In recent years, perhaps the most powerful window into the Holocaust, one of the defining events of the 20th century, has been through the memories of survivors. Most are now in their 90s and these invaluable voices won’t be with us for much longer. We have therefore reached a pivotal moment in the sombre legacy of the Holocaust. As oral historians race to record and store the experiences of survivors, living memory is becoming testimony and life stories are being transformed into histories. It is thus worth considering how we will keep such a vital part of history alive and relevant for future generations when those who witnessed the Holocaust are no longer us? In essence, how do we educate and commemorate when we no longer have access to living, breathing history?
The power of commemoration at a time when events are passing from living memory can often be underestimated. Foundation Stones is a creative commemoration partnership between the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation and Big Ideas, an innovative community engagement organisation. As part of this ongoing project, members of the public are invited to paint a stone commemorating the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust and all victims of Nazi persecution. People can also choose to dedicate their stones to victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The project draws inspiration from the Jewish custom of leaving stones and pebbles on the headstones that mark the graves of loved ones as a token of respect and remembrance. These stones will be laid in the foundations of the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning centre to be built in Westminster in central London.
As far as I am aware, this is a unique approach to the creation of a national memorial and allows each individual participant in the project to make a pledge to remember and learn from the past. In a moving speech he gave at the United States Holocaust Museum in 1993, Elie Wiesel urged people to remember that ‘not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories’. Instilling this sense of accountability into those who inherit the testimony of genocide survivors is a significant part of the power of the Foundation Stones project.
The permanency of stones serves, in the words of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to remind us ‘that the memory and legacy of those who perished in the Holocaust will endure forever’. The physical marking of this legacy with a foundation stone is particularly significant, as most of those killed in the Holocaust were not given their own graves. The Chief Rabbi, who supports the Foundation Stones project, has emphasised the ‘powerful and deeply symbolic act’ of incorporating so many individual stones into the foundation of a national Memorial and Learning centre and indeed, the beauty of each foundation stone lies in the individuality of its design. The impact upon the creator of each stone in those already submitted, particularly in the care taken with each mark made, is clear to see. Some stones are stark and simple messages of heartbreak and others a beautiful expression of colour and brightness, love, shock and empathy poured into a small, unexpected token of promise. A promise to never forget.
Although many participants have so far chosen to dedicate their stones in a commitment to peace or to all victims of genocide, some have been inspired by specific stories. One particularly moving tribute is a stone dedicated to the memory of Sonja Jaslowitz, a young Romanian woman who created poetry and art while enduring imprisonment in two concentration camps. Her work, written in a mixture of Romanian, German and French was preserved by her brother, Harry and translated into English by her mother, Lotte. The example below is an excerpt from a poem written on the 7th of March, 1944.
‘How can the sunshine glare so bright, when in my heart, there is no light?
Lilies of the valley, with fragrant breath, while my sobbing soul, embraces death.’(1)
Sonja was killed later that day, during a British Air Raid. She was 17 years old.
Although she was clearly talented, Sonja’s circumstances render her words all the more powerful. She suffered unimaginably through her short life but her work shares her experience of being a sister, a daughter and ultimately a child. The ‘ordinary’ stories of people who were victims of the Holocaust serve to remind us how quickly disaster can strike when intolerance is allowed to thrive. In understanding the horrors of that time, we must acknowledge the number of people who were complicit in the suffering of the past and ask ourselves how we can make the choice not to be. Sonja’s story and those of literally millions of others are now the responsibility of all of us, a generation who, for the most part, have never had to live through such persecution and, we hope, never will.
What can we do with this responsibility? Collective acts of commemoration such as the Foundation Stones project provide an excellent impetus for people to engage in public history, as the stories of so many individuals, both living now and living in memory, are given space to come to the fore. The construction of any new public building has the potential to be divisive, but the Foundation Stones project has a unifying sense of purpose and allows for the creation of a memorial that will be built on the hopes and commitments of people who have painted stones. A selection of Foundation Stones was exhibited at the reception to the Gedenkstunde zum Volkstrauertag (national day of mourning memorial service) held in the Bundestag in Berlin on 17 November, 2019. The positive response to the project at such a deeply moving and significant event suggested that the appeal of Foundation Stones is not only personal but universal. In the process of creating their individual stones, participants are encouraged to explore not only local history but the extensive existing pool of historical knowledge relating to the Holocaust. The stones displayed in Berlin were in part designed by young football players from England, who were also attending the commemoration. The young men were delighted to see that their contribution to the project had travelled so far and were keen to share their stories of commemoration with others at the service. This touching moment perfectly demonstrates the unifying potential of Foundation Stones, a project that enables people to make links that are both intergenerational and international.
Commemoration has the potential to provide a powerful connection not only with others in our own time but with history, allowing individuals to creatively engage with past events and, just as importantly, to question the present. Big Ideas is in the process of creating a digital record of all the stones created, in the hope that when participants visit to view their own stone, they may also engage with the stories that have inspired others. Throughout the darkest days of her life, Sonja Jaslowitz, as described in Memory Unbound, retained a ‘persistent sense of hope in the future’. With the ambitious commemoration project of the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, significant public attention will be drawn to her story and those of so many. Each Foundation Stone that is made in connection with this memorial is the opportunity for a personal pledge about standing up against all forms of hatred and prejudice, both in honour of the past and in hope for the future.
(1) Harry Jarvis Family Papers 1617/3/4. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.
Hollie Witton is an Assistant Producer of projects at Big Ideas, a London-based community interest organisation dedicated to promoting engagement with history and culture