For more than 1,000 years, Westminster Abbey has been one of the most important sites of Christian worship in the country. But, last Sunday, it was the venue for a poignant ceremony of Jewish remembrance.
In a special service commemorating the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, Jews joined with Christians to recite prayers, sing sacred songs and hear testimony from survivors.
The service started with a solemn procession by members of the Belsize Square Synagogue bearing six memorial candelabra up the central aisle of the abbey. The occasion was especially moving for them as their synagogue was founded in 1939 by German refugees fleeing the Nazi terror.
Dean of the Abbey, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, told the packed congregation, that the coming together of the two faiths in “a common experience of worship” was “itself a sign of hope”.
His words were still echoing through the abbey as Jewish actress Ruth Rosen walked to the altar and began to recite from Martin Gilbert’s book, Prelude to Destruction, which describes Kristallnacht — the night when the Nazis attacked Jewish homes and businesses across Germany and Austria — as “an indication of what happens when a society falls victim to its baser instincts”.
The Zemel Choir and the choirs of Belsize Square and West London Synagogues featured throughout the service, at times beautifully accompanied by the mournful strains of Gemma Rosefield’s cello.
In a touching display of unity, the Kristallnacht survivor Anne Kirk was joined in lighting the memorial candles by Dr Norman Walter, minister at the German Embassy and Daniel Taub, Israeli Ambassador to the UK.
Journalist John Izbicki, who witnessed the events of Kristallnacht as an eight-year-old boy, gave a vivid description of how his family’s haberdashery shop was attacked by Nazi Brownshirts.
He recalled how the bricks thrown at store’s window-front initially bounced back, so tough was the glass.
Baroness Julia Neuberger, the rabbi of West London Synagogue, highlighted the heroic work by British consular and diplomatic staff in Germany who secured exit visas for Jewish refugees. She said many of them were inspired by their Christian faith to save lives.
As the service came to a close and the congregation slowly filed out of the abbey, Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, described how the service had indeed given him a sense of hope rather than despair.
For Simon Gordon, a member of Radlett and Bushey Reform Synagogue, the event showed just how far Christian-Jewish relations had come. He said: “I never thought I’d live to see the day when the Kaddish would be recited at a church like this.”
A spokesperson for Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said he had been unable to attend the service because of a commitment to speak at the International Convention of the Conference of European Rabbis in Berlin.
The United Synagogue issued a statement saying that a number of US lay leaders and members had attended.