One of the most moving pieces from the musical, Les Misérables is “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables.” “Empty chairs at empty tables where my friends will meet no more.
Oh my friends, my friends don’t ask me -What your sacrifice was for -Empty chairs at empty tables -Where my friend will sing no more.”
Empty chairs are indeed a powerful symbol of loss. Of loss to individuals, and of communities at large. It is fitting then for Anthony Gormley to have used the image in his commission to remember Norway’s Holocaust victims. These large cast iron chairs are striking as one walks at the base of the fortress overlooking Oslo Fjord.
It is the anniversary of the deportations (20 November 1942- 24 February 1943) with the 26th of November marking the biggest single deportation. In all 768 members of Norway’s Jewish community were victims of this act, of which there were only 28 survivors.
Norway’s small Jewish community was at the time only about 80 years old. There were only three synagogues, and these were at least in part assimilated and were named in Norwegian. Nonetheless, the loss of these 740 souls was a Norwegian national tragedy, and part of a greater tragedy to Judaism, and to all humanity. It is remarkable what costs can be incurred by hate!
I attended a seminar of European Holocaust educators a few years ago, and one of the most memorable presentations was by a Swedish colleague who presented this sad tale of Norway. In it she used the story of Kathe, a teenage caught up in this terror. She [Kathe] was in her own words – Norwegian. On her registration form, when asked when she had come to Norway, she responded “alltid vært i Norge (always been in Norway).” Her loss, and the loss of her friends and family – those empty chairs at empty tables – is a challenge to each of us today.
Even more sad, is the fact that her community was not alone in this horror. Jewish communities across Europe suffered the same fate. These are remembered at Yad Vashem in the Valley of the Communities, the inscription says much more than I can, and what it lacks, let the empty chairs speak.