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Photo credit: John Rifkin

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Ben Helfgott. Photo credit: John Rifkin

A record–breaking 5,000 people have attended the UK’s largest ever Holocaust memorial event, writes Justin Cohen

Under the banner ‘We are one’, community members from across the religious spectrum came together at Allianz Park to honour the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis 70 years ago.

Harrowing survivor testimony, the BBC radio broadcast marking the liberation of Bergen-Belsen and a memorial prayer featuring the names of concentration camps played out amid silence at the home of a rugby club more familiar with screaming fans.

“We’ve never forgotten the lives destroyed,” survivor Ben Helfgott told the crowds at the Yom HaShoah UK event which was backed by 120 organisations.

“We are committed to reminding the world of the importance of tolerance. Our generation of survivors cannot be here forever but we are passing on the baton of memory to you with a lot of confidence.”  

In a sign of the cross-communal nature of the gathering, figures from six synagogue bodies from the joined survivors and members of the third generation to light candles in honour of Jews and non-Jews whose lives were brutally cut short, heroes of the Holocaust and the lost generation whose contribution to the world would never be known.

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Survivors lighting the memorial candles. Photo credit: John Rifkin

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Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis. Photo credit: John Rifkin

During a ceremony that included music by several male voice choirs and acclaimed cellist Simon Wallfisch, one of the most emotional contributions came from Eve Behar, who was among 150 survivors and refugees in the crowd.

“Auschwitz destroyed your soul,” she said in video testimony. “Belsen was a destroyer in every way. There was unimaginable joy at liberation but we didn’t have the strength to be joyful. The way the British worked to save lives was unbelievable.”

Then, a version of the Hatikvah (The Hope), recorded by the BBC as survivors took part in a Friday night service following the liberation, filled the stadium. “This is our hatikvah,” the Chief Rabbi said in reflecting on the historic gathering. Alongside remembrance and hope, he called for “decisive action” to ensure the legacy of those who lived through the darkest moments lives on and to ensure anti-Semitism is “at least neutralised”.

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Photo credit: John Rifkin

The event also looked ahead to the future, with Sir Peter Bazalgette, the man charged with taking forward the recommendations of David Cameron’s Holocaust Commission, imploring anyone who has not yet recorded testimony to do so.

And the United Synagogue’s Rabbi Andrew Shaw urged community members to continue the 70 days for 70 years project by learning, volunteering or taking part in Shabbat UK in memory of a life lost. “You can’t bring them back to life,” he said. “We can make their memory live on in life. Remember their past by building your future.”

A choir of 160 children from eight Jewish schools filed on to the stage to perform ‘Never Again’; a sight Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub said would have been unbelievable seven decades ago.

Henry Grunwald. Photo credit: John Rifkin

Henry Grunwald. Photo credit: John Rifkin

Henry Grunwald, chair of the Nottingham Holocaust Centre and the event’s compare, described the survivors as “living heroes determined not just to survive but to thrive. Their unwavering energy is infectious and they show no sign of slowing down.” The entire stadium rose as he continued: “For all you have done for your community and your country, we say ‘we’ve listened and learnt and we’ll never forget. Thank you, thank you and thank you again’”.

Neil martin, who chaired the organising committee, said yesterday’s event turned a “dream into reality”. He told the Jewish News: “It was an honour and privilege to be able to pay tribute to our community’s survivors who deserved to see in their later years a large-scale statement of commitment on behalf of British Jewry to continue their legacy of remembrance on Yom Hashoah.

“Yom HaShoah UK had a five-year mission to put back our day of remembrance to the forefront of the community in time for the 70th anniversary year – something I hope people would agree we achieved today. In the years to come, with the announcement of a new national memorial, the Yom HaShoah commemoration may have a new home, but importantly we hope that the 5,000 we have engaged this year, wherever they remember and whatever scale, continue to mark this important day.”

But in the meantime, Martin said they would organise another large-scale event next year if the community will again attend in numbers.

Helfgott, one of the driving forces behind the event, was delighted at the turnout after some predicted it would be tough to attract even 1,000 people. But he insisted it must be repeated “again and again” to ensure the memory lives on and pledged he would work to continue a large-scale event as long as he is able. He said he was moved to tears by a commitment read on the stage by leaders of youth groups gather annually on Yom HaShoah.

Yom Hashoah 13180