25 January 2018

Holocaust Memorial Day UK Ceremony

Although Holocaust Memorial Day is not until Saturday, the UK Ceremony marking this day was held today at Queen Elizabeth II Centre, Westminster and Loraine and I were invited to attend.

We just managed to slide it into the diary, travelling there directly from Methodist Council in Hertfordshire and setting off immediately it finished for Queens Foundation, Birmingham (tomorrow's story).

The ceremony was on a much larger scale than I had expected - perhaps 5,000 people present and a star-studded list of participants. Amidst a 90 minute programme of narration, music, film clips and personal testimony, Derek Jacobi, Charles Dance, Maureen Lipman and Celia Imrie all read from letters and diaries written by Holocaust survivors.

We listened to Richard Dimbleby's landmark BBC radio news report from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp which alerted the world to the horrors which had taken place, then Jonathan Dimbleby, in the flesh, reflected on the impact on his father, the whole family, and indeed the world, of this shocking news broadcast. He spoke with great integrity and passion, naming anti-Semitism as a 'cesspit which needs to be drained', but also having the courage to suggest that we must be careful not to confuse all criticism of the Israeli government's policies with anti-Semitism.

The theme for this year's commemorations is 'The power of words' so all the contributions linked to this in some way, demonstrating how the Holocaust did not come from nowhere, but began with a campaign of intentional slander, defamation of the character of an entire race, and provocative talk, intended to inculcate hatred and suspicion. Words do indeed have great power, for evil or for good.

Very moving was the conversation between a very elderly Holocaust survivor, Helen, and a much younger survivor of the Bosnian ethnic cleansing as they compared experiences and found much common ground.

At the end of the ceremony 6 large candles were lit, representing the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust but also standing for the 6 atrocities which the Holocaust Memorial Day remembers; the Holocaust itself,  other groups targeted by the Nazi regime and the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

One phrase, used by Richard Dimbleby more than 70 years ago, was repeated by many contributors, 'Never again'... but have we learned? Have we changed? Our talkative taxi driver was very much of the opinion that human nature can't be changed... (but that conversation is another story entirely...) as Loraine and I stood with so many others for the haunting, chanted closing prayer, the crosses we wear in our roles felt very obvious and rather rare, but speak of the power for transformation found in the Word become flesh.

Jill Baker

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