Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Death by Loose Garment

The whole experience of the victims of the Holocaust, it seems to me, revolved around the fragility of the moment, the overwhelming threat of indiscriminate murder and the abandonement of any sense of future life.

As someone who expects to see tomorrow, and will even dare to expect to see next year, a life lived without the prospect of living is virtually impossible for me to grasp. There nearest I would ever get to this would be to recieve a very acute terminal diagnosis whose prognosis was of weeks not months.

Two accounts were offered to us as we studied this event. One was the account of Roman Frister (author of the book 'The Cap') who testifies to an event in the Camps where he discovered the theft of his cap one day. To me and you, that is an event of little importance or significance, but to an inmate of a Camp, it was tantamount to a death warrant. To gather on the parade ground without a cap would bring a bullet instantaneously. Frister gives an account of how he had to find another cap and steal it during the night so that he would survive in the morning. He tells of the crack of the pistol as the person whose cap he stole was granted the fate he had avoided and was summarily murdered. In the calm of western life in the third millenium, this seems abhorrent - that one man would sacrifice another for his own survival - but we cannot judge, we can never judge anyone who lived in the grip of the insurmountable terror of the Final Solution.

The second account we recieved was more a general account of camp life. Life and death were administered in the most mundane of things - and the distribution of the striped pyjama suits that we are all familiar with, was one such event. You got what you were given - and if you were unlucky enough to recieve trousers that were too large, you would be impeded in your work because of needing to hold them up. This would almost certainly dimish productivity and that would bring a death sentence. Death was indeed brought forth by loose garments. The irony of the discovery of this account when matched up against the modern fashion for mimicking loose trousers prison-style does not escape me.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Fragility of History

I am not a particularly foolish man, but at times I work with a set of pre-concieved ideas that are proven to be utterly wrong.

The formation of histories is one such area, and I speak as one who is sensitive to the idiosycracies of the historian's art - the need for primary sources, an rigourous historicity, and so on.

We read about the Concentration and Death Camps like there are books and books of primary sources, like we have a corpus of knowledge that is almost limitless. The opposite is more often the case, none more so that the history surrounding the Belzec Camp in Poland. You may not have heard of it, I hadn't, but 400,000 Jews, Roma and others perished within its fences. Only three - yes 3 (0.00075%) of its population survived that camp and only one person chose to write his testimony. That single solitary testimony is all that we have to priece together the story of Belzec, and one can only shudder at the near completeness with which the Nazis had executed their targets. How slim the margin to losing that history, that story, the witness to nearly half a million lives.

The same was also the case for Flora Mendelowicz who had created an album of pictures taken at the time of the deportations and Aktions to Auschwitz Berkenau. The album is a subtantial primary source which was discovered by wild chance in a pile of confiscated Jewish property by someone recognising a face on an open page by utter chance. A chain of recognition restored that album back to Flora who could complete the narrative after the war had ended. Given the destruction of property, the passage of time, the conditions in which that album languished for so long - it is remarkable and almost inconcievable that it managed to be re-united to its owner, let alone a Jewish owner who survived.

The primary sources of both these events are significant in the extreme, and are central to much that we regard as truth concerning these events - but how easy, how likely is was that neither should have made the light of day. They exceed the limits of needles in haystacks by some distance.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Liberation as a new Imprisonment

Something that hit me very hard during the Seminar was the fact that a pre-conception was disproved - the preconception that liberation from the Nazi forces by the Allied forces was not a moment of unreserved celebration. I am sure I had seen pictures of the inmates in their blue and white stripes, reaching for the skies in jubilation behind a fence as GI Joe smoked his cigar - but it seems that that just wasn't case.

