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Auschwitz horrors remembered at Westminster Abbey

06 February 2015


Lament: Rabbi Helen Freeman, principal rabbi at the West London Synagogue, reads from Lamentations during the service in Westminster Abbey

Lament: Rabbi Helen Freeman, principal rabbi at the West London Synagogue, reads from Lamentations during the service in West...

JEWS and Christians worshipped side by side in Westminster Abbey on Sunday, at a solemn service to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

Built in 1940, near the Polish town of Oświęcim, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest Nazi killing centre, resulting in the murder of one million Jewish men, women, and children, 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti and Roma, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

In a brief historical note at the front of the order of service, the education officer at the Holocaust Educational Trust, Martin Winstone, points out that the Soviet troops who liberated the camp on 27 January 1945 found "around 7000 emaciated prisoners" - people who were too weak to join the 120,000 prisoners who had been sent to other death camps in cattle trucks and marches as the Red Army approached.

The service at Westminster Abbey was organised with the West London and Belsize Square synagogues; and contained readings, prayers, and hymns in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Polish, including music composed by victims of Auschwitz.

"We had music by Viktor Ullmann, who wrote a lot of music at Theresienstadt before he was moved to Auschwitz, where he died," Dr Benjamin Wolf, musical director at Belsize Square Synagogue, said. "We also had music by Martin Rosenberg, who ran a secret choir at Sachsenhausen. The third significant composer was Szymon Laks, who conducted the orchestra at Auschwitz II, and who survived the camp because of this position."

The music in Hebrew included the version of the haunting Jewish prayer of remembrance, El Malei Rachamim, written for victims of the Holocaust, chanted by Cantor Paul Heller from Belsize Square Synagogue.

New material included the poem "Finis", written - and recited - by former the Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion for the service.

"At a time of political uncertainty, and a time when anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise, it seemed very important that Christians and Jews were able to collaborate and, in particular, that they were able to do so in remembrance - and rejection - of a time when hostility and prejudice formed part of the European political landscape," Dr Wolf said.

"It is good that the national Church is so welcoming to those of other faiths. I know that our congregants have been overwhelmed to hear their own music being performed in such an ancient and prestigious building."

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, said that the service was not only a time to "reflect . . . on the cruel suffering and terrible death" endured by victims of the Holocaust; but also to "recognise with pride the courage of so many who withstood the terror and tended the sick and dying".

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