Sunday, 13 July 2008

In memory of tomorrow

What possessed two brothers, practicing Christians, to sacrifice their careers and dedicate their lives to the memory of Holocaust survivors? It's about Tikun, they explain to Ori Golan

In the summer of 1991 two brothers from Nottingham, Britain, travelled to Israel for a holiday. James, 24, was a medical student; Stephen, 26, was studying theology. Both were practicing Christians, sons of a Methodist Minister. Toward the end of their vacation they went to Jerusalem and, in the afternoon, they visited Yad Vashem.

Each brother talks of a single photograph which has remained permanently seared in his mind. Stephen recalls the photograph of a German soldier, rifle at hand, taking aim at a mother shielding her child. James evokes a photograph depicting the organised burning of books outside Berlin University. Stephen: "That image affected me very deeply. I could not understand how anyone could make the choice to shoot at a defenseless mother." James: "I was a student at the time and I kept asking myself what would I have done if this had happened outside my own university. I know that, in all probability, I¹d have put my head down and walked home."

The visit to Yad Vashem left both brothers deeply disturbed. "Until that point" says Stephen, "we had not reflected on what the Holocaust meant for us as Christians. You see, it¹s easy to say that these people were monsters. But they weren't. They were ordinary people who read books, played the piano, went to church and enjoyed skiing in the Alps. These people were not monsters; they were ordinary people who did monstrous things. Judges sent innocent civilians to their death; teachers taught race sciences; and doctors carried out forced sterilizations and euthanasia on those they deemed socially inferior."

They returned home, not sure what to do with their feelings and impressions. Initially they were grappling with the reaction - or inaction - of the church to the Nazi regime. They read extensively on the history of Jewish-Christian relations and this reinforced their belief that the attempted genocide of the Jewish people was a culmination of a long-established and pervasive anti-Semitism spearheaded by the church. The two brothers found themselves at a theological crossroads.

"The Holocaust", says Stephen, "is a Christian issue; without Christianity it could not have happened. Throughout that period clergymen turned a blind eye or incited to hatred. The very religion that had lent its name to the virtues of moral humanitarianism was unable to demonstrate such qualities." At one point the brothers even considered converting to Judaism, so disenchanted were they with their own religion. Even today, they find it difficult to articulate their ambivalent feelings towards their faith. The following year, the Smith brothers traveled to Poland, to see for themselves the ground on which the largest massacre in human history took place.

"We drove through the Polish countryside where there had once been a thriving Jewish community for over 600 years" recalls James. "There was now nothing. No vestige of their culture; no remnant of all those thousands of individuals. In Belzec, where over 600,000 Jews had lived, we found untidy scrubland and a square monument that managed to avoid informing visitors that the victims of Belzec were Jews. The Holocaust was not just about the systematic murder of European Jewry; it was an attempt to wipe out the memory of entire Jewish communities."

Faced with a resounding silence from a Christian world which did its best to avoid confronting its history, the siblings resolved to remedy this injustice; to restore the memory of the murdered victims of Nazism. It was a decision which would shape the course of their lives. "We wanted to create a space where people could find out about the Holocaust, discuss issues, confront the past and share their views. We wanted to offer a place where they could try and understand how ordinary people became mass murderers and ask: what have we learnt from the past? What can we do to prevent genocides in the future? It needed to be done in an informative, non-confrontational way."

With unbounded determination and at enormous personal and professional sacrifice, the two siblings set about raising funds and enlisting support for their project. Five years after their visit to Yad Vashem, Stephen and James opened the doors to Beth Shalom. Tucked in the heart of Nottinghamshire, in rural countryside, Beth Shalom is a converted farmhouse which served the Smith parents as a non-denomination Christian retreat. It is now a memorial and education Holocaust centre, run by their sons. The centre has six paid staff who form the backbone of the place; the rest work on a voluntary basis. Both brothers make their living outside the centre: James practices Accident and Emergency medicine at the Queen¹s Medical centre in Nottingham, and Stephen runs a business, selling cakes to supermarkets.

Beth Shalom has no shareholders and profit from revenues goes straight back to the centre. The center houses a memorial exhibition which charts the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and follows the events which led to the murder of two thirds of Europe¹s Jews. At the heart of this exhibition are personal items: family photographs, private documents, and personal testimonies. This exhibition doesn¹t deal with statistics, but with people; it avoids the masses, but zooms in on the individuals who formed them. It doesn¹t claim to tell the whole story; it tells the story of some. And in doing so, it makes it easier to come to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust. It is a truly moving exhibition.

"It is so sad. So sad" repeated one visitor to herself in a broad Yorkshire accent, as she walked around. "It should never have happened". On one of the walls, hundreds of small photographs form a large Magen David. On each photograph a face; on each a name. Behind each face lies a story of calamity and tragedy; each different; each unique. In his autobiography, Making a Memory, writes Stephen: "[…] the Holocaust was not about the murder of six million Jews, but about the suffering, the anguish, the fear, the pain, the murder of one Jew, and then another, and another, and another." On another wall is a collection of framed photographs. They are of the righteous gentiles who rescued Jews from the clutches of the Nazis. They offered them shelter or provided them with false identities; hid them in their homes, or procured travel visas for them to escape. Some have become familiar names; others remain unsung heroes. Some survived the war; others paid with their lives. As you look at the photographs and read the caption which summarizes their courageous acts, you see your own reflection. And the question is inescapable: What would I have done? Would I have found a place in one of these frames?

