Diocesan Secretary Sam Pratley was a participant in this year’s Seminar of the Council of Christians & Jews to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem. The 10-day intensive study and visit explored the origins of antisemitism and how the Holocaust – better known to the Jewish community as the Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe) came to be. Academics from across the world were speakers at the Seminar which is known to be the finest of its type. Here Sam chats with The Revd. David Gifford, Interfaith Advisor for Hereford Diocese
DG: How much did you know about Jews, Judaism and the Holocaust before going on this study tour?
SP: I thought I had a pretty good understanding of the Holocaust and what took place in the lead up and during the Second World War but it turned out I didn’t really. I certainly hadn’t spent anywhere near enough time considering things through the eyes of the Jewish people or examining the way that Christian’s attitudes towards Judaism played such an antisemitic part.
DG: How was it you came to be included on the tour?
SP: James from the Council of Christians and Jews made contact with me asking the Diocese to promote the tour, which we did through our communications channels. In doing so, I expressed a personal interest (in the event that others did not) and was encouraged by James to apply.
DG: What is Yad Vashem?
SP: Yad Vashem is where we were based for the trip. It is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center based in Israel. It is a mixture of museums, memorials and education facilities all designed to help you explore the Holocaust and the major events that led to it.
DG: It seems the extensive site of the Yad Vashem Centre includes a number of different museum settings? Can you tell us what they are and share what message you and the other attendees learned from your visit?
SP: There is the main museum that we visited in two visits and still there was so much more to see. This had all sorts of artefacts, images and stories that had been gathered from survivors over many years. There were other sections dedicated to photos (often taken undercover) and paintings from the time. At the end of the museum is the hall of names which is an impressive sight but also has all of the known names of the people who died recorded in files around the wall. This is very moving.
There were a number of other poignant memorials, set in the beautiful grounds. One memorial shows the Ghetto communities, another commemorates children, there were rows of trees planted by the righteous amongst the nations (people who helped the Jewish people) and a room lit by a single candle with the names of the concentration camps on the floor.
DG: You mentioned to me earlier that the one part of the site which made the most impact on you was the Children's Memorial. Indeed, Yad Vashem is described as “not an emotionally easy museum to visit.” Would you agree with that and can you describe what affect it had on you?
SP: It was impossible not to be affected by the whole experience. 6 million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust and roughly 4 million of them in a single year. As a father with young children walking into the Children’s Memorial was particularly upsetting. It is well done with lots of candles (each one representing a child) in the dark whilst the names of the (known) children you died are read out. The first two names that I heard happened to be the same names as two of my children (Noah & Jacob) and I’m afraid I didn’t cope very well with that.
DG: The central exhibition is housed in a very impressive modern building that in itself is meant to convey messages of mounting horror and oppression. Did any of the symbolism of that building affect you or your fellow travellers?
SP: The building and the setting were very impressive and there is no escaping the horror of what you are learning about. You zig-zag through the museum which cuts through the mountain it sits on and you do get a sense of deepening misery of how humans have treated one another as you move through. Once you exit the museum you are faced with a beautiful vista over Israel which (to me at least) was a welcome escape from the horror and a small reminder of the hope that we should have for the future of Jewish people and humanity and in particular a hope that the Holocaust is never repeated
DG: There seemed to have been a heavy classroom element to the tour. What did you study?
SP: We spent the majority of our ten-day experience in the classroom learning about the Holocaust through the eyes of survivors, considering how different events in history combined to facilitate such an atrocity, thinking through historical and current Christian / Jewish relationships and looking at how this impacts the current conflict in Israel. It was a truly eye-opening and challenging experience.
A lot of the content was new to me; the history of Jewish people, individual stories from the ghettos, during and after the war, the ingenuity of Nazi soldiers in devising new ways to murder people (this was horrible), and the extent to which Christian ideology contributed to it all. I had a new perspective on how this period of history still very much plays out in modern day life. I found myself learning a lot, questioning loads and also disagreeing with others a little too.
DG: I heard you managed to see some of the ancient city of Jerusalem, its environs and Christian sites whilst you were there. Was it as you expected?
SP: It was smaller than I expected and demonstrated a greater degree of inter-religious tension than I expected. The four quarters (Jewish, Muslim, Armenian and Christian) are all right on top of each other and although they co-exist well together it was also tense. During our tour, the guide at one point referred to a part of the city outside the walls as where ‘Palestinians’ lived. This caused an ultra-orthodox Jew passing by to react angrily by shouting “there is no Palestine.” In turn, another Jewish passerby told him to “be quite and stop embarrassing the Jewish people in front of visitors.” This caused quite an altercation that only ended when the Police were called.
The visit to Jerusalem did feel a bit like the phrase “never spoil a good story with the truth: for example, David’s Tower (built by Herod, years after David’s reign); David’s Tomb, which definitely isn’t where David was laid to rest; and the room where the Last Supper was held, knowing full well it was built after the Last Supper took place. This didn’t make it any less impressive or interesting but was a bit of a recurring theme.
DG Did you find visiting Jerusalem a spiritual experience?
SP: That is a hard question. I visited The Church of Holy Sepulchre; it was an incredible experience and compelling viewing but not quite the spiritual experience I was anticipating. The church is built (according to most acceptable sources) more or less on the site where Jesus was crucified and buried. This felt truly remarkable to visit, but the crowds (despite COVID), combined with the overly ornate decorations and what I thought to be disrespectful behaviour of some tourists made for an uncomfortable experience. In searching for the tomb, I noticed one of our group (a Greek orthodox priest) singing in a church service adjacent to the tomb’s location. I asked to go and participate in the service but was rudely told I wasn’t welcome. Instead, I queued solemnly for the tomb but was distracted by a young couple noisily expressing their affection for each other and roaring with laughter. One of the (many) birds flying around inside the church decided to relieve itself over my coat. As I approached the heavily decorated tomb, the smell of incense was overbearing for someone not used to it. I was ushered into the tight space where Jesus’ body had been laid by a rather grumpy guard. The giggling couple from the queue was by then next to me and switched instantly from mirth to loud wailings of what sounded like mourning and lament for the 30 seconds we were inside the tomb. They returned to their jolly state immediately upon exiting. I left feeling bewildered and disappointed by the experience, questioning my own emotional response to it all.
I then wandered from the church out of the City and up the Mount of Olives. I enjoyed the walk and being away from the crowds of tourists. I saw some lovely sights but instead of feeling as though I was treading a path where Jesus had once walked, I found myself stepping around rubbish bags, avoiding broken glass bottles and ducking under washing lines before descending through hundreds and thousands of the graves of devout Jews from across the world who have been buried outside the walls of the Jerusalem. Perhaps it is different for others but for me, it was disappointing and hard to engage with the life of Jesus in his last days in Jerusalem as we read in the Gospels.
DG: What would you say were the key thoughts and impressions from Yad Vashem you brought home with you: the messages that will last?
I’m extremely glad I went. I have thought a lot since returning about the current conflict in Israel and how difficult it is to see a positive way forward that is acceptable to Palestinians and Israelis. I have a much better perspective of the different aspects of history that have led us to the conflict but much less of an idea about how I think it can be resolved. I have also thought a lot about the way Christians tend to think and talk about Jews in the context of their faith.