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April 11, 2016

A thought for seder night


A thought for seder night

Pesach 2016/5776

On June 30, 1939, a steam ship arrived at the port of Southampton. Maurice Williams, the Port Medical Officer, was there to meet the liner. He climbed on board and set about examining the health of dozens of children who had made the voyage from Germany alone.

Eight-year-old Renate Wolff waited patiently for her check-up. The Port Medical Officer seemed happy and wrote to the Ministry of Health to say that he had handed over care of the children.

Renate was told to disembark. She made her way down the gangway of the SS Washington and looked around her. Holding nothing but a small suitcase, the little girl suddenly found herself in a strange country with a strange language.

Just a few weeks earlier Renate had been at home, saying goodbye to her mummy and daddy. She didn’t know that she would never see them again.

Only years later would she find out their fate. The Nazis deported her parents to Minsk and then to Auschwitz where they were murdered.

The Holocaust devastated Renate’s family. In 1937 her sister Henny had given birth to a baby girl, Karin. By 1941 the Germans had captured them too. Henny was pregnant again. In the filthy cattle truck on the way to Auschwitz she gave birth to twins. The Nazis killed the new-borns on arrival and Henny soon after.

Renate eventually settled in Manchester with three of her sisters. Just a few weeks short of her twentieth birthday, she married my grandpa. They had three children, including my mum.

Grandma Renate – or Renee as she was known – died before I was born. But her refugee story, I suppose, is both typical and atypical. The world has never known as systematic an attempt to wipe out an entire people as the Holocaust. But the story of persecution and escaping from war is all too alive today. Europe is seeing the biggest refugee crisis since Renate was forced to leave her home. Millions of people have fled torture and conflict.

It is a tragedy which resonates so strongly with the Jewish community precisely because of our history.

On seder night we gather with our family and friends to read the story of the Exodus when the Children of Israel were enslaved to a cruel tyrant before being miraculously freed: a familiar narrative that has repeated itself in different generations, whether our oppressors were Roman, Spanish or Soviet.

My uncle – Renate’s son – grows horseradish in his garden for the maror, bitter herbs, on Seder night. It is so pungent I cry every year. This year it would be natural to weep not just for the suffering of our own people in Ancient Egypt but for the current refugee crisis too which shows no sign of abating.

The response from the British Jewish community has been nothing short of remarkable. Through World Jewish Relief’s emergency response, thousands of children – the same age as Renate – have been given schoolbooks and bags so they don’t miss a year of education in the refugee camps in Turkey. Thousands more have received medical care, shelter and winter kits.

The refugee crisis is complex. The only solution is to end the conflict in Syria and allow millions of people to return home. But until that happens, it is our duty to continue supporting the needs of the world’s most vulnerable people: the Jewish communities of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Belarus and today’s refugees who have fled their homes with nothing but a small suitcase.

Chag sameach from all of us at World Jewish Relief.

Richard Verber is World Jewish Relief’s Head of External Affairs – richard@worldjewishrelief.org