These memorials are always very moving. Over the years we’ve heard many stories – stories of horror, survival, courage, despair and hope. This year we heard from Janine Weber who was born in 1932 in what was then Lwow in Poland but is now L’viv in Ukraine. Janine’s family were moved out of their home in Lwow after the invasion of Germany in 1945, her father was shot and the family were forced into the ghetto where her mother died of typhus. Janine and her brother were given refuge by a Polish farmer but her brother was betrayed and shot, while Janine managed to run away, eventually finding her way to Krakow, Paris and eventually the UK where she married and had a family.
We also heard the story of Hasan Hasanovic who was born on 7th December 1975 in the village of Bajina Basta in Serbia but was forced to move with his family to a Muslim-held enclave around the town of Srebrenica when the Bosnian War started in 1992. There was no electricity, very little food, and people were killed every day by Serb artillery fire. He was 19 when Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb troops. Hasan, his father and twin brother, Husein decided to flee from a massacre that murdered 8,000 men and boys. During a 100 kilometre march through hostile territory Hasan was separated from his father and brother and never saw them again. Today he is the curator of the Memorial Centre in Srebrenica, keeping alive the story of what happened there.
These stories can be difficult to listen to but what came across is the resilience of both Janine and Hasan in their struggle to come to terms with what happened to them and their families. Janine no longer has nightmares, doesn’t start when she hears strong footsteps and Hasan has overcome the hate he felt in his heart. This transformation came about at the sight of a young child whom he realised he could not hate even if the baby was the child of a war criminal. Now he and Janine tell their stories with peace in their hearts but determined to keep alive the memory of what depths we humans can sink to if we are not careful. Their hope is that what happened to them might never happen again and yet it has happened. In this century we have seen the massacre and displacement of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Yazidis in Iraq. What is it that leads us to hate those who are different so much.
The reality is that if there’s one human being who can perpetrate such horrors then we are all capable of it. But we are also capable of standing up for those who are oppressed. The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial is Stand Together and there are many examples of people who did stand with the Jewish community and they too have to be remembered. My own countrywoman Jane Haining was one of them. Jane came from farming community in the south of Scotland and went as a missionary from the Church of Scotland to work at the Scottish Jewish Mission School in Budapest in 1932. The school had 400 pupils, most of them Jewish. She was on leave when war broke out in 1939 but immediately returned to Hungary to do all she could to protect the children at the school. She ignored orders to flee the country when it was invaded by the Nazis. She was arrested by the Gestapo in April 1944 and murdered in Auschwitz a few months later, at the age of 47. The only Scot to have been murdered there. Another Scot though, who stood with the Jews and Poles after the war was my friend Stella Reekie who, as a member of the Red Cross, was at the liberation of Belsen and worked with young children in Poland. Stella was actually born in England but came to Scotland as a Church of Scotland deaconess to work with the Asian community, established the first interfaith group in the country and, to my mind, is the pioneer of the interfaith movement which continues to grow to this day.
And then there was a sister who belonged to my community, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur whose story I only heard about this year. Sister Maria Anthony was the child of Italian immigrants who was sent to Rome and became principal of a kindergarten there. When war broke out the convent became part of a network of safe houses in the city. Sr Anthony took in Jewish children and hid them in the school and garden until she could provide false papers to smuggle them out. She never spoke about this and it only came to light when a Jewish survivor mentioned her in a book about his war time experiences. She is named as one of the Righteous among the Nations for having “risked her life to save persecuted Jews”.
So many horror stories and so many heroic stories which hopefully will be an inspiration to us to stand with those who may seem different from us but who share our common humanity. The future of our race depends on this.