For a group of Year 12 history students from Santa Maria College, Northcote, participating in a recent Shoah Holocaust Memorial Service for Christians and all people of good will at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne was a moving experience that brought to life their study of the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust.
“The students were eager to attend [the prayer service] as an avenue to reflect upon their study [of twentieth century European history],” said Deborah Barker, Principal of Santa Maria College.
“In many ways the experience invited the students to allow their heart to inform their head.”
Deborah believes the annual service is an important event which provides Christians and all people of good will with an opportunity to reflect on the atrocity of the Shoah and to stand in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers. She said over the past seven years she has participated increasing numbers of secondary schools had also become involved.
“For our young people the evening has great richness that has the potential to be transformative on so many levels for them,” she said.
During the service there is always the ‘living voice’ of a Holocaust survivor or a second generation child of a survivor, who bears personal witness to both the tragedy and the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the horrors of the Nazi regime.
According to Good Samaritan Sister Verna Holyhead, a key facilitator of the service and long-standing member of the ecumenical and interfaith movement, such witness is perhaps the most moving aspect of the service.
This year three Santa Maria College students – Amanda Podbury, Lauren Viola and Madeleine Clayton – prepared a liturgical movement in response to the ‘living voice’, Walter Rapoport, Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews Victoria.
“Our senior students worked together to create a ritual gesture of lamentation and hope,” explained Deborah. She said each found the experience to be “profound”. Their comments, paraphrased by Deborah, reflect something of the depth of that experience.
“I became so immersed in the dance, I forgot that people were watching.”
“I hope our movement offered some kind of healing and a sense of hope for a better future.”
“It was a privilege to be asked to be involved… It is the least we can do to remember such a devastating part in history.”
According to Verna, over 250 Christians and a representative number of Jews participated in this year’s service which marked the twentieth anniversary since the first service of its kind was held in Sydney.
As a member of the executive of the NSW Council for Christians and Jews, Verna was actively involved in its beginning and development there, and later in Melbourne.
“Our first service was [held] outside at the Jewish Memorial in Rookwood Cemetery, Sydney, and was a disaster!” Verna recalls.
“Nine Christians and nine Jews huddled in May rain and wind, the amplifying system didn’t work, the candles blew out, and as we packed up despondently, I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of that’.
“Then an elderly man with a yellow Star of David on the sleeve of his old jacket came up to me and said: ‘I haven’t worn this since I was liberated from Auschwitz, and I never thought I would wear it again to pray with Christians. Thank you’.
“I knew then that it was not the end but a beginning of such a service,” said Verna.
From that time, the numbers and venues have grown, until many Australian cities now have some service that expresses our solidarity and shared humanity in the face of the tragedy of the Shoah (or Catastrophe), of the Holocaust.
“Remembering that yellow star on the old man’s sleeve, we pray that stars may navigate our world into the way of peace, so that no one and no nation may be blown off its course,” said Verna.
This year’s service at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral was an initiative of the Catholic, Uniting and Anglican Churches. Next year’s service will be held at St Francis’ Catholic Church in Melbourne.