling number of Holocaust survivors joined commemorations, the absence of his unparalleled presence left a gaping hole.

These dates are touchpoints in our calendar. They give us pause to reflect and to remember. We mark them with solemnity and sorrow. And this year, the loss of our incredible survivors hit home harder than ever. How we will remember the Holocaust now and for generations to come is on the back of the stories that men and women like Zigi and Gena told, and how they told them. Their ability to open up their darkest memories, while retaining such dignity and charm, is an inspiration. For those survivors still with us, this is their ongoing mission - and we are in awe.

This year we are reminded more acutely and more urgently that the baton falls to us. Gena said ‘We will continue to do out bit for as long as we can, secure in the knowledge that they will continue to light a candle long after us’.

As we lit our candles this Yom HaShoah, we are part of that future that Gena envisioned. It is now up to us.

April 18, 2023 10:18

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