>On the 6th March 2008, Leon Greenman died in a hospital in North London.
I am not sure how many people here will have heard of this man.
Leon was a regular visitor to the Jewish Museum in London. It was there that I would see him, a very elderly man, walking slowly across the courtyard of the Sternberg Centre in Finchley to the museum entrance.
Once in the museum, Leon would meet with groups of British children to tell them of his experiences in the Holocaust. He would sit quietly at the end of the gallery, patiently answering their questions.
So who was this man?
Leon Greenman, was the only Englishman to have been held at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
His wife Else, and son Barney did not survive.
After he was liberated from the camp he returned to London. Then, in the 1960s, he decided to dedicate his life to the fight against fascism and to telling his story. It was with this purpose that he would visit the Jewish Museum, recounting his experiences to thousands of visitors.
And now that Leon Greenman and so many of the other survivors are dead, who will tell the school children about the Nazi atrocities? Who will continue his fight against fascism? And who will continue to tell our peoples’ story?
On the 27th January across London there will be events to mark the National Holocaust Memorial Day. People will join together for services, film screenings, readings, dialogues and a variety of other events, marking the day when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the Allied forces.
Each year the number of events to mark this day increases, while the number of survivors present decreases.
With the passage of time, it is inevitable that there are fewer survivors left to tell their stories and share their experiences with the next generation. As one journalist wrote of Leon Greenman: “Looking through the eyes of a single victim is an immensely powerful way to learn about the Holocaust.” Now that Leon is gone, how will the story be told?
When I was growing up, I remember meeting survivors at almost every Holocaust education program I was involved in. On visits to my grandparents in Tel Aviv, seeing numbers tattooed on people’s arms was a regular occurrence. (pause) I cannot remember the last time I saw a person with numbers tattooed on their forearm. (pause)
Remembering is an important activity for us Jews. The verb for remember, zachor, appears 169 times in the Hebrew Bible. We are constantly being commanded by God to remember. We are told to: ‘Remember that you were strangers in Egypt.’ ‘Remember the days of old.’ ‘Remember the seventh day to keep it holy.’ Judaism, put simply, is a religion of memory.
This week in our Torah portion we remember the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the See of Reeds. This was such an important event for us to remember that the Rabbis inserted a line from the song into our daily liturgy. After the Shema, both in the morning and the evening, we recite mi chamocha baelim Adonai, mi kamocha nedar bakodesh, norah tehilot oseh feleh – God who is like You among the gods people worship. Who, like You is majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, working wonders! They placed the line there so that every day, twice a day, we would remember when our ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds journeying from slavery to freedom.
As Jews we do not simply remember as individuals, we remember as a community, and we all bear the responsibility of that communal memory. Their story is our story.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, in a section which we did not hear this morning, we read: ‘the people of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt, and Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.’ As the Israelites were rushing to leave Egypt, and escape before Pharaoh changed his mind, Moses remembered the promise which was made in a previous generation. He remembered that Joseph had made the Israelites swear that they would carry his bones with them, when they left Egypt.
And so, throughout the entire Israelite journey in the wilderness, alongside their possessions, and the Ark of the Covenant, they carried with them the bones of Joseph. The bones provided a physical link to a generation which had long since disappeared, but lived on in the memory of the people. And when they finally settled in the land of Israel, they buried the bones in land which had been bought by Jacob.
We do not carry any literal bones with us today, but we carry the memories of the generation which have gone before us.
What is our relationship to the generation of survivors? It was not until the 1960s that most survivors felt able to tell their stories, and now, forty short years later, we are running out of time to hear them. Leon Greenman is but one example of a frightening reality: the generation of survivors is slowly but surely disappearing.
We are at a turning point in the way that we relate to the Holocaust. Eventually it will be the story and experiences of a generation that is no longer with us. How can we engage with the Holocaust in our 21st century context? How will we teach about the Holocaust without the survivors to guide us? How can we ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are not lost?
If we are to honor the memory of the Holocaust, it is in two areas that we must begin to build relationships.
We must recognize that now, more than ever, time is of the essence. The recording of survivor testimonies for future generations is clearly important. But everyone in this room knows that hearing from a survivor in person is far more powerful than any video screen. We can hear from these people now, while we have the chance, or we can watch them as ghosts on a video screen. We should ensure that everyone in our communities, in youth movements, Jewish societies, schools and synagogues, is given the opportunity to hear personally from a survivor, before it really is too late.
We should also develop a new form of Holocaust testimony. We should write down our experiences of meeting with Holocaust survivors, so that in the future, when all we have are images on a screen, we can accompany them with our own personal experiences. We can tell our students, how we heard the survivor speak candidly about the hardship of life in the camps, how tears welled in their eyes as they remembered loved ones who were lost, and how there was quiet resolve in their voices as they told us to fight intolerance of all kinds. We can, and we must, safeguard the stories of the survivors, so that through us future generations will also feel a direct connection to the events of our peoples’ past. So that through us, the voice of the survivor lives on. So that through us, the survivors will never truly disappear.
But there is also another lesson which we must take from National Holocaust Memorial Day. We must remember the Holocaust, but we must also learn the lessons from other genocides in Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovena, Rwanda and Darfur. In the future, when we are unable to hear from survivors of the Holocaust, we should be building relationships with survivors from Rwanda, Bosnia and now Darfur, inviting them to speak to us, so that we can hear their stories. We must be clear to educate that no two genocides are the same, but the lessons of the survivors’ pain, of the perpetrators’ wickedness and of the ability of people to survive are instructive. Through these experiences, we must join the fight against contemporary genocides, so that the lessons we learn lead us to action on behalf of those who are suffering and oppressed today.
At West London Synagogue on the evening of the 26th January we will mark National Holocaust Memorial Day, with a conversation between Rabbi Debbie and Fiyaz Mughal from Faith Matters. It will explore the untold story of the Holocaust, exploring the role of Muslims who saved Jews
In Israel, the National Holocaust Museum is called Yad Vashem, with a name taken from Isaiah 56:5, which says: ‘And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than sons or daughters; I will give them a yad vashem, an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.’ Isaiah is describing more than a memorial; he is talking about a yad vashem, a hand and a name. We must remember the names of those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and we must continue to tell their stories. But at the same time, with our yadaim, with our hands, we must now take responsibility for fighting to prevent future genocides and to make sure that the Holocaust is remembered in a way that brings meaning to the next generation. What better memorial can we build for the countless victims whom we never knew, for the survivors who will be no more and for Leon Greenman, a man who dedicated his life to help others remember?