Ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, History teacher Mr Grant, addressed pupils in assembly about where hatred can lead and the importance of loving our neighbours...
"Last week the chaplain reminded us to love our neighbours as ourselves. Sadly, this has not always been practised throughout Norwich’s history.
On 24 March, in the year 1144, the mutilated body of a 12-year-old boy was discovered amongst the bushes on Mousehold Heath. The body was identified as that of William, an apprentice in the city. Rumours spread: the boy had been tortured. Who had committed this appalling crime? Nobody knew. Whispers turned into accusations and the community decided who it wanted to blame: the small group of Jews who lived in the city. The real killers of William were never found. But the death of a boy in this city marked the birth of a lie. A lie that would spread: similar accusations were to occur in Gloucester, in Bristol, in Lincoln, and in cities in France, Germany and Spain. The ‘blood libel’ – that Jews murdered Christian children – was a lie that was used to justify attacks on Jews all over medieval Europe. And this lie started here.
In Norwich there were further outbreaks of violence against Jews in 1190 and again in the 1230s. Last term, Hannah Possener in the U6 gave an excellent presentation to the Clio society about Jews in medieval Norwich. Despite the persecution they faced, Jews made a significant contribution to life in the city. We know some of their names. We have a record of Isaac the physician who lived in Saddlegate; of Solomon who owned a herb garden; and of other Jews who worked as merchants and fishmongers. Isaac Jurnet of King Street was from a prosperous Jewish family. It seems probable that money loaned by him helped build this cathedral in which we sit.
There were never more than 200 members of Norwich’s Jewish community in the Middle Ages. A small, vulnerable minority, they clustered together in an area of the city where, of all places, Primark now stands – there was once a synagogue there and it was close to the castle where they could try to seek protection. That protection could not resist the power of the king. In July 1290 King Edward I ordered that all Jews had to leave England on pain of death. The Jewish community in Norwich came to an abrupt end. The synagogue seems to have been destroyed by fire. Excavations have discovered stone columns, glass, pottery, bones; fragments of a community long destroyed as Norwich rejected part of itself.
In more recent centuries, Jews in England have, for the most part, had a happier story to tell. Readmitted to the country in the 17th century, Jews have played a full role in British life. Despite continued antisemitism, the relative tolerance of British culture ensured that Jews could live peacefully and prosper, fleeing here from other parts of the continent. Faced with the threat from Hitler’s Germany, Britain offered sanctuary to some, although not enough.
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. It marks the 80th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We remember the 6 million individual souls from our continent who were murdered for no other reason than that they were Jewish. The unprecedented, industrialised attempt to kill an entire people, using the most efficient methods possible. Men, women, children. We remember where hatred can lead. And we renew humanity’s pledge that never again can this happen. Never again.
Yet antisemitism - hatred of Jewish people - is a subtle monster; it adapts and re-emerges in different forms. It creeps easily into mediocre minds as it has done for 2,000 years. Once persecuted for their religion, Jews were then persecuted for their race. Persecuted for their poverty, some have been despised for their wealth. Once hated for not having a country of their own, some now hate them because of events in a country in another part of the world.
A crude and toxic mixture of racism and conspiracy theory, antisemitism is again on the rise. In just two months at the end of 2023, there were 2,000 antisemitic incidents reported across Britain. These included 95 physical assaults, 127 instances of damage to property, and 1700 instances of abusive behaviour. Jews have been threatened at universities, and Jewish children have been attacked whilst going to and from school, to the extent that at least one school in London has had to close over fears for the safety of their pupils. This shames our country. Yet, over recent years too many have permitted antisemitism, excused it, or not treated it as seriously as they ought to have done.
For us in this nation, in this city, in this school, for those of us who are Christian, for all those who are not Jewish, it has become of urgent importance that we reassure our fellow Jewish citizens; that we set our faces against any hostility towards our Jewish neighbours and friends. Because of our history, those of us living in Norwich have a particular responsibility for doing so.
At this Holocaust Memorial Day, to Jews in Norwich and throughout England, I speak for myself but hopefully for others too when I quote again those words from the Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible: ‘Where you go, I will go, and where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people.’