There were Holocaust Memorial events all over Europe and I was privileged to be at the Scottish and UK events as well as the civic service at the Reform Synagogue in Glasgow. As always central to these events are the stories of survivors, some who experienced the horror of the extermination camps and others who escaped them because they were part of the Kindertransport.
The stories tell of the heroism of parents who were determined to save their children. Some did this, by going with the SS when they knocked the door, closing it carefully behind them leaving a child who felt abandoned and did not fully understand what was happening. Hannah Lewis remembers her mother doing just that and seeing her mother’s blood on the snow when she witnessed her murder while looking for her and not understanding why her mother did not meet her eyes. Others did what they could to ensure a future for their children, like the mother of Lily Ebert who asked her to exchange shoes when they were in the trucks headed for Auschwitz. Only afterwards did Lily realise that her mother had given her shoes in which some gold and jewellery was hidden in the heels of the shoes. To this day Lily’s most precious possession is a pendant that was hidden in those shoes. At the Scottish event Henry Wuga told of how his parents put him on the Kindertransport to Britain. He was one of 10,000 children whose parents made the supreme sacrifice of sending their children to safety because they sensed the horrors that were to come. Many of them did well but as children they did not fully understand what was happening and Henry remembers the tears of both children and parents as they separated.
The pain of these stories has stayed with me long after the event itself. Another moving story was that of a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Holocaust Memorial Day also remembers the genocides of Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur though we cannot forget the terrible plight of the Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar as well as the suffering of so many of the Afghani people today. At the UK HMD Memorial Service Antoinette Mutabazi from Rwanda told how she was third in line to be executed when news came that the bank had been breached and her executioners left to see what they could get for themselves – saved in a way by other people’s greed.
These stories set well the scene for Interfaith Harmony Week and Human Fraternity Day. They show us how far we are from that ideal and how important it is that we work to overcome division, prejudice, hatred and ideologies that set ourselves, our group, our religion, our culture, our way of life as definitive for everyone. Someone who to my mind was an ikon of peace and fraternity and a shining example for all of us is Thich Nhat Hanh who sadly died on 22nd January this year.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s death was peaceful. He was 95 years of age, though during the last few years he had suffered the effects of a massive stroke which left him speechless. He died in Vietnam, in the monastery he had entered when he was 16 years old. For much of his life he was exiled by the Vietnamese Government for opposing the Vietnam War and travelling in the west, especially America, to speak of peace and encourage the US to withdraw from the war. Martin Luther King was so impressed by this gentle monk that he suggested him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and I believe the reason he didn’t get it was because MLK broke the rules by revealing the nomination.
I was privileged to make two retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh and to visit his monastery in the Dordogne region of France which was composed of several hamlets and called Plum Village. I shall never forget these retreats. Thich Nhat Hanh was an ikon of mindfulness and peace so that to see him walk into a room, sit quietly in the lotus position and teach with gentleness and kindness was a lesson in itself. I think he was a genius in that his teachings on Buddhism touched his listeners’ humanity and made perfect sense. This was religion at its best and I do wish I was able to do that for Christianity. Thay, as his disciples called him, had a great respect for Christianity, writing two books about their relationship, Living Buddha, Living Christ and Jesus and the Buddha as Brothers. He felt that Buddhism would allow Christianity to discover the spirituality behind many of its teachings. And it has done that as far as mindfulness and meditation are concerned.
Thich Nhat Hanh will continue to be an inspiration through his writings and teaching. He wrote "Birth and death are only a door through which we go in and out…. So do not be afraid of death". His death was peaceful. The death of those remembered at HMD was violent but through these deaths and the story of survivors there is a message of resilience and hope and the memory of them all will live on as an inspiration to all of us and a motivation to promote human fraternity.