I attended my first ever Holocaust Memorial Service on Thursday evening. As people gathered across the world in prayer to remember the genocide of millions of Jews during WWII, I joined those at the Guildhall in Hull, to ask the pressing question How Can Life Go On? The remembrance evening remembered those murdered in the genocides of Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur as well as in Nazi Germany.
The memorial event began with the laying of stones. Each person was invited to lay a smooth rounded pebble on a growing pile of stones creating a cairn at the far end of the room. I was last in and under the watchful eyes of the clergy, placed my stone atop the others, taking the upmost care not to dislodge them. Dr. Michael Bott from the Hull Hebrew Congregation explains the significance of the stone laying. Each stone symbolically preserves the name and memory of the millions murdered, in a simple commemorative act.
The Welcome was delivered by, The Right Worshipful the Lord Mayor of Kingston upon Hull and Admiral of the Humber Councillor Sean Chaytor.
Professor David Atkinson from the University of Hull gave a short lecture on the nature of memorialisation. He invited the attended guests to consider how does one represent terror, murder and genocide. He showed pictures of the site of the internment camp – a converted rice mill – in Trieste in Italy. He explains how the architect of the San Sabba Holocaust Memorial, Romano Boico, sought to textualise and memorialise the horrific memories of what took place within. The Brutalist unmarked structure opened in 1975, it separated the space from the urban sprawl of the town: high walls cut off the visitor, the sun is blocked out, the way forward can only lead to one end.
Their followed a series of readings and musical reflection. The Junior Choir from Hymers College conjured feelings of hope and left me asking my own questions of whether I could do something better in my own life. The song Bridge the Nation – written and conducted by Tracey Redhead – was rich with harmonies. The youthful soprano voices singing ‘Let’s find a way to bridge the nations’ transported me back to my own memories of singing in the school choir.
The thrum of spoken word resounded across the high ceilings, as the line ‘ ‘the Nazis did the Fatherland A lamentably bad turn…’ from the satirical poem, ‘War has been given a Bad Name’ by Bertold Brecht, catches my ear.
I have always loved the sound of the cello and I found the Max Bruch piece played by Christine Nolan and Anthony Hedges, befittingly reflective. I closed my eyes during its entirety and allowed the power and penetrative sound of the cello’s lower register, to envelope me… the final note fragile and whispering, hung in the air like the last line of prayer.
More reflections in the form of written compositions followed, opening with a short essay by Tabitha Awre from St Mary’s College, that spoke about genocide from a modern-day standpoint, referencing death statistics in endless news reports. The essay quoted from ‘Into the Arms of Strangers’ a book containing first hand testimonies of those who left all behind, to escape persecution by the Nazi regime, via the British Kindertransport. The poem written and read by Isaac Friend showed a command of language and knowledge of poetic form that belied someone of his age. ‘ Is it because they are Jews or because they are gay…’ reminding us all that people risked persecution for being gay as well as being Jewish.
Finally a written response from a pupil of Wolfreton School Hannah Buckley who had visited the Auschwitz death camps. With the line ‘Whoever saves one life saves the entire world…’ she makes direct reference to Sister Agnes Walsh, a resident of Hull who protected Jews fleeing the war, at huge risk to her own safety, in the Dordogne region of occupied France.
A new memorial plaque has been dedicated to the Hull nun inside the Guildhall, the inscription simply reads: ‘Sister Agnes Walsh Nun and humanitarian who protected Jews during the Holocaust.’
The final readings underline the wretched inhumanity and horror of the killing factories that used humans as fuel. The following drove the horror home:
‘Why this carnage?… Decomposing mothers, fathers and child… dance of death… contorted and thin.’
The Rt. Rev. Dr Alison White The Bishop of Hull leads a communal reading of Psalm 60. As I read I hope no-one notices my struggle with the unfamiliar words Shechem, Succoth and Manassah.
An adult choir Cantabile conducted by Gillian Barker, invites more moments of personal reflection and the evening concludes with a Priestly Blessing by Professor John Friend, from the Hull Reform Synagogue.
After the remembrance evening, I spoke with a representative of the Remember Me Project a group of academics currently exploring the nature of memorialisation from the University of Hull.
Memorial pictures courtesy of Ian Judson – relative of Sister Agnes Walsh