Nicky Liss
Nicky Liss

We cannot bring the dead to life, but we can keep their memory alive

Rabbi Nicky Liss with the prayer shawl which Imperial War Museum officials asked him to help install
Rabbi Nicky Liss with the prayer shawl which Imperial War Museum officials asked him to help install

At the memorial service for Sir Martin Gilbert in November 2015, the late former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, z’l told the following anecdote:

It must have been 15 years ago, just before the (original) Holocaust Exhibition was opened in the Imperial War Museum. The organisers of that wonderful exhibition had decided in their thoughtfulness and kindness to invite the Holocaust survivors to a dinner just a couple of weeks before the Exhibition was opened, so that they could see it first.

I was dreading that moment, I thought it would open up the trauma all over again. I didn’t know how they were going to face that evening. That night Sir Martin and myself were the speakers. I needn’t have worried, they were exuberant. It was as if they were at a wedding. They proceeded to talk non-stop through my speech, through Martin’s speech.

I asked them, why are you so cheerful? They said to me you don’t realise, until this exhibition was opened, we didn’t know who would care for our memories when we are no longer here. But now that the Exhibition is there, we feel safe, that burden has been lifted from us.”

It is this sense of permanence, a sense of being remembered, and of being heard that has driven the design and now delivery of the new IWM London Galleries some 21 years later.

The mission of telling the story of the Holocaust is more important than ever. And the many additional artefacts, individual personal stories and direct survivor testimonies together with digital and interactive interpretation, enhance the telling of the story and understanding its scale, incredibly well.

Over the past three years, I have had the privilege to play a small role advising the curators – whose thoughtfulness, care and sensitivity has been truly outstanding – how religious objects should be treated and displayed. It was also the role which led to the overwhelming responsibility in helping organise the burial for 6 Holocaust Victims at Bushey New Cemetery in January 2019.

At first, I thought that each object I looked at would take a few moments but I soon learnt to think again and appreciate that every item has a story. Some we discovered and some are yet to be discovered. We hope that visitors to the galleries might be able to help by recognising the provenance of an object or the face of someone in a photograph.

Items to look out for include a mini Sefer Torah and siddur housed by its owner in a repurposed nail box. There is the fragment of a large Sefer Torah which was unnervingly opened to the words ‘Lo Tishkach’ ‘Never Forget’ and a Rosh Hashanah card sent in the Warsaw Ghetto in defiance of the Nazi propaganda on the other side. And then there is a Tallit that was found outside a synagogue in Vienna on the morning after the November Pogrom (widely known as Kristallnacht) in 1938, and which I installed into the new Galleries with the support of specialist textile conservators.

There are however, two items, which stand out to me – a Tefillin bag and a Millstone.

The set of Tefillin, was found by Walter Friend, an American soldier, on the body of a concentration camp inmate who died on a forced march. We will never know the identity of that victim; however, I continue to be inspired by his determination and courage to wear his Tefillin despite the dire situation he found himself in. I now think of his soul when putting on my own Tefillin having been filled with awe as I held the Tefillin bag before placing it into its display case.

The other item, a millstone, demonstrates the extra mile the Nazis went in their attempts to destroy not only us but our history too. The millstone is a repurposed Matzeivah, tombstone of the matriarch of a family, as indicated by an engraving of candlesticks and the words ‘Our dear mother’. Sadly, the stone is cut just before her name is mentioned.

The first part of her epitaph remains and when I looked at the verse used, my heart missed a beat. It is the same verse, as is used in Finchley Synagogue on their Shoah window, where it refers to all the victims of the Holocaust: “Over these do I weep; my eye continuously runs with water…” (Lamentations 1:16)

We continue to weep. We cannot bring the dead to life, but we can keep their memory alive and through the new galleries, we have the opportunity to visit, to learn, to reflect and to be inspired.

The new IWM London Holocaust Galleries open on October 20 and are free to visit.

About the Author
Rabbi Nicky Liss is Chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue. He serves as Rabbi of Highgate United Synagogue in London
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