Obituary: Marina Smith MBE

The preacher’s wife who made a home for Holocaust survivors in a large, derelict Nottingham farmhouse


She was a high school teacher who gave up a career in full-time education to become a Methodist minister’s wife. She swapped the classroom for a life of volunteering in the tiny industrial towns where they were stationed.

She thought she had chosen a life of service to the church and the community. But Marina Smith, who has died aged 87, was destined to expand her work to fostering intercultural understanding. She and her husband the Rev Eddie Smith opted to create their own non-profit organisation to help individuals in need in underdeveloped areas of the UK and the world.

Between the 1980s and 90s they ran a series of charitable projects in Poland, India and Kosovo.

In 1978 the couple gave up their roles in the church to launch a Christian conference and retreat centre, offering participants time to reflect on the practical meaning of their faith within society. They renovated a derelict ten-bedroom Nottingham farmhouse and gave it the Hebrew name “Beth Shalom”, meaning house of peace.

But a family holiday to Israel in 1981 proved an epiphany of a different kind. They hoped the trip would consolidate their Christian beliefs, but instead they left with the most challenging questions they had probably faced in a lifetime of religious certainty.

The questions concerned the failure of the Christian world to resolve its conflicted relationship with Judaism, and how this in turn contributed to antisemitism and other injustices.

These were questions that their elder son Stephen was beginning to examine through his own studies. With his brother James and both parents they visited Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in 1991 and various European Holocaust sites.

And after much soul-searching, that derelict farmhouse they had perhaps unwittingly named Beth Shalom was conceived as the UK National Holocaust Centre in Nottingham.

Marina became co-founder with her husband Dr Eddie Smith CBE, their sons, Dr Stephen Smith MBE and Dr James Smith CBE of Beth Shalom, The Holocaust Centre, which opened for the first time in September 1995, with Marina as first education director. As a former teacher of religious education she understood the importance of the Centre’s work in shaping the attitudes of future generations.

Beth Shalom’s declared aim was to combat racism, antisemitism and every kind of discrimination that leads to the exclusion of ‘the other’. Her broad experience of classroom teaching was fundamental to the creation and implementation of what became a highly successful Holocaust education programme. Soon she became known as the matriarch of the The National Holocaust Centre and Museum.

Born in Kolkata, India, the-then Marina Fleming moved with her family to Ireland at the age of four. She attended Wesley College in Dublin, whose Methodist foundations set the tone for her life of faith.

She moved to England at the age of 14, and by 18 she was a trainee teacher. Armed with a certificate in religious education from Westminster College, Oxford, Marina became head of religious education at Spondon Park Grammar School in Derbyshire, where she met Eddie — then the minister at Ilkeston. Recalling that meeting in June 1961, when she came to his office to ask for help after her car broke down, the Rev Eddie Smith described it as love at first sight.

They married the following August. “I remember our relationship was always about laughter”, he said. That humour may have been part of the driving force of the woman who would one day welcome Holocaust survivors and their families into a place of nurture, healing and optimism. She bonded with thousands of visitors who came to Beth Shalom, marking every major Jewish festival, from apples dipped in honey for Rosh Hashanah to a home-built tabernacle for Succot.

In time the couple moved out of their farmhouse home to accommodate schoolchildren who came to visit the National Holocaust Centre.

When her sons launched the Aegis Trust for Genocide Prevention in 2000 (commissioned to establish the Kigali Genocide Memorial following a visit to the UK National Holocaust Centre by Rwandan officials in 2002), Marina offered whole-hearted support — ever broadening the family of survivors and peace-builders who regard her as their spiritual mother.

Recognised in the Queen’s 2005 New Year’s Honours List with an MBE for services to Holocaust remembrance and education, Marina stepped down from her formal role later that year. Yet she never really retired, but continued to host visiting survivor speakers, writing and responding to correspondence and providing love, wisdom, prayer — and afternoon tea.

Described by Kindertransport refugee Bob Rosner as “the engine in the boiler room keeping everything going”, she was in every sense the spiritual mother of the Holocaust Centre.

In the words of her friend Raya Kalisman, founder of the Centre for Humanistic Education in Israel: “Marina was in charge of making the world better.” At her death, Holocaust survivors and community leaders joined her family in paying tribute to the character and dedication of a woman who gave her life to this intention: of making the world better. She spent her last days surrounded by her family, husband,sons and seven grandchildren, who survive her.

Marina Smith, MBE: born November 16, 1934. Died June 26, 2022

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