Office of the Chief Rabbi

Op-Ed: ‘This year’s Yom HaShoah poses a challenge to us all’

This article by Chief Rabbi Mirvis was first published in the Jewish News.

Perhaps surprisingly, this year, Yom HaShoah poses a great challenge to us.

Last year I was enormously proud of British Jewry at the 2015 Yom HaShoah National commemoration. It brought together people from all parts of our community. Young and old, religious and unaffiliated – Jewish people came in their thousands to make an immensely powerful statement: Seventy years on from the liberation of concentration camps across Europe, the Shoah would never fade into the annals of history, as the preserve of textbooks and museums. Rather, it would live within each and every one of us as a part of our consciousness, a part of our very identity. I was truly inspired by the atmosphere and the shared commitment.

Indeed, the 70th anniversary, quite rightly made international news headlines. The world’s media gathered at Auschwitz earlier in the year. Prime ministers, royalty and parliamentarians joined survivors at various events across the globe to make a similar pledge.

‘With each passing year we must acknowledge that our collective task becomes ever more challenging’

There can hardly have been a single Jew on the planet for whom the commemorations did not invoke a sense of commitment to Holocaust Memorial. And yet, even as I looked proudly over the gathered crowds, a very deep concern was forming – what kind of statement will we be able to muster for next year?

The 70th anniversary was certainly an appropriate time for the world to make its own proclamation about the Shoah. But 70 is just a number. With each passing year we must acknowledge that our collective task becomes ever more challenging and, as such, particularly for our precious Holocaust survivors, the 71st anniversary is a whole year more important than the 70th. Next year will be more important still, and so on.

Consider the following, unavoidable truth. This year, many tens of thousands of Jewish children will be born who will probably never hear the first-hand testimony of a survivor.

‘We must internalise the fact that there is no longer any opportunity for planning or pledging’

By the time they are old enough to do so, there will be few, if any, survivors left for them to listen to. For decades, we have talked about how we would react when this time arrived. Sadly, that time is now. We must internalise the fact that there is no longer any opportunity for planning or pledging. Our mantra of “never forget” must cease to be just a promise for the future and become a rallying call for action today.

It was with this thought in mind that at last year’s Yom HaShoah event I explained that hopefulness alone will simply not be enough, if it is not accompanied by tangible action to become a living memorial.

It is no accident that in Jewish tradition we use the symbol of a flame to identify the point at which the material meets the spiritual. The best known example of this is the way that we memorialise those dear to us who have passed on from the material to the spiritual world. But though a flame can be extremely powerful, it is also fragile and vulnerable. Left to burn alone, it will eventually extinguish and disappear – it only survives if we protect and cultivate it.

‘A casual or occasional relationship with Holocaust memorial is a recipe for extinguishing a flame’

This is a particularly evocative lesson for us as we face up to the challenge of the 71st year. It is too easy to make a gesture on the 70th anniversary and to feel that we have fulfilled our obligation as a community, at least until the 75th or 80th anniversary.

A casual or occasional relationship with Holocaust memorial is a recipe for extinguishing a flame we pledged to protect and it is a dereliction of our collective responsibility.

So, this year, as Yom HaShoah approaches without the tailwind of publicity that prompted 5,000 people to attend last year’s national event, every one of us must ask ourselves what personal ongoing commitment we will make to Holocaust memorial. If you are able, take a few hours out of your weekend to attend this year’s community commemoration at Barnet Copthall Stadium or perhaps attend an event at your local synagogue or elsewhere.

But wherever you are and whatever you do, it is essential that together, we rise to the challenge of the 71st year.

• To book your tickets for this year’s Yom HaShoah National Commemoration Ceremony www.yomhashoah.org.uk/nationalevent