Life

Remembering the Holocaust: Would you stand by?

Poland, 1932 – 56 well-mannered primary school children including theatre director Mikolaj Wozniak’s grandmother. The class included many Jewish children who were directly affected by the Holocaust

I KNOW it was May 11 because it was my mum’s birthday. It was mid-1950s and teatime. I’d just returned from school when the front door bell rang. Standing there like a little stone statue was a pale boy of about nine, huge dark eyes. He stared at me and said: "Anne, Mummy’s hanging in the garage."

It was my first experience of the dreadful thing called Holocaust. His mother had come from Poland to settle in Belfast with her two sons but the memories of losing her entire family in the death camps proved too much.

I don’t know what happened to those two little boys but the Jewish community will have looked after them and given them what comfort they could. For me it began a quest to learn about those grim days and I often think of two little boys who went through their own trauma years after the camps were liberated, and I’m sure they still do.

Each year a solemn and haunting international commemoration of the Holocaust takes place, this year the regional gathering will be in Lisburn on Wednesday January 27 at 7.30pm.

Held in the Island Arts Centre, the theme is ‘Don’t Stand By’ and brings to mind the words of the controversial German Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no-one left to speak for me.

He was an outspoken enemy of Adolf Hitler who spent seven years in concentration camps and these words were aimed at the Nazi regime; sadly they have applied to many situations ever since, not least today in Europe and the Middle East. Imagine the plight of those people starving to death in the town of Madaya in Syria – and this is 2016.

The first Holocaust Memorial Day was held 15 years ago on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945. The date was January 27, since chosen for the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I have been to most of these and my impression is that they get more poignant each year; each year there is more to remember, the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

It’s all the more relevant to me as I have journeyed to Auschwitz twice and visited Rwanda a year after the genocide, a visit that will live forever in my memory.

In the searing heat I stood under an avocado tree. The ripe fruit was falling from the overladen branches, and I was amused at the plopping noise all round thinking of the price they’d fetch in Tesco. It was 1996. I was at the entrance of a huge church in the middle of nowhere yet a reminder of killing was everywhere and amusement soon turned to horror.

As the Tutsis tried to take shelter, the Hutu massacred them in their hundreds. It is estimated up to one million were murdered in 100 days.

Inside I paused beneath the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, shot through with bullets when, from the overturned wooden benches where the congregation once sat, a group of children emerged – a white woman with a camera was a novelty. They danced round me, chattering, and then began pulling me towards the back of the deserted church. There were black bin bags piled high round the walls.

One little boy of about seven gestured to me to photograph the bags, another looked at me and smiled, holding his nose as he did so. The bags were filled with the remains of their families: their parents, aunties and uncles, grannies and granddads, brothers and sisters and the smell was the smell of death.

I felt badly about photographing these bags but I knew the only thing I could do was bring the story home and tell as many people as possible about the slaughter of the innocents and support the work of Concern Worldwide.

The theme, ‘Don’t Stand By’ will ask everyone to consider their personal responsibility and not to be a bystander to persecution and genocide, even bullying – easier said than done but there are many brave people who, even in the middle of attrition, will take a stand. Makes me wonder if I would be brave enough. The Holocaust Memorial Day will make many people wonder the same thing.

Here in Northern Ireland there will be a number of events, two of them by caring theatre companies, Spring Lane Productions and Kabosh.

Jane Coyle’s moving play The Suitcase will be performed in the Banqueting Hall of Belfast City Hall on Monday January 25 at 7pm and is free. Light refreshments will be available. (Booking is essential: Email goodrelations@belfastcity.gov.uk or call 028 9027 0663 to reserve your place).

Kabosh Theatre Company are staging rehearsed readings of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s award-winning play Our Class. The play follows primary school pupils through the Soviet and Nazi occupations and tells of the heartbreaking impacted on their young lives.

There will be a ticketed performance (£5) at the Crescent Arts Centre Belfast on Sunday 24th at 7.30pm (crescentarts.org), and a free performance at the Linen Hall Library Belfast on Wednesday January 27 at 1pm (linenhall.com).

Each performance will be followed by a panel discussion chaired by cast member Ciaran Hanna with director Mikolaj Wozniak and Polish journalist Aleksandra Lojek.

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