November is upon us. The month of fallen leaves, first frost, fireworks and of course Remembrance. Every year on the second Sunday in November (this year it’s Sunday 10 November) our service is dedicated to remembering those who have given their lives in the defence of our country. We also remember the suffering that is brought about by war, injustice and intolerance.
This month I’m going to combine my usual letter with my Sabbatical Dairy and talk about a different a aspect of WW2. While visiting Jerusalem, three of us decided to brave the tram system in New Jerusalem and visit Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem Holocaust Museum.
The Jews started returning to Palestine in significant numbers in the early 20th Century and this migration increased dramatically when Hitler came to power in Germany. The Nazi regime set about dismantling the democratic processes and replacing them with a totalitarian, racist and anti-Semitic regime. Initially the regime seemed successful. And when Europe went to war after the invasion of Poland in 1939 the true extent of the regime’s barbarism wasn’t known or was being ignored.
Secrecy was the key word as the Nazis set about persecuting and destroying Jews, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies and disabled people – anyone who didn’t fit into the Aryan ideal. These unfortunate people had to be registered and the Jews had to wear Yellow stars to identify themselves. G0ring said “I would not like to be a Jew in Germany”. The West didn’t appear to realise the seriousness of the situation and came to the conclusion that it was an internal matter but, it appears, had little or no idea how bad it was getting.
The ‘Final Solution’ to the European Jewish problem was put into action. Hitler gave permission for the destruction of Jews as early as 1939 and Himmler ordered the ‘resettlement’ of the entire Jewish population to be carried out and completed by December 31st 1942. Treblinka, Auschwitz and Krakow were only a few of the camps which were set up to deal with ‘the problem’. The victims of the ‘Final Solution’ entered the gas chambers believing that they were to have a shower before being housed in the camps. Even for those chosen to live and work, death was a permanent guest.
Many Christians in Germany found it hard to believe that the rumours of mass destruction were true, however, some were aware of the Nazi plan and worked against the regime. This often led to imprisonment. Dietrich Bonheoffer, a pastor at the German Church in Forest Hill for a while, became one of those incarcerated and he was executed days before the end of the war for speaking out and plotting against the Nazi party.
It wasn’t until the end of the war when the concentration camps were liberated that the extent of the tragedy was revealed and families began to count the cost.
Some of these families are to be found visiting Yad Vashem today, many still weep as they pray or walk around the museum, for here ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ is fully exposed. It isn’t pleasant. The West said “Never again will we allow this to happen”. But wars continue and people still struggle for power. Innocent people are still dying or being displaced from their homes because others don’t see them as human beings with the right to live. Humanity is still judgmental.
There are lessons be learnt from the Holocaust and there are many evocative images at Yad Vashem. The Kinder trains which brought many children to Britain are there, artefacts from destroyed Jewish homes are there and there are hundreds of stories recounted. It is extremely moving.
As you begin to walk through the displays you are immediately struck by two cases, one containing books and the other containing shoes. The books symbolise the public burning of Jewish books. The shoes were found in the concentration camps when the survivors were liberated. These shoes belonged to people, whole families, who had no hope.
In the extensive grounds there is a ravine and over that ravine runs a railway track.
At the very end of the track is one of the carriages that took people to the camps, and there it sits – suspended at the end of the track with nowhere to go.
In a egg shaped room there are picture of peoples faces placed on the ceiling. Pictures of those who were lost provided by those who escaped. In that room tears were shed freely.
Finally we found ourselves in a room where the eternal flame burns, here people come to think and pray for peace.
I’m only able to share a very brief snapshot of our experience at Yad Vashem. I would defy anyone to visit and not be moved by what is seen and experienced. I was left wondering what would have happened if the Nazis had won the war. Our society would be very different, it is hard to imagine such a future and yet at Yad Vashem there before you is a terrifying vision of what might have been.
At the end of the war there were many refugees, today there are also many refugee people forced to leave their homes and face a very uncertain future. Chris Watkins will be leading the service on Remembrance Sunday and his theme this year will be the suffering and plight of refugees and those who are made homeless by war. I hope you can come and share in this very special service.
Shalom my friends, Shalom