The return to life brought with it the following issues:
 - illness: so many of the inmates were riddled with disease and the conditions brought about by chronic malnutrition
 - starvation meant that they couldn't eat properly. One testimony talked of the vomit inducing food that thew liberating troops carried, food that was far too rich to be palateable
- having to think about 'tomorrow' for the first time brought with it pressures that to us may seem difficult to grasp. The inmate's world-view was once again shifted in the greatest way.
 - searching for those who are not there: if you were a Polish Jew (numbering 3.5million before the Holocaust), you would fast discover that there was almost certainly no-one left (3million of that number perished) - and with them their way of life, their crafts, skills and trades, oral histories, identities, family connections, contexts, someone (anyone) with who you can talk to about about life in the Ghetto, and so on.
 - weddings proliferated: a need to grasp life meant for Jews that marriage had to precede pro-creation and a baby-boom followed as new couples often had their two babies [the first to create a legacy, a second incase the first died]
 - relocation: their homes didn't exist nor their ways of life. From one state of camp life followed the Displaced Persons Camps, in some circumstances in the same location as under the Nazis. These camps existed for some years, and therefore some Jews were 'imprisoned' for longer under liberation than under Nazi rule.
 - revenge instincts: for most people, survival was their revenge - and this was brought to us in real terms by one of the survivors who spoke to us - but for others, revenge took a more typical form in its appearance, which brought eith it renewed sanctions.
 - society: for a people of a Faith of Observance, there was a future without many of the tools of that observance. Their Scriptures, teachers, synagogues, traditions, backgrounds, and dignities had all been robbed. Children needed to be educated but there were no teachers. The sick needed healing but many of the doctors and nurses were gone. Even cultural expressions of life had been erased; whole football teams for example.

It is hard for us to imagine how a liberation could be anything other than the best of things, but for a people who often regarded dying as the best thing that could happen to them during those years, a life given back seemed to many like a renewed curse.

Friday, 22 October 2010


With apologies for the delay, I have added a Flickr stream so you can enjoy some of my pictures if you do wish!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

What's In a Name?

I have now returned to my home, full of the thoughts and emotions formed in me this last two weeks. I will remain at work in this blog until I have come to a place of ‘peace’ with those things.
This post follows on a little from an earlier one regarding identity. I can say, with absolute certainty, that my name is David Michael Cloake. I know where I was born and when. To me these are simple facts, ones I clearly take for granted. They require no real reflection, no real attention. I can fill in forms, apply for documents, make statements – and in all of these things be sure that I stand on a steady platform of rock.
Before we left Jerusalem, we listened to the considerable gifts of the accounts of two survivors of the Holocaust. One lady was a baby at the time of Liberation, the other gentleman a young child of four. For the man, he was sure who he was. He had papers, a trail of information which connected him to his parents, grandparents other family members. To this day, these documents remain in his possession in a small shabby case. From the outsider’s perspective, it would look like he just keeps this stuff handy for when he talks to groups like our as he does frequently. I think though, if I were an insider to his world, I would be willing to believe that the fragility of proof that such faded and stained documents offer is too cherished and valuable to be let far from his sight.
Then we heard from the other lady – herself a baby at the Liberation. She was saved from murder because her mother handed her to a passing woman as she queued for a transport. I can’t begin to comprehend the scale of impending terror that would cause a young mother to hand her baby to a strangers, fairly certain that that was the last moment they would ever share. In this ‘transaction’, all chains of identity were severed. This girl was passed like a like human parcel in a party game for years until the moment came when she was told this story in her mid-teens. She learned that she wasn’t the person she thought she was, that her parents weren’t her parents. From her adoptive parents she learned what may have been her ‘real’ name, and from a previous carer, she received a picture of herself with yet another name written on the back. She stopped trying to work out who she was when she turned 70.
The fact of our name is as nothing when we can take its accuracy for granted. It is there, like our nose and ears – and that is often where we end the thought process. Yet, when its veracity is questioned and we cannot trust even our own name, I am left wondering how reality, in any form, feels.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Czerniakow’s Children

I am not a poet, but this is the best/only vehicle for me to consolidate so many thoughts and feelings brought into relief by the Yad Vashem Museum - an imposting building that is, broadly, a concrete prism - walled at one end and open the other, leading the visitor through the horrors of the Holocaust to a breathtaking view of open space over the Promised Land

I ascend Zion’s Mount with the mud of the Galilee’s Sea on my shoes
to visit the place where they are remembered.
I am a Christian man; watchful and prayerful - repentant.
‘A memory and a name’ for Czerniakow’s children
That is what is left for them – all else is lost –
all that remains are their defiled exhibits.
Our history was once their future.

