Martin van den Bergh
My Address at this year's HMD in Liverpool
Standing before you here in the Liverpool Town Hall marking the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz/Berkenau fills me with mixed feelings. On the one hand I still feel a shudder as I remember standing at Auschwitz, which was undoubtedly one of the worst Concentration Camps the Nazis built as a killing factory, to murder those whom they considered to be vermin. On the other hand, I feel a sense of humility and pride to be a part of this commemoration here in Liverpool, because Liverpool has always understood the importance of not only remembering the Holocaust, but also of trying to learn its lessons, and above all, of upholding the dignity of humanity, by offering a home to those who have been torn from their homes through conflict.
Even though I had been brought up knowing about the holocaust because of my parents’ experiences in Nazi Occupied Holland, I did not realise the full extent of the horrors of the holocaust, or the enormity of the brutality which the Nazis inflicted on their victims and treated as non-humans, until I was at Auschwitz. As I stood in front of the mounds of shoes, suitcases and the shorn hair of those who were transported to their deaths in cattle-trucks I could not comprehend how human beings could stoop so low to treat people with such cruelty. Standing in front of the bunks in the huts, which were not even fit for animals, and standing at the ovens which burnt the bodies of those slaughtered in the gas chambers has left me in shock to this very day. The shock was even greater when I became aware that members of my own family had also suffered such terrible degradation, because at Auschwitz there is a special memorial museum to remember the Jews of Holland. At this museum, there is a memorial book, in which pages and pages are filled with names of my relatives, including my great aunt Margaretta and her family.
But we must also remember that the victims of the Holocaust, were not only those who perished in the gas chambers. The victims were also those who were torn away from their homes, their countries of birth, from their heritage, and from their families and friends. In Krakow there is a memorial made up of rows and rows of chairs. They symbolise Jews of Krakow, just as Jews in cities and villages all over Europe were forced from their homes into Ghettos. The Ghettos were staging posts to the death camps. Those chairs represent the belongings and furniture which the Jews were forced to leave behind.
My father and mother and my grandparents were very lucky to escape the horrors of the Concentration Camps. But they were not immune from the effects of the Holocaust. They lived through Nazi Occupied Holland and were subject to the anti-Jewish laws. My mother had to wear the yellow star, and they were forced to take in German officers into their home, until they were forced to leave the house. My father, who was an officer in the Dutch Army, was taken as a prisoner of war to a German Gulag, and he survived only because when the Jews were called out, all the Dutch prisoners, Jewish and not-Jewish stepped forward together.
95% of Dutch Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis. This had a psychological effect on the few who survived, including my parents, and into the next generation, their children, along with me, my brother and sister. No food was ever wasted. We had to eat every morsel which was on our plates, whether we liked it or not. And we all lived in a state of unease that it could happen again.
But the experiences of my parents were not all negative. There were also positive consequences.
That of instilling in me a respect for all human beings and upholding the dignity of man. That of supporting the fallen and having consideration for the stranger. The holocaust has shown us the terrible consequences of ignoring these important principles, which can lead to a process of dehumanisation and destruction, which continues to repeat itself to this very day.
When I had my Barmitzvah, the ceremony which takes place when a Jewish boy is 13 years old and becomes obligated to keep the tenants of our Jewish heritage, I was addressed by my grandfather who was Chief Rabbi of Holland. He had been the first Jewish Chaplain of the Dutch Army and saw at first hand the horrors of the death camps. He told me never to take our survival for granted. Even though I had not been particularly religious, I decided at that moment to become a rabbi, in the hope that I could contribute to rebuilding Jewish life, which had so nearly been destroyed.
In my four decades of being a Communal Rabbi, having served four communities around the world I have striven to be true to the promise I made to myself at my Barmitzvah.
I can think of no better place to end my career in almost five weeks’ time, than here in Liverpool. Liverpool has enabled members of different faiths to live their religious heritage in freedom, while contributing to the welfare of their fellow citizens. And above all, the fact that HMD is commemorated here in the Town Hall is testimony to the fact that Liverpool takes very seriously of learning the lessons from the Holocaust. Because, even though the Nazis failed in destroying the tenacity of the human spirit, the world has still not learnt the lessons of the holocaust, as we can bear witness to the fact that many other acts of genocide have been perpetrated in Rwanda; Cambodia; Bosnia; Darfur, and other places around the world, which we rightly also commemorate today. We also continue to experience acts of terror against people even here in the United Kingdom, as well as a growing world refugee crisis as a result of people being torn from their homes in such places as Syria and Myanmar. And even as we speak, we see a looming humanitarian crisis engulfing Zimbabwe.
So, our act of remembrance today is not just about remembering the victims of the Holocaust, the victims of genocide, and the victims of acts of inhumanity against humanity. It should also remind us that we cannot be complacent when it comes to upholding the dignity of the individual whoever and whatever that person is, and especially we must support the victims. In supporting them, we must be careful to enable them to rebuild their lives, and become full citizens in their new home.
We must take this lesson to heart, to cherish life, value all human-kind, and respect all humanity.
My prayer is that we will all stand up to those who sow the seeds of hate, whether bullying at school or racism, antisemitism and hatred of any kind in the streets and on social media. For evil to flourish all it takes, is for us to do nothing, and as King Solomon says in the book of Proverbs: Hatred stirs up strife! We should rather redouble our efforts to learn the lessons of the holocaust and take to heart that we all have a part to play in making this a better world in which we live.