Bristol Civic Commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day 2018

Marian Liebmann reports:

The 2018 Civic Commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day took place on Friday 26 January 2018, at City Hall, Bristol, 2-5 pm. It was attended by about 130 people and there was a lot of positive feedback following the event. The large conference hall in Bristol’s main civic building lent a sense of history to the proceedings.

The afternoon began with two short films from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust introducing the theme: The Power of Words. ‘ Refugee Blues’, a poem by W. H. Auden, was read movingly by Sheila Hancock and this was followed by the powerful testimony of Bea Green who escaped from Germany as a young girl on the Kindertransport.

Councillor Jeff Lovell (Deputy Lord Mayor) was due to speak, but personal circumstances prevented his attendance. His speech was read out by Father Richard McKay and underlined the importance of words, how care should be taken in using them, and how we all have a duty to be alert to discrimination and prejudice and be prepared to intervene when we spot injustice.

Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, spoke very movingly about the enduring power of words and the need to have courage in confronting anti- Semitism wherever it occurs. Thangam made reference to Bristol being a ‘City of Sanctuary’ since 2011, something for all Bristolians to be proud of, with the obligation that we all have to be alert to racism and discrimination and not to ‘stand by.’ Thangam’s  speech was very powerful and her words resonated with the audience.

Thangam had indicated that she might not be able to stay beyond her talk as she had a Constituency Surgery to attend, but fortunately was able to stay to hear our next speaker, describing it as a ‘huge honour’ to speak before her.

Bettina cohnBettina Cohn (a 97 year old Survivor of Nazi Germany) was interviewed by Julia Bush, a member of the steering group. Everyone was deeply moved by Bettina’s words – the audience sat in silent reverence as Bettina’s story unfolded. We could hear the intake of breath at certain points from the 130 strong audience as the horror of Hitler’s restrictions against Jews escalated. She also spoke of the way her family had to deal with the resultant hardships and deprivations. After describing the horror of her childhood, Bettina also recounted how she arrived in Britain and survived. Her talk was accompanied by black and white photos on a large screen, showing her family. Her two brothers also survived and found refuge in Israel and Australia, but her parents died in the Holocaust.

Following these moving presentations, we organized a 30-minute workshop, to give participants a space to respond to what they had heard and to provide an opportunity for reflection. The activity involved small groups, each led by a facilitator, considering creative and destructive words. There was also an opportunity to write a postcard to Bettina – these were collected and sent to her later.

After the workshop there was a tea break which gave time for the attendees to visit stalls of current Bristol projects working with refugees and victims of racism.

The afternoon continued with two very poignant talks and a short film by two sixth form students who had participated in the ‘Learning from Auschwitz’ project and had visited Auschwitz in March 2017. Both students spoke very movingly about their visit. Emphasising that ‘hearing is important’ but ‘seeing is more so’, they described the exhibits of shoes, hair, glasses and other personal effects that the Nazis had removed from their victims  – this had left a lasting impression on them both. Their words powerfully expressed their horror but also their determination to tell others of their experience and to combat discrimination as they knew where discrimination could lead. This section was rounded off by a dance choreographed and performed by young people, called ‘Striped Pyjamas’ which revealed in dramatic form the harshness of Auschwitz.

It is so important to have young people participating in a HMD event. They were all very impressive and once again the audience listened in rapt attention. It was equally important to have young people in the audience. The two Youth Mayors and one Youth Councillor were present and several schools sent sixth form students.

Marvin Rees (the elected Mayor of Bristol) spoke just before the Closing Ceremony. It was another impressive and powerful speech. Marvin stressed the value of HMD and the importance of honouring the victims and the survivors. We need to ‘keep the memory alive’. He stressed that we need to ensure that we never stop learning about the dangers of prejudice, anti-Semitism and all forms of racism. He stressed the need to recognise ‘the process’ …. It starts with discrimination and hatred and racism, and ends in genocide.

The Bristol Holocaust Memorial Day event concluded with a moving closing Ceremony led by Father Richard McKay (Priest of St Nicholas of Tolentino Church). Bettina was invited to light the HMD candle and Father Richard asked people to write words they wanted to remember on post-it notes and place them round the candle.

All in all, it was a moving and memorable event. We would like to thank all those who helped – the funders, the steering group, the City Council conference staff and all those who came to share in the day. Through our leaflet we were also able to publicise seven other HMD-related events by different groups.