On Thursday this week I had the great privilege in attending the Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) commemoration in Manchester.
There were 500 people present including several dignitaries including the Lord Mayor of Manchester, the Bishop of Manchester and the Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police, Peter Fahy.
Most honoured of all were the handful of survivors who settled in Manchester and were fit enough to attend.
Sadly, as the years pass, the survivors become fewer. This is why Second Generation, an organisation headed by the indefatigable Tania Nelson, representing children of survivors, is so important. There is now a Third Generation for grandchildren.
My esteemed cousins in Israel, when I first met them six years ago (and that could be the subject of another blog) told me that I, too, am a survivor. I baulked at this. “How can I be a survivor? How can I merit that distinguished and honorific title? My parents were born in England and my grandparents came here a hundred years ago.” “You are a survivor, don’t argue. Every Jew who is still around after the Shoah is a survivor. You come from a family of survivors. We are so pleased to have found another part of our family surviving.”
This was a profoundly moving and proud moment for me. Ever since, I have taken their word for it. I may not be as worthy of the soubriquet as they are, but I look at the world as a survivor. A survivor who has a bounden duty to remember, to commemorate and, yes, even celebrate.
The theme of this year’s commemoration was The Righteous.
I have for many years had a special interest in Holocaust history and a very special interest in those Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews.
I have previously written about a dear friend (and “landsman”) of mine, Mayer Hersh, who has dedicated his life to Holocaust education.
Sir Martin Gilbert’s book The Righteous, which deals extensively with this subject, is a must-read for anyone with an interest in this moving subject. If you don’t have an interest, you should.
The presentation I attended dealt initially with those celebrated Righteous Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg
We heard again the story, now so familiar, of Schindler and the scene near the end of the Spielberg film where he wondered if he could have saved even more Jews if he had tried harder.
We also heard about Raoul Wallenberg, considered the greatest saviour of Jews, who used similar techniques to others in face of the Nazis: deceit, swagger and chutzpah.
As the Hungarian fascists, the Arrow Cross gleefully assisted the Germans in killing Jews by tying three together, killing the middle one and then pushing them into the freezing River Danube, Wallenberg organised doctors and heroic swimmers on the opposite bank to pull out as many as they could who had managed to get free. 50 souls out of many thousands were saved.
But the most moving story for me was that of the small Greek island of Zakynthos.
On September 9 1943 the Germans who were now occupying Greece and had deported to death camps the extensive Jewish populations of Thessaloniki, Rhodes and Athens turned on the small Jewish community of the idyllic island of Zakynthos.
The Nazis demanded that the mayor, Loukas Karrer, provide them immediately with a list of all the Jews on the island.
Karrer spoke to the metropolitan, Bishop Chrystosomos. The next day Karrer pleaded with Berenz, the German governor, to spare the Jews of the island. They had lived together with the Jews for many centuries. They were as Greek as everyone else.
Berenz (yimakh shemo ימח שמו – may his name be obliterated) insisted. Karrer then produced his list.
The list consisted of just two names – his own and that of Bishop Chrystosomos (zekher tzadik v’kadosh livrakha,
l’chayei ha’olam ha-ba זכר צדיק וקדוש לברכה לחיי העולם הבא – may the memory of the righteous and the saintly be a blessing in the world to come).
The Bishop had even written a letter to Hitler ימח שמו declaring the Jews of his island to be under his personal authority and, by implication, protection.
The governor sent the list and the letter to to Berlin to await orders. In the meantime Zakynthos’s 275 Jews were hidden across the island. The edict was later revoked and every Jew on the island survived the war.
I have known of this story for some time because I read an article in the Jerusalem Post just over two years ago. Leora Goldberg, an Israeli, was holidaying on Zakynthos when she stumbled upon its Jewish heritage. It was the following part of her story which I found extremely emotional:
A few days before I had planned to leave the island and return home, I went into a bank to convert some dollars into euros. But even in a simple place like a bank, I managed to add another piece to this Jewish puzzle.
A clerk who had been on the phone and eating a sandwich, called on me when my turn came. When I gave her my dollars to be changed, she handed me the converted money in an envelope without asking for any identification. Later on, when I opened it, I was surprised to see so much money. The money that had been put into the envelope had not been counted properly, and instead of changing $1,000, she had given me the equivalent of $10,000!