Above me the sun beats, and inside my heart aches
as I dare to enter that place;
a temple to death or a monument to life?
A death carefully formed and life carelessly smashed
upon the rock of ‘purity’ and the silent echoes of the words of my forefathers.

Inside this concrete sarcophagus
We learn of the ‘lambs to the slaughter’ – of ghettos and lost hope.
So many empty brown eyes without future;
staring at us beyond pleading, for lives long since snuffed.
Starving children, broken hearts, spirits extinguished;
times of heroes and monsters, where The Book and gun collided.
In the silence of our aching hearts we hear the screams of children;
Mummy is gone and daddy too; ‘still your cries little darlings –
everything will be okay, just you see’.

For Czerniakow’s children there is no hope,
save for the release from the grasp of the oppressor;
the suffocating death grip of Hitler’s believers.
Release in life or freedom though death;
the little ones look on not knowing which.
We are onlookers, safe behind glass.
Free to leave but compelled to go on – to hear screams,
to hear silence – both of them deafening.
‘My mummy and daddy are in the smoke above Poland’
Look on if you dare, passing stranger –
Welcome to a new world long dead.

To six million lost souls, so many names unknown,
I pray for forgiveness that I still have life;
that my own brown-eyed babies know safety;
that a belief and a culture won’t murder my Love,
and my prayers won’t cause my extinction.
For six million lost souls, in all that they were,
I pray that they find peace and the face of their God
weeping for them, arms outstretched.
‘Enter this place my little ones, you are safe now;
The last door to close behind you is this.’

Adam Czerniakow was the leader of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in the Warsaw Ghetto. Such chairmen administered the decisions and policies of the Nazis. In 1942, he took his own life rather than betray his fellow Jews.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

On Being Not Known

The seminar which is drawing to a close has focussed its attentions on several groups of people - naturally most significantly the victims (others being the perpetrators and the 'bystanders' within the frameworks of definitions that they imply). I was struck by an aspect of the Liberation which, when explained seem so obvious, and only serves to magnify the scale of the horror of the Shoah / Holocaust yet more.

Let me put this in a personal framework. In my life, I am 'daddy' to the girls, husband to my wife, Fr David to the Christians of Aylesbury (broadly), The Revd D Cloake to the postman, David to my family, Mr Cloake to retailers who have served me in the past. To so many people I am known. Even here, to those who less familiar with my personally might simply know me my blog-dentity - the Vernacular Curate. I am recognised by the children of the school where I minister. My face is familiar to my neighbours and to a good number of anonymous people in the town where I live. My sense of personal identity is to a greater or lesser extent, placed within the context of relationships that I have formed across the range of my life. My school memories, my former-work memories - and my part in them is a shared thing.

A factor that faced so many of the liberated Jews at the end of the Second World War was the overwhelming fact that for so many of them, there was no-one in the world who remembered them. If they died, they would be un-mourned and un-remembered. They did not exist in the framework of reference of another human soul. In so many ways, they became 'not known' - or even more palpably, no-one.

As human creatures, we exist in relationship to others. Our identity is in a significant way in their hands whether that should please us or not. Becoming 'not known' seems to be a cruel blow to those people who were robbed of 'self' and heritage by simply being incarcerated in those barracks awaiting their moments of death. Liberation to what? At least they were a number in the camps.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

O Worship The Lord...

During my time here, it has been my joy to worship in a number of contexts:
 - Synagogue
 - Roman Catholic presence within the Church of the Sepulchre
 - Anglican Cathedral of St. George
 - Lutheran Church in Bethlehem

As you will imagine, each of these experiences were very different, and this is not a post that will offer a critique. What I wish to do, rather, is to share the ways that each one was a positive experience for me.

