Piny Hackenbroch
Senior Rabbi Woodside Park Synagogue, London

VE Day – Lessons for our current war

Friday marks the 75th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day. After six bloody years of war raging in Europe, the Allied Forces formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany and brought the curtain down on the Second World War in Europe.

Britain paid an exceptionally heavy price for this victory; it is estimated that some 450,000 British citizens had made the ultimate sacrifice both at home and on the battlefield. From having a colonial empire that stretched across the world, Britain now faced financial ruin.

The day after the first VE Day in Europe huge crowds gathered to celebrate and thousands attended thanksgiving services at St Pauls Cathedral.

In his VE Day announcement, Prime Minister, Winston Churchill announced to the nation “we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing but let us not forget for a moment the toil and efforts that lie ahead”. And so it was that the very day after those jubilant celebrations by a generation that had endured such hardship that a different battle, to rebuild Britain began, and from that battle saw the birth of our National Health Service, with the promise to look after us all “from the cradle to the grave”.

This year on the 75th anniversary of VE the celebrations will be muted, as we find ourselves and our nation immersed in another life and death battle, this time against an invisible and indiscriminate enemy. Coronavirus may not drop bombs, but it is nonetheless a killer. Britain has been one of the world’s worst hit countries in its fight against coronavirus resulting in over 30,000 people having lost their lives.

After a month of lockdown many are war weary. The isolation felt by those living on their own and the vulnerable, has wreaked havoc on the mental health and well being of so many. There is no end in sight to the lockdown for those that are deemed vulnerable. Depression and anxiety have risen significantly and poses another real threat to lives. We wonder how over the coming months we all will emerge from these exceptionally challenging times.

I am reminded of the episode in the Torah relating to our forefather Jacob, who on his deathbed wishes to reveal the end of the exile to his children. It was precisely at that moment that the Divine presence departed him. The unknowing is an integral element to the exile and darkness of this world and for that reason we cannot always have certainty in our lives.

Similarly, in the battle against Covid, there is the uncertainty for us all as to when lives will return to normal, when it will be safe for us all to leave our homes and to venture out to shops and restaurant, and when will our children be able to return to schools? The unknowing is leading to frustration by the less vulnerable members of society who are itching to return to normality and dejection by the more vulnerable members of society who cannot see light at the end of the virus tunnel.

Even as the numbers of fatalities fall and Britain gradually starts to win this battle, any thoughts of having cause for celebration this VE Day of our current war would be presumptuous and premature. The battle may be won for now but the war against Covid will rage for some time.

I, for one, will utilise this anniversary of VE Day to remember what it was that took Britain from the brink of defeat and despair to victory in 1945. Churchill famously said “this is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure.”

The iron will that permeated the British people often referred to as the “Dunkirk spirit” during the war, coupled with a strong spirit of unity were the keys to the success then and will be now. The Covid war will require our determination as we will have to be prepared to endure lengthy restrictions and limitations to the freedoms to life that we have come to enjoy and have taken for granted. The impatience and frustrations from the inconveniences and upheaval caused by the fight against the pandemic must be overcome if we wish to vanquish this invisible enemy.

Now, as then there is a sense of unity and togetherness which must continue. Over the coming weeks and months many of the restrictions imposed by the authorities will be gradually relaxed. This will enable many of us to normalise our lives again. During this virus there has developed a sense of collective responsibility and concern for others. People have volunteered up and down the country to support in any which way they can those in their neighbourhood and beyond who may be more vulnerable and are unable to venture out of their homes. The challenge will be in the aftermath of Covid, once most of us are given the green light to return to work and leave our homes will our normality be the same as before? Will the selfless spirit and concern for the other linger or will we return to the old normal with us being blinkered in our vision and attention?

Jacob was not allowed to reveal the length that the darkness would plague his children. He did however offer an allusion to one of the keys to overcoming that darkness. The immortal key that Jacob handed to his children was to ensure they always stood united.

Like Jacob we cannot foretell when light will prevail over the darkness of this virus we are experiencing. But the sense of unity and fraternity that has entered our society and personal lives during the pandemic is the key we are now given to ensuring our more vulnerable neighbours together with our selves feel supported and are able to come though this together as we did some seventy five years ago. If we do so, then that will be something we can really celebrate and perhaps even her Majesty may dance in the streets the way she danced as a girl on the original VE Day.

About the Author
Rabbi Hackenbroch is Senior Rabbi of Woodside Park Synagogue, London, UK, as well as a commercial mediator, Holocaust Educator and sought after speaker
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