I find myself crying as I read the words of veterans in the papers this morning:
‘They were just dots below us on the beaches – some moving and some not,’
recalls Andre Hissink, aged 100. He’d been a pilot and navigator in the RAF’s 320 (Netherlands) squadron, after escaping the Nazi invasion of Holland in 1940.
‘My heroes are the guys that hit the beaches, so many of whom never came back.’ Says Gregory Melikian, now aged 97, who was chosen by General Eisenhower to transmit to London the coded message of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Now, because of Covid 19, he’ll have to spend VE Day at home, but hopefully not alone. I wish there were a way we could send cards or greetings to our veterans.
Our community will of course observe the national 2-minute silence at 11.00 am, before our own special programme about our parents who served in the Allied Forces (at 11.30am). I wish my father was still here, so that I could ask him; I only recall brief mentions about repairing tanks for the Royal Engineers, in Egypt, behind El Alamein.
‘This is your hour,’ Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill told the huge cheering crowds in Parliament Square. ‘We were alone for a whole year’, he continued.
There we stood, alone. Did anyone want to give in?
‘No,’ shouted the crowd.
‘Were we downhearted?’
The lights went out and the bombs came down. But every man, woman and child in the country had no thought of quitting the struggle.
(Martin Gilbert: Road to Victory, p. 1348)
For us Jews the bells of liberation rang, in Primo Levi’s words, ‘grave and muffled.’ There was another kind of aloneness as survivors of the Shoah absorbed the devastating reality that no one else, none of their family, comrades or often even of their community remained alive to meet them back home. Home? Home existed no more.
After liberation, I suffered probably more from the loneliness and the isolation…Feeling of yes, I’m alive, but that’s it. For what? For who?
(Dan Stone: The Liberation of the Camps)
Now the struggle to reach and build a new homeland in Palestine began in earnest, from the DP camps, through the networks of the secret Aliyah Bet, in running the British blockade, in forming the Haganah.
But Jews had been in uniform too in the British, American and Soviet armies in all the forces and had contributed bravely and greatly to the Allied victory.
We therefore share today’s celebrations as Jews, as citizens of our countries and above all as human beings who know through our bleakest experiences that freedom and justice must sometimes be fought for and always protected and preserved.
The courage, grit and humanity of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations stand as an example to us in our far lesser, but nevertheless real and current, tribulations.
Churchill also addressed the House on victory day:
…the strength of the Parliamentary institution has been shown to enable it at the same moment to preserve all the title-deeds of democracy while waging war in the most stern and protracted form. I wish to give my hearty thanks… to everyone in every part of the House wherever they sit, for the way in which the liveliness of Parliamentary institutions has been maintained under the fire of the enemy…
(Martin Gilbert: ibid p. 1346)
It was indeed during the bitterest war years that the Education Act was passed, heralding free secondary schooling for all, and the groundwork prepared for creating the Welfare State and the National Health Service.
As we honour this moving day in silence, memory and song, we might think of how from the midst of our own difficulties we too must envisage a more just, peaceful and harmonious future for all humankind and for our planet.