The worship at the Synagogue on the shabbat was a wonderful experience. Not only did it appeal to some of my vanities (I could follow the hebrew texts and knew a little about what was going on) but I heard the Psalms sung in a way I have never heard - as hymns! The tunes were simple and very similar but that made no difference. They brought the words alive in a way I have hitherto not experienced, and I will never forget that. Sharing the Psalter in the style of a hymn book, a collection of worship songs, is new to me and somehow challenges my own perception that they are purely for antiphonal muttering!

The Roman Catholic Mass was very familiar, but its context at the site of the Resurrection made it memorable. It also converted what had been a difficult touristic experience into a positive one, as the site became a place of worship not a venue for photographs. To worship in a place tranforms it and I have only really learned that here. For the millions who have visited the site but never worshipped within it have only really had half the story.

The service at St. George's reminded me why I love being an Anglican. The worship, if I am honest, was least of this list in terms of Holy Fire, but its steady presence in the middle of such a torn and scarred city in such a torn and scarred nation was a great source of comfort. Often, the witness itself is vital - and the witness of that place felt like a beacon to me.

The Lutheran Service was, in Anglican language, a Service of the Word - and even for a eucharistic man like me, it was a wonderful act of worship. What was a joy for me was the place of so many facets of its community within its corporate act of witness - the children offered hymns, as did its leadership group, as did other young people. It was a commnunity worshipping, not just 'those at the front' being regarded by 'those in the pews' as I am perhaps more familiar with. That they offered parts of the worship in English out of hospitality to us was also moving.

Visits to museums, to sites of historical and religious interest - all fall second to my experience of worshipping God in this most Holy Land. I have been able to look to the sky above the land where the moment of the Incarnation happened - into the eyes of the Lord.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Where is God?

With apologies for the absence of posts in the last couple of days, I  now reflect on my experiences of tours around the Galilee and the significant sites most associated with my faith.

It was our great joy to be shown around the Galilee by a very lucid guide who not only knew the area but had a very healthy grasp of Christian theology - and the mix was flavoursome! We passed sites and scenes that are familiar to anyone who has read parts of the Bible. We went to Nazareth, an almost solely Palestinian place in terms of population. Within it we visited the Church of the Annunciation (cf Luke Ch 1) and regarded the place where it is said that the Holy Spirit overshadowed the girl Mary. It was a special moment for me that I was able to quietly sing the Angelus at the place of its genesis, yet all the while being vexed at the lack of touristic respect for a Mass taking place elsewhere!

Later we passed Migdal (the site of the old Magdala) - evoking thought about Mary Magadalene and her 'part' in what happened. We stopped by the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the place where it is said that Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. I enjoyed a paddle, gathered some stone and shells for my daughters, and we drove on to Capernaum. This was a very special place because it was as near as we have seen of an intect footprint of the village familiar with Jesus. The Synagogue where it said that Jesus taught was a significant feature, and we left feeling very uplifted (the lack of tourists aided this).

Yesterday was a special day - we partook in the 5.30am Mass in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem at the site near cave of the Tomb, followed by 8am Mass at St. George's Cathedral and a 10.30 service in Bethlehem with the Arab speaking Lutheran community whose hospitality was edifying. We moved on the see the Church of the Nativity where I was mauled by a woman of faith as I took my pictures of the site of the nativity! To have a spiritual encounter near these historical places was helpful to me.

This is partly an 'I did this' post and partly one of my impressions. I am in awe of these places but also oddly empty about them, all at the same time. I expected to feel differently than I did, and as I say near the place of the nativity, I think I recgonised that I half expected there to be some static-like crackling because of the fact that Jesus existed in real time and real space in those locations. As I type this, it seems foolish, but I expected those places to feel more special than other places that I know in my little world. I think I now recognise that these are not so much spiritual sites but historical sites - they are places where things happened once. As I reflect on the fact that I didn't 'get' what I had expected, part of me is starting to recognise that to feel different because a site was where God was would suggest that I know places where God isn't - and I know no such places. Bethlehem, the Golgotha, Tagbeh, the Sea of Galilee - yes, Jesus was there and that is great, but in knowing God inside myself means that they are just interesting places, not pinnacles of spiritual engagement

Friday, 8 October 2010

Passive Nails

We finished our visit of the Museum today - a move onwards from the material of the early stages of the Jewish confinements which we saw previously to the material that dealt with the events post-Barbarossa. This included, naturally, the Wannsee Conference and the 'Final Solution' that it orchestrated.

