I was privileged to attend 2 commemorations in Hertfordshire, and to visit the Bosnian community as well, over the weekend of events when we remember both the Holocaust and genocides since. The theme this year from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is “Stand Together”.
Cllr. Jonathan Kaye, Chairman of East Herts District Council, hosted a thought provoking and memorable event on 23rd January. 3 Rabbis were joined by a representative from Ware Community Muslims and other speakers, and we watched 3 short films and heard singing from the Welwyn Garden City Synagogue congregation choir. Cllr Kaye interviewed Leslie Kleinman, an Auschwitz survivor, who told his story of terrible sadness and loss, as well as extraordinary human resilience. He was quite remarkable – now very elderly in his 90s but that was the third talk he had given that day.
Rabbi Alan Plancey reminded us of the need for unity not uniformity. Rabbi Yakov Tatz urged us to accept each other even if we could not approve of each other. Rabbi Irit Shillor suggested that if we are to stand together we must do so as people who value each other and who make an effort to understand each other. This requires an energetic engagement with diversity, the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference, the encounter of commitments and dialogue of speaking and listening.
On 27 January, Holocaust Memorial Day itself, Cllr. Simon, Mayor of Stevenage, hosted an event in the Council Chamber together with the Stevenage Liberal Synagogue. I am sure no one will forget the presentation given by Ms Lesley Urbach, who works with a Holocaust Education organisation called Generation 2 Generation to create films and narrative about family and relatives to tell their stories in a visual way. Using photographs, extracts from letters and other documents we heard the story of how her grandparents perished in Auschwitz after sending their children abroad, including to the UK on the Kinder transport. There were powerful addresses by other speakers and we watched 2 more short films made by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust about the Roma communities, and those with disabilities, who were also persecuted and died.
We remember also at this time those who have suffered and died in the more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. On Saturday 25thJanuary I visited the Bosnian community in Borehamwood. Each week children and young people attend the Saturday school to learn about Bosnian culture and language, and to have fun socialising. Several generations meet also to support each other and share food and although the younger generations now have English as their first language, many of the first-generation refugees who came to the UK in the 1990s are still isolated by lack of language skills.
I met a number who had survived the concentration camps at Srebrenica and who could not yet tell their stories. They talked openly about the problems of dealing with PTSD and mental health issues in a foreign country without fluency of language and where there is little understanding, education and historical sensitivity about the genocide. This is a caring, contributing community who have much to offer and a desire to integrate, yet they feel that they have specific challenges as refugees which are not being addressed.