Dignitaries and guests gathered for a poignant service marking Holocaust Memorial Day at the London Jewish Cultural Centre in Golders Green this morning.
Finchley and Golders Green MP Mike Freer and Barnet Mayor Melvin Cohen, as well as ambassadors from Japan, Poland and Portugal, spoke in front of almost 100 people including many Holocaust survivors.
The annual remembrance event marks the liberation of the Auschwitz Birkenau death camp on January 27, 1945, and services are held across the world on the days leading up to to the anniversary.
This year’s day has the theme of ‘journeys’, and this morning’s speakers placed emphasis on remembering the heroics of those who resisted the Holocaust and risked their lives helping Jewish survivors.
Michael Marx, chairman of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, said: “Their example is the standard we must strive for. That in similar circumstances we would rise to the challenge and defy authority, sacrificing our own safety to protect the men, women and children unable to protect themselves.”
Conservative MP Mr Freer, a gay-rights campaigner, explained the added poignancy he felt towards the remembrance of the Holocaust, despite not being Jewish himself.
He said: “Were the Holocaust to happen today, I would not necessarily be rounded onto the transports wearing a yellow star, but I would be put on wearing a pink dreidel.
“Even those of us who are not Jewish share the pain, the affinity and the history of the Holocaust, because many of us wouldn’t have survived either.
“I have received anti-Semitic and homophobic abuse on my doorstep. We have not learned the lessons of history and it is the anger that people chose to turn a blind eye that drives me.
“The point of events like this today are to remember our past and remember that we are always just one step away from repeating history.”
Barnet Mayor Councillor Melvin Cohen earlier addressed the congregation to explain the importance of remembering the murder of six million Jews and minorities that ended 69 years ago.
He said: “We’re here to commemorate the millions so cruelly killed by acts of persecution and genocide. The evils of the past must engender in us a will that we can make this world of ours a little better.”
Dignitaries from Poland, Japan and Portugal spoke about heroes from their own countries who helped rescue thousands of people from Nazi persecution, and poems and music recitals featured in the 90-minute service.
Holocaust survivor Jack Kagan, who escaped a labour camp in Belarus before hiding out with 1,200 Jewish survivors in the woods for over a year, attended the event.
The story of his and hundreds of other Jews' escape was documented in a Hollywood film Defiance, starring Daniel Craig.
Mr Kagan, 85, said: “It is of the utmost importance that we remember what happened. The remarks people have made over the years shows we need to further educate. It can’t be done by force, only by education.”
Fellow Holocaust survivor Hannah Lewis, whose whole family except her father was executed in Poland, said the memories of the atrocities remain fresh in her mind.
The 76-year-old said: “It is like watching it on the back of my retina. I found the service moving and dignified and the speakers were inspiring. It is very important to pass on the knowledge of what happened – people need to know.”