Joe Carlebach is a councillor in Hammersmith and Fulham.
As part of Holocaust Remembrance Day this year, commemorated on the 27th January, a talk was given by a Holocaust survivor, Hannah Lewis, in Hammersmith Town Hall last Monday.
She spoke with eloquence and emotion of her story being born into a Jewish family in Poland in 1937, witnessing the German invasion and the subsequent round ups, deportations and murder of many of her friends and family.
One of the most moving moments of her talk was her description of the capture of her mother and then (as a small child) seeing her mother shot by the Nazis in cold blood and in plain sight.
I found her story particularly harrowing as I lost immediate family members in the Holocaust.
My grandfather (after whom I am named, and who is pictured at the top of this article), my grandmother Charlotte (Lotte) and my three young aunts Ruth, Naomi and Sara were all shot and murdered by the Nazis on March 26th 1942 in Biķerniecki forest, near Riga, Latvia. They were aged respectively 15,14 and 13 at the time.This was the tragic culmination of a life which had started so full of promise. In the early years of the 20th Century my grandfather had studied sciences and mathematics at Berlin University and then at the University of Heidelberg where he obtained his PHD.
In 1912 he was one of the first people asked to write an analysis of Einstein’s new theory of relativity.
He became a well known figure and intellectual, with Thomas Mann affording him the honour of a named cameo role in Dr Faustus.
At the same time as his secular studies he also qualified as a Rabbi, leading a number of communities, and in 1936 he became Chief Rabbi of Hamburg. Throughout the rise of the fascists in Germany he was an outspoken opponent of their politics and thuggery.
When the German Government banned Jewish children from attending state schools my grandfather traveled around Germany setting up schools which became known as Carlebach schools in order that Jewish children would be able to have an education.
November 9th 1938 (known as Kristallnacht) marked the beginning of the tragic end for German Jewry. Almost every synagogue in Germany and Austria was destroyed and looted. All Jewish property was confiscated.
The first synagogue to be destroyed by Hitler’s Nazi thugs in Hamburg was the great house of worship at the Bornplatz, the pulpit from which my grandfather preached. The man in charge of this mission was a high ranking Nazi who it was said had been sent directly by Hitler himself.
On hearing the news that his synagogue was being destroyed, my grandfather rushed to the building on his own and, in an act of total selflessness, attempted to stop the destruction by reasoning with the Nazis. He was badly beaten and the very next day he started organising the evacuation of his older children, including my father who arrived in the UK on a Kinder Transport shortly thereafter.
As a direct result of the activities on Kristallnacht my grandfather was offered a visa to come to the UK but he turned it down. Many Jewish community leaders had already left Germany and my grandfather vehemently believed a leader should stay with his people through good and bad, seeing to the vulnerable, the needy and the poor. This he did and it was this that ultimately cost him his life.
His murder and the murder of my grandmother and three young aunts has cast a long and dark shadow over my life and I have no doubt it will do the same for my children as they learn what befell their family. So the burden of tragedy is shared and then ultimately passed to the next generation.
I learned a long time ago there is no escaping history: all you can do is to deal with it as best you can.
We live in a troubled world today and despite the best efforts of many good people the lessons of history have not been well learned. There have been other genocides since the Holocaust and bigotry, intolerance and prejudice continue to thrive.
It is therefore beholden on us all to live our lives with a view to remembering the past, honouring those that died and making sure the future will be a better place for everyone, no matter who or what they are.
That is why Holocaust remembrance day is so important, for all of us.
Post Script: In 1990 part of the Hamburg University Campus, the Bornplatz, the former location of the Main Synagogue of Hamburg and my grandfather’s last pulpit, was renamed the Joseph Carlebach-Platz in his honour.