Sofia Howard, First Year Theology and Religion.
Although the words are powerless to express all that I feel, I leave this cell to go to the other side of life with calm – a calm that is also resignation in the face of the inevitable. To tell you that I regret all that has happened would serve no purpose. I very much regret not being there to help to support you in the first trial – that which you have already suffered: Choura [Youra’s brother who had already been executed]. I wanted to be there so that the two of us could struggle with the world as it is. Dear Mother, do not cry too much thinking about your little one. My life has been full first and foremost of errors. I think of all our friends who are in prison and ask their forgiveness. Remember me without sorrow. I have had the best, most excellent companions until the end and even now I do not feel alone. My best wishes to all. Dear Mother, I have to say goodbye, time passes. Once again, it is not the last moments that have been the hardest. Have confidence and courage in life, time erases many things. Think of us as dead on the front, think of all the families, all the mothers affected by the war, the war that we had all believed would finish earlier.
Your loving son,
Youra Livchitz, a Ukrainian Jew, wrote this letter to his grieving mother just days before his own execution on the 17th February 1944. Youra spent the end of his life in a prison cell in Fort Breendonk (a concentration camp in Belgium) and his story is one of inspiring resistance in the face of persecution.
On the 19th April 1943, Youra and two other members of the Belgian Resistance—using little but a pistol and a lamp covered in red paper to appear like a stop signal—halted and ambushed the 20th train heading from the Mechelen camp to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. 1,631 Jews were on board; of which, because of their actions, 231 managed to get off the train; and of those, 115 successfully escaped and survived—including an 11-year-old boy.
Shortly afterwards, Youra was betrayed to the Gestapo, but his story of resistance—known as the ‘Twentieth Train’—is one example of many and encapsulates the Holocaust Educational Trust’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2020, ‘Stand Together’.
History has a tendency to focus on the actions of the perpetrators, to quote unfathomable statistics, and to emphasise the unimaginable suffering undergone by the Jews. Whilst these are all certainly important, the overall picture is not complete and one risks the danger of perpetuating the stereotype of the Jews being passive victims.
In such a limited space it is not possible to do justice to the multi-faceted nature of resistance, and the immensity of the struggles faced. Rebellions arose in the Treblinka, Sobibór and Auschwitz death camps; yet, as Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer explores, military resistance was not an option for the majority. When faced with the scale of the Nazis’ power, for many, resistance was simply an accumulation of attempts to keep Jewish culture alive:
‘Smuggling food into ghettos; mutual self-sacrifice within the family to avoid starvation or worse; cultural, educational, religious, and political activities taken to strengthen morale; the work of doctors, nurses, and educators to consciously maintain health and moral fibre to enable individual and group survival.’ (Bauer)
Yet, one must remember that the Holocaust was frighteningly destructive. One should be careful not to romanticise the resistance, or any aspect of the Holocaust for that matter: families and communities were violently torn apart and despair was tangible. Bauer writes:
‘It is wrong […] to demand, in retrospect, that these tortured individuals and communities should have behaved as mythical heroes. [Instead,] the fact that so many of them did is a matter of wonderment.’
This Holocaust Memorial Day marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz II-Birkenau – the deadliest of the extermination camps. As ambassadors for the Holocaust Educational Trust, we are encouraged to not only raise awareness of the Holocaust and its theme, but to also remind others of how young people are crucial in ensuring the Holocaust is remembered. This anniversary is likely to be the last major milestone that will be commemorated with survivors still alive to share their testimonies.
Whilst Judaism should not be defined by the Holocaust, today it is important to note that antisemitism (as well as religious persecution as a whole) is on the rise, and that to ‘stand together’ is as important as ever. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2007, 51 countries persecuted Jews—by 2016, this had increased to 87.
Survivor Elie Wiesel, spoke these powerful words when accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986:
‘And I tell him that I have tried. That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. […] Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.’