Voice of the Jewish News: Legacy and Legend
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Voice of the Jewish News: Legacy and Legend

This week's editorial reflects on the passing of the iconic 'bride of Belsen' Gena Turgel, and the knighthood given to Ben Helfgott

As a star comes close to burning up all its energy, it greatly expands and its luminosity increases exponentially, with huge amounts of light and energy given off.

The word ‘star’ can be too easily applied to people, but if you think about it in this context, it is more than apt for two Holocaust survivors – the newly-knighted Sir Ben Helfgott and the wonderful Gena Turgel, who passed away hours before Ben’s good news was announced.

Their influence has spread far and wide. Together they have helped young people understand what Europe’s Jews went through only several decades ago, explaining what man can do to fellow man, what it felt like, what it smelled like. That’s why Gena valued perfume so much – the smell of the camps stayed with her for years after and she used bottles of scent to get rid of it.

Likewise, never will the testimony of these two formidable characters leave both the children and adults who heard them recall what happened, saying ‘never again’ so poignantly and determinedly.

It matters not that Ben’s voice is now no longer as strong as it once was. They have both said – so well and to so many – what they felt they needed to.

This week the community shared in the delight when the Government honoured Ben with a richly-deserved knighthood, but it was a bittersweet moment – with news breaking that Gena had passed away, aged 95.

Those of us who met her each have our stories to tell. They may recall, as our own editorial staff do, how she’d make them eat more sandwiches and homemade apple strudel than they could manage, knowing where her insistence ultimately came from.

The words she used were careful, yet stark. Hers was an experience she would not wish on anyone, but that she would tell anyone willing to listen and learn.

People who knew her spoke of her “majesty” this week. Some people don’t need the title ‘Dame’ to be seen as one.

And to Sir Ben, whose title now matches his status, the community expresses its continuing admiration.

Not everyone gets sculpted by renowned artists, as he was last week, but the only thought in his mind was for it to help spread the message, that to flourish we must all be tolerant of others.

It is of course a wonder and a bewilderment that voices like Ben’s and Gena’s are still needed, and how – in 2018 – we can still be talking about a flourishing of anti-Semitism in Britain’s biggest political party, one that champions progressive causes no less. It just goes to show: their stories cannot be told enough times.

So Mazel Tov to Ben, and Baruch Diyam Emet, or Long Life, to Gena’s family. As we remember her this week, we remember also how a star dies. Its outer layers fall inward on the neutron core, which heats to billions of degrees and finally explodes in a stunning supernova, releasing huge amounts of energy and material into space. This ultimately forms other stars. Such will be her impact.

Not everyone gets sculpted by renowned artists, as he was last week, but the only thought in his mind was for it to help spread the message, that to flourish we must all be tolerant of others.

Over and over again this week, that was what people remembered most about Gena: her positivity, her determination to look forward to a brighter future, and to savour the good things in life – love, family, food – while never forgetting the horrors that were, that one day may be again, if we’re not careful.

It is, of course, a wonder and a bewilderment that voices like Ben’s and Gena’s are still needed today, and how – in 2018 – we can still be talking about a flourishing of anti-Semitism in Britain’s biggest political party, one that champions progressive causes no less. It just goes to show: their stories cannot be told enough times.

And told they have been – to royalty, diplomats and decision-makers around the world. It is noteworthy that no-one in the Jewish community even batted an eyelid when, on Wednesday, Theresa May paid warm and heartfelt tribute to Gena’s life, work and legacy during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, with millions of Brexit-wary Brits watching.

So mazeltov to Ben, and long life to Gena’s family. As we remember her this week, let us remember also how a star dies. Its outer layers fall inward on the neutron core, which heats to billions of degrees and then explodes in a stunning supernova, releasing huge amounts of energy and material into space, which ultimately forms other stars. Such will be her impact.

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