This museum holds no bars to the material it displays. It is certainly not a place for children (and I find myself wondering how a child could ever be educated appropriately about the Holocaust). There were the personal effects of so many (still) nameless victims, piles of hundreds of discarded shoes that were removed prior to their owners' execution, so many carefully written accounts that were hidden for later discovery, hour upon hour of film footage ranging from personal testimonies delivered by elderly Jews who still weep when telling their stories to films of executions, the earth-movers shovelling cadavers into pits like recent scenes from Foot and Mouth farms. There was a girl's jacket with its bullet hole just under the right shoulder-blade. There were displays of the passive and calm faces of Nazi soldiers as they followed their orders, as well as the well-educated men who devised this evil unthinkable disposal.

Towards the end of the display we were greeted by the remains of one of the train carriages, a couple of the tri-story bunks, and part of the frame of one of the rabbit-hutch dormitories that the Jews were forced to exist in during their final days. As I gazed upon these things I noticed the workmanship - and I recognised the hurry that was required to construct these camps and their furnishings. The quality of the carpentry was absent and clumsy, blunt and functional - and using so many nails. Such an immediate need for functionality perhaps removes the need for quality workmanship; maybe the carpenters employed for the job sensed what these oak planks would bear witness to ...

The nails.

The first thing that jumped into my mind as I tried to find a way of accommodating the horrors that were unfolding in front of me was the way that nails held such a crucial yet passive role in the death of these people. I then pondered the nails that held Christ's hands and feet to another slab of wood, how they did their job so passively, so successfully.

I don't know if drawing parallels between the Cross and Treblinka is appropriate, but the similarities were there for me. The work of these passive nails was the execute the wills of the destructive and powerful regimes of their day. Innocent people died by wood and nail in one way or another - without mercy.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

On Joining Queues

Before I start this post, I would like to apologise for the lack of images. I have very little bandwidth here and pictures would defeat the whole venture. I will sort images out when I return home.

Today we visited the Old City of Jerusalem - the seat of my faith, the site of the crucifixion and resurrection, the place where Jesus felt inexorably drawn, the site of so much anguish and plight. If the rest of my visit was an objective exercise of learning and education, this day was a personal moment for me, a Christian. This day represented the ultimate pilgrimage - the very essence of a spiritual 'return home'. I had looked forward to this day for thirty years, a moment when I could add a hitherto missing dimension to my experience of my Christian narrative. This chance was precious gift, an answer to a prayer. Every church in which I have worshipped has set my eyes to Jerusalem in the very orientation of their buildings. As our tour guide put it, on this day the Christian world will be looking over my shoulder; I would be at the front of the queue!

Queues formed a central part of today. We queued in the hot sun to enter the Western Wall Plaza, having passed under signs that dis-allowed 'scriptures' and 'ritual objects'. Yes, we were entering a sacred place - but the trappings of sacred observance were not welcome accompaniments! We visited the Temple Mount which is now a wholly Muslim place. Once the hour granted by the Muslim authorities to tourists in any given day had elapsed, we were gently moved on and access forbidden. We wandered through narrow streets, past so many traders selling everything a tourist could fill a spare bag with. This part of the city offered a very sensory experience - spices and burning incense, street-traded food cooked as we wandered past, the call to prayer, architectural flourishes from two previous millenia, and the filth and debris of so many people holed up in such a small place. I found that I was verging on bewilderment - a mix of being in this place, the level of activity, and its sheer unfamiliarity. The sheer volume of people and the noise that they made in direct competition to one another just added to that. There were queues to leave, queues to enter, queues to take pictures ... queues to queue!

