Shamor and Zachor: General Secretary's speech to LSE's Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony.
I want to start by saying that though I have spoken at this event in the past, it is an honour to be speaking today as a Jewish General Secretary of the Students’ Union. We don’t come around that often, once every couple of decades I believe, so I really mean it when I say it is an honour. Thank you to Jim, the Chaplain, who has put on this commemorative event.
I’ll divulge on my personal thoughts briefly at the end, but here at LSE, I believe we have two practical reasons to commemorate the atrocities associated with this day. Firstly because of our history, and secondly due to our general mission to be the best social science institute in the world. We have a more distinct responsibility to remember than one might initially recognise.
Judaism, by the way, describes this dual ‘burden’ as Zachor, to remember, and Shamor, to observe, to act upon.
So for the former, Zachor - to remember: In the 1930’s this university took the decision to accommodate many exiles from European Jewish communities and from other persecuted groups such as communists to come here to study and to teach.
The majority spent some time at the School and passed on to other things such as the labour lawyer Franz Neumann and social historian Kohn-Bramstedt. But many remained as academics at the School such as Moritz Bonn and Sir Otto Kahn-Freund. Perhaps most famously, joining LSE at the end of the war, having first fled to New Zealand, was the great Karl Popper.
These are all people who might not have lived if the LSE had not proved itself to be a safe place for them. The world would have lost them and their unique contribution. The former director Ralf Dahrendorf writes in a history of LSE:
“At the School, the new teachers of the first and the second generation of exiles meant a further broadening of range, and an injection of new energy. It is a comment on LSE that those who came were made to feel at home, and that those who received them on the whole felt at ease with the newcomers. The Director [William Beveridge] deserves much of the credit. In the worst of his eighteen years at LSE he did one of his best and most consequential deeds.”
Now for the latter doctrine, Shamor, to observe. LSE’s very mission statement - ‘ to understand the causes of things’ - must surely mean a distinct leadership role in creating the concrete steps that will safeguard our collective future against similar threats. Similarly, as a Union, it is important that we continue to strive for a better student experience, but we must also continue to pack a punch on issues facing the world beyond Houghton Street.
Through this ‘Shamor’ prism, of course academics and politicians will rightfully be careful to make sure the Holocaust is never trivialized. However, enduring lessons from its horrors, its heroes and its victims, will surely become more hallowed in our consciousness if properly harnessed for the purpose of saving lives - which, as we know from the Talmud, is the greatest of all Jewish values.
But for me, my mission statement on this day is to digest the sheer fortune that I am able to speak here today.
In the 1930s my family were a large one, based in Vienna as part of a thriving Jewish community. In those years, my family, just as with so many communities around them, were humiliated, dehumanised, beaten and eventually gassed, for no other reason than because they were Jewish. My great-grandfather was the sole escapee, and I owe everything to his bravery, but also to this country who allowed him in.
Every year, I read the despairing letters sent by my Austrian family to family on these shores, and for me the act of remembrance never gets any easier. Speaking generally, the scale of loss is forever hard to take in. For example today we will have a minutes silence, but if one were to be silent for a minute for each victim of the Shoah, one would be silent for 11 and a half years. For me, it’s a time for difficult questions - if I was there, would I have fought back? Would I have just accepted my fate? Would I have fled?
Yet, it is that I am here today, fully capable of embracing the tenet of shamor - to observe, that I and I know so many others in communities affected by the Holocaust take strength.
‘Never Again’ cannot just be a platitude, it has to be actualised, or as the saying goes, history will be condemned to repeat itself. This is best articulated by the personal thoughts of Eli Wiesel, who stresses:
“because I remember, I despair. But because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair”.
LSESU General Secretary