This morning I attended the annual Civic Holocaust Memorial Service, this year for the first time held in the majestic Norwich Cathedral. Joe Stirling was the guest of honour and the Sheriff of Norwich, Richard Marks, made the opening welcome address. I was taken by surprise when at the end of his speech he mentioned my book. He kindly gave me permission to share his words with you.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the theme of this 2017 Holocaust Memorial Day is “How Can Life Go On?”
When we contemplate the millions of victims of the Nazi genocide in Europe in WWII, six million Jews, and millions more including Polish and Russian dissidents, the Roma and Gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, disabled people, gay people, freemasons and trades unionist, we might think that humankind would have learnt some lessons. But the history of the 20th and 21st Centuries suggests otherwise
And we indeed ask ourselves the question, after such loss, after such suffering, “How Can Life Go On?”But if human beings have an almost limitless capacity for destruction, they have an equally remarkable capacity for starting all over again. At least one member of our congregation today vividly demonstrates this – Joe Stirling has contributed to public life, primarily Norfolk public life for more than sixty years.
But his early life was spent in Germany and at first it was idyllic. But after Hitler came to power, Joe witnessed that country’s descent into barbarism and sadistic brutality was meted out to his friends and family. At the age of 14, Joe decided to walk to England but was returned to his village. He eventually left on the last kinder transport out of Germany, and never saw his beloved family again. He arrived in Britain in 1939, enlisted in the British Army in 1944 and he became High Sheriff of Norwich – this fine city – in 1975. If you want to know more about the fascinating intervening years, you will have to read his extraordinary biography!
Joe demonstrates that, even after personal tragedy, people can live happy and fulfilling lives and become huge contributors to the public good. He proves to us that, given great courage and the kindness of strangers, good will triumph over evil and that indeed life can go on.”
Alex Bennett, from the Norwich Hebrew Congregation chanted the Memorial Prayer and the Mourners’ Kaddish; always so wonderful to hear the unusual Hebrew sounds resonating in a spiritual space. The Vicar of St Peter Mancroft, Revd Robert Avery read the moving piece by Pastor Martin Niemoller, now traditional at this service.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Throughout the service my thoughts returned again and again to Alfred and Ida Stern, Joe’s parents who were murdered by the Nazis in the Sobibor Death Camp in 1942. May they rest in peace.
Photos show Alfred and Ida Stern in 1937, Norwich Cathedral, Sheriff Richard Marks, Joe Stirling and Alex Bennett.