We eventually walked along the Via Dolorosa, the route of Jesus' journey with the burden of his cross. Never again can I deliver the Stations in the same way. I am a reasonably fit strong man and I would have had trouble carrying a box of groceries along that route, never mind the cross-member of a tool of murder. We ascended to the Church of the holy Sepulchre - the sites of the moments of the death and resurrection of Christ. I am not sure what I expected, but it surely was not what I found. It is a site over which Christian communities have squabbled over generations; the sites in question have been buried inside grand edifices which, to me at least, robbed them of some of the potency of their nature. To view the very site of the Crucifixion would have meant yet another queue amid a the chatter and picture-taking of tourists, a scrabble under a stone table within the setting of a chapel that was be-decked with much silver and gold. I didn't queue - I broke my heart as I watched on. This seemed to me a place to celebrate not a place of abandonment and murder. This felt like a second moment of Golgotha's desolation to me - but I try hard to remember that with so many people coming to venerate these places, such scenes of touristic chaos were perhaps unavoidable.

Much the same can be said of the edifice over which the place of the resurrection is believed to have taken place. More pushing, more noise, more cameras, more queues. I said my private prayers as I watched on and in the end found a quiet Armenian chapel to gain some peace once again. The one consolation to me, if I can call it that, it that these places were probably like this at the moments of the death and resurrection of Christ - chaotic disorganised noisy places where this stuff probably happened while so many others were oblivious or caught up in the queues for life in their day.

As I reflect on my thoughts of how I imagined this place to be, and as I mentioned in my first post, I can say that expectations were not met. Equally, they clearly never would have been met as the practice of our faith paints over so much of the peripheral life around these events with a brush that replaces noise with a hazy light - in other words, the events in my Bible as I had perceived them, happening like a church liturgy. Today taught me a valuable lesson that the birth of my faith-community happened in the context of others living their lives, with its noise, mess and queues.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Holy Innocents

Today saw the initial visit to the Israel Museum within the Yad Vashem Complex. It seems to me that its primary aim is to ensure that the Holocaust and its causes are not forgotten, and its facts and evidences remain long after living memory ebbs away.

I mentioned yesterday a memorial that it situated in the campus directly between the archives [the past], and the school [the future] - and it is a sculpture that illustrated just one story of so many hundreds of thousands which affected normal daily Jewish family life through the appalling lens of the Nazi extermination of so many Jews. This tale affected me in and of itself, but as I stood in front of it as father to young children, it has left a rather significant ache in my heart. I know how it is to be conscious of the noise that babies make when upset or under stress and the attention that such noise can attract. I have utterly convinced myself that I would have accompanied my children as they languished outside of the relative safety of the family 'hide out', that my arms would have been wrapped around them as our lives were stolen from us, and that unlike the father implicit in this sculpture, I wouldn't have abandoned my daughters. It is an easy judgment to make from where I stand in 2010 and I cannot begin to comprehend the horror that faced such families.

This account was compounded by another story revealed within the museum itself. We heard a speech of the head of a Jewish Council in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland - his name was Mordechai Rumkovski. He and all his fellow Jews were herded into the ghetto and they tried to live as reasonably as possible in this environment. The Nazis needed space for more Jews, so Mordechai was ordered to kill 20,000 of his Jewish community. It was his choice who and why, and his speech (delivered to the weeping Jews in his charge) pleaded with them to understand the terrible dilemma he faced - that he needed, like a surgeon, to amputate a limb to sacrifice the body; in other words, kill 20,000 to save the remaining 80,000. It was his decision that under-10s should face death as they were too young to work - and as workers has some implicit value to the Nazis, they would more readily assure the community of survival.

Once again, children were made to be the 'sacrificial lambs'.

These and other accounts are haunting my thoughts as I sit here and write. My heart is heavy with the plight of so many people - the looks on faces, the piles of bodies, the defilement of person, the images of humiliation of Jews in the street - and I can't do a thing to help them. I am, in one sense, a bystander. I can understand why others were simply bystanders - paralyzed with a fear of this grotesque spectre that moved like (in image and in fact) a toxic cloud among them all.

