Dear friends and honoured guests: As we gather together on Remembrance Sunday, we are aware that up and down the country, people of all ages, living in towns and villages, in cities and in the countryside, are united in remembrance of those who died in two World Wars, and other conflicts since – in the Falklands, in Bosnia, in Iran and Afghanistan.
The First World War, also known as the Great War, was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars.’ Instead, it ushered in a century of slaughter. And then, with the dawn of a new millennium, the slaughter has continued…
Next year we will mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. As each year passes, fewer and fewer people, who fought in the two World Wars and remember what happened, remain alive. Indeed, the last living veteran of World War I, Florence Green, a British citizen who served in the Allied armed forces, died on February 4th 2012, aged 110. Less than a year earlier, on May 5th 2011 the last combat veteran, Claude Choules who served in the British Royal Navy (and later the Royal Australian Navy), died aged 110. Meanwhile the last veteran who served in the trenches, Harry Patch, died over 4 years ago, on July 25th 2009, aged 111. Zichronam livrachah – May their memory be for blessing.
So, there are now no living veterans of the Great War to tell us their stories. Before many more years have passed, the same will be true of the veterans of the Second World War. Year by year, as we attend the services of the Brighton and Hove branch of the Association of Jewish ex-Servicemen and Women, we feel the absence of certain individuals, who once shared these sacred moments with us, and the frailty of others. Soon there will be no one left alive, who remembers those cataclysmic conflicts. It behoves us to honour and listen to the testimonies of those, who are still with us. Men like, AJEX-member, Dennis Hollis, who volunteered in May 1941 for the 12th Battalion Parachute regiment. After an arduous period of training, which included marching ten miles in two hours in full battle order, Private Hollis was ready for action, and in due course, his unit parachuted into a field near the Rhine, where the enemy was concealed in haystacks. This is what happened – and I am grateful to Sidney Lipman for the account published in Sussex Jewish News:
“Gliders carrying airborne forces had landed on the other side of the Rhine, but a small party of paratroopers was cut off by the enemy, and it was essential to contact them by radio in order to guide them to the main body and also to communicate with Divisional Headquarters some miles away. Unfortunately, the only radio was in a glider some distance away, which the Germans had covered with Spandau fire. Two volunteers went out to try and bring the radio back. One was killed and the other badly injured. Lance Corporal Hollis (a private at the time) then volunteered and succeeded, as the official citation reads, ‘at great personal risk to himself’. As a result, the small isolated party was guided back to the main body and contact with Divisional Headquarters.”
It was as a result of his brave and valiant conduct in that field of battle that on March 24th 1945 Private Hollis was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal, and received the Military Medal. Following the war, in addition to being awarded the Military Medal, he also received the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence of Britain Medal and the War Medal.
Now aged 88, Dennis is here with us today – and was at the cenotaph in Brighton this morning, laying a wreath. But let us be clear: these wonderful old soldiers will not be with us forever. So how will we remember those who fought and died in the two World Wars, after the very last veteran has passed away?
On one level, the answer to that question is simple. After all, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday have become integral features of the national calendar, so we have the structure for remembrance. Moreover, sadly, as soldiers continue to fight and die in wars, we have yet more conflicts and service personnel to recall.
On another level, something else besides official moments of solemn remembrance is demanded. What is the purpose of remembrance? For Jews, remembrance is an imperative. The Torah commands us to remember: Zachor! Remember! But what is demanded of us is not simply an exercise in recollection. We are exhorted to remember the past, to recall the experience of our ancestors, and in particular, their experience of slavery, in order that we may learn lessons for our own lives today. The ancestors of the Jewish people were strangers in the land of Egypt over 3000 years ago. And yet, evening and morning, the blessing of liberation reminds us of that experience. And each Shabbat, the blessing of the day, reminds us that Shabbat is zeicher litzi’at Mitzrayim, ‘a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.’ And each year, at Pesach, we celebrate a festival devoted to remembrance of that defining moment in the history of the Jewish people. The Book of Deuteronomy repeats the phrase, ‘You shall remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt’, no less than five times. Why all this repetition? For a reason: As we read in Mishpatim, the first code of law, set out in the Torah, at Exodus chapter 23, verse 9: ‘A stranger you shall not oppress; for you know nefesh – the inner being – of the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ The purpose of recalling our ancestors’ experience of slavery is so that each one of us takes that experience to heart, into our nefesh, our inner being, so that remembering the pain of slavery, we resolve not to inflict that experience on others.
