Holocaust and genocide

One of the recent developments in Jerusalem in the past few years has been the construction of a light-rail system across the city. It’s a fast and efficient system which comes close to where I’m staying at St George’s College.  In one direction it terminates at Mount Herzl. It was there that I wanted to head this morning and so I took the train.

The new light-railway

Mount Herzl is on the outskirts of west Jerusalem, the more modern district of the city. It stands above the valley that leads to Ein Karem, the village which is the traditional site of the birthplace of St John the Baptist and where the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth took place.  It’s an area of pine woods, almost alpine in feel. I wasn’t going to visit the village however, nor the Hadassah Hospital which is nearby but to Yad Vashem, the national memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

I have in fact been there a number of times, but mostly to the former memorial museum.  A number of years ago it was completely rebuilt and I’ve only been on one very fleeting visit since then. So, much of it was new to me.

Yad Vashem

It is hard to know what to say about Yad Vashem. That name comes from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

I will give, in my house and within my walls,
   a monument and a name
   better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56.5)

‘Yad vashem’ means ‘a monument (memorial) and a name’. The whole place is conceived as both – very much as a memorial to the events leading up to and during WWII but also as a place where names are remembered, personal stories recorded and never forgotten. It is hard to conceive of six million Jews dying, six million names potentially being lost, six million stories untold but those are the hard facts that are presented to you in both the museum and in the various memorials that have been built in the grounds around it – the amazing Hall of Names, the Hall of Remembrance with its eternal flame, the Memorial to the Deportees and the very moving Children’s Memorial. In that space in which a few candles are made into a vast sea of lights by the clever use of hundreds of mirrors in the darkness, the names of the 1.5 million children who died are read out, with their ages. ‘Levi, 2 years old… Miriam, 8 years old …’ It reminded me so much of the passage that we read on 28 December, the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more. (Jeremiah 31.15)

The ability we have as human beings to be cruel, evil, scheming, prejudiced, destructive, hate-full, is beyond imagining.  But time after time we commit the same sins, fall into the same modes of being, the same prejudices, the same irrational fears and loathing. That is exactly what confronts you in this city.

An icon commemorating the Coptic Martyrs

The sheer scale of the Jewish Holocaust makes it stand out in our human history and nothing can or should diminish its importance. Yet if I wander round the Armenian Quarter here I see banners asking me not to forget the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Above the entrance to the Coptic Church on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there’s a banner showing the brutal murder by so called Islamic State of the 21 martyrs in 2015. The Separation Wall, snaking as it does in clear sight of the city of Jerusalem is like a noose around the necks of the Palestinians. The bombs raining down on the people of Aleppo not so far from where we are living looks like another act of destruction of people. The history of Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, the Congo, Cambodia amongst all the places around the world where one group of people have tried to eliminate another is chilling and grieving. How long, O Lord, how long?

One academic has estimated the death toll from these kind of acts in the 20th century in this way.

Almost 170,000,000 men, women, and children have been shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; or buried alive, drowned, hanged, bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens or foreigners. (‘Power Kills: Genocide and Mass Murder’ by R J Rummel)

Too often groups seem to rival one another with whose genocide was worse, as though there were a victor in the grieving stakes. But even when one person is killed for who they are or where they come from it is a sin against God and humanity.

The tortured sculpture which forms the doors to the Hall of Remembrance

In his poem ‘Holocaust Victim’, Arthur Weil writes this

We will not die,
We will not rot,
We do believe
We have a God
We painfully shout out loud,
Rehearse and curse.

Where are you, Master of the world?
Whose bleak, black hurricane unfurled?
Mournful, in pain
Return! Return, our gracious God,
And promise
Never again.

But it isn’t God who has to promise – it is we, the perpetrators of hatred. It was a powerful reminder to me today that whenever we find xenophobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic attitudes beginning to be expressed and given a fresh legitimacy we have to react and object and defeat them. As Edmund Burke so famously wrote in the 18th century

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

His words were true then; they are true now.

may I not turn a blind eye,
a deaf ear;
may I not walk on the other side,
avoid the facts;
may I not ignore what’s real,
deny the truth;
may I recognise
the evil that is in me,
the evil around me.