This Thought for the Day marking Holocaust Memorial Day was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Friday 23 January 2015.
This week, the echoes of history reverberated off the walls of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I was privileged to lead prayers at an event marking Holocaust Memorial Day next week, which commemorates the Holocaust and other recent genocides, in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
At the ceremony, awards were given by the Israeli Ambassador to families of three rescuers referred to as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, people who defied the hatred, hostility and widespread indifference during the Holocaust. At great risk of death, they saved lives.
One of these rescuers whose life we honoured was Elsie Tilney, a Christian missionary from Norwich, who saved a one-year old Austrian toddler, Ruth Buchholz.
The other two rescuers were Vanda Janavičienė and her son, Kazys Janavičius. They were Lithuanian, like my family was. They gave their neighbour, Lilly Winterfield, a false birth certificate, and hid her until the war was over. The world’s leading Jewish demographer, a survivor himself, was at this event and told us that he had researched the question of whether there is a rescuer type. The answer was no. People who risked their own lives for others had no particular common trait. I hope that in similar circumstances, these words from the Talmud would move me to take the risk they took: “In a place where no one is behaving with humanity, be a human being.”
We witnessed the same, seemingly random spark of incredible humanity two weeks ago in Paris, when a Muslim shop assistant, Lassana Bathily, rescued Jews at a kosher grocers. He hid them in a freezer and helped police free the other hostages. Born in Mali, Lassana Bathily is twenty-four years old and a shy, unassuming man. He showed the same breathtaking, brave spirit as those Righteous Among the Nations whose lives we commemorated.
Rescuers are ordinary people, like you and me. If we elevate them to some other, superhuman status, we avoid having to ask the question: “What would I do?”
With the shooting at the kosher grocers in Paris still fresh in our minds, British Jews are currently engaged in feisty and very public debate about anti-Semitism. There are real concerns: real fears. We know the situation for Jews is a benchmark for freedom across the whole of society, and that reports of anti-Semitic hate crime have been up in the last year. Yet, anti-Semitism in Britain remains the lowest in Europe – and I believe this country is generally a safe and wonderful place for Jews.
By hearing and retelling stories of Righteous among the Nations, and other rescuers, we become active witnesses to those events – and help ensure their memory echoes from Warsaw to Whitehall, across history and across nations.