I was privileged last year to lead one of the first pilgrimages to the Holy Land after Israel reopened its borders following the global pandemic. In contrast to previous pilgrimages, the Holy Sites were generally quiet – ours was the only group present in the chapel in Bethlehem where Jesus is traditionally thought to have been born. That quiet extended to another of our visits, like the vast majority of pilgrimages, to the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem.
Yad Vashem takes the pilgrim through a series of rooms and halls which tell the story of the Holocaust. Some of these rooms are deeply shocking in their own right – the stark, mechanical process of mass murder set against so many shoes abandoned by victims. Shoes of men, women and children that one stood on the floorboards of loving, happy homes, that took their wearers maybe to the ghettos, then the trains, then the platforms of the extermination camps to be set aside as their wearers were stripped of all they had and murdered for the sake of an ideology. Shoes that rebound the cry of Rachel weeping for her children ‘and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’ (Jeremiah 31:15).
Yet, on this my third visit, I was struck by something more, not that these scenes were any less shocking. What really came home was the way in which the story unfolded from such simple beginnings, the politics of the years between the World Wars, the developing political narrative, the telling of pernicious lies that blamed the other, that divided the peoples, that fostered hatred and enmity, that allowed the first and then the second and then the third step to such great evil. What became apparent was how so many were, so easily, sucked into this perversion, and gently it whispered to me, ‘if them, what is to say it could not be you?’
In that place I turned to the Psalms, beloved of Jesus Christ, in which the hope, fears, emotions of the people of Israel, the people of the Holocaust, are encapsulated and to Psalm 139, which concludes: ‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting’.
In this week in which we mark World Holocaust Day, may our hearts be searched and may we not deceive ourselves as we see again how easily such great wickedness was perpetrated. May we be honest before God and with ourselves and may we, in humility, in shame at the evil before us, commit ourselves never to forget, to be vigilant, to seek justice, to love righteousness and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), the God of the people of the Holocaust.