Six unknown Holocaust victims to be buried in unprecedented funeral service in Bushey

After decades in the Imperial War Museum's archives, the remains of five adults and a child murdered at Auschwitz are to be laid to rest


The remains of six unknown Shoah victims — including a child — which had been stored in the archives of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) for decades are to be buried next week after an extraordinary collaboration between the museum, Auschwitz and the Chief Rabbi.

After a stocktaking of its Holocaust material last year, the museum decided that the mainly ash remains — which had been analysed by a pathologist at the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology in 2005 — should be returned to the Jewish community.

The museum then contacted the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Chief Rabbi for advice, and the United Synagogue offered to bury the victims in a service.

It is hoped mourners will come from across the world to pay their respects in what would be an “extraordinary act of chesed shel emet [true kindness].”

The Chief Rabbi’s office said: “These Kedoshim [holy souls] will now be afforded the dignity of a Jewish funeral, within the loving embrace of our community — something which was denied to them and so many others during the course of the Shoah.” The burial will take place at the United Synagogue’s Bushey New Cemetery at 11am on Sunday, January 20.

The IWM was given the remains in 1997, when the owner of a collection of items from Auschwitz-Birkenau offered them to the museum. Although the museum said it did not want the human remains, they were sent with the rest of the collection.

According to a spokesman, “the donor did not provide detailed information about how they obtained the remains but stated that the remains came from Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with other items from their collection, which Auschwitz-Birkenau have confirmed originate from that site.”

The IWM, which has a licence to hold human tissue under the Human Tissue Act of 2004, said it had “cared for these remains since their arrival at the museum”.

But in consolidating its Holocaust-related items ahead of the construction of new galleries in 2021, it decided it was no longer appropriate for it to look after the remains.

In 2005, the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology had told the museum  that the remains included human bone fragments, along with other non-human bone fragments and construction material from cremation ovens — and ash. These were identified as comprising five adults and a child.

The JC understands that although the burial service will be similar to that which is usually conducted, there will be no tahara (ritual purification) of the bodies, given that the remains are mostly ash.

The remains will be gently placed in shrouds in a specially prepared coffin, with earth from Israel placed on top of the shrouds.

The nature of the remains means that cohanim will be able to be in the funeral hall for the service, prior to the transportation of the coffin into the cemetery itself.

Michael Goldstein, president of the United Synagogue, called on the community to attend the funeral if they were able to do so. He said: “For everyone connected with the United Synagogue, and I’m quite sure the entire community, this can only be described as the ultimate act of kindness, chesed shel emet in Hebrew, because, as with all burials, nobody can be thanked for what you’ve done. We have the opportunity to do what was denied to our brothers and sisters during the Holocaust: to provide a dignified and appropriate Jewish burial.

“We must remember that although we have only the remains of a number of victims of the Shoah, each was a person in their own right, with a family and a life and a Jewish identity, with hopes and dreams just like each of us. One of them was a child. I will hug my own children especially tightly next Sunday.

“I thank all of my colleagues who will make this burial possible and know that each of them feels acutely the huge burden of responsibility for what we are doing. We welcome all those who wish to attend to join us at the levaya to pay their respects.”

Melvyn Hartog, head of United Synagogue Burial, said: “Burying the remains of Holocaust victims is a unique and holy responsibility to which the Chief Rabbi and Dayan Gelley [Rosh Beth Din of the London Beth Din] have given careful consideration. Following the funeral service, and an address by the Chief Rabbi, the coffin will be taken to its final resting place where we will invite Holocaust survivors to lead us in filling the grave with earth.”

Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said: “In the last weeks and months of their lives, these individuals had their dignity and all respect stripped from them. We have an opportunity now, even after so many years, to give them a proper and dignified burial.”

Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “This ceremony is firstly an opportunity to bless, bury and lay to rest these victims, but also it is a moment for Holocaust survivors, and for all of us, to come together and remember."

The Chief Rabbi’s office praised the Imperial War Museum, saying Rabbi Mirvis was “grateful to IWM for the care and sensitivity they have shown”.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive