Address at National Yom HaShoah Commemoration Ceremony

On Sunday 7th April 2013, the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks delivered the keynote address at the National Yom HaShoah Commemoration Ceremony at The Dell in Hyde Park, London.

Hitler once said that conscience was a Jewish invention, which is why the Nazis tried to kill not only Jews but also Judaism. They sought to murder not just the Jewish people but also, as it were, the Jewish God.

In Auschwitz, the notorious doctor Josef Mengele used to say, “Here is it not God who decides but I who decide who will live and who will die.”

And so the Nazis resolved to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto, sending all its inhabitants to their death, on Pesach, 1943, 73 years ago, as if to prove to the world that there was no God to give the Jewish people their freedom on this, their festival of freedom.

But this time the Jews, hearing in advance of this plan, decided to fight back. And in one of the most courageous acts in history, held the German Army at bay for four weeks, with sporadic fighting continuing thereafter for another three weeks.

The bravery of those men, women, and children, is simply beyond belief. They were weakened already by starvation and disease. They had only a handful of weapons, some smuggled in, others home-made. And theirs is a heroism we will never forget.

Shortly before the uprising, one of the Rabbis in the ghetto, Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, stood and addressed the rebels and said, “This persecution is unlike all others. In the past, our persecutors wanted our souls. So we refused to give them our souls, we gave them our bodies instead. Jews died al kiddush Hashem. But this time, our oppressors want our bodies as well. Therefore, we must refuse to give them our bodies. We must fight, al kiddush hachaim.” [Meaning] For the sanctity of life.

And though their fight was desperate, they lit a flame of hope and courage in Jewish hearts that has burned ever since. And it was that flame that inspired those who to establish, and to this day defend, the State of Israel, which represents the Jewish triumph of life over death.

In fact, their act of defiance, as Bernard reminded us, led to this day – Yom HaShoah u’Gevurah – being held in the month of Nissan, in the month of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Today we honour their memory, as we honour the memory of all the victims, and all the survivors.

Because this is the last Yom HaShoah that I will address as Chief Rabbi, I want to thank the Board of Deputies and Yom HaShoah UK for all they have done to keep this day and its memory alive. To Lord Janner, to the Holocaust Education Trust, and all those involved Holocaust Remembrance. Rabbi Marcus, who leads so many trips to Auschwitz. To all of you, I give my humble thanks.

But above all I want to thank the survivors, for bearing witness with incredible courage, for sharing their memories with young people – Jews and non-Jews alike – I have to tell you it is one of the most moving things I have ever witnessed and I witness it every year.

And I want to thank the survivors personally, for being my role models in courage and Kiddush haChaim. I want to say, with all my heart, we must never ever forget the Shoah. And we must never cease to fight the battle that the Warsaw Ghetto fighters fought. For life over death, love over hate, peace over violence and terror, and that battle sadly needs to be fought b’chol dor v’dor – in every generation.

Let the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto heroes continue to inspire us. What they died for, let us live for. Kedushat haChaim, the sanctity of life. Let us, in their memory, stay true to our faith, and a source of blessing to the world.