FAO Irish Holocaust Education Trust
Some of you may have known or heard of the late Helen Lewis MBE, a Holocaust survivor who found refuge after the war in Belfast, where she found a new husband and brought a young family into the world. In later life, she was awarded the MBE for her services to dance in Ulster, and she wrote, after many years, the story of her time in Terezin and other camps. One of her two sons, Michael, was in my class at RBAI, and her younger son was in my brother’s class. I got to know her in my teens when I studied at the Lyric Theatre’s drama school (run by Mary O’Malley), where she was our dance teacher. A dynamic, strong, determined yet deeply kind woman, she was the first truly formative presence in my life then. I have not forgotten the moment when, getting down to work, she rolled up her sleeves and I caught sight of the numbers tattooed there. I knew what they meant and that she had been in a concentration camp, but back in those days she never spoke openly of her experiences.
However, a few years after that I made my first visit – a non-Jew – to Israel, and I sent her a postcard. When I next met her, she told me just how important that postcard had been. Michael, my classmate, had gone to Czechoslovakia, to her original home town of Prague, and he had been there when the Russian tanks rolled in. My card reached there at that moment, and she told me what a difference it had made to her – you must imagine her terror at the thought that history was about to repeat itself with her son – for a card from the Holy Land had been a source of comfort.
I think, nay, I am sure, Helen would be horrified to hear that instructions had been given to the MC of Holocaust Memorial Day not to mention Israel in his address this year, that merely to mention the anti-Semitic attacks from which the Jewish state suffers is to politicize the event. Here was a woman who found a new life in Ireland and who contributed greatly to its artistic scene, founding the famous Ulster Dance Company. She survived Terezin because she was a professional dancer, and she survived the camps and the long march at the war’s end through sheer guts and determination. As with so many Holocaust survivors, she lived on, not just to recount her tale of suffering, but to know at last that there was a refuge for Jews in the world, and that in the future there might be a place where Jews, again treated with inhumanity across the globe, not least in Europe, which is slowly returning to the spirit of the 1930s, might find a true home. She would have been horrified beyond belief to find that safe haven vilified by the far right, joined by the far left and Muslims everywhere, treated with contempt, despised and boycotted even as it sends more assistance per capita to fight Ebola than any other country.
This order to avoid mention of the one state forged by the Holocaust and prayed for by Jews for two thousand years of exile and abandonment, is nothing short of despicable, given the context and the meaning of Holocaust Memorial Day. What will be next: the MC should not mention Judaism, or perhaps eventually a denial that the Holocaust ever happened – something that is common parlance today in the Arab and Muslim countries? I was brought up, a Protestant child from Belfast, whose first friend was a Jewish boy from the next street, to understand what the Holocaust had been about. Throughout the 1950s, as I grew, there was no let-up in fresh information about the Holocaust. Looking back, I cannot remember a time when sympathy for the Jews was not mixed with a love for the state that had given them a place in the world. The Holocaust and the founding of Israel as mere three years later are inextricably mixed. God forbid that Ireland, where my friend Helen Lewis found peace, should succumb to anti-Israel sentiment on this day of all days.
Dr. Denis MacEoin