The October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas terrorists formed an unexpected element of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day event, as speaker after speaker referred to it and the consequent unprecedented rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia.
The chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Laura Marks, set the tone by telling a packed Guildhall audience that everyone had been “appalled” by the October 7 attacks and the ensuring “record levels” of antisemitism and Islamophobia. With this year’s theme of the “Fragility of Freedom”, genocRides which followed the Nazi Holocaust, such as mass murder in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, were reflected throughout the hour-long event.
After a heartfelt message from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in which he pledged “not to cower away and accept antisemitism”, the event was highlighted by the personal testimony of survivors, ranging from Jewish Holocaust survivors such as Mala Tribich and Ivor Perl, to a young woman who had gone through 100 days of violence perpetrated by Huthus in Rwanda against Tutsis, Antoinette Mutabasi.
Beautiful musical contributions were included in the ceremony, not least Chazan Jonny Turgel’s rendition of “Eli, Eli” and “El Maale Rachamim”. The chazan, of course, is the grandson of the late Holocaust survivor Gena Turgel, who met and married his soldier grandfather Norman, after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by the British army in 1945.
Actresses Louisa Clein and Nina Wadia chaired the event, whose audience included Home Secretary James Cleverly, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, post-Holocaust envoy Lord Pickles, antisemitism czar Lord Mann, and the barrister and TV presenter Rob Rinder, as well as numerous survivors.
Two stand-out contributions came from the Levelling-Up Secretary Michael Gove and the shadow deputy prime minister, Angela Rayner. Mr Gove, referring to the October 7 attacks as “the greatest loss of Jewish life since the Shoah”, made clear his belief that the murders had occurred “because they were Jews, and for no other reason.”
He said the test of a civilised society was “how safe its minorities felt”, and, referring to “the biggest rise in antisemitism since the Second World War”, said Britain could not allow itself to feel “truly free” unless its Jewish community felt safe.
In words which she herself acknowledged might surprise listeners, Angela Rayner said she was “really pleased” to be sharing a stage with Mr Gove. “Events such as HMD are incredibly important, both to understand that history and to make sure that that is not the future”. It was “our responsibility to challenge hatred”, she said, adding that “we need to do more than warm words, we need to take action to protect our minorities.” And she underlined her words when she said: “I want to say to the Jewish community that you are not alone. I will stand by your side at every turn”.
Actor Jonathan Pryce read a moving last letter from the anti-Nazi activist Arvid Harnack to his wife Mildred. Both were executed by the Nazis, he in 1942 and she in 1943.
After a brief address on the subject of freedom by Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis, survivors of different genocides lit memorial candles, followed by an emotional dance and song performance by members of the Chickenshed Theatre Group.
Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the HMDT, concluded the event and asked those present to light a memorial candle on Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27.
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