Last Saturday was Holocaust Memorial Day and also the day An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared (on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, curiously) that he would campaign to liberalise Ireland’s abortion laws.
To mark the former, Nationwide (RTÉ 1) last Friday evening broadcast a moving programme featuring the Island of Ireland Peace Choir on a visit to various sites in Poland. Their visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau was the most emotional, having a deep effect on choir members, and on presenter Damien Tiernan who accompanied them. Tiernan emphasised that they were not tourists, rather were they visitors and mourners.
No matter how many times you hear the story the sight of those huge piles of shoes, and those empty poison gas cans have an intense impact. The group got some historical context when they visited the factory of Oscar Schindler, now a museum. They also got to sing in an amazing church in the salt mines and in a basilica on the site of a 13th Century Cistercian monastery.
Choir leader Phil Brennan explained the origins of the choir, comprised of Catholics and Protestants and inspired by links that grew out of the Omagh bombing, especially with Clare Gallagher, a musician who was blinded in that atrocity. Now they continue to spread the message of peace.
Brennan explained why they had come to Poland – to remember the “victims of merciless people”. This kind of thing still happens today, he said, and now it was ‘time for humanity to tune in to a new frequency’ and ‘to care for our fellow brothers and sisters’.
He found it a “numbing experience” and one of his choir members reckoned, that despite everything, it would happen again.
Later that evening, Holocaust Memorial Day was also marked on The Leap of Faith (RTÉ Radio 1) when presenter Michael Comyn spoke to Yanky Fachler of the Jewish Historical Society of Ireland, who told the little known story of three Jewish-owned hat-and-ribbon factories in Galway, Castlebar and Longford that saved dozens of European Jews from the Holocaust.
Businessman Marcus Witztum set up the factories at a time when Seán Lemass wanted to establish business links to encourage overseas investment. The factories provided significant local employment but Witztum also manage to leverage the situation so that Jewish experts and many other Jewish people could move to Ireland in the pre-war days when discrimination was rampant in Germany.
We learned some other useful information too – Holocaust Memorial Day was on January 27 as this was the day the Russians liberated Auschwitz, but it is largely a European remembrance day, the Jewish people having a different day of commemoration, shortly after Passover.
Interestingly, when Comyn spoke of the death of the Jews in the Holocaust, Fachler said he preferred the word “murder” as that was what it was, and among so many others his own grandparents were murdered.
He noted “the industrialised nature of the Holocaust, the fact that it was Government policy to exterminate”. He criticised Ireland for being reluctant to take in Jews in the pre-war period when the discrimination was obvious, and lamented that people can see evil happening and do nothing about it.
Related themes featured on Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster) last weekend. Author Heather Morris spoke about her new book The Tattooist of Auschwitz, which tells the fascinating story of Lale Sokolov, a Jewish man who survived the death camp, probably because he had a role – tattooing serial numbers on the inmates – a practice that registered and dehumanised at the same time.
It was a job he hated but it gave him privileges that he used to help others in the camp. Remarkably, this was more of a love story than anything else, as Sokolov met the love of his life, Gita, in the camp. Both survived and met again after the war. A proposal of marriage followed immediately, and eventually they escaped Eastern Europe and lived happily in Australia.
Earlier in the show there was a curious item on ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, a condition I’d never heard of. Apparently when some people, whether Christian or Jewish, visit the Holy Land, especially on pilgrimage, mental disorders develop or are amplified and sometimes they imagine themselves to be Biblical characters.
Interestingly, dealing with them involves co-operation between both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. We could surely do with more of the latter.
Pick of the week
EWTN, Saturday, February 3, 10 pm
David Kerr speaks with Kathy Sinnott, a former MEP.
THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL
EWTN, Monday, February 5, 2.30 pm; Friday, February 9, 10.30 pm
About the EnCourage apostolate, which offers support to parents of children with same-sex attraction.
RTÉ 2, Wednesday, February 7, 10.55 pm
The children visit the round tower at Glendalough, learning about monastic life.