The exit to the exhibition leads to a garden. It is a quiet rose garden. Each rose has been planted in memory of an individual victim, their names engraved on a small plaque at the foot of the flower. One plaque reads simply: ‘In memory of those with no one to remember them.’ It is a beautiful, sad, serene garden; a place where visitors can collect their thoughts, connect with their feelings and reflect on its meaning. A corner of the garden is assigned as a memorial for the children who perished in the Holocaust. Visitors are asked to place a stone near a plaque, in tradition with the Jewish custom of placing a stone on the gravestone of a loved one. It is a small, symbolic gesture, tribute to the 1.5 million children who were denied proper burial. The stone mound changes form and grows each day, in start contrast to those it commemorates.

Beth Shalom is also a place where survivors are made to feel welcome. "Shortly after Beth Shalom opened," recalls Stephen, an elderly man came here. He walked into the hall and burst into tears. He just stood there and sobbed. He turned to me and said: "thank you. I have waited 50 years to come to a place where I can remember my family in dignity.¹" James nods his head. "I am not inured to the stories. Each time I hear a testimony I feel upset all over again. About a year ago a Rwandan came here and walked around the exhibition. She reached her into her handbag and pulled out a photo album. She pointed to a picture of a little boy him and said: ‘This was my boy. He was murdered in the genocide’. She turned over the page and pointed to another boy. ‘He was also my boy, murdered in the genocide’ she said. She then turned over another page and showed me a photograph of two little girls. "These little girls were my daughters. I lost them during the genocide and six months later found them in an orphanage.’

She turned to us and said: "thank you for doing this. By telling their story you’re telling my story." As he recounts this meeting, he is visibly very moved. "To me", says Stephen, "Beth Shalom is about Tikun: the piecing together and repairing of a broken world. We are in a search to salvage something. It does not mean that that which is lost will be found again, or that those who still weep will ever find the solace they deserve. It means that in spite of the despair; in spite of the broken hearts; in spite of the destruction and devastation, in spite of it all, the will to create a meaningful future can be found."

Education forms a major plank of Beth Shalom’s mission. Each week, the centre hosts around five hundred visitors. School children, university students, seminaries or teachers, they come to learn, to understand or to share. The centre is a gathering place for debates, meetings, conferences and workshops. There are audiovisual testimonies, interactive online resources and the center’s library. "We try to make this place relevant to people of all ages and religions so that they can engage with the topic and find out what it means to them," explains James. Group visits are coordinated in advance and structured to the level and needs of that specific group. The group will also meet with a survivor in the centre who will talk to them and answer questions. "Visitors, especially younger ones, find it much easier to relate to real people. They see a survivor in front of them and think: this could be my grandmother. It could happen to anyone." And although the centre is off the beaten track, groups from all over Britain - as well as overseas - are beating a path to it. The brothers have received prizes, the centre has been awarded grants to keep it going, and the project is roundly lauded throughout the Jewish community.

But despite the apparent success of Beth Shalom, Stephen sounds a note of caution: "There is very big leap between knowing about the Holocaust and being changed by it. There is a presumption that if you teach the Holocaust it makes for a better world, and I don't buy it. We need to know what happened, but there’s a big leap between knowing what happened and acting on it. I am less worried about what the grandparents of our young generation did sixty years ago; I am more concerned about what this generation’s grandchildren will do. Will they have learnt anything?"

With this in mind, and with more recent cases of genocide taking place around the world, the brothers have set up the Aegis Genocide Prevention Initiative.

It is a partnership of scholars, military personnel, survivors, aid workers and journalists seeking to identify the causes and developments of genocidal processes. Its aim is to identify endangered groups and evaluate the risk of genocide, then to develop strategies and preventative measures to reduce the impact of this devastating phenomenon. "There are the equivalent of Holocaust deniers who right now use the term 'massacre' to diminish the severity of what happened in Rwanda," stresses James, who has just returned from Rwanda. "That's why I think it's very important that when talking about the genocide, we do use that word".
"September the 11th was a tragedy; it was a huge, sad catastrophe. But imagine a building, like the church at Nyange, [Rwanda], with 2,000 Tutsis taking shelter in its sanctuary. In April 1994, grenades were thrown through its roof, and then attempts were made to burn it down with everyone inside it. When that failed, the priest - yes, the priest - gave orders for the building to be bulldozed. Inside were his congregants, his Tutsi congregants. That church is now "ground zero" in Rwanda. In Rwanda, every day for 100 days, three times as many people as were killed in the World Trade Center, were killed in this way. Unlike New York, it happened slowly, and we knew it was going to happen. Yet the United Nations pulled out." Aegis has been invited by the Rwandan government to assist with memorial issues and James is currently engaged in helping construct a memorial centre for the genocide that took place in the rural Kigali Province. The project’s principal objective is to demonstrate to survivors that they and their experiences are not forgotten. "To build a better future, people need hope. For many this is a hostile world, but that hope can begin by knowing that somewhere, somebody cares."
It is hard to stop the flow of words of these two brothers; impossible not to marvel at their dedication, persistence, and determination. What keeps them going? James weighs the question carefully. "If we can eradicate smallpox, put men on the moon and decipher the human genome, surely we can learn to stop killing each other?"

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