Over 1,200 mourners attended the burial on Sunday of six unknown victims of the Holocaust, in what was described by the Chief Rabbi as “an extraordinary funeral.”
Speaking to a capacity crowd inside the cemetery’s main hall, and to hundreds of others outside and via a livestream worldwide, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis conducted a eulogy in which he directly addressed the departed.
“We don’t know who you are”, he said.
“We don’t know your names. We don’t know if you were male or female. We don’t know which countries you came from. We don’t know what you did for a living. We don’t have details of your families.
“But there is one thing that we do know; you were Jewish. And it is for that single reason that you were brutally murdered.”
On either side of Rabbi Mirvis sat Holocaust survivors, approximately 50 in all.
“There are those who are wondering, here in front of us, amongst the six of you, perhaps [there may be] a mother, a father, a grandmother, a grandfather, a sister, a brother," Rabbi Mirvis said.
“Because six million of our people were cruelly murdered, and members of family didn’t have an opportunity to bring them to their eternal rest.
“But all of us here feel a very strong and personal connection to you. We remember you on every single day of our lives. We recall what happened to you and to your brothers and sisters. You give us continuous inspiration with regard to how we live and what we do.”
The service, which took at the United Synagogue’s Bushey New Cemetery, drew over 1,000 members of Britain’s Jewish community, as well as dignitaries including James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Cardinal Nichols, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev.
A number of peers were also present, including Lord Pickles, co-chair of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation advisory board, and MPs including Matthew Offord, Conservative MP for Hendon, and Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North. Representatives from the Imperial War Museum, who had kept the remains of the six Holocaust victims in their care for over two decades, were also present. Robert Voss, Lord Lieutenant of Hertfordshire, was there on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen.
“We have been reliably informed that you are five adults and one child,” the Chief Rabbi continued.
“At the time when you died the Jewish world was united because there was no differentiation between old and young, male and female, religious and irreligious. If you were Jewish, there was an attempt to wipe you out.
“And so too today at this funeral, we stand here as one, a united community, old and young, men and women, regardless of synagogue affiliation – we are one, as we remember what happened to you and the rest of the six million.”
Prior to the beginning of the ceremony, all survivors who were able were invited to escort the coffin containing the remains on the six unknown victims – remains consisting of bone fragments and ash – into the main hall for the duration of the eulogy.
“Surrounding you right now are Holocaust survivors, unlike you who perished, they managed to survive”, Rabbi Mirvis said, addressing the departed.
“And since the end of the Shoah they have been your prime ambassadors, bringing a message of peace, togetherness and unity to the world, educating all of our societies about what transpired to you, with the hope that it would never happen again.
“But now they are elderly, and we accept the responsibility on our shoulders to guarantee that their legacy will continue for ever and the lessons of the Shoah will never be forgotten.
Rabbi Nicky Liss, Rabbi of Highgate Synagogue and chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, also spoke, describing how “77 years ago today, at this precise moment, the Nazis decided to exterminate all of European Jewry.
“On January 20, 1942, in a suburb outside Berlin, 15 Nazi officials, eight of whom were doctors of jurisprudence, sat down for a meeting to plan ‘The Final Solution to the Jewish Question and Related Matters’.
“At that infamous conference in Wannsee, Adolf Eichmann, yemach sh’mo, presented a list of 11 million Jews in Europe, more than six million of whom they tragically managed to murder during the Holocaust.
“Very few of them received a Jewish burial, and the names of many were lost when they died.”
Rabbi Liss said: “In synagogues across the world yesterday, we read of Moses’s great act in collecting Joseph’s bones before leaving Egypt. Just as Moses and the Jewish people carried the bones of Joseph with them for 40 years before they could be buried, we too carry the past with us, and we will carry the memory of the Shoah with us for as long as the Jewish people exist. Those fragments of memory make us who we are. We live for what they died for.
“Today, it is our overwhelming responsibility and duty to give six of those victims – although we will never know who they were – the privilege of kevuras yisroel – a Jewish burial.”
Special prayers for the deceased were recited and then the coffin was transported from the hall to its final burial place, where firstly Holocaust survivors and then members of the community were invited to take part in filling in the grave, as per Jewish custom.
The Chief Rabbi reciting the “El Malei Rachamim”, the mourner’s prayer, and Kaddish, by the grave at today’s burial ceremony for the remains of six Holocaust victims pic.twitter.com/7DQhGzLxQ6— Daniel Sugarman (@Daniel_Sugarman) January 20, 2019
As the Chief Rabbi recited kaddish, a few paces back, Robert Voss, who was in full Lord Lieutenant's uniform as a royal representative, recited it along with him.
"I was waylaid afterwards by people asking me how the Queen's representative knows Kaddish", Mr Voss told the JC.
"I told them 'it's because I've been saying it for 50 years'", the Lord Lieutenant, who featured in the 2017 BBC documentary British Jews; German Passports, said.
"91 of my family were killed in the Holocaust."
Harry Bibring, a kindertransport survivor, described the ceremony as “out of this world – the most moving day of all time.
“It means to me that I have now buried my mother and my father, which I have never been able to do, 70 years late."
Mr Bibring said he was “now looking forward to seeing the Holocaust Memorial [and learning centre] built in Victoria Tower Gardens, in the shadow of the Mother of Parliaments.
“The learning centre is even more important to be near Parliament, where the people who go there can learn. I was surprised there are people around who say it is the wrong place – it is actually the right place.”
James Bulgin, content leader for the new Holocaust galleries being developed at IWM, said: “You very rarely have the opportunity to be involved in this sort of way and it’s a privilege and an honour to be able to participate and play a minor role in everything that today stands for.
“It’s incredibly important to all of us. It’s such a privilege for us, genuinely, to be so warmly received in so many different places and environments.”