Remembering the Compassion that Comes from the Womb

February 25, 2003
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Article published in The Times on 25th February 2003

This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 will focus on children, reminding us of the most chilling aspect of the greatest act of inhumanity in the story of humankind.

More than a million and a half children were killed during the Nazi terror. It began with the disabled, epileptics and the mentally handicapped, and moved on to the groups considered less than perfect specimens of Aryan biology, culminating in those guilty of the crime of having a Jewish grandparent. More than a million Jewish children were lost in those years, a whole murdered generation.

To this day, when I walk in the streets of certain European cities, I feel as if in the presence of ghosts, hearing again the words of God to Cain: “Your brother’s blood cries to me from the earth.”

Eight years ago I visited Auschwitz for the first time. It is hard to describe the chill you feel walking through the gates with their mocking inscription “Work makes you free”. What froze my blood to ice, though, was the sight of the children’s clothes, still there, preserved: the tiny shoes, the red cloak of a three-year-old girl, the little suitcases tied together with string. There are things that, once seen, will haunt you for ever, and this for me was the worst.

The Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from rechem, meaning “a womb”, because more than anything else, it is the act of bringing new life into being that is the matrix of our respect for life. To murder children, the Nazis had first to destroy that sense of compassion, which they did — as they did so much else — with brutal efficiency. In the early years children were given lethal injections. Later they were starved or shot or bayoneted or strangled.

These acts proved too much for some soldiers, and too slow for the projected liquidation of all of Europe’s Jews. Thus were instituted the extermination camps, with their gas chambers disguised as showers. A guard at Auschwitz, testifying at the Nuremberg trial, admitted that at the height of the genocide, when the camp was killing 10,000 Jews a day, children were thrown into the furnaces alive. Never has humanity come closer to evil for evil’s sake.

Children were and always will be the test of our humanity. Yet even now, 30,000 die each day from preventable diseases, while hundreds of millions go without adequate food or shelter, education or medical facilities. Worst of all, they are still used as pawns in the chess game of hate being played out in conflict zones throughout the world.

Yet even in those darkest years there were exceptions — the almost 10,000 children brought out, mostly to Britain, in the rescue called Kindertransport, and the thousands of others sheltered, hidden and saved by ordinary men and women whose simple humanity led them to extraordinary acts of courage, when saving a Jewish life meant risking their own. Many members of our community owe their lives to such people, whose heroism still burns as a flame of hope in a dark and dangerous world.

At the end of his life, Moses gathered the children of those he had led from slavery to freedom and said: “Choose life, so that you and your children may live.” Those words continue to reverberate in an age in which hate joins hands with weapons of mass destruction.

If the Holocaust teaches us anything it is this: that whatever else we strive for, it is unworthy of us if it makes us deaf to the cry of a child.