This was really no surprise to me, because the clerk hadn’t paid me any attention. Ultimately, however, once the bank realized that the money was missing, it would have no way of reaching me since no contact information was requested.
The following morning, I called the bank and asked to speak to the manager. I inquired to know if there was a problem with the previous night’s accounts. “You must be the woman with the dollars,” he said, immediately inviting me to his office.
An hour later, I was at the bank. When I walked into the office, the man sitting across from the manager moved to another chair and gave me his seat. I shared my bank experience with him, saying how easy it would have been for me to disappear with the money.
The manager himself was profusely apologetic about the unprofessional way I was treated and thanked me repeatedly for returning the money. To express his gratitude, he invited me and my family to dinner at an exclusive restaurant.
I explained that eating out was too complicated for us due to the fact that we were observant Jews. He asked for my address so he could send us a crate of wine. “That is a problem too,” I said. I told him I had come from Israel a week ago for a holiday, but had gotten sidetracked.
“A few days after I landed, I was surprised to discover the Jewish community that was here up to 25 years ago,” I said. “You don’t owe me anything. Indeed, you have given me and my people a lot. The least I can do as a Jew to show my appreciation for what you have done for the Jews of Zakynthos is to return this money that doesn’t belong to me and say, ‘Thank you!'”
There was silence for what appeared to be a long minute. The man who had given me his seat when I walked in and hadn’t said a word during the conversation, stood up with tears in his eyes, turned to me and said: “As the grandson of Mayor Karrer, I am extremely overwhelmed and want to thank you!”
Mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrystosomos were honoured as Righteous among the Nations at Yad Vashem in 1978.
Where are our Schindlers and Wallenbergs today? Where our mayor Karrer and Bishop Chrystosomos whose memory is a blessing and inspiration? They do exist: Pilar Rahola, José María Aznar are two notables but Europe is abandoning the Jewish people for a second time it seems.
Back at the Yom HaShoah service we thanked the UK for being a haven from persecution when the Jews needed somewhere to run to.
But it wasn’t the Nazis most of our families were running from, it was the Russian pogroms and before them we have been deported from almost every country in Europe and massacred by the cossacks and the crusaders, Christians and Muslims.
When Jews arrived in British Mandate Palestine they were often turned back, and when the Nazi threat was a clear and present danger Jews were prevented from entering Palestine because of the sensitivities of the locals and to maintain the demographic balance even though thousands of Arabs flooded in unchecked from neighbouring areas.
Our gratitude to our host country is tempered by the memory of its broken promises and its craven concessions to Arab pressure, its abstention at the UN vote to recognise the State of Israel and the institutional anti-Semitism of many of its government departments.
Yet, throughout history, we have always had to be grateful for the smallest of mercies.
When Jews were given full citizenship and equal rights in the Enlightenment, that was to be the end of persecution. Liberté, égalité, fraternité were corrupted to their complete opposites: oppression, disenfranchisement and hatred.
Why do we so love and revere our saviours and supporters?.
Schindler’s grave is on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, and those he saved and their descendants still go annually to pay their respects. His gravestone is permanently covered with the small stones placed as a sign of respect and gratitude by visitors from around the world, most of them Jews.
Schindler’s reward in Germany after the war was eventual poverty, somewhat self-inflicted. Jewish organisations kept him solvent at one time. When he died at the age of 66 his body was brought to Israel.
Wallenberg’s reward was to end up in some gulag and a likely early death.
How many countries other than Israel have honoured their great humanitarians who saved Jews?
In the UK Sir Nicholas Winton, sometimes referred to as the British Schindler, was only recognised years later thanks to Esther Rantzen.
Where will their monuments be? in Yad Vashem, in the Avenue of the Righteous, in the hearts of every Jew.
Why do we so value our saviours? Because we know from our history that we have so often been the victim and that gentile saviours are so rare that we embrace and thank them like brothers and sisters.
In Hebron in 1929 Muslims saved more than 400 Jews whilst 67 were slaughtered and all of the Jews were taken to safety by the British.
