AJEX commemoration of Armed Forces Day, 26.06.13

Saturday 29th June marked Armed Forces Day 2013. Across the country, ceremonies and commemorative services were carried out to remember those who have fought for our country - those who have returned home and those who have not. Each year, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women (AJEX) travel to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire to hold one such ceremony at the Jewish Memorial. This does not take place on the Saturday itself, however, to observe the Jewish Shabbat.

AJEX now also partner up with the Holocaust Educational Trust for this event, and so, for a second time, I was asked to attend the service and read out a couple of poems, which you will find below.
People have asked me, "Why are the Holocaust Educational Trust involved?" On the surface, this seems like a valid question; but we must not forget that many of those who have fought for our country have fought against Nazism, fascism, prejudice and hatred. Even if the Holocaust never reached the United Kingdom, we must be eternally thankful for the sacrifices made for these causes - who knows how different things may have been had the Nazis won the Second World War? We must also remember those British soldiers that helped liberate camps such as the horrific Bergen-Belsen in 1945 and helped nurse prisoners back to their health.

The day began with an assembly at Great Wyrley High School in Walsall, West Midlands. Ron Shelley MBE, of AJEX, began with a presentation asking students questions such as, 'Why do we have an Armed Forces Day?' and 'Why is remembrance so important?' He also drew the students' attention to the fact that many war memorials and cenotaphs around the U.K. do not have any religious symbols on them, as men of all different religions and countries have fought side by side for Britain in many of history's greatest wars and battles. Ron also talked about the National Memorial Arboretum itself, where students would be travelling later; a beautiful 150-acre setting for over 150 different memorials to those killed in battle or for their country since World War I.
Afterwards, Anita Parmar and Karen von Coevorden, both of the Holocaust Educational Trust, spoke briefly about the definition of the Holocaust and the decrease in the Jewish population of Europe after the war. Video clips were also played of a Holocaust survivor recalling his liberation by the British, and of a British war veteran describing his arrival in Bergen-Belsen when the camp was liberated.

We then travelled by coach to the Arboretum. Before the ceremony, Ron showed students the Shot at Dawn Memorial, a memorial tucked away at the very eastern part of the site commemorating the 306 men shot for cowardice and desertion during the First World War. Nowadays, of course, we recognise this to be signs of mental uneasiness or even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is only in the last 10 years that those soldiers have received a posthumous pardon for their undignified deaths.
We were also taken to the main Armed Forces Memorial, which sits atop a mound and can be seen for miles around. The walls of the memorial display the names of 16,000 men and women killed whilst in service of the U.K.'s Armed Forces since 1945. Shockingly, there is only one year when the wall has not received any names, which was 1968. Furthermore - something which sent a shiver down my spine - much of one wall is still left blank, so that the names of those killed this year and in the future can also be chiselled onto it.

Just before 12 o'clock we walked to the Jewish Memorial, where we met other members of AJEX and its supporters, as well as members of the public who had gathered for the ceremony. The head of AJEX gave an introductory speech, prayers and psalms were read in both English and Hebrew, and wreaths were laid. A teacher from Great Wyrley High School gave a small speech about what Armed Forces Day means to her, and Anita Parmar of the Trust spoke briefly before introducing me. I read the famous (and haunting) 'Shema' by the late Primo Levi, a Holocaust survivor:

'You who live secure in your warm houses
Who return at evening to find hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.'

You can watch a news report from Jewish News One about the main proceedings here.

Every year, AJEX hold a smaller ceremony at a different memorial after the main service at the Jewish Memorial. This year, a party of Standard Bearers from AJEX, a bugler and a bagpipe player led the way to the newly-unveiled memorial to the Arctic Convoys. Once again, prayers were said, wreaths were laid and I read the poem'Escort Duty':

'Five nights of hell in which
Five ships went down. The gale
Rose quick and lasted, hail
Bit into wind-stung flesh
Near blinding those on watch,
And endless, endless swell
Rose, trembling, hung and fell
With stomach-sickening strength.

And still they were groping blindfold for the U-boat
And still the depth-charges roared out at each find.
Tired eyes were kept striving to pierce through the darkness
While strain and the sleeplessness battered their mind.
The whole soul cried out for a puff at a Woodbine
But such was denied them for fear that a spark
Would show their position - and tea wasn’t easy
To make in a galley awash in the dark.
Each brain was near bursting protecting that convoy
And endless the struggle twixt tension and wit
When - Climax ! A thunderous flash and explosion
Flung hell into Hades.
The ship had been hit.

The weather was perfect for a day of such importance; the sky was cloudless and the sun shone down on the congregation throughout, as though casting a light on the remembrance taking place. It also lit up the Arboretum beautifully. The site truly is a very special place, and an ideal location for those looking to reflect or take some time out to walk around and admire the striking memorials at every corner of the site. I would strongly encourage those readers who are able to travel to the Arboretum to do so.