I am a fifty eight year old male from an Irish Catholic background. Like many people, I know of the holocaust as a terrible event in human history, clearly awful. From my experience it was something that I heard about perhaps as a teenager at school but never in the mainstream of normal discussion. The macabre black and white Dimblebey film with his haunting commentary was something that was there but which I didn’t watch till years later. I always wanted to talk about the Holocaust to other people but never found many openings. Not in a voyeuristic way, there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days through the computer but in a reflective way, to talk about man’s inhumanity against humanity.
As I grow older my emotions grow rawer. I find that I can be easily moved by many things. Some are just superficial but there are others that touch me with a deeper resonance. This period of history, the war years, had some redeeming values. Life was simpler, people trusted each other more. The pre-and post war years were epitomised in the British film Goodnight Mr Tom a rather idealistic and sentimental portrayal of that time. Yet not too far from our green and pleasant shores there was the physical extermination of a whole population of people in the most awful of circumstances.
I learnt of the Forced Walk Project from the Frome Somerset Standard and I went down to the Cheese and Grain to hear Lorna Brunstein and Richard Wilson explain what it was all about. I was intrigued and I decided to register to walk.
So it was with solidarity that I set out with a group of people on Tuesday 14th April 2015 to
remember the march that Lorna’s mother, Esther Brunstein, took at the age of 16 from a labour camp in Hanover to the infamous Bergen Belsen concentration camp. This was the first of our day, a 10 mile trek through beautiful countryside to Hinton Charterhouse.
It was glorious weather, sunshine and blue skies totally out of context with the memory we were commemorating. Someone made the point that we were enjoying ourselves and somehow it didn’t seem right. In reply someone said so eloquently that a sense of melancholy was not a legacy of the holocaust that survivors would have wanted. There were certainly other things but living a sense of doom and gloom was not one, at least because that was a certainty to alienate a younger generation in connecting them to it.
Richard led us, carrying a computer and a speaker strapped around his waist. We walked
established rights of way and it was obvious that months, of planning and research had gone into this.
We walked and got to know each other. We didn’t have to discover each other’s motives for doing this. Instead we asked questions, challenged each other’s opinions and not only discussed this stain on human history but how these things are going on the world today and what can be done. As we walked we developed a sense of camaraderie, looking out for each other as we walked.Then we heard the sound of a shofar, the distinctive sound of a Jewish horn which asked us to gather round. These stops were called intervention points. Here we heard Lorna speak of being a second generation survivor and how this has affected her family. We heard the testimonies of Esther Brunstein. These were powerfully moving and urgent.
These intervention points also were themed with such topics as justice, belonging and exile where we considered how the events of 70years ago could resonate to these. We were asked to carry a notebook and to record our thoughts or to draw or to take rubbings. We
were given tablets where we could take pictures. There was conversation, laughter and deep thought together with reflection and periods of quietness. As we walked the final leg of the day through the woods to Hinton Charterhouse we did so in silence. This though was no forced silence. It was a communion of reflectiveness from us all as we pondered that march that the 400 women took on the cold February day when many women died. At Hinton Charterhouse for us, the parish council had laid on cake and tea.
The second day, Wednesday 15th April was equally as warm if not warmer. New people had turned up to walk. Some people had stayed overnight in The Rose and Crown and some from yesterday had not been able to do the second day. We walked stopping to the sound of the shofar and gathering to listen to reflections and further testimonies from Esther. Although the day was to be shorter in terms of walking distance, I found it to be more emotional than the previous day.
The fact it was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen –Belsen made the day more pertinent.
There were times when tears were very close, especially when we stopped under the tunnels near Bath. I will never forget the echo of Paul Robeson’s voice as he sang The Patriots Song his singing reverberating under the tunnel which rather eerily reminded me of what I could imagine a gas chamber to be.
As we approached the Jewish burial ground in Bath I felt an inner annoyance developing as I reflected on Israel today and its place in the world and its focus for the Jewish people. With such a history, their stance in the world I believe should be compassion, perhaps naively but certainly not the stance they take against their neighbours.
My mood was changed when we arrived at the Jewish cemetery. We listened to a message from Esther that moved me to tears telling us how she was walking with us in spirit and how the world must never forget what happened during that period.
We ended up in a nearby pub reflecting on what had been a journey of commemoration, discovery, self-awareness, connection among many other things. It has stirred many things in me.