Image: Holocaust Memorial Day


In an ever more fractured world it is even more important today that we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday 27th January and, in this week's blog, Margaret McGowan reflects on, among other things, teaching her students about the practice of 'measureing heads' to establish a super race.  

The 20th century dictator Adolf Hitler wanted to create a German super race.  His Nazi Party defined that as proving one's ancestry for three generations past was free of any mixing with "non-Aryans", such as Jews, Asians, Africans. They believed that one effective check was to measure the circumference of the head and teachers were instructed to measure their students’ heads. Those with smaller heads were considered inferior.
Today, of course, scientists are virtually unanimous in declaring that no single race is superior to any other.
The school where I taught in Hamilton held activities to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day each year. I taught mathematics and asked third and fourth year pupils to participate in this bizarre ‘head measuring’ exercise.
In pairs, they measured the circumference of each other’s heads and from the results we worked out three types of averages. Maths achieved, I asked those who would be regarded as inferior using the Nazis’ criteria to stand up. How did they feel? I asked them to write a paragraph on their reactions  and not surprisingly, they were shocked that people had actually been subjected to this ‘test’.
I then told them about my visit to Auschwitz in 2000 with my 15-year-old son.
Historians estimate 1.1 million people died at the hands of Poland's German occupiers at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945, either from asphyxiation with Zyklon B gas in the notorious gas chambers or from starvation, disease or exhaustion. They included Jews, Roma, Sinti, gays, disabled and black people.
What struck me was the sheer scale of the Holocaust and how industrialised and mechanised the process of killing people became at Auschwitz. It was not hot-blooded brutality. It happened in a planned way, with some people designing the process of death and others carrying it out. We were not prepared for the impact that it had on us.

Each of the six million people ruthlessly exterminated in this way in the course of the Second World War were individuals, with personal hopes, dreams, and stories. They had belongings such as the assortment we saw at Auschwitz - suitcases confiscated by the Nazis, with names, dates of birth, and addresses. There were piles of real human hair, plaits with ribbons, ponytails cut from fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents - families no different from ours. My son remarked how many suitcases belonged to people younger than him. 

We saw the empty containers of chemicals. We saw where people were piled together to await extermination. I barely fitted inside the isolation cell. The experience was very emotional. My son said he realised that hearing about history is not like witnessing it in person.

My classes agreed that we must never give up trying to improve our society and that every single person has to open his or her mind and stand up against discrimination. They stressed the importance of remembering the Holocaust today. It isn’t just a historical fact to be learned, but a lesson that prejudice, hate and intolerance can turn into the destruction of individual lives.
As the poet George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

Image: Mother Earth


In this week's blog Sister Isabel Smyth reflects on 'Mother Earth' and how the inherent rights of nature are being recognised in the law.

According to an article on the BBC website, a court in India has declared the river Ganges a legal "person" in an effort to save it from pollution. Nor is the Ganges the only natural phenomenon to receive this designation. Among others are glaciers, jungles, grasslands, even the air itself - all declared as legal “persons”.

This is an attempt to look upon nature as an entity with fundamental rights rather than as a resource to be used and abused. The article says “environmental laws only focus on regulating exploitation. But this is now changing, with calls for the inherent rights of nature to be recognised, both in India and around the world”. Similar legislation is being introduced in Ecuador and New Zealand.

There are, as you would suspect, complications in applying these rights but it does focus on strategies we can employ to care for this earth on which we depend for life.

So many of us are now divorced from nature and see the earth’s resources as ours to use for our own benefit and comfort, despite the endless list of the devastating effects of our behaviour – including climate change, extinction of species, environmental disasters, overuse of fossil fuels, pollution, and deforestation.
And we are all implicated in these disasters and contribute to them – industry and business in big ways, but all of us in little ways. I heard someone call this the Great Unravelling.

We are in fact destroying ourselves. 

Perhaps one day there will be a move to declare the earth itself a legal person, and we do have to recover a sense of the sacredness of the earth.  This sense is a gift that indigenous and pagan religions can offer us all – even the major religions.  Aloysius Pieris, a Catholic theologian from Sri Lanka, suggests that the major world religions succeeded because they incorporated into themselves aspects of the indigenous, so-called pagan religions. Many of the world faiths have their sacred places, including sacred mountains, sacred wells and sacred rivers. These traditions remind us of our connectedness to the earth, of our responsibility for it, of our gratitude to it for our very livelihood, of its inherent sacredness, of our responsibility to care for it and bring it healing.  Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has said that we think it’s a miracle to walk on water, but the real miracle is to walk on this earth and we should do this with reverence and respect. 

Hinduism and Buddhism have much to teach us about our attitude to our planet.  Buddhism realises the interconnectedness of all things and the need for compassion for all sentient beings.  Hinduism’s personification of the sacred can lead to a sense of respect and reverence.

I like the idea of thinking of the earth as a living organism, as an expression of the Sacred, as our Mother who provides for us and is the source of our life. If we could adopt this attitude perhaps we could embrace her suffering, look upon her with new eyes and work for her healing and well-being.


This is shortened version of this article first published on 7/4/14 at

Image: Families Can't Wait


Justice and Peace Scotland’s vice chair & commissioner for Argyll & the Isles, Marian Pallister, reflects on our on-going Give Me Five campaign.

Towards the end of 2018, I found myself begging mums and grannies in my parish in Argyll and the Isles to be photographed with a laminated poster reading ‘Families can’t wait’. Not surprisingly, everyone I approached was only too eager to pose with the poster – because they understood how much our Justice and Peace Scotland ‘Give Me Five’ campaign is needed.
They weren’t alone in wanting to speed up the Scottish Government’s response to our call for an extra £5 a week to help lift thousands of children out of poverty. Justice and Peace Scotland commissioners in every diocese collected dozens of pictures like mine to remind the decision makers in Holyrood of the urgency that the 2019/20 budget and Scottish Government spending plans include that top-up to child benefit.
We’ve been campaigning with the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland for this top-up for too long, and that’s why we added this rider that ‘families can’t wait’.
And they can’t. Poverty affects one in four children in Scotland. To put that into context, count the children in your street, up your close, in your children’s class at school - the children preparing for Confirmation in your parish. Now imagine that one in every four of those children may lack a full school uniform, a pair of winter shoes, breakfast. That’s why we’re campaigning.
Our parish is involved with a local charity that provides emergency packs for individuals and families in crisis. Your parish probably has something similar going on.
I helped pack up ‘special’ Christmas parcels for that charity. The only information we were given was an identification number and whether the pack was for an individual or a family. A big percentage of the 25 packs were for families.  We are a rural area – your parish is probably donating on a much bigger scale. But let’s think of the people, not the number of packs. What we included in packs for our social work department that day meant that on Christmas Day, the children would be able to pig out (!) on tinned steak and kidney pie, tinned peas, tinned fruit and ‘special’ chocolate biscuits. As we finished the packing, social workers asked for two more emergency packs for families. I went home and wept.
This week Derek Mackay MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, told Give Me Five campaigners that the Scottish Government shares our commitment to ensure it does ‘all we can to tackle the deep seated inequalities in our society’ but that it is a complex task to change a reserved benefit and so it will be taking its time to consider the issue of giving that extra fiver in benefit. 
I can only pray that children who relied on charity for something vaguely resembling a ‘good meal’ at Christmas 2018 will literally get a bigger share of the cake at Christmas 2019. And that Mr Mackay and his colleagues come to understand that families really can’t wait because children’s lives are dribbling away in Dickensian misery.

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