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Chief Rabbi Addresses National Holocaust Event in Edinburgh

Last updated: 2003-01-29

Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks on Monday night gave the following speech at the third National Ceremony at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh to mark Holocaust Memorial Day:“Tonight we’ve heard the story of humanity’s worst sustained act of inhumanity, an eternal memory of the road once taken that we must never take again.

And still today, when I walk the streets of certain European cities I feel as if I’m in the presence of ghosts. I hear the stifled cry of children, one and a half million of them, starved, shot, given lethal injections, gassed in the extermination camps, from all the many groups we’ve heard about tonight, among them more than a million Jewish children, a whole murdered generation. And why? They were a threat to no one. They couldn’t defend themselves let alone threaten anyone else. Why then? Because they didn’t fit. Because their race was the wrong race, or their colour the wrong colour, or their religion – even their grandparents religion - the wrong religion.

And that cry of children seems to say: but we were alive. We were human. Does that mean so little? And the world didn’t hear. But now we must. Because whatever else we strive for, it isn’t human, it isn’t worthy of us, if it makes us deaf to the cry of a child.

And still children cry. The 30,000 who die every day from preventable diseases. The hundreds of millions without adequate food or shelter, schools, or medical facilities. And still the children cry.

The Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the word rechem meaning a womb. Because it is there, where a child first comes to be, that we learn the mystery, the sanctity, of life. The litmus test of civilization is whether we sacrifice our hatreds for the sake of our children, or risk sacrificing our children for the sake of our hatreds. If children aren’t sacred, nothing else is.

And yet tonight we’ve heard another story also. Of the almost 10,000 children brought to this country through Kindertransport., and of the thousands of children adopted, hidden and rescued in orphanages, convents, and by men and women driven by ordinary feelings to extraordinary acts of courage. Many of the members of our community owe their lives to such acts as these.

I think of the little town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France where the whole village engaged in rescue. Many of them were Huguenots, who remembered the persecution their ancestors had suffered. Two of their pastors, André Trocmé and Edouard Théis, gathered them together and asked them to shelter Jews, even though they would be putting their own lives at risk. There were five thousand inhabitants and between them they offered sanctuary to three and a half thousand Jews, most of whom survived.

Above all when I think of children and the holocaust I think of one of the truly great figures of the 20th century, Janusz Korczak. Korczak was a physician, but he was drawn to the plight of underprivileged children. In 1911 he founded a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. It was so successful that he was asked to create one for Catholic children as well, which he did. In 1940 he and the orphanage were driven into the Warsaw ghetto, and in 1942 came the order to transport them to Treblinka. He was given the chance to escape, but he refused, and in a scene which no one who saw it could ever forget, he walked with his 200 orphan children to the train that took them to the gates of death, inseparable from them to the end.

Korczak had revolutionary views about the young. He believed in trusting them and giving them responsibility. And when the time came for the children under his care to leave, he used to say this to them: “I cannot give you love of man, for there is no love without forgiveness, and forgiving is something everyone must learn to do on his own. I can give you one thing only: a longing for a better life, a life of truth and justice. Even though it may not exist now, it may come tomorrow if you long for it enough.”

And that is what we owe our children today. I can’t tell you how moved I was, here in Edinburgh a few months ago, when we launched a programme called Respect, designed to give children the chance to do an act of kindness to people whose race or colour or faith is different from theirs. And when I saw how deeply they took that message to heart, I knew that I was seeing our candle of hope in a dark world. Children are not born to hate, and we may never teach them to do so. And in just a few moments our children’s choir sing the ancient psalm, “How good and pleasant it is for children together” – let us empower our children to create that respect for difference that may come tomorrow if we teach them to long for it enough today.”

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