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Oct 2002 Journal

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Saving the world from itself: a visit to a unique institution

Tucked away in the middle of nowhere in particular, and heralded only by the odd AA road sign, nothing prepares you for the impact of Beth Shalom. On my first visit to the centre, I stepped around a beautiful flower bed - my first indication of the spirituality of this unique place - leading into a reception area, which doubles as a bookshop.

Visitors are recommended first to view a 12-minute film on the origin of this remarkable institution. The film is shown in a high-roofed lecture hall, which, with its splendid stained-glass windows, bears a striking, and no doubt deliberate, resemblance to a chapel or synagogue. High up, split across two walls, reads the inscription 'He who saves a single life ... saves the world entire.'

Visitors move next to a below-stairs, cave-like exhibition of the 'Final Solution'. The exhibition, making superb use of photographs, screen and actual exhibits pertaining to the period, depicts the rise of the Nazi Party and state-sponsored antisemitism and the processes of ghettoization, resistance, and finally extermination, of a large part of the Jews of Europe. Gypsies, homosexuals and other victims of Nazi ideology and policies are not forgotten. For me, one of the most stunning exhibits was a broken shop window with the word 'Jude' scrawled all over it in white paint. The sole shortcoming of the exhibition, I felt - pinpricking no doubt in the context of the stunning detail displayed - was the lack of substantial material on the accomplices of the Nazis - Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians and others - those armies of volunteers on whom the Nazis depended to carry out their policy of annihilation.

From the overwhelming sight and sound of the exhibition, I returned to the lecture hall to hear a talk by a Holocaust survivor. Arek Hersh sought to describe to a packed audience, in a distinctly low-key manner, events which the audience well understood were beyond description.

One cannot leave Beth Shalom without a stroll through the magnificently landscaped gardens, with their imposing sculptures and images and bushes planted in memory of numerous Holocaust victims. The centrepiece sculpture, Abandoned, by Naomi Blake, poses the rhetorical question: how could God have allowed the Holocaust to happen? The exquisite gardens are an unparalleled site for silent contemplation.

At Beth Shalom, everything - design and realization - seems in harmony, in perfect taste. Even the well-stocked coffee shop seems to find its natural place. It is an inspired achievement by the Smith family - Stephen, James and their mother Marina - the begetters of this amazing institution. I was fortunate enough to meet Marina, an intense personality from whom ideas and reflections, including plans for the possible expansion of the site, pour out in a torrent.

Beth Shalom, with its memorial to the Holocaust and late-twentieth-century instances of genocide such as Rwanda, plays host daily to parties of schoolchildren. It is inconceivable that even the most unthinking child - or adult for that matter - could fail to be moved by this memorial centre. The past cannot be replayed, but the future is there to be shaped, however uphill a battle fighting man's inhumanity to man will always be.
Howard Spier

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