Commemoration of the Shoah is very personal to me, especially over the past 12 months. The death of my father Michael at the age of 102, a refugee from the Shoah, provided a sharp reminder of my good fortune to be here at all and to have been brought up in Britain.
My paternal grandparents died at Auschwitz, and three of my father’s brothers were taken into work camps by the notorious Hungarian Arrow Cross during the Second World War, never to be heard of again. My father’s sisters, a niece of, and one brother, miraculously survived the horror.
Their stories and those of the family were made very vivid for me two decades ago, when in the company of my father, my brother and a cousin (an Auschwitz survivor), we made a journey of remembrance to the family’s home town on the Czech/Hungarian border, to Bratislava, where my father was both an apprentice to a glass merchant and studied Torah, ending up in Budapest where all recited Kaddish for lost family. Subsequent visits to Auschwitz left an indelible mark of loss and sadness.
Commemoration of the Shoah is hugely important to me. Whether it is National Holocaust Day, Yom HaShoah or the adopted yahrzeit of my grandparents, I find these moments of remembrance enormously moving and the accounts of survivors and the recitation of the memorial prayers are guaranteed to make me lachrymose.
This year, I was at three commemorations; all of them part of an emotional journey. At Westminster, in the QEII Conference Centre, were the formal ceremonies organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), of which I am a former trustee). It was a carefully orchestrated event around the theme ‘Torn from Home’, which focused on the Shoah, but had strong elements of memory of subsequent genocides from Cambodia to Rwanda.
There were two takeaways for me from the HMDT event. The sight of Jeremy Corbyn, besuited and lonely, leaving the building accompanied by one escort was jarring. Yes, it was important for the Labour leader to be there. But I couldn’t help think that his embrace of brutal regimes – such as Maduro in Venezuela – suggest he doesn’t really get it. In contrast, nobody with any connection to the Shoah could fail to be moved by the tremulous rendition of El Male Rachamim by Cantor Jonny Turgel.
At Richmond Council’s request, it was on to Richmond Synagogue for a home-grown event. It was filled with highlights, not least a stunning film edited by my son, Gabriel Brummer, and directed by Bafta award winner Lewis Bronze, on the life of our Richmond community’s last survivor, Sam Freiman.
The occasion was lit up by the personal remembrance of Rabbi Meir Shindler and the miraculous escape from the camps by his grandfather and a brilliant contribution from Richmond member Professor Philip Spencer of Kingston University. He explored the ‘extraordinary radicalism of antisemitism’ that led to the Holocaust and the way in which the UN’s Genocide Convention of December 1948 has, in effect, been ignored by the global community.
The final event was at the Harris Academy in South Norwood at the request of the principal, Nick Soar. The students in their mid-teens were not coming to the issue cold. The school has been working with University College London on bringing understanding of the horrors of the death camps to the young people. My job was to provide family testimony. The children, neatly attired in maroon blazers, listened attentively. Many were first generation immigrants to the UK, all with their own survival histories.
The first question brought me down to earth. Had the events of the Shoah been discussed in the family home when I was growing up? Not at all, was my reply. The fate of my father’s family was too raw and too ghastly to be discussed before the children. Even the Hollywood version, the TV series Holocaust, was regarded as too painful to watch in case it rekindled nightmares.
This personal and pertinent question, from the child of immigrants from Africa, moved me to tears because of its understanding of trauma.