This afternoon I went to a funeral, along with more than 50 other people.
Old, young, Ashkenazi, Sephardi – we all had one thing in common. None of us knew the deceased.
In fact, the majority of us, myself included, had not known about the funeral until just a few hours before it took place. The first I knew of it was when I saw a message which had been shared on social media:
“Minyan volunteers needed for the funeral of Violet Elias at Edgwarebury Cemetery (Sephardi).
“Violet has no immediate family in the UK and no friends that we know of – so we are really struggling to get ten Jewish men for the funeral.
“She spent four years in a Japanese concentration camp as a child – and the experience affected her deeply. She spent many years living as a recluse in very hard circumstances.”
Under halachic Jewish law, a quorum of ten men are needed in order to recite kaddish, the mourners’ prayer for the deceased. It is considered a great mitzvah (in this context, a good deed), to be a part of that minyan and make sure that kaddish can be said. And so I went.
I was not alone. There were already some people when I arrived, but more kept coming, a steady convoy of cars making its way into the cemetery car park.
Sanjoy Mukherjee-Richardson, a Scottish Jew of Indian origin, had arranged the funeral, and gave the eulogy.
He was acting on behalf of his best friend, the nephew of the deceased, who lives in Australia. (At his request, I videoed him giving the eulogy, in order that he could send it to the family.)
“I personally didn’t know Violet – I never met her,” he told the gathering.
“She had an unbelievably tough life. She was born in Singapore, originally from Iraq. Her father was the shochet [kosher slaughterer] in Singapore, and she was born in May 1941. She was one of 12 [siblings].
“When she was nine months old, the Japanese took Singapore. All people with British passports were rounded up and taken to internment camps, very similar to concentration camps. From the age of nine months until the end of the Second World War, she was in Changi prison in Singapore.”
Changi prison became infamous during the war, both as the Singapore headquarters for the Kempetai [Japanese secret police], and for the PoW camp near the prison itself.
“The prison was built for 600 people,” Mr Mukherjee-Richardson said.
“When the civilians – men, women and children – were put in there, it housed 3,000. By May 1944, at the time of her third birthday, there were 5,000 people, in accommodation that was built for 600. 850 people died in Changi prison during the war.”
Mr Mukherjee-Richardson continued: “I have a five-year-old son, and I cannot imagine the impact on his life, or anyone’s life, of growing up in that kind of environment, of seeing hellish conditions every day, of seeing death, destruction, unspeakable cruelties and barbarism. But she lived through it and came through it with her family.”
After the war, the Elias family lived continued living in Singapore, before moving to Australia. Violet was, according to the surviving members of her family there, “loving and caring… she used to help her younger sister with her reading and looked after her for three months when she was very ill.
“She loved to sing, she loved dancing, she made all the costumes for Purim, the family won prizes thanks to her effort. She loved cooking, she was sociable. She always used to have friends around for food and she would laugh and she used to joke.”
She moved to London in 1976, Mr Mukherjee-Richardson said.
“And there, I hate to say it, we don’t have anything – we have very, very little [information].
“For the last 40 years, through no fault of her family … there’s an absolute blank.
“What I do know was that she lived in very straitened circumstances. She was homeless for many periods. At one point she was living rough on the streets.
“Thanks to the efforts of her family, she managed to secure a council flat in Hammersmith and Fulham, in West Kensington, and that’s where she passed away. What I know is that she was always afraid of being in contact with her family, in case she heard bad news. And I have no doubt that her experiences as a small child probably played a huge role in how she lived for the last 42 years.”
London Jewish men who are free in two hours' time, please help if you can: pic.twitter.com/aNVzZnNoSa— Marcus Dysch (@MarcusDysch) March 15, 2018
Violet died, aged 76, alone in her council flat, at the beginning of the month – but it took time for the police, who were working with relatively little information, to find her next of kin. The Metropolitan Police contacted Interpol, who contacted the Australian Federal Police, who contacted the New South Wales police, who in turn contacted the family. It was then that her nephew contacted Mr Mukherjee-Richardson.
As we emerged from the small cemetery auditorium and into the graveyard for the burial (conducted by Rabbi Shalom Morris of the Spanish and Portuguese community), it began to rain.
We said the prayers for the dead while the coffin was lowered into the ground.
As we queued for the traditional cleaning of the hands afterwards, I saw, on a piece of marble carved above the washing area, the verse in the Torah which is associated with circumstances not dissimilar to this. It is a verse from Deuteronomy, Chapter 21, concerning when an unknown body is found. The Torah commands that a special ceremony be undertaken for such a body – and there, above the sink, were the words the Torah says mourners in such circumstances must proclaim: “Our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [the crime].”
At the end of the proceedings, Rabbi Morris described how it was “beautiful that so many people heard the call to give honour to a member of our extended community.
“We’re all gathered together, here for each other in death. But the most important thing is that we’re there for each other in life – not just people who are like ourselves, but for all people, in all kinds of hardships.
“And often times in our communities we don’t come by people like that, and maybe this means we have to search out these opportunities for people who are struggling, having a difficult time in life.” He said that would be a fitting legacy for Violet Elias.
Speaking to Mr Mukherjee-Richardson afterwards, he described the turnout as “meaning a huge amount.
“It’s overwhelming, it’s staggering. I had a lot of phone calls and texts this morning, so I knew we’d have at least ten, but I didn’t expect this number.
“It shows the level of generosity and goodwill in the Jewish community in London.”
We shook hands, and said the traditional parting message on such occasions – “may we only meet at simchas [joyous occasions]”.