The remains of six unidentified Holocaust victims are to be given a formal Jewish burial after being stored at London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) for decades.
The victims will be laid to rest in a Jewish cemetery in Hertfordshire on January 20, just one week before Holocaust Memorial Day. It is believed to be the first time that victims of the Holocaust will be buried in the UK.
Melvyn Hartog, Head of United Synagogue Burial – the burial society overseeing the ceremony – told CNN that burying the remains of the victims is a “unique and holy responsibility.”
He said that following the funeral service the remains will be taken to their final resting place, and Holocaust survivors will be invited to fill the graves with earth.
The ash and bone fragments, believed to be from five adults and a child, have been stored at the IWM since January 1997, when a private donor bequeathed a number of Holocaust-related items to the museum.
The museum, which has a license to hold human tissue, will soon hand over the remains to the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the United Synagogue – a union of British Orthodox Jewish synagogues – having consulted the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis and the Auschwitz museum in Poland.
The IWM told CNN the museum decided to relinquish the remains after conducting a review of all the items in its archives relating to the Holocaust, ahead of the construction of new World War II and Holocaust Galleries at the museum, which are due to open in 2021.
The museum said that while they had originally expressed interest in acquiring a selection of items from the donor, they had explicitly expressed that they did not wish to acquire the human remains.
They were nevertheless sent to the museum, it said. Testing carried out at the English Heritage Centre for Archaeology confirmed that the remains were likely to be from five adults and one child.
IWM consequently contacted the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland – which confirmed that the remains did indeed originate from their site – but both organizations concluded that “it was not appropriate” for the remains to be returned there.
The museum was instead advised on burial as the most appropriate way forward by the Office of the Chief Rabbi, and the remains will be laid to rest at Bushey New Cemetery in Hertfordshire.
“It is hoped that the burial, which will be attended by members of Jewish and non-Jewish communities, will afford these individuals the respect and dignity they were denied in both life and death,” Diane Lees, director-general of IWM, said in a statement.
Michael Goldstein, United Synagogue president, described the upcoming ceremony as the “final act of kindness” and an opportunity to provide the victims with a “dignified and appropriate Jewish burial.”
Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust – a charity which supports Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK – said the burial is a “deeply moving, rare moment.”
“Although the symbolic significance of the funeral is clear, particularly for so many survivors of the Holocaust who were not able to hold funerals for their own relatives, we must not forget that these remains are of six individuals, who lived distinct and unique lives,” she said.
And Karen Pollock MBE, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust – a UK charity which aims to educate people on the history of the Holocaust – said: “Today, our hearts go out to everyone who had to endure the pain of losing loved ones during the Holocaust, the unique and unprecedented genocide of the Jewish people, and we pledge to continue our effort that the memories of those who were murdered live on.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that the remains of the Holocaust victims are still being stored by the Imperial War Museum. A previous version of the story misstated the location of the remains.