Yad Vashem

I had the honour of studying at the International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.  This is an evocative campus to study in.  The bright white and honey coloured stones, and the brilliant Israeli sunshine stand in contrast to what is remembered and taught there.

The central memorial and museum is one of the world’s great collections of archival history and artifacts of the Holocaust.  The millions of visitors are given heartrending and thought provoking testimonies by the survivors and in the legacy words of the victims.  These latter accounts left via diaries and letters are all the more powerful because of their authors’ absences.

The surrounding campus is dotted with memorials, from the Warsaw Square to the Children’s Memorial.  The Valley of the Communities in its honeyed stone records the locations of Jewish communities lost in the Shoah.  In some cases all that remains of these communities is the name written in Hebrew and in the native language of the locality.

The Avenue of the Righteous (and garden) commemorates the non-Jewish heroes, who risked lives and livelihoods to hid, aid, and rescue Jews in those terrible days.  Many know of Oscar Schindler, and Corrie ten Boom, but there are so many more Righteous Among the Nations remembered here.

                           Museum                           Valley of Communities               Ave of the Righteous

This truly is a place to visit, contemplate, and remember.


A Brief Visit to Jozefow

Travel isn’t always about leisure.  Sometimes it has an element of discovery, self-discovery, and reflection.  Jozefow, Poland is one such destination.

Jozefow is a relatively small village in southeast Poland.  It is near two lakes now largely used for recreation by those in the district, and has large areas of forest nearby.  It was thrust into infamy in the 1940s, however as a one (of the all too many) killing operations perpetrated by the Nazis.

The particular case of Jozefow was used as the backdrop for Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland.  This book and its thesis that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were by in large “ordinary men,” has been debated by Goldhagen and others, but the underlying events remain the same, no matter what the motivation.

The Jewish community of Jozefow was rounded up taken to the nearby forest and killed. What modern Jozefow leaves us is a synagogue now used as a library, a disused cemetery, a memorial in the forest, and a dark legacy of human inhumanity.

It is a sad to me that hundreds of people use the leisure facilities of the nearby lakes apparently oblivious to the events that occurred only metres away in the forest. Fair enough, it was “a long time ago,” but for those of us “in the know,” let’s not let the memory be lost.



Italian Renaissance in Eastern Poland

I was lucky enough to visit Zamość a couple of years ago.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is well deserved.  The town was “designed and built in accordance with the Italian theories of the ‘ideal town,[wiki quote]'” by the town’s founder Jan Zamoyski and the Italian architect, Bernardo Morando.

The central square boasts Zamoyski’s Palace, the “Armenian Houses,” and a wonderful pink-hued pavement.  It has far more a Mediterranean feel on a summer’s day than that of Poland.

There are some nice cafes along the market square, and it is a beautiful place to take in the architecture while sipping a drink.

A bit of the dark past of Zamość is not far away, however, as the synagogue of what was in pre-war times a Jewish community of 12,500 stands as a memorial.

This is (and I hate the over use of this term) a gem in the Polish countryside.  A must visit!


Belzec – A Brief Visit, But Long on Reflection

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Back in 2013 I took part in a training seminar at the Belzec site in Eastern Poland. This monument is at the site of the Nazi death camp.  This is not a concentration camp, but a killing centre. The memorial/museum at Belzec offers a great opportunity to reflect on story of not only of the Holocaust, but on the idea of memory itself. The monument is symbolic on several levels and challenges those who see it to remember.

The monument is made of stones which on one level give the site a cemetery atmosphere, but the symbolism moves further with the stone chosen being slag to reflect burning. This is a chilling reminder. The archaeology of the site found mass burial pits, these are marked out with darker stone. As you enter the pathway through the stones, you first come to iron plates which bear an image that can be seen as either the Star of David or as railway track (or both). The path leads to a remembrance wall.

Surrounding the stones is another walkway which bears the names of the communities which perished there, written in the languages of those communities. The iron of the metal letters at the entrance, has been allowed to weather naturally and the resulting trails of rust are as many tears for those lost community.

The museum at the site has an informative exhibit which tells the story of the site, and of the people whom it commemorates. The small but dedicated staff are helpful, and offer educational programmes as well as general visitor information.

While the memorial site itself does not take long to see, it does offer a more enduring opportunity for reflection.   This is another “must visit” site for its ability to remind us of our past and potential failings as a species, but also for the chance to reflect and to improve.  As a “must visit” site, allow yourself time to take it in and not merely glance (which is easy owing to its size).  Time should also be given for the museum, it too while small, delivers “above its weight” in information and impact.


Be A Learner First, Then A Teacher

One of the most inspirational educators of the Twentieth Century was Janusz Korczak. He was a doctor, children’s author, and educator.  He believed in the inherent ability of children to learn and to contribute to learning.  He saw his students as fully fledged humans, not just as potential adults.  He even advocated what we now call “student voice” as early as the 1930s.

He became the director of an orphanage in Warsaw, and retained the post until the destruction of the Jewish community there in 1942.  Owing to his fame as a writer and educator he was offered an avenue of escape for himself, but declined it.  He went to his death at Treblinka comforting his young charges along the way.

He offers much for teachers, parents, and leaders to emulate. But, his instructions to teachers were ground-breaking and just as powerful today.  These guidelines have applications to anyone who seeks to instruct others.

He said, “Be yourself and seek your own path.
Know yourself before you attempt to know children [audience, or learners].
Become aware of what you yourself are capable of  before you attempt to outline the rights and responsibilities of children [others].
First and foremost you must realize that you too are a child [learner],
Whom you must first get to know, to bring up and to educate.” [Square brackets are mine, and offer applications of his words].

Know yourself.  Know your abilities [and weaknesses]. Be honest with yourself. Then speak, teach, and lead.

What wisdom, and humility!  I hope we can live up to the challenge.



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Korczak Memorial Warsaw

A Gate to the Past, A Gate Where Memory Lives

A couple of years ago, I had the privilege to become involved with the Grodzka Gate – NN Theatre  project.  This initiative recalls Jewish life of pre-WW2 Lublin in Poland.  The little museum-theatre complex was found in ruin but has been restored with care and respect.  It has become a bridge to our understanding of the lives of the Jewish community of Lublin’s past; and to modern Polish and Jewish communities.  This is fitting as Grodzka was the physical link to the Polish and Jewish quarters of Lublin in the decades, indeed centuries before the war.  The Jewish quarter is now gone, not only its people, but the physical structures themselves. The large car park below the gate was once a thriving community, the remembrance of that community has been preserved at Grodzka.

The museum itself, while small, has done its best to bring back the life of old Lublin. Recorded street sounds and songs can be heard, and photos can be viewed through “key holes” to the past,  providing touching reminders of the NN (no names) that the theatre seeks to once again remember.

The Theatr NN also provides educational programmes, and sponsors seminars and cultural events.  The works of Isaac Bashevis Singer are promoted, read, and performed, and the richness of Yiddish culture is celebrated.

The staff are dedicated, friendly, and energetic in their support to visitors and to the mission they have set themselves. This is a “must visit” site if in Lublin, as “No Names,” is becoming less of a reality, as this Project helps memory live.


Image result for the grodzka gate theatre centre

Remembering the Little Ones

I have written on several previous occasions about the loss of a child, and the trauma and mourning it brings.  Ariana Grande’s tribute concert will be in Manchester this evening to remember the terrible atrocity there on the 22nd of May.  Such a tribute is right and good.  It is a positive reaction to aid grieving families (emotionally and financially) and for the survivors to have an opportunity to begin overcome their fears.

Such ephemeral tributes as concerts have an impact.  But their are other longer term, emotionally enduring tributes to lost children as well.  I have visited several of these over time, and have found two of the most evocative to be the children’s memorials at the Vught Concentration Camp in The Netherlands, and at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

The eight simple columns of the Vught memorial topped with Stars of David in itself is of affect as most Holocaust tributes do.  It is the names of the children, and their ages sometimes recorded in days or months rather than years that is the most unsettling.  Add to this the sculpted toys and left tributes that make it truly emotional.

Image result for vught concentration camp childrens

Yad Vashem’s memorial is even more emotive. From the sun-drenched white and cream of the surrounding stone, one enters into a dark tunnel.  Here you are confronted with emotional vocal music which is a strange mix of the sublime (snippets of heaven) and of lament (truly a feeling of loss).  As you pass photos of “lost children” you see a sea of pin point lights (representing the lost).  These are produced by only a handful of candles, but the refraction of multiple mirrors gives a cosmic field of light against the all pervading darkness.  When at the centre of the monument the names, nationalities and ages of children are solemnly recited on a seemingly endless recording.  One then returns to the dazzling brightness of the Jerusalem sun.

Image result for yad vashem children's memorial jerusalem

The power of such memorials is intense.  Hopefully the effect will be equally memorable with Ms Grande’s tribute tonight. Some may balk at my linking of the Manchester attack and the Holocaust.  To this I can but paraphrase Yehuda Bauer, that we cannot compare people’s suffering or loss.  The pain is uniquely their own.  In the end, all attempts of memorisation pale to the loss of such innocents.  May God be with their friends and families, and grant them peace.


Empty Chairs (Remembering Norway)

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Oslo Chair image by Padre’s Ramblings

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.

Padre  valley-of-the-communities-monument-dedication