The United Synagogue has received the remains of six unknown Holocaust victims at a brief but poignant ceremony, before they were taken to Bushey New Cemetery ahead of a historic burial service on Sunday.
Representatives of the United Synagogue, including its president Michael Goldstein and members of its burial society, travelled to the Imperial War Museum, where they were given the container holding the ash and bone fragments from Auschwitz Birkenau.
The remains - of five adults and a child - were cared for in the archives of the IWM for 20 years, but it decided it was no longer appropriate for it to look after them as it consolidated its Holocaust-related items.
Mr Goldstein and Jon Card, director of business and governance at the IWM, gave short speeches describing the importance of the occasion, at the small handover ceremony attended by fewer than 20 people.
Rabbi Nicky Liss of Highgate Synagogue spoke briefly, describing how “in a remarkable coincidence in this week’s Torah portion in Synagogue we read about Moses fulfilling Joseph’s wish, collecting his bones during the Exodus from Egypt.
“Forty days after the giving of the Torah, when Moses descended Mount Sinai, and there was a catastrophe, he smashed the tablets, and then together with God made new ones. Ever afterward, the Jewish People carried with them in the Ark, the new tablets and the fragments of the old.
“And so it has been throughout Jewish history. We carry with us all the fragments of our people’s past, the broken lives, the anguished deaths. For we refuse to let their deaths be in vain. They, our past, live on in us as we continue the Jewish journey to the future, to hope, and to life.”
Melvyn Hartog, head of United Synagogue Burial, also spoke about a conversation he’d had with the family members of one of the United Synagogue’s rabbis, who had lost family in the Holocaust.
“They told him that this is so important what the burial society is doing, because they don’t know what happened to the bodies or indeed the remains of their own family members”, a US spokesman said.
“And they are going to make every effort to be there on Sunday because effectively this is as close to giving them [their own family members] a burial as possible.”
Rabbi Liss, who told the JC that the ceremony was “an overwhelming responsibility, impossible to grasp – but an enormous privilege at the same time”, also recited two prayers.
The first was what is usually said before the rites of purification for the bodies of the deceased – given the nature of the remains in question, the normal rites of purification will not take place.
The second prayer was El Malei Rachamim – the traditional Jewish memorial prayer – but a specific version for the victims of the Holocaust.
The remains were then taken directly to Bushey New Cemetery in one of the vehicles the US burial organisation uses to transport the remains of the deceased.
They will be now kept in the mortuary at the cemetery until the burial on Sunday.
Usually under Jewish law unburied bodies require a shomer – someone to guard the deceased until the burial takes place. But this requirement is waived from the point bodies arrive at the cemetery, because that is consecrated ground.
Shortly before the burial on Sunday morning, tachrichim – the burial shroud will be placed into the coffin, with the remains of the victims then placed inside the shroud and the coffin closed.