And so it is with the remembrance of war: we recall the suffering and horror in order to strengthen our resolve to put an end to war. Of course, we will never get rid of conflict – being in conflict is part of the human condition, indeed, perhaps, a necessary part. But after millennia of violence, don’t we need to learn peaceful methods of engaging in conflict and of finding resolutions that don’t result in injury and death for combatants and civilians, alike, on both sides?
The poet Wilfred Owen, who experienced the horrors of the Great War at first hand, wrote about his experiences in ways that force the reader to sense and taste the futility and brutality of war. His ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ should make us pause and consider how long we are prepared to sanction the mayhem of war and consign future generations to a similar doom. Wilfred Owen wrote:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen’s, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, together with a number of his other poems, was set to music by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem, a powerful and devastating testament to the evils of war, which Britten dedicated to four of his friends who were killed in World War I. Perhaps, the only way in which we can really feel the evil of wars that overwhelm thousands and millions of people, is by recalling individuals. So let us picture in our minds, Britten’s four friends:
Roger Burney, Sub Lieutenant, Royal Naval volunteer reserves
Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines
David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy
Michael Halliday, Royal New Zealand volunteer reserve
I’m sure that there are people present here today, who remember family members, friends and comrades who were killed in World War II: Each death, a painful wound, leaving its mark in the heart and in the soul. Let us bring them to mind now.
On this day, 75 years ago, on November 10th 1938, in towns and cities across Germany, the fires of Kristallnacht were still burning, the streets and pavements strewn with glass, the numbers of dead and injured still to be reckoned, as survivors of that night of violence, like our own Hans Levy, Rose Cannan and Margarete Mendelssohn, members of this congregation, struggled to make sense of the hatred unleashed against the Jewish people by ‘ordinary’ members of the German public. When we remember World War II, we must also recall what the historian, Lucy Dawidowicz called ‘The War Against the Jews’, which began when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and progressed into a campaign of annihilation from November 9th 1938 onwards.
The Sho’ah: When the monstrous barbarity of Hitler’s ‘final solution’ was finally brought to a halt in 1945, the world thought it had witnessed the genocide to end all genocides. But genocide has continued. What must we do end murderous bigotry once and for all? The poet Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), who served as an artillery officer in World War I, imagined in his a poem, ‘The young dead soldiers do not speak’, what the dead soldiers might be saying to us. One particular phrase stands out for me:
They say: We have done what we could
but until it is finished it is not done.
So, what has not yet been ‘finished’? The American Jewish poet and social activist, Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), provides an answer:
Peace the great meaning has not been defined.
When we say peace as a word, war
As a flare of fire leaps across our eyes.
We went to this school. Think war;
Cancel war, we were taught.
What is left is peace.
No, peace is not left, it is no cancelling;
The fierce and human peace is our deep power
Born to us of wish and responsibility.
We all long for peace. It is our responsibility to collaborate together, across the great borders and boundaries that divide us, and to do what we can to find non-violent ways of confronting oppression and persecution, and resolving conflict, so that the process of constructing ‘the fierce and human peace’ may begin. Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Remembrance Sunday Service
Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women,
Brighton & Hove & District Branch
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue
Adat Shalom Verei’ut – Congregation of Peace and Friendship
10th November 2013 – 7th Kislev 5774
 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List _of_last_surviving_World_War_I_veterans_by_country
 Deuteronomy 5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:22
 The War Against the Jews, 1933-45. Penguin Books.
 Quoted by Sara Ruddick , ‘Making Connections between Parenting and Peace’ in Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, Vol.3, No.2.