Hundreds paid tribute to the “bride of Belsen”, survivor Gena Turgel who gave a voice to the millions of victims murdered by the Nazis.
Actress Tracy Ann Oberman, TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, Lord Eric Pickles and former MP Ed Balls were among those honouring Gena.
Those attending gathered in North Finchley’s Arts Depot on Thursday, with the Holocaust Educational Trust and Mizrachi UK, to honour Gena.
Gena, who passed away last year at the age of 95, dedicated her life to sharing her testimony with hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, publishing in 1987 her memoir I light a candle.
She survived the Krakow ghetto, a death march, Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen before marrying British solider Norman Turgel under a makeshift chuppah in Belsen six months after her liberation.
Gena, who helped care for the diarist Anne Frank while she was dying from typhus, met the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2015 and was made an MBE for her contribution to Holocaust education.
Speakers shared memories of Gena and attendees were given a chance to admire her beautiful wedding dress fashioned from parachute silk, which was brought in for the occasion from the Imperial War Museum, soon to be exhibited at its new Holocaust exhibition.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis described Gena as a “symbol of everything that is good and great” in a short clip played at the event.
“For me, she represented tivka, hope, for humanity at this challenging time because was determined to guarantee that good would always prevail over evil, that light would always get the better of darkness,” Rabbi Mirvis said.
“We all have been impacted by her in a positive way and now we all have that incredibly responsibility to guarantee that her messages will always remain alive well into the future. We thank for her inspiration.
“May her memory be an internal blessing, amen,” he concluded.
Gena’s children lit six candles to remember the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, while her grandson Chazan Jonny Turgel performed “Dreams of a Nation,” accompanied by an eight-piece band and running commentary by rabbi Andrew Shaw chronicling the birth of Israel.
“Gena loved listening to music and also to Jonny as well,” the musician’s cousin Adam Tash told JN before the performance.
He said: “She was so proud of him, and one of the last events that she came to, she went to listen to Jonny in “Dreams of a Nation” [at Bushey United Synagogue last year]. She said it was one of the best days of her life. She really enjoyed it.
“Through music, you get a feeling of closeness to somebody and her love for Israel really comes out of it. It tells a story. It’s her life,” he added.
Speaking at the event, Karen Pollock, HET’s chief executive, praised Gena’s work within Holocaust education and her unrelenting drive.
“Gena was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. Glamorous, witty and forthright, she was admired by all she met, including students, teachers, politicians and royalty,” she said.
“Gena was a key part of the HET family and was awarded an MBE for her determined efforts to ensure that we all remember and learn about the Holocaust,” she added.
Kaplinsky, like many who knew her, had fond memories of Gena’s famous apple strudel to share.
“Gena kept inviting me to taste some of her apple strudel and it took a long time to find a date, and eventually I found my way to what I thought was Gena’s house,” she said.
“Except it wasn’t because when I arrived, what I understood was a private lunch between me and Gena where we were going to be eating apple strudel was indeed a hall and I was the guest speaker, and Gena had sold tickets,” she joked.
She added: “Gena is someone I will never forget. She has so much dignity and so much pride. Most of all, she was utterly charming.
“Gena inspired me as I know she has inspired so many others. She was so proud of her family and never missed an opportunity to share her love and her devotion to them.”
Also speaking at the event, Oberman told attendees: “One of the things we all remember about Gena was her abundance of spirit and overwhelming generosity.”
Gena’s family said in a statement: “We are delighted that so many are joining us to remember our remarkable grandmother. We look forward to honouring her memory and sharing her story, passions and values.”
Thank you for helping to make Jewish News the leading source of news and opinion for the UK Jewish community. Today we're asking for your invaluable help to continue putting our community first in everything we do.
Unlike other Jewish media, we do not charge for content. That won’t change. Because we are free, we rely on advertising to cover our costs. This vital lifeline, which has dropped in recent years, has fallen further due to coronavirus.
For as little as £5 a month you can help sustain the vital work we do in celebrating and standing up for Jewish life in Britain.
Jewish News holds our community together and keeps us connected. Like a synagogue, it’s where people turn to feel part of something bigger. It also proudly shows the rest of Britain the vibrancy and rich culture of modern Jewish life.
You can make a quick and easy one-off or monthly contribution of £5, £10, £20 or any other sum you’re comfortable with.
100% of your donation will help us continue celebrating our community, in all its dynamic diversity...
Being a community platform means so much more than producing a newspaper and website. One of our proudest roles is media partnering with our invaluable charities to amplify the outstanding work they do to help us all.
There’s no shortage of oys in the world but Jewish News takes every opportunity to celebrate the joys too, through projects like Night of Heroes, 40 Under 40 and other compelling countdowns that make the community kvell with pride.
In the first collaboration between media outlets from different faiths, Jewish News worked with British Muslim TV and Church Times to produce a list of young activists leading the way on interfaith understanding.
Royal Mail issued a stamp honouring Holocaust hero Sir Nicholas Winton after a Jewish News campaign attracted more than 100,000 backers. Jewish News also produces special editions of the paper highlighting pressing issues including mental health and Holocaust remembrance.
In an age when news is readily accessible, Jewish News provides high-quality content free online and offline, removing any financial barriers to connecting people.
Voice of our community to wider society
The Jewish News team regularly appears on TV, radio and on the pages of the national press to comment on stories about the Jewish community. Easy access to the paper on the streets of London also means Jewish News provides an invaluable window into the community for the country at large.
We hope you agree all this is worth preserving.
By Joe Millis