I cant' find the words for this. I can't take it in, and I am not sure if I really want to. This is surely just an event from my history books; dead and gone. But of course I am wrong. I am forced to look, to taste and see. I must not look away, I must not. If I ever look away, my own children are in danger from forces which may consume them. I can only imagine the painful prayers of parents of the Holocaust who survived their children.

May God grant me the strength to keep my eyes, my mind and my heart open.

Who, Why, and How?

Today has been tough. The morning session was interesting but the afternoon deeply challenging – as was its intention!

The first session this morning attended to the subject of pedagogy – in other words, the notion of how to teach others about the Holocaust. Yad Vashem is an institute comprising many parts, among which the School of holocaust Studies is significant. As a school it seeks to establish its methodology, and as such it focuses on three ‘communities’ in the Holocaust

·          - The Jewish Victims [it is acknowledged that there we other groups affected, but Holocaust is a term more specifically connected with the genocide of Jews]

·          - Bystanders

·          - Perpetrators

The School seeks, from its own research, to gain insights from these distinct groups, their psychology and their stories. In terms of the victims, they have set themselves specific tasks in the work: how to give back the names of the six million nameless victims; establish their pre-mortem Jewish identity and context; establishing the nature of what the Holocaust changed; the moral dilemmas associated with the need to survive [‘choiceless choices’]; the establishment of a non-judgemental narrative; the issues surrounding the ‘return to life’ after liberation. In terms of their work dealing with ‘bystanders’, they worked from the notion that to a greater or lesser extent, everybody was a bystander to the events of the Holocaust, and that its status brought with it choices. As regards the perpetrators of the Holocaust, the School seeks to establish whether their actions were as a result of ideology, the following of orders or peer pressure. Their aim is to understand the perpetrators in order to educate on future causes. This three-fold approach attends to issues of responsibilities. The School is concerned about who to teach and how, as well as a the challenges for education [historicity; comparisons; denial; Holocaust ‘fatigue’; anti-Semitism; awareness versus knowledge, and so on]. In summary, they seek to answer the question: ‘what are our goals when teaching about the holocaust?’

Later we were treated to a potted snapshot of the basic of Judaism from a very eloquent and learned young Rabbi who crafted his lecture to make it ‘key’ in to the perspectives of the Christian clergy listening to him. In other words, we discussed much of the ethical matters not purely focussed on the factual!

The afternoon submerged us in the absolute factual realities of the build up to the Holocaust. We started with a session called ‘The Jewish Street’ where we examined a large collage of a Polish Jewish street from the inter-war period. We were granted an opportunity to engage with the various ‘types’ of Jew living at that time, entering into a light role-play activity where we assumed the character of various Jews and answered questions about aspects of their daily life based on what we had learned about them. It was a very helpful exercise for me!

We later moved to the Israel Museum and were confronted with so much material taken from the early Nazi period in Poland and other states. As this is more a factual post, I will end there, preferring to post separately my feelings and emotions stirred by the visit to the museum.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Memory and A Name

