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The responsibility of remembrance grows heavier still on this generation and those not yet born

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On Sunday we will commemorate Yom HaShoah, the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for Holocaust remembrance. Always a moving and important day, this year’s Yom HaShoah has added significance as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when in April 1943, seven hundred and fifty Jewish fighters led the first organised retaliation against the Nazis in all of German-occupied Europe.

A rare journal written during the uprising by an unknown Jew and presented to the President of Israel, Shimon Peres in January 2013, describes life in the ghetto and the early battle scenes of the Jewish underground fighters.

The author writes how there was: “…a volley of shots. The bullets hit the paving stones in the street.

The ghetto fighters are struggling in a battle of a few versus many. On the roof an automatic rifle is rattling. The fighter will exact a high price in return for his life. Beside him are small flags — a red and white Polish flag and a blue and white Zionist flag.”

He continues: “Tomorrow at this time everything will already be over. I am calculating coldly. Now it is 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon. I am looking at the clear April sky. They will take us to Treblinka tonight. When the dawn breaks I will no longer be alive. The calculation is simple —for the last time I am seeing the blue sky between the clouds.”

Speaking in 1968 at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Uprising, Yitzhak Zukerman, one of the young leaders who miraculously survived, noted: “no one doubted how it was likely to turn out.” The Jewish fighters of the Ghetto, he said, decided to “rise up against their destroyers, and determine what death they would choose: Treblinka or Uprising.”

This testimony is striking beyond words. Here were young Jews who knew the chances of survival or success in battle were minimal. And yet, despite lacking in weaponry and combat knowledge, they fought and died for a cause greater than themselves. Their determination was as unshakeable then as it is inspirational to us now 70 years on.

As I begin to reflect on my time as Chief Rabbi, there are few individuals from whom I have learnt more, and who I admire greater, than the Shoah survivors. How they survived knowing what they had seen and lived through I will never know.

But what was so miraculous is that they did not just survive. One would have almost understood had they turned away from faith and expressed a desire to lead a quiet life. But they didn’t. They chose life. They rebuilt the Jewish communities throughout Europe that had been destroyed with an inner strength I don’t think I will ever fully understand. They made a collective affirmation of life, the kind that lives on in us today.

As time moves on, and the number of survivors sadly declines, the responsibility of remembrance grows heavier still on this generation and those not yet born. Yom HaShoah provides us with an important opportunity to remember an entire lost generation, the souls of one third of world Jewry who went up in flames. It is a day that should be publicly commemorated in every synagogue, from all denominations, across the UK Jewish community and around the world.

We continue to weep and no amount of comfort will be enough. But through our tears, we hear the battle cries of those fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto who proudly and bravely fought for the Jewish right to be.  They inspire us still, to fight anti-Semitism whenever it rears its ugly head anywhere in the world, to fight against ignorance, to tackle poverty and injustice, and to educate our children, not just about the history and lessons of the Shoah, but about the heritage and beauty of our faith.

Do this, and the fighting spirit not just of those who sacrificed themselves in the Warsaw Ghetto and had their futures torn so cruelly away from them during the Shoah, but also of those who survived, will remain for generations to come.

(First published in The Jewish News)