The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day was ‘Fragility of Freedom’. The theme highlighted the importance of defending freedom and democracy, and provided an opportunity to reflect on those who lost their lives during the Holocaust and all genocides.

Holocaust Commemorations took place in two of our Diocesan cities, Newcastle, and Sunderland. St Mary’s School in Benton hosted our Diocesan event while Sunderland Interfaith Forum held theirs in the city’s Minster.

Both commemorations observed the thirtieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan genocide was a mass murder of Tutsi and moderate Hutus in Rwanda that occurred between 7 April and 15 July 1994, during the Rwandan Civil War.

The very moving story of Immaculée Ilibagiza, a survivor of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, was told during the commemoration in St Marys.

Immaculée, a twenty-two year-old student and a Tutsi was sheltered in very cramped conditions by a moderate Hutu pastor, a family friend, while extremist Hutus tried to kill as many Tutsis as they could. When he discovered later that all of her family, (apart from one brother who was studying abroad) and friends had been killed, she was filled with anger and despair. However, through prayer and grace, she came to realise that it was now up to her to promote love rather than hatred and to work for reconciliation in any way she could.

Deanna Van Der Velde from the United Hebrew Congregation in Newcastle was the guest speaker at St Mary’s. Deanna has been a very inspirational advisor and supporter to our Diocesan Interreligious Team for many years. She told the story of her mother’s experience, of feeling dehumanised after The Nuremburg Laws were passed in Germany in 1935. These laws gradually eroded the freedom of the Jewish people in Germany. After the events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, which destroyed Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues, she managed to escape to England. She eventually settled in Newcastle, as her sister and brother-in-law were already living in the city.

Bishop Stephen invited the attendees at St Mary’s to recite with him the prayer ‘Fragility of Freedom’. He also drew attention to the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was drafted by representatives from different legal and cultural backgrounds from all regions of the world. The Declaration was proclaimed by the United Nations’ General Assembly in Paris in December 1948. Human rights are inherent to all individuals regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language. They range from the most fundamental, the right to life, to those that make life worth living such as the rights to food, education, work, health, and liberty.

Rabbi Aaron Lipsey recited The Memorial Day Prayer, both in English and Hebrew. This prayer concludes with the following words of hope, ‘The Lord is their heritage, and they shall rest peacefully where they fell.

The Commemoration closed with the lighting of memorial candles. St Mary’s school choir added to the solemn occasion with hymns such as the Taize version of ‘O Lord hear my Prayer.

Sunderland Interfaith Forum also marked Holocaust Memorial Day with an equally affecting Commemoration in Sunderland Minster, which was attended by Councillor Dorothy Truman, the Mayor of Sunderland. The Commemoration was hosted by Rev’d Chris Howson BEM, and Zaf Iqbal, co-chairs of Sunderland Interfaith. Rev’d Chris paid tribute to Tony Wortman from Newcastle Reform Synagogue who has, for many years tirelessly promoted Holocaust Education. In his opening address, Zaf Iqbal passionately reminded the congregation of the importance of praying for peace. The guest speaker was Lesley Urbach. She told the story of her mother and aunt who arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport. Lesley believes that all who lost their lives as a result of genocide must be remembered and not relegated to a ‘Detail of History.

It is so important that we respect the rights of all people to live together in peace and harmony. Holocaust, and indeed genocide, education is necessary if we are to prevent the mistakes of the past occurring again.