Holocaust Memorial Day: The magic of 'ordinary people' can conquer the hate that led to the Holocaust and still haunts humanity today – Professor Joe Goldblatt

A wee lad of about seven lingered behind after his classmates moved on to the next table. Nearly 100 primary school pupils were participating in the Edinburgh Interfaith Association roadshow that visits dozens of local schools annually.

It brings together five or six faith leaders representing Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Baha’i’s, Pagans, Buddhists and other religions, along with constables from Police Scotland, to educate young children about the diversity of beliefs in our city.

Each faith leader speaks to ten children at a time for ten minutes. They explain their beliefs and ‘show and tell’ about several ritual objects used to practice their faith. Within an hour, 60 children learn a lot about the diversity and similarities of all religions.

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To make my faith of Judaism even more interesting, I begin my session with a magic trick. I show a colouring book with seemingly blank pages. I tell the children that I was poor as a small boy so we could not afford any pictures and I had to use my imagination to create them. Then, magically, I quickly flip the book open and black-and-white drawings suddenly appear on every page.

Then I tell the pupils that, thanks to wonderful teachers such as those at their school, my imagination soon helped me see even more pictures in my colouring book. When I flip it open again, the pictures are in full colour and the children always shout “Ooooh!” and “Aaaah”, then ask: “How did you do that?”

Therefore, I was delighted when the young boy stayed behind to thank me for my magic and ask to “inspect” my colouring book. However, his next question left me gobsmacked. He looked into my eyes, raised his small hand and showed me a tiny scar on his hand. “Could you please use your magic to make my scar disappear?” he asked.

I was suddenly and unusually speechless. After a few seconds, I knelt down beside him and explained that sometimes the best magic is time. If he gave his hand enough time, as he grew the scar might just become smaller. He nodded his head in agreement and then went to join his classmates at the next table where a Buddhist was seated on the floor and starting to practice meditation.

As we mark the 22nd anniversary of Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, I believe we need to find new ways to heal our historic scars and prevent future ones. The date of this solemn commemoration, 27 January, was chosen because, in 1945, Soviet Union troops marched into Auschwitz and liberated the poor souls clinging to life in that concentration camp. This year's theme is “ordinary people”, to help us understand that the victims and ‘victors’ were also ordinary people at that time.

A group of child survivors behind a barbed wire fence at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, on the day it was liberated by Soviet soldiers, January 27, 1945 (Picture: Alexander Vorontsov/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This week, the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Germany, after some contemplation, agreed to send armoured tanks to Ukraine to help them defend themselves against the Russian invasion. I scratch my head and wonder how we have once again reached such a treacherous moment in history. I also realise that no magic or imagination on my part could possibly conjure how this has happened, nor how it may end.

A little over 100 years ago, my ordinary Jewish grandparents were forced to leave their tiny home in Kyiv, Ukraine, to escape the evil men and women who were sent by the ‘czar’ of the Soviet Union to burn their houses and force them to flee. They soon sought refuge in America where they produced eight children.

My father, who like his parents was an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary times, later owned a small hardware shop in Dallas, Texas. One day in the 1950s, young men dressed as Nazi soldiers demonstrated their hatred for Jews by marching, gesturing and shouting “Heil Hitler” in front of his struggling business.

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A few months later, members of the Klu Klux Klan, an American white-supremacist group, burned a large cross in our home’s front garden. A few days later, the police came to warn my family that a bomb might be planted in our car.

The infamous gates of Auschwitz concentration camp (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

Now, over a century since my grandparents boarded ships and fled persecution and 70 years since their son survived other evil threats, we continue to witness the necessity for greater understanding, love and kindness that is needed now more than ever before.

Only seven years ago, I, the grandson and son of ordinary people, was the recipient of a seven-page anti-Semitic letter from an anonymous person. At first, I hesitated to tell anyone out of concern over copycat crimes and then I realised that evil must be called out, recorded, and challenged.

And this is why, week after week, I and others visit primary schools all over Scotland so that young children can meet an ordinary person and perhaps, through our meeting, come to better understand and even like me and others. I also hope that one day when my grandsons become older, these children I am meeting, shall love them too because they realise that they are the descendants of ordinary people who happen to be Jewish.

Jesus said he believed the greatest commandment in the old testament or Jewish bible was "You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”. Therefore, if humans are created, as some believe, in the image of God, I believe we must then love one another with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. As Robert Burns, whose birthday we also commemorate this week, said, we are “brothers… – and ‘sisters’ and ‘more’ (my addition) – for a’ that”.

In my opinion, this is the real magic the world needs now from ordinary people to mitigate or even conquer the hate that continues to haunt the human soul.

Joe Goldblatt is emeritus professor of planned events at Queen Margaret University and chairs Edinburgh Interfaith Association. To schedule an interfaith roadshow contact [email protected]

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