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Yom Hashoah’s Vital Message

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Though European Jewry has risen from the ashes of the Holocaust, with Germany now hosting the world’s fastest growing community, latent, and even explicit antisemitism persists, says the Chief Rabbi in his message for Yom Hashoah. He cautions both politicians and European citizens against apathy, such indifference having once aided the ascent of a most evil entity. 

A number of years ago, I led a group on a most memorable trip to Poland. As we were making our way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, following a moving Shacharit (morning) sevice in the restored Oswiecim Synagogue, we were appalled to see a Polish bystander make a Nazi salute as we passed by. We shuddered to think that, so close to the site of the concentration camp that is a prime symbol of Nazi evil, rabid antisemitism was still alive.

Contrast that experience with an encounter that a friend of mine had in the Polish city of Katowice. After he concluded a business deal, a Polish accountant present requested to see him privately. My friend stepped into a side room with the accountant, who asked him if he was Jewish. When he replied that he was, the Pole tucked his hand into his shirt and drew out a Magen David. “I am a Catholic,” he said, “and I will wear this for the rest of my life as a sign of shame for what my people did to yours.”

‘We shuddered to think that, so close to the site of a concentration camp, antisemitism was still alive’

By now, many of us have returned, as visitors, to concentration camps and to the towns and villages of our parents, grandparents and, for the youngest among us, great grandparents. There we have seen fields that conceal mass graves, empty crematoria where Jewish bodies burned and towns regenerated from emptied ghettos. The silence of the present does not disguise the nightmare of the past.

The camps were often nestled amidst population centres. From Munich, it is but a brief train ride to the sleepy suburban town of Dachau, the location and namesake of Germany’s first concentration camp. In Poland, Auschwitz-Birkenau, with its 1.5 million victims, is clustered around Oswiecim. In small villages and shtetls across Eastern Europe, barns crammed with Jews were incinerated by their neighbours. The Holocaust was not merely perpetrated by card carrying Nazis alone – and the same is true of genocides since – they required, at best, popular indifference and, at worst, collaboration.

On my many trips to European centres of intolerable Jewish suffering, I have questioned how God’s creations could turn their backs and close their ears to the pleas of innocents. How, I asked, could a quiet suburban existence continue beside such wickedness, such wanton cruelty? In my anguish, I recall, as well, how many righteous gentiles heroically risked their lives in order to hide and help desperate Jews. I am also encouraged by the genuine atonement and sense of shame currently expressed both at government and grassroots levels across the continent as Europe looks back at its stained past.

‘The silence of the present does not disguise the nightmare of the past’

Despite the devastation, Jewish life in Europe has continued. Reconsecrated Synagogues, rejuvenated communities and resplendent testaments, such as the Jüdisches Museum in Berlin, indicate that European Jewry may, once again, be blossoming. Germany is now home to the world’s fastest-growing Jewish community. Poland, where fewer than 10% of its 3.48 million Jews survived the Holocaust, is host to a Jewish community growing in both numbers and identity in Warsaw. Europe has transitioned from complicity and denial, now showing a determination to rebuild its shattered Jewish communities.

Yet, in solemn conversations around dinner tables and in worrying news reports from Europe, there is room for concern. We recall the terrible shootings at a Jewish Primary School in Toulouse, France and witness public salutes reminiscent of darker times there. We see the racist incitement of Hungarian parliamentarians and a paramilitary organisation of racists and xenophobes on the streets of Greece. A bomb blast at the Jewish community centre in Malmö, Sweden is merely the latest of many provocations there. A new generation is recycling old hatreds and there is a simmering unease in Europe.

The warnings are there. Europe’s journey of progress risks derailment. It is always with hindsight that one can pinpoint a moment when the brakes should have been applied. I pray that we are not heading in that direction, but I trust that should the moment come, the people of Europe will not falter. Apathy to vitriol and violence encourages its proliferation, whereas education, resolute proactivity on the part of governments and ordinary citizens can do much to cultivate tolerant and cohesive civil societies.

‘In solemn conversations around dinner tables and in worrying news reports from Europe, there is room for concern’

It is in the stories of foodless Passovers celebrated in the death camps, in the faces of the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors, in the righteousness of those who saved escapees and hid whole families, that we see both the hand of God and the essence of humanity.

As we commemorate Yom Hashoah, we are mindful of the Nazi salute which continues to be used today, together with the genuine friendship and support of many who identify warmly with the Magen David and the Jewish People. Our well-placed concern is accompanied by hope, promise and faith, and the knowledge that even the darkest of tunnels must open to light.

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis