Today is Holocaust Memorial Day and as in previous years my thoughts are drawn to the fate of the many millions who perished at the hands of the Nazi’s, the six million Jews including many close members of my own family.
I have written before about my grandfather, Chief Rabbi Dr Joseph Carlebach (after whom I am named) and his brave and principled stand against the Nazis, his decision to stay in Germany and continue to lead his community rather than flee to safer shores. He even passed on his opportunity to come to the UK following a confrontation with senior Nazi thugs on Kristalnacht in November 1938 where he was badly beaten, to another whom he thought was in greater need. An immensely brave decision that ultimately cost him his life.
Whilst the entire episode of the Holocaust is, for me, incredibly distressing I find it particularly difficult to understand, or make sense in any way, of the torture and murder of children. It is estimated that over 1.5 million children were murdered by the Nazi’s and their collaborators during the Second World War. Of this, just over 1 million were Jewish children, tens of thousands were Romani children and many thousands were German children with physical and mental disabilities. They were brutally shot, gassed, beaten or starved to death. Some had the very real misfortune to fall into the hands of monsters like Josef Mengele whose ‘medical’ experiments on children, and particularly twins, must rank as some of the worst excesses of cruelty known to humanity at any point in history.
Our natural instinct is to protect children, the young and vulnerable, yet during the Holocaust this basic tenet of human behaviour was apparently so easily abandoned by the Nazis. As the Warsaw ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum wrote “Even in the most barbaric times, a human spark glowed in the rudest heart, and children were spared. But the Hitlerian beast is quite different. It would devour the dearest of us, those who arouse the greatest compassion—our innocent children.”
My (late) father was fortunate in escaping the oncoming slaughter gaining a place on the Kinder Transport to this country along with a number of his sisters, a gesture of kindness for which I will forever be indebted to this great nation of ours.
However his younger brother and his three youngest sisters, Naomi, Sarah and Ruth were not so fortunate and were deported with my grandparents from their home in Hamburg to Riga in late 1941.
Following a period of internment my grandparents and three young aunts were taken to Bikernieki forest and brutally murdered on March 26th 1942, the details of which are so barbaric that I can not, even today, describe them. Ruth, Naomi and Sara were respectively 15,14 and 13.
I can not begin to understand the distress and anxiety they must have gone through, seeing and experiencing such horror. Three girls who should have been concerned with challenges of growing up, learning about the trials and tribulations of boys and the opportunities and challenges of schooling, looking forward to growing up, of future careers and families. Instead they were confronted with evil, prejudice,brutality, starvation and death. Being murdered with your friends and parents is an unimaginable terror: the full horror of which must have been beyond their worst nightmares.
For me, like many, the vast numbers of children murdered during the Holocaust is a tragedy from history separated from today, only by time. What turns history into a personal reality is the fate of my family and in particular these three young girls.
To personalise this tragedy is to destroy the aim of the Nazis which was to dehumanise their victims. We should look for individual stories, remember victims by name and learn about the everyday lives they lived.
This is what makes the victims of the Holocaust real people, not anonymous numbers and will help us all to learn from this dreadful and dark episode. This is especially pertinent for the child victims of the Holocaust whose lives, hopes and ambitions were so cruelly taken.
So today, dear Ruth, Naomi and Sarah, we never had the chance to meet and we never had the chance to know and enjoy each others company. We never had the opportunity to celebrate birthdays and other joyous family events together. I will however never forget you, you will always be close to my heart, in my thoughts and in my prayers. You will be in the thoughts and prayers of my young children as and when they become old enough to understand and in turn their children and for many generations to come.
For me the personalisation and individualisation of genocide also has lessons for modern times, for the children of the Syrian conflict – especially the children of Aleppo, for the children of Yemen and all the other violent conflicts raging around the world. Turning numbers to names and names to individual lives is one of the key lessons of the Holocaust. By doing this we can help to combat prejudice, racism and intolerance wherever and whenever these evils occur and show we have at least learnt something from one of the most barbarous, murderous and shocking events of modern times – the Holocaust.