Holocaust Memorial Event January 2017 How can life go on?

Margery MacKay reports

‘For the survivor, death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.' Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author

The national theme for Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) on Friday 27 January 2017 (the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945) was ‘How can life go on’? The HMD website states ‘The aftermath of the Holocaust and of subsequent genocides continues to raise challenging questions for individuals, communities and nations. HMD 2017 asks audiences to think about what happens after genocide and of our own responsibilities in the wake of such crimes’.

It was up to each event organiser and participant to find ways of exploring the theme. ‘An Evening of Remembrance’ of all victims of genocide, organised by the pupils of Drummond Community High School, their teachers and Edinburgh Inter Faith Association succeeded in every way. The pupils’ artwork of shoes and other items, videos, poetry and music such as ‘Remembrance, Remembrance’ and ‘Love can Build a Bridge’. Every item was beautifully presented and performed, relevant and it moved me to tears. Later we shared food together.

The Head Teacher of Drummond Community High School and the Deputy Lord Provost introduced the event, stating that in these difficult challenging times it is more important than ever to work hard to prevent racism insidiously seeping in. Iain Stewart, EIFA General Secretary also reiterated this at the end of the event in light of the rise in Islamophobia and AntiSemitism.

The event was held on Wednesday 25 January and as an introduction a pupil read ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ that’ by Robert Burns. Zoe Clack, a former pupil, now a student at St Andrew’s University then summarised the paths that led to holocaust and genocide. These included the classification, dehumanisation and persecution of people, and polarisation through the media, leading to extermination. When she had visited Auschwitz while she was appalled at what she saw in the museum etc, it did not have as much an effect on her as she thought it might, because the scale of the holocaust is too much for humans to comprehend. It was only when she heard individual stories that it fully hit home. This is why these events are so important.

Here are the two stories we heard.

Brigitte’s Story

Saskia Tepe told the story of her mother, Brigitte Langer (1915 -1992), whose maternal grandparents were Jewish. Her father was a Czech of German descent. Brigitte was brought up a Catholic and spoke German and Czech. When her father died in 1944, Brigitte was sent to labour camps because she was of ‘Jewish decent’. She worked in various factories and then for a time in the camp office. Then, she was put on a train to Auschwitz. Brigitte knew where the rail tracks went because she had previously delivered mail using the open rail trucks. She jumped out of the open truck into a snow drift. She then wandered in woods, lived rough, stole a nurse’s uniform, helped some of the soldiers and ended up near Dresden, but was caught again and put in a camp further north.

At the end of the war she went back to Czechoslovakia, but being of ‘German descent’ was put in a work camp until about 1949 and later in a Displaced Person’s Camp (DPC). In 1954, Czechs of German decent were due to be repatriated to Germany. She and her fiancé, who she met in the camp, wanted to go to the USA. Brigitte had TB and her application was rejected. Her fiancé went to the USA reluctantly, hoping she would be able to join him. While in hospital she found out she was pregnant and Saskia was born. Brigitte fought to keep Saskia and married a Polish friend in 1956. They left the DPC in 1961 and came to the UK. Saskia remembers that while they were in the camp the Catholic Church helped them with education, medical care and money.

It took Brigitte a long time to settle in the UK. She often moved from job to job because she was ostracised for her German accent. Much later she found love in her caring church community and saw her grandchild. Saskia’s mother only talked to Saskia once about this when she was thirteen. Saskia found out other information after her mother died. Saskia said her mother was not bitter, and felt people were basically kind. She taught Saskia that she must accept all kinds of people.

Umutesi’s Story

Umutesi Stewart spoke of the ‘100 day Genocide’ in Rwanda, and of her harrowing escape and aftermath. Umutesi was twelve years old at the time and lived with her mother, her baby sister and her brother. The Tutsi and the Hutu in her village had got on well with one another. They had the same culture and language. After Rwanda’s President was killed in a plane crash war broke out. The media and government incited violence and the extremist Hutu started killing the Tutsi and moderate Hutu. Many of those killed were friends, neighbours and family. Umutesi could not go to school, and one day her mother said ‘you have to leave now but I cannot go with you as I am ill’. She got a Congolese friend to take Umutesi, her baby sister and brother to the Congo. They walked in the heat, with little or no food and water for weeks, hiding from the vigilantes. Her brother got lost, and they went back to look for him and found him dead. Umutesi wanted to go back to her village, but the Congolese friend said she must go on, so she went on with her sister strapped to her back. Later she found out that her mother had been burned alive in her own home by the insurgents.

Once Umutesi and her sister reached the Congo, she was so scared about trusting anyone that they had to live in the jungle for about five years on plants and berries, anything they could find, in the heat and in fear of the wild animals. Eventually she and her sister got back to Rwanda. Her only surviving uncle helped her, and after a number of years, she was able to get an education, and get a degree, become a nurse and she helped her sisters. She is very proud of her sisters as they have turned out so well. Umutesi’s story has become very personal to us in EIFA, because we all know Umutesi as Iain Stewart’s wife, and we know Jean-Paul Samputu who works for Rwandan Reconciliation.

The remembrance ended with Rabbi Rose singing a blessing and lighting candles, followed by a minute’s silence.

Copyright Margery MacKay used by permission The photograph on page 1 was supplied by Iain Stewart and features Umutesi and Iain Stewart, and Saskia Tepe