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Holocaust Memorial Day 2017: How can life go on?

Holocaust Memorial Day 2017

'From darkness into light' - Rena Phillips

Chaim Aron Kaplan perished in the Treblinka concentration camp. Two decades later, the diary he wrote in the Warsaw ghetto was found and became a key chronicle of one of history’s darkest periods.

Here, his granddaughter Rena Phillips tells how the story of her family is testimony to the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day – and shows that the light of life does goes on…

The theme of the Holocaust Memorial Day 2017 is ‘How can life go on’. This is the history of my family.

My mother recounts that when I was born in Israel in September 1940 she tried to send a message through the Red Cross to her parents in Warsaw to let them know. At the time they were the victims of the Nazi Warsaw ghetto. They perished in the Treblinka concentration camp sometime between late 1942 and early 1943.

My maternal grandfather was a teacher and writer who founded a pioneering elementary Hebrew school in Warsaw, of which he was the principal for 40 years and where my mother was also a teacher. Whilst in the ghetto he kept a diary for three years. This was smuggled out, and found 20 years after the annihilation of the ghetto, carefully preserved in a kerosene can in a small village outside Warsaw. It has since been published as Scroll of Agony – The Warsaw diary of Chaim A Kaplan, and translated into many languages.

The Holocaust casts deep shadows. Growing up I was only too painfully aware of the life-long agony that it caused for my mother. As a result she identified even more strongly with her Jewish and religious beliefs. All this history has had the opposite effect on me in that I do not identify with any ‘in-group’ as opposed to an ‘out-group’. She was deeply opposed to my marrying a non-Jewish person, so when I did it was, reluctantly, without telling my parents. After 54 good years of marriage and family life I still feel sadness and guilt about such secrecy. Nevertheless, we have brought our three children up to have broad horizons and they have thanked us for not giving them any particular religion.

When in Jerusalem for a few weeks several years ago, I could clearly see the complex and tragic conflicts between Jews and Arabs. I take no sides, but despair at the irony that the Jews, who have suffered such immense persecution, can deny other people very basic and fundamental rights to life.

I have lived in quite a few countries and travelled widely and spoken five languages. I am, because of my accent, regularly asked where I am from, to which I reply: “From nowhere and everywhere,” which leaves some people puzzled. My attitude is international. I identify with humanity in general in the way I live and in my long career as a social worker. Some of this I owe to my grandfather who under unbearably harsh conditions and state of despair – and at great personal risk – had the courage fortitude and determination to write the diary as an historical record of the Nazi destruction of Warsaw’s Jewish community.

In his own extraordinary courageous words from the diary: “Even though we are now undergoing terrible tribulations and the sun has grown dark for us at noon, we have not lost our hope that the era of light will surely come.”

So how can life go on? In the present global political climate of walls, barriers and racist propaganda we need to shout that many miles cannot truly separate us from each other. The special light my grandfather hoped for cannot be taken away by anyone. My second name in Hebrew is Liora – I have light. I have tried in a small way to make it shine very bright and in beautiful colours by befriending a Syrian family who has come to live Scotland.


The National Holocaust Centre and Museum have set up a White Rose Appeal.

'Remember the past, and help protect the future by making a stand against prejudice.'

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CLICK HERE to read BASW England's Personal Reflection on Holocaust Memorial Day 2017.