It is common for us to open the newspaper and find photos of soldiers that have been killed, children starving in Africa and of towns flattened – often through war. In an age where it seems that many young teenagers play ‘shoot ‘em up’ games, and scenes of violence are all over our screens, gory photos no longer possess the ability to shock us as they once did. I myself, whilst not actively seeking to watch violent films, am not easily shocked. Or at least I thought this was the case.
Last Friday, 27 January, was designated by the United Nations as the International Holocaust Memorial Day. The date marks the liberation of the largest Nazi camp, Auschwitz, in 1945 by the Soviet troops. I attended an event to mark this occasion held at King’s College London earlier in the week, with one of the speakers, Ruth Barnett, a holocaust survivor. Having never heard a survivor speak before, I decided to attend, not thinking for a moment about my expectations of the event except for whether or not I’d actually learn something new.
Rabbi Gavin Broder, University Jewish Chaplain for London, introduced the event and echoed the fact that many of us demand an answer to the “why” behind the holocaust. There isn’t one. All we can reflect upon is that man is endowed with choice, and what we make of that choice is up to every one of us. To be reminded of one’s choice in the midst of all hell is, I believe, extremely positive.
We were shown a brief video about the holocaust and it felt as if part of my spirit jumped ship, determined to drag through the words and photos shown to us. A tale of a metamorphosis; happy smiling people slowly deformed into stick like characters. The piles of dead bodies, others shoved into furnaces, with a backdrop of slow and sad violins, completely stunned me. They don’t show you these photos in school, but without these, how can one even start to comprehend the horror of this event? For a moment, I felt as if this was my family, and I understood why many Jewish people feel so passionately about this event. Sometimes words fail us, but pictures like these cannot lie. They are a reminder of what we are all capable of, and the choices we make. I tried my best not to cry, not wanting to appear naïve, but there would have been nothing childish about crying.
After this video, students from a range of faiths were invited to say a piece and then light a candle. As a Zoroastrian, I spoke about the prophet and the questions he had for Ahura Mazda. He asked why there was injustice and evil in the world; the response was that: “Mankind makes its choice, and, likewise, chooses the Best or Worst, in Thought, Word and Deed.” Students also commemorated others who were killed: gypsies, the disabled, blacks, as well as victims of more recent genocides. This was not just about the Jews – it was, and continues to be, about anyone who is deemed “unworthy”.
Ruth Barnett spoke next. She is an incredibly strong, sharp, and rather young-looking lady. She told us of her life as a child, how she was lucky enough to be on the kindertransport, how she had been moved from various foster homes and how this had affected her. However, it was a surprisingly positive conclusion. She explained how she had spent the last ten years or so visiting schools and other community groups, teaching children about the holocaust and how important it is that we do not forget our history. Beyond the expectations we have of a victim of such an atrocity, she actually tried to teach us that after the wounds have had time to heal, they should not deter you from doing great things.
Two key themes that ran throughout the evening were the importance of speaking out, and the ability to strive to live life fully. When we really assess the world that we live in, there are thousands of people without clean water or shelter, who face ongoing persecution. We have a duty to speak out for them, if only because at the end, there will be no one left to speak out for us. Moreover, taking life for granted is a mistake – but again, this is down to the choices we make.
I was truly honoured to attend and take part in this commemoration, something I chose to do. You, too, must make a choice in paying respect to the world that you live in, and question whether events are acceptable to yourself, your family and your community.
Image from: http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=105710
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