Inspiring Perse Josef Behrmann Lectures provide food for thought
Dr Edward Kessler MBE and Dr Daniel Adamson (OP 2014) gave thought-provoking and hopeful talks as the Perse Josef Behrmann Lectures returned after a three-year break due to Covid.
Held in memory of the Old Persean and Holocaust survivor, who went on to become a Hollywood actor, the series resumed with lectures around the Holocaust Memorial Day theme of ‘Ordinary People’.
Dr Kessler, who is Founder President of the Woolf Institute – an organisation aimed at improving inter-faith relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims, spoke entertainingly and evocatively on the topic of ‘Living Peaceably Together’.
He outlined that with increasing numbers of people from different religions living alongside each other in certain areas of the world, tensions and conflicts have also increased.
Dr Kessler told students that while bigotry did not have a place in civilised society, ignorance about others’ faiths and beliefs can lead to fear, which in turn lies at the heart of religious discrimination.
As a result, Dr Kessler said finding a way for people to live side-by-side peacefully while still honouring the commitment to their respective religion was crucial.
He told students that the validity of one point of view did not exclude another and felt it was by reaching out to others from different backgrounds, cultures and faiths and exchanging perspectives that people could co-exist.
Dr Kessler suggested that affirming shared values and establishing trust to provide a framework within which to accept differences and address contentious issues positively, was vital, and it was only by listening to each other that we start to understand other perspectives.
Meanwhile in his lecture ‘The past is a foreign country: Britain and the Holocaust’, Dr Adamson, a consultant for the BBC History Network, reflected on the UK’s response to the atrocities carried out against Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II.
He highlighted the efforts of UK citizens Sir Nicholas Winton MBE and Jane Haining in demonstrating how “brave and humble” individuals showed “extraordinary kindness in terrible circumstances”.
Winton witnessed the persecution of Czech Jews in 1938 and felt compelled to help children escape from the region. He lobbied the British government to allow Czech children to be evacuated and helped 669 gain passage to the UK by September 1939.
Many years later, Winton was given a knighthood, as well as the Order of the White Lion – the highest order of the Czech Republic, for his wartime efforts.
Meanwhile, Haining was matron of the United Free Church of Scotland’s Jewish Mission School in Budapest when World War II broke out. She provided shelter and food for Hungarian Jews, as well as helping those who wished to leave the country.
However, in 1944, she was arrested on several charges, including working among Jews and political activity, and deported to Auschwitz, where she died of starvation later the same year.
Dr Adamson said there were difficult questions to be asked about the UK’s response to the Holocaust, though.
He felt its portrayal in educational settings, such as schools and museums, lacked depth and detail, with the idea that the Holocaust only occurred in continental Europe, while failing to consider the ‘human dimension’ of its links to the UK.
In conclusion, Dr Adamson believed that while the Holocaust may never happen again, it is only by learning from the mistakes of the past that the course of the future can be steered, as he encouraged students to consider the legacy of Winton and Haining.