More than seven decades after the liberation of the Nazi death camps, the remains of six unidentified victims of the Holocaust are to be given a Jewish burial.
The service will take place on 20 January, and is expected to be attended by Holocaust survivors.
The Imperial War Museum, which has stored the remains for more than 20 years, has handed them to the United Synagogue after consultation with the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, and the Auschwitz museum near Krakow in Poland.
The remains will be placed in shrouds in a single coffin and laid to rest at Bushey New Cemetery in Hertfordshire, which serves the orthodox Jewish community.
Michael Goldstein, president of the United Synagogue, which is organizing the funeral, the first burial of Holocaust victims in the UK, said: “We have the opportunity to do what was denied to our brothers and sisters during the Holocaust – to provide a dignified and appropriate Jewish burial.”
The remains of what are believed to be six people were discovered by a survivor at the Auschwitz death camp. In 1997, the remains were sent to the IWM as part of a collection of Holocaust-related items, despite the museum saying it did not wish to acquire the container.
As few details were supplied, the IWM – which is legally permitted to store human remains – commissioned tests. The English Heritage Centre for Archaeology found that the remains included human bone fragments, non-human bone fragments, construction material from cremation ovens, and ash – and suggested that the human remains were of six people, likely to be five adults and a child.
The IWM has looked after the remains since their arrival at the museum. However, as part of a review of its Holocaust-related items ahead of the construction of new galleries in 2021, the museum decided it was no longer appropriate to look after the remains. It sought advice from the office of the chief rabbi and the Auschwitz museum. The United Synagogue offered to hold a funeral.
Diane Lees, the IWM’s director-general, said: “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.”
In a statement, the chief rabbi’s office said: “These kedoshim [holy souls] will now be afforded the dignity of a Jewish funeral, within the loving embrace of our community – something which was denied to them and so many others during the course of the Shoah [Holocaust].” Soil from Israel will be placed in the grave.
Goldstein said: “We must remember that although we have only the remains of a number of victims of the Shoah, each was a person in their own right, with a family and a life and a Jewish identity, with hopes and dreams just like each of us. One of them was a child. I will hug my own children especially tightly next Sunday.
“I thank all of my colleagues who will make this burial possible and know that each of them feels acutely the huge burden of responsibility for what we are doing. We welcome all those who wish to attend to join us at the levaya[funeral] to pay their respects.”
Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “When the camps were liberated, survivors started asking questions about their families: who survived, where were they, what happened to them?
“For the majority, they had lost most, if not all, of their relatives in the Holocaust. They did not have a chance to say goodbye, attend a funeral or pay their respects to their own families and to the millions of Jews who were murdered and who did not have the burial they deserved.
“This ceremony is firstly an opportunity to bless, bury and lay to rest these victims, but also it is a moment for Holocaust survivors, and for all of us, to come together and remember.
“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.”