Lately we have all been spending more and more time in our gardens, no matter how small or large they might be.
We have tended to grand open spaces where there is a fountain at the centre, to a square patch of earth where beautiful flowers bloom, to a windowsill where fresh herbs grow ready to be picked to be included in a family meal.
These gardens bring us comfort in difficult and challenging times. They are spaces where we can rest, find nourishment and replenishment ourselves but they also provide us with an area where we can retreat from the world to quietly remember the passing of a loved one.
Gardens, especially memorial gardens, create a peaceful contemplative environment and invite personal reflection. Connecting plants and nature