‘We come together this evening as proud Jews to remember the Shoah’

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‘We come together this evening as proud Jews to remember the Shoah’

This year's Yom HaShoah commemoration in London, held as antisemitism rises across the globe after 7 October, took place in Victoria Tower Gardens, Westminster

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis speaks during the Yom Hashoah National Holocaust Remembrance Commemoration in Westminster, central London. Picture date: Sunday May 5, 2024.
Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis speaks during the Yom Hashoah National Holocaust Remembrance Commemoration in Westminster, central London. Picture date: Sunday May 5, 2024.

The symbolism behind this year’s Yom HaShoah commemoration, held in Victoria Tower Gardens, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, could be lost on no one.

Not on the two thousand strong audience who were seated in front of the stage inside the park, nor on the thousands who watched Sunday evening’s poignant ceremony online.

This year, we once again vowed to “Never Forget” the six million Jews murdered under the Nazi tyranny, but we did so just seven months after Hamas terrorists carried out the October 7th massacre in southern Israel.

And also while the 133 hostages remained captured in Gaza.

Henry Grunwold KC speaks at the Yom HaShoah event

As a succession of excellent speeches reminded us, we gathered also in the glare of rising antisemitism across the globe, leading to fears that the pledge to “Never Forget” Jewish suffering was being ignored.

“We come together this evening as proud Jews to remember the Shoah, to remember the worst that anti-Jewish racism has ever brought about,” host Henry Grunwald CBE told the gathering, which also marked the 85th anniversary this year of the Kindertransport rescues.

“We pause and reflect on the appalling consequences of antisemitism during the Shoah, and this year we mark Yom HaShoah mindful of the appalling events of the 7th of October, the date of the murder of the largest number of Jews in a single day since the end of the Shoah.”

Board of Deputies president Marie van der Zyl speaking at Yom HaShoah event

Former Board of Deputies president Grunwald KC noted that Yom HaShoah offered the chance for the community to recall these horrors “in their own way” and in a style that is “introspective and personal for Jews.”

In one of her final engagements as current Board president Marie van der Zyl then said it was “fitting” that this year’s event took place in the Westminster location, which is earmarked as the site for the UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre.

Van der Zyl noted that the community had been “tested over these last six months in ways not experienced in generations” and that “there could be no greater backdrop than this, for us to stand united, proud, resilient, defiant, and unshakeable as British Jews as we declare these simple, yet profound words for all to hear: ‘Never again’ truly means ‘Never Again!'”

Lord Pickles speaks at the Yom HaShoah event in Victoria Tower Gardens

The out-going president then read ‘We Commune’ the Yad Vashem Law, an Act of The Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, passed in 1953.

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis referred to Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,200 people, saying that before that date “we blissfully could’ve imagined and presumed that horrific Jewish suffering is something which applied to other people in other places at other times”, but since that “we know that it is possible here”.

He said the UK is “witnessing a worrying rise in levels of antisemitism”, adding: “And it is here, week after week on the streets of London, that we are witnessing unacceptable outpourings of Jew hatred.

“But it is also here in the UK that we know we are not alone.

“We know that the vast majority of the citizens of our country recognise that a threat to the Jews is a threat to all of our society.”

Rabbi Mirvis added:”We as a nation will always strive to guarantee that we will remember the lessons of the Holocaust in order to shape our presence and to inform and inspire a better, healthier, more peaceful and secure Britain.”

There was also a remarkable appearance on stage from Bronia Snow, 96, who recalled how her parents were deported to a concentration in 1942 and apart from one letter, all communication stopped.

Snow was herself transported to England in 1939 and in a speech recalled how terrified she was at arriving in her new home, leaving her parents behind.

Bronia Snow, 96, speaks at Yom HaShoah event

She had arrived at the railway station in Prague on May 31 1939 and found the platform was “teeming with parents and children and armed German soldiers”, adding she was “absolutely terrified”.

She said she boarded a train and cannot remember “speaking to anyone, eating anything or drinking anything”.

Snow crossed the border into Holland and was put on a boat to England where she was taken to live with her mother’s cousin in Hampstead, London.

“I did not know a word of English but luckily had started to learn German at school so had a language which I could communicate,” she added.

“Letters from my parents were grim as Jews they had to wear yellow stars.”

Snow said her parents were deported to a concentration camp in 1942 and apart from one letter, all communication stopped.

As she finished her speech she received a standing ovation from the audience.

In another fine speech Lord Eric Pickles noted how in the aftermath of October 7th there had been many “in authority, in the media,” who had failed to confront “antisemitism and Holocaust denial.”

The Conservative peer and  UK’s Special Envoy for Post-Holocaust Issues, said history has shown that you cannot “side-step antisemitism.”

He continued:”In these uncertain times, it’s wonderful to have some certainty, that the government and the opposition are united to ensure that there will be a fitting memorial to the Holocaust in this park.”

Teenager Ruby Frankel of the JLGB (Jewish Lads’ & Girls’ Brigade) told how a UK Jewish youth group helped save thousands of refugees brought to the UK from Nazi Germany, through the “Kitchener Camp rescue” which also took place 85 years ago this year.

Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s ambassador to the UK also spoke, reminding the audience of the Jewish revolt that took place in the Warsaw Ghetto, “the largest revolt of the Second World War”  with “very little weapons” but with heroic resistance.

The ambassador said that while the world had promised “Never Again” to the Jewish people after the war ended, “this promise feels hollow after October 7th.”

In another moving speech Maurice Helfgott, chair of World Jewish Relief, and son of the late Sir Ben Helfgott, told how his father was “filled with enormous joy” at the sight of children in the community singing at these ceremonies.

“We remember the past, and we live for the future,” he added.

The event featured performances from a combined male voice choir alongside 120 children from Jewish primary schools.

The Yom HaShoah Youth Commitment was proclaimed by by Joel Kaufmann and Millie Koslover of Bnei Akiva, Sam Smith and Charlie Burton, FZY, and Issy Armstrong, Habonim Dror and Tammy Reese from BBYO.

There was also moving renditions of El Male Rachamim, the Holocaust Memorial Prayer and Oseh Shalom Bimromav, along with the Hatikvah and National Anthem to finish the evening.

Among those attending the commemoration were the Jewish Leadership Council’s chair Keith Black, Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust, all four Board presidential hopefuls, London Jewish Forum co-founders Adrian Cohen and Andrew Gilbert, and Olivia Marks-Woldman of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

Newly elected mayor Sadiq Khan had intended to attend, as he done after being first elected in 2016, but had to pull out for personal reasons.

Barnet Labour councillor and re-elected London Assembly member Anne Clarke was in the audience.

As Yom HaShoah commemorations begun Dan Fox, the AJEX National Chair also added: “On to the darkest moments, we once again shine lights.

“To illuminate the lessons of the past, to honour the memory of the Six Million, and to display our pride at surviving, resisting, and never forgetting”.

Neil Martin OBE, Chair of Yom HaShoah UK and who produced the event and secured the location said: “We were intent on finding a location this year that would not only bring reassurance to our shaken community but also inspire hope. What better venue than outside Parliament—a place that has stood as a symbol of resilience, unity, and pride for generations of British Jews. The overwhelming messages of gratitude we’ve received are truly heartwarming, and reassuring to know that in these uncertain times, our Yom HaShoah ceremony, watched by thousands in person and online, it has rekindled the spark of hope for a brighter future for all.”

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