‘Standing Together’ the focus of poignant Josef Behrmann Lecture
14 Feb 2020
‘Standing Together’ was the hopeful theme of The Perse School’s annual Josef Behrmann Lecture, given by Dr Andrew Sawczenko and Rev Patrick Moriarty.
The lecture was held in memory of Behrmann, an Old Persean and Holocaust survivor, with this year’s event having added poignancy, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps.
Dr Sawczenko provided his mother’s evocative testimony of how, as a Polish Jew, she had survived the Holocaust. His mother came from the Polish city of Przemysl, where 30% of the population (just over 18,000 people) were Jews in 1931.
He explained how Przemysl was carved into two as German and Soviet forces invaded Poland in 1939 following the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, with the city’s River San becoming the border between the two territories.
Then aged six, his mother and her family escaped to the Soviet-controlled zone as Germany began to repress Przemsyl’s Jews, eventually forcing them into sealed ghettoes before taking them to extermination camps.
However, Dr Sawczenko outlined that under the communist USSR regime, anyone who was rich or Jewish was deemed suspect – pre-war, his grandfather had been a successful businessman. In addition, Poles who refused to take Soviet citizenship were banished to gulags (hard labour camps). His grandparents both died of starvation in one such gulag in Siberia, leaving his mother and aunt orphaned. They then spent much of World War II at another camp in Kazakhstan.
Following the war, Poles were allowed to have their citizenship restored, but only a small minority of Jews decided to return to Przemysl. His mother and aunt were among those as they were sent to an orphanage in the city.
Dr Sawczenko told how his mother and aunt came to England in 1946 after being among the 500 Polish Jewish children rescued by “one-man whirlwind” Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who placed them with a Jewish family in London.
He explained how his mother later moved to Strasbourg to study at the Free Europe University in Exile – an institution established by the CIA-backed National Committee for a Free Europe. The aim was to train refugees and immigrants from communist countries in becoming the drivers of a democratic system in those states, amid US fears of a potential World War III.
Dr Sawczenko’s mother moved back to London in 1962 and became a British citizen. However, he added that she suffered a series of mental breakdowns throughout her life as a result of what she had been through as a child.
Rev Moriarty, Head of the Jewish Community Secondary School in Barnet and an ordained Church of England priest, gave a thought-provoking response to this testimony. He said: “The guilt of something like the Holocaust is quite hard to apportion. My people (Christians) have been aggressors and oppressors, I can’t repair that damage.”
He put forward four suggestions to try to ensure such a horrific situation never occurs again:
• Have a respectful silence for such stories to be told
• For Christians and Jews to talk about their differences and how they see the world
• Build relationships of trust and friendships
• Once those relationships are formed, share narratives and experiences in the knowledge they will not be judged
Dr Moriarty added that such suggestions apply elsewhere, especially “where consensus in our country is starting to break down and populism is getting us into an unhealthy situation.”
The lecture concluded with a pupil panel asking Dr Sawczenko and Rev Moriarty questions on a range of topics including anti-Semitism, religious schools, equality and what gives them hope for the future.
Perse pupils quiz our guests with some poignant and challenging questions in response to the lecture, which you can hear below.
Listen to Dr Andrew Sawczenko here.
Listen to Rev Patrick Moriarty here.
Listen to Elizabeth Harris-Sawczenko here. Elizabeth is the Director of The Council of Christians and Jews, the leading nationwide forum for Christian-Jewish engagement.