The first ever UK funeral for a group of Holocaust victims will take place next weekend after the Imperial War Museum contacted the chief rabbi about human remains it had stored for two decades.
Remains discovered by a survivor at Auschwitz, and likely to be from five adults and a child, will finally be laid to rest at Bushey New Cemetery on 20 January in an extraordinary event to which survivors and other community members are being urged to attend.
IWM revealed yesterday that a container containing suspected remains was given to it by an unnamed individual – thought to be a survivor – in 1997 as part of a collection of Holocaust-related items said to have originated at Auschwitz.
Despite stating that it did not wish to acquire the container, it was still sent to the museum. In 2005, IWM said, testing confirmed the vessel held adult and child remains, though the numbers could not be totally guaranteed.
IWM houses facilities to store human tissue which it is legally able to do, and said it “cared“ for them for the last 22 years before deciding it was “no longer appropriate“ to do so during a review ahead of the creation of its new Holocaust galleries, due to open in 2021.
It then contacted the office of the Chief Rabbi and Auschwitz Museum for their advice at the end of last year.
Michael Goldstein, President of the United Synagogue, said: “For everyone connected with the United Synagogue, and I’m quite sure the entire community, this can only be described as the ultimate act of kindness, chesed shel emet in Hebrew, because, as with all burials, nobody can be thanked for what you’ve done. We have the opportunity to do what was denied to our brothers and sisters during the Holocaust: to provide a dignified and appropriate Jewish burial.
“We must remember that although we have only the remains of a number of victims of the Shoah, each was a person in their own right, with a family and a life and a Jewish identity, with hopes and dreams just like each of us. One of them was a child. I will hug my own children especially tightly next Sunday. I thank all of my colleagues who will make this burial possible and know that each of them feels acutely the huge burden of responsibility for what we are doing. We welcome all those who wish to attend to join us at the levaya to pay their respects.”
“…We must remember that although we have only the remains of a number of victims of the Shoah, each was a person in their own right, with a family and a life and a Jewish identity, with hopes and dreams just like each of us.
Survivors were informed this week of the discovery and special places will be reserved for them if they choose to attend. Holocaust Educational Trust Chief Executive Karen Pollock said: “When the camps were liberated, survivors started asking questions about their families: who survived, where were they, what happened to them? For the majority, they had lost most, if not all, of their relatives in the Holocaust.
They did not have a chance to say goodbye, attend a funeral or pay their respects to their own families and to the millions of Jews who were murdered and who did not have the burial they deserved.
“This ceremony is firstly an opportunity to bless, bury and lay to rest these victims, but also it is a moment for Holocaust survivors, and for all of us, to come together and remember.”
Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said: “The remains of these six nameless individuals will on one level take on a symbolism for us, they represent all those whose individuality was stripped away and who were murdered because of their identity. But we must not forget that these remains are of six individuals, who lived distinct and unique lives. We are able to honour these six individuals with the dignity and peace that was so brutally denied them in life.”
Aviva Trup, who manages Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors Centre, added: On hearing news of the remains members of Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors Centre were initially incredulous that something like this has only just come to light but they feel a real sense of duty to pay their respects and some of our members have indicated that they intend to attend the burial.”
..we must not forget that these remains are of six individuals, who lived distinct and unique lives. We are able to honour these six individuals with the dignity and peace that was so brutally denied them in life.”
Acknowledging that some survivors will find news of the discovery particularly traumatic, HSC is offering counselling services to any survivors who want to talk.
Diane Lees, Director-General of IWM, said: “IWM is grateful to Chief Rabbi Mirvis, the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, the staff at Bushey New Cemetery and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum for the invaluable support and advice that they have provided during this process.
“It is hoped that the burial, which will be attended members of Jewish and non-Jewish communities, will afford these individuals the respect and dignity they were denied in both life and death.”
While no such event has previously been held in the UK, victims were buried in Strasbourg in 2015, including one who could be identified.
Holocaust survivors looking to talk about this week’s news can contact the Jewish Care’s helpline on 0208922 2222.ri