Communities Together: Build a Bridge

Holocaust Memorial Day 2013

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2013, Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks addressed the ceremony at City Hall in London.

The sheer scale of the Holocaust can sometimes overwhelm us. On September 11th, 2001, three thousand people died in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the worst terrorist incident in American history. During the Holocaust on average, three thousand Jews were murdered, every day, for five and a half years.  If we were to observe a minute silence for each of those victims, the silence would last more than eleven years.

So let me take one tiny example, a little Polish town, more a village really, of just a few thousand souls, called Eishyshok. Jews lived in Eishyshok and its environs for more than 900 years. They were farmers, they were trainers, they were teachers, they lived all those centuries amicably with their neighbours. They had been part of Eishyshok from the moment there was an Eishyshok. Then in 1941, the Germans came.

On the 21st September, 1941, the Jews were rounded up. On the 25th and 26th September, the Jews of Eishyshok, one by one, were shot. In two days, 989 men, 1,636 women and 821 children were murdered. Only a handful survived; one of whom was a four year old girl who managed to run away and hide until the end of the war. Eventually she found her way to the United States, became a historian and became, for my wife and myself, a personal friend, Yaffa Eliach.

Yaffa spent seventeen years reconstructing the history of Eishyshok and wrote a beautiful and moving book about it, called There Once Was a World. And this happened in village after village, town after town, until the Germans decided it was all too inefficient and they built the extermination camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and Sobibor and Belzack. But what puzzles me though, and what still puzzles Yaffa, is that no-one in Eishyshok said a word. There were no protests before it happened, none when it happened, and none after it happened.

And so it was in Bosnia amongst the Serbs and the Croats and the Muslims. And so it was in Rwanda amongst the Hutus and the Tutsis. Families who had been friends for a lifetime became enemies almost overnight and started killing one another. In Rwanda, 800,000 people murdered in the space of 100 days.

And let us never think it could not happen again. In some form or another, it is happening again and we are witnessing it night after night on our television screens in one part of the world after another and tomorrow, who knows where.

And that is why we have to work at building bridges across the abyss that might otherwise separate people of different races and faiths. Creating communities, like this extraordinary city of London where we celebrate, instead of feeling threatened by, diversity, where we recognise the dignity of difference, where we understand that one who is not in my image is still in God’s image, even if his colour is not mine, or culture is not mine, even if his religion is not mine. And we understand that the religious challenge is to see and never forget or lose sight of the trace of God in the face of a stranger.

How will each of us recognise the danger when we see it? We will recognise it when anyone says: “It’s all the fault of….”.  It’s all the fault of the Jews; it’s all the fault of the Muslims; it’s all the fault of the Government, or the media or the blacks or the whites, or the United States or Israel or whoever. Whenever you hear the words “It’s all the fault of” then we are in the presence of danger. The Germans said “It’s all the fault of the Jews”; the Bosnians said “It’s all the fault of the Muslims”; the Hutus said “It’s all the fault of the Tutsis”. And from that one simple, innocent sentence, eventually came crimes that still stain the conscience of humankind.

On this great day of commemoration, may God bless us all, the survivors, and especially the young people. May God give you the courage to fight hate in the name of our shared and inalienable humanity.

May we never be afraid to fight for a world in which no one has to live in fear.