Today has been largely about immersion into the world I now find myself. The first half of the day was spent at Yad Vashem. It is an institution that is placed upon Mt. Remembrance in Jerusalem. We are guests of the European Department, whose work is more usually with educators from around our continent. The institute, whose name in Hebrew translates as ‘A Memorial and a Name’, is funded in part by the ‘Claims Conference’ which was instituted after the Second World War (to fund education and to provide funds for the survivors of the Holocaust), and other donor groups, most notable the Adelson family. Yad Vashem seeks to educate all ages, and if often visited by school children as well as their educators. Yad Vashem itself was created in 1953 by law as an organisation that, as it name states, allows the future generations to remember the great losses of the Jewish Holocaust and to learn its lessons.
Already, this visit is as much about hearing stories as learning theories, the most memorable for me so far was that of a family whose memorial  marks the mid-point in this Institution between the archives (the past) and the education centre (the future). It was the tale of a family who were in hiding during the rampages of the Gestapo. That family had three babies who could not be relied upon to remain silent during the searches of the Gestapo. The decided that, rather than risk the lives of the twenty others who would be discovered by the cries of the three children, they would leave the three infants outside of their hiding place – and to their certain death. Their grandfather, after much deliberation, couldn’t bear to leave his grandchildren so alone and vulnerable, so went to them and shared their vulnerability. The inevitable happened, and the Gestapo removed them upon their searches. This was a memorial to one family who were representative of so many at that time, and the sculpture connects the facts of the past with the learning of the future in a very moving way.
Later we moved across the campus to the Valley of the Communities. It is a vast man-made construction of a mock-valley with high stone walls, modelled on the dry-bones story from Ezekiel. It comprises areas which represent areas of Europe where significant gatherings of Jewish communities existed. Largest of these was inevitably Poland. Etched into the walls of the rather stark grave-like place were names, in Hebrew and Latin script, of the chief of these communities as lasting memorials to them.
This evening saw a fascinating trip to the Israel Museum which proffered two treats – a scale model in breathtaking detail of Jerusalem at the time just prior to the Destruction (c66CE). The second was a visit to the Shrine of the Book where the Dead-Sea Scrolls are housed. To be inches away from hand-written texts that were so old and so significant was awe-inspiring. I am having trouble taking all this in!
As for Jerusalem as a place, I have not come to any firm conclusions. It is not unlike a southern-Spanish costa town in its appearance; I think the eventual visit to the Old City will bring so much of this home to me.  

Monday, 4 October 2010

Jerusalem The Golden

I am now resident in the departure lounge of Heathrow Airport. I have a while to wait for things to get going, so I decided to ponder what lays ahead.

My first thought, as I venture forth to the very seat of my faith, is what the place will be like. I have never been to Jerusalem and have only seen the odd photographs. I am surprised to observe that my own idea of how
Jerusalem must be is formed from those lovely images in kids' bibles and those awful schmaltzy pictures you get in poor translations of bibles! Add to that a bit of 'The Life of Brian', and you are largely where I am in my mental picture show!

Let me share! I am thinking perhaps that Jerusalem is made up almost solely of bleached white boxes for houses with door-less entries. Everyone must wear long frocks and have tea-towels on their heads. No cars, just donkeys. No tarmac just sand. I think in my mind I am even seeing the odd Roman centurion!

I know that the place will be nothing like that. I am sitting here with the kind words of so many people still ringing in my ears - that Jerusalem will be nothing like imagine, that it will be a jolt, a shock. I guess I will see. Another thing that I am affected by is the kindly advice that the place in my Bible is a place where I might be in danger, a place where my wife fears for my well-being.

So, a land of 'milk and honey blest'? I will discover soon enough. If plans work out, I can share my impressions with you - technology allowing. My head tells me not be absurd, that Jerusalem is the scarred parchment of generations of fights and struggles, a modern capital city in a divided land - a perverse place where faith is formed and mocked in tandem. My heart wants that to be wrong - that it is the place of my spiritual dreams, the golden city of my bible's stories.

Friday, 24 September 2010

A God-sent Opportunity

I have formed this seperate blog in light of the fact that I shall be attending the Yad Vashem / Council of Christians and Jews Clergy Conference next week. I want to use this as a vehicle to share what I will be learning, offer questions out as they are raised in our discussions so that those of you who may feel so inclined to read this may engage a little in the same thought processes.

In simplest terms, this is a Seminar that will attend to the matter of the Nazi Holocaust during the Second World War. To use the course leader's own words:

The aim is to help equip Christian leaders, ordained and lay, to address issues which arise, whether theologically or pastorally, from the narrative of the Holocaust

It is a Seminar that will last two weeks and will be held in Jerusalem, with trips outside of the lecture theatres to museums and to other places of such exquisite spiritual importance (to me at least).

I will leave this brief introduction here. I have a place on this conference as a result of the astonishing kindness of David Gifford, CEO of CCJ and I am hugely endebted and thankful to him for what will, I am sure, prove to be a life changing and ministry changing moment.  I hope that some of you will journey with me through some arduous, shocking, challenging but necessary issues, and I pray that the lessons offered by such a dark event in our recent history will come to life in the days ahead.