Wherever and whenever Jews were under attack from their neighbours in Europe or in the Muslim world there were always those who truly loved their neighbours, and if they didn’t love them, at least they had the nobility of spirit and the fire of justice which made them stand up against the iniquities of their own people and stand with the Jews.
Even today we have truly inspiring Muslims; Kaz Hafeez, Hasan Afzal and Khaled Abu Toameh who, in different ways stand up against Islamist injustice and seek truth, justice and, above all, feel compelled to express their fraternal human feelings for Jews inside and outside Israel.
Today there is a hideous conflation – anti-Israelism is a cover for anti-semitism; Zionist means Jew. Israel and its supporters are accused of behaving like Nazis, the most vile accusation possible to throw against Jews who stand up against lies and distortions – like the noble and brave Richard Millett who was recently vilified for daring to record and challenge the vile hypocrisy of a recent event at the SOAS.
This conflation confuses Jews who find that the policies of the Israeli government and the behaviour of some of its citizens problematical.
Good. Be outraged. Speak out against injustice, but don’t stand with those scientific anti-Semites with their high-powered electron microscopes poised over the Land of Israel, subjecting its every act and deed to a level of scrutiny no other country suffers, and then, when they find an alleged injustice, use it as testimony in pursuit of Israel’s destruction.
These critics of Israel and its supporters decide first that Israel must be destroyed. They insist that it is a misbegotten country, born in sin as an atonement for European Holocaust guilt. This is historically inaccurate and also ignores the role of ‘Palestinian’ Arabs who encouraged Hitler with promises of eradicating Jews from Palestine and even organised militia in Europe. I speak of Haj Amin al-Husseini.
They can never bring themselves to believe or recognise a single good thing about Israel or Israelis.
If the truth is too painful for them, if anything shows Israel in an unbearably good light, their cognitive dissonance gene kicks in and they obscenely invert the good and convert it to criticism to be used as a weapon to further their presumption of guilt and illegitimacy.
And if you are guilty you are barred from defending yourself militarily or legally. Every response to an attack is a provocation and every death of a terrorist a massacre.
Every act of international aid, like being the first to build a field hospital in Haiti after the earthquake or sending specialist equipment to Japan after its tsunami disaster, are seen as a cover-up for all its evil deeds at home.
A bastion of Gay Rights? Yeah, sure, just ‘pinkwashing’ to be used to cover up Human Rights abuses.
Even a theatre company should not perform in London because, uniquely, Israelis are worthy of boycott for complicity in the crime of ‘occupation’ which is not legally an occupation despite the accepted cosy narrative which so defines it.
Such narratives are essentially anti-Semitic. They abjure fair criticism and replace it with demonisation, delegitimisation, lies, distortions and hypocrisy. Some even want to create a second Holocaust (Hamas, Hizbollah, Ahmadinejad).
Others want to destroy Israel and create a state of Palestine from the River to the Sea without considering the fate of the Jews, not caring, or simply wanting to ‘send them back’. These narratives, too, are essentially anti-Semitic, denying Jews self-determination and wishing to replace a democracy (albeit a flawed one) with another Islamist state. These people are surely the spawn of the Nazis. Nazism has never disappeared, its spores had merely been hibernating waiting for an opportunity such as the new religion of Human Rights provides them.
Yom HaShoah tells us to learn the lessons of intolerance, it tells us that if we are not for ourselves then who is for us?
The Righteous gave us that answer; they stood up proud and firm and they spat squarely in the eyes of the Nazi oppressors.
Maybe they hated Nazis more than they loved Jews; maybe saving Jews was an act of resistance to the Nazis more than an act of love toward Jews.
I don’t care because the motivation led to the act and the act was often at the risk of the life of those who acted.
They may not always have had noble motivations but they achieved nobility and they sanctified the very meaning of what it is to be human.
At the lowest point in the history of mankind, and in the midst of the worst evil, in the face of the depraved officers of the Waffen SS or the Hungarian Arrow Cross, the Einsatzgruppen and the Kapos or confronting their own ancient prejudices and indifference, envy or jealousy, a few thousand stood up and said “NO”.
We the Jewish people will never forget you, and we will perpetuate your memory with love and gratitude.