Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 27th January 2013
27 January 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
The imagery and intention is undeniable and unmistakeable. As soon as you see it, you understand not only what it’s about, but also the point which is being made.
High on the side of Mount Herzl, in the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, a section of train-track protrudes; reaching out from the very side of the rock and disappearing out into mid-air; supported only by the girders of what looks like a railway bridge.
On a misty day, you could easily imagine the track continuing into the distance, a kind of ethereal railway in the sky. But, on Friday of last week, the skies were clear, azure blue, with just the faintest whisper of clouds in the stratosphere.
So what you could see without any difficulty was the end of the line; the train track jagged, torn, broken off, interrupted; but undeniably and most definitely the end of the line.
But it is what is on the track which makes this place of memorial so clear and evident in its intention. Because there, perched high on the mountainside, running on the tracks that sweep through the tall trees, is a railway wagon, a cattle truck, still, silent and empty. On the side of which is painted: Deutsche Reichsbahn München 11689 C.
This is one of the thousands of cattle trucks used by the Nazis in the Second World War to transport some 6,000,000 Jews to their execution in the Final Solution perpetrated in the camps of the disintegrating Third Reich. It forms part of the visually stunning work of the Israeli-Canadian architect, Moshe Rafdie, at Yad Veshem in Jerusalem, and symbolises not only the ultimate extermination of those transported, but their degradation and dehumanisation along the way. Not even afforded human dignity, the victims of the Final Solution were treated as cattle for slaughter. Yad Veshem (יד ושם), the Hebrew for ‘a place and a name’, gives honour to those who had none. It is taken from the biblical text:
Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name (yad vashem) better than of sons and of daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 56: 5).
Today, 27th January, is Holocaust Memorial Day, the day on which in 1945 the Concentration Camp of Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Union.
It is an international initiative to give due weight and significance, in an enduring form, to the genocide against the Jews, to learn the lessons of history and to speak out against the continuing crimes against humanity of our own generation – in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur.
Because while the Holocaust, the Shoa, is rightly and fundamentally acknowledged as a unique and cataclysmic event, no one would pretend that man’s humanity against man is confined to one race or people or religion.
The German Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller, as an anti-Communist, was originally supportive of the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s but became disillusioned with Hitler’s oppression strategy. He formed a group of clergy opposed to the Nazis and was imprisoned in Dachau.
Although a controversial figure, to him is attributed the famous lines which express succinctly why peoples of all faiths and none should not stand idly by in the face of prejudice and persecution.
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
While the intention both of the memorial at Yad Veshem and of the international Holocaust Memorial Day is clear and unequivocal, the recent comments here in the United Kingdom by the Liberal Democrat MP, David Ward, show just how problematic such sentiments can be in the context of Israel’s continuing conflict with Palestinians, especially in Gaza.
“Having visited Auschwitz twice … I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza”.
Let me be clear and unequivocal: there is no comparison between the suffering of Jews in the Second World War and that of Palestinians in Gaza. The current Israel-Palestinian conflict has its roots in wars fought over the last seventy years in which armed combatants took sides, and many on both were killed and wounded. The Jews of Europe in the 1930s posed no such threat to their states, they were innocent and defenceless. They were led to the slaughter in cattle trucks, and the militarisation of the State of Israel was, in part, a direct response to their historic defencelessness.
And yet while comparison between these two is deeply offensive, there is a juxtaposition which is nonetheless troubling. The Yad Veshem memorial includes a street in the Warsaw Ghetto where a security wall was built to cut across the road. As I travelled last week to the Gaza strip and to Bethlehem, it was difficult not to hear a disturbing echo.
Disturbing because the recent elections in Israel revealed no appetite to seek, let alone find, a permanent and enduring end to the conflict.
By contrast to the adamantine intransigence on both sides of the current conflict, this was not the sentiment of a young victim at Ravensbruck, whose prayer was later found on her body:
Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. Do not remember all the sufferings they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we bear, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, courage, generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.