26 January 2019

Why we must remember and
use the ‘Power of Words’
on Holocaust Memorial Day

Some of the names of Holocaust victims written on the walls of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

This Sunday is Holocaust Memorial Day, and later in the evening I have been invited to Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations in the Mansion House, Dublin. Over the past few days, even while I was in Prague, I have been putting the finishing touches to my sermon for tomorrow, drawing on the Gospel reading (Luke 4: 14-21 [22-30]), which tells of the story of Jesus reading from the scrolls in the synagogue in Nazareth and being rejected.

The longer version of this Gospel reading, which may not be heard in many churches tomorrow, tells how many of the people who hear Jesus teaching that Saturday morning rejected his teaching and plotted to murder him.

It is a response that has been used and misused by many antisemitic writers to justify their views, claiming that because these people plotted to kill Jesus, Jews had rejected Christ. It is a misappropriation of the Gospel message that typifies the vile antisemitism found in the writings of Martin Luther and that later allowed some so-called German Christians to justify their support for the Nazis.

During the past week in Prague I visited six synagogues in Prague – the Old-New Synagogue, which is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe; the high Synagogue; the Spanish Synagogue; the Pinkas Synagogue; the Maisel Synagogue; the Klausen Synagogue – as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery and the former Ceremonial Hall.

Later, I returned to the Spanish Synagogue on Thursday evening for a concert by the Czech Collegium and the celebrated sopranist Michaela Srumova. The Czech Collegium is made up of leading players from the Prague FOK Symphony Orchestra. It has been in existence 1997, and as an ensemble devotes itself mainly to chamber music. Appropriately, the concert programme in the Spanish Synagogue included music from Fiddler on the Roof and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and Mendelssohn’s Oratorio Elijah-Hore, Israel.

Prague was once one of the most tolerant cities in Europe. The Emperor Joseph II abolished all legalised discrimination against Jews in Prague at the end of the 18th century. Special clothing was no longer required, access to higher education and the professions was provided, Jews were no longer confined to the ghetto, and the Jewish community in Prague prospered.

But all that came to a sudden end when Nazi Germany invaded what we now call the Czech Republic in 1939. The majority of Jews in the Czech lands were deported in mass numbers to places such Terizin, and then sent on to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Almost 80,000 Jews from the Czech lands were murdered in the Holocaust. By 1945, only 14,000 Jews remained alive in the Czech lands.

In the Pinkas Synagogue in the centre of the Old Jewish Town of Prague, the walls are covered with the names of 77,727 people. So many are the names that they are painted in tiny figures so all can be squeezed into the lettering that covers these walls.

So many small letters to tell of the enormity that is the Holocaust. It is overwhelming, over-powering, to look at these names.

The theme of World Holocaust Day is ‘The Power of Words.’

I am still not ready to find words that are powerful enough to allow me to write fully about my experiences in those synagogues this week. But as long as we can speak, we should say ‘We Remember.’ We should never forget ‘the Power of Word.’

Inside the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, the venue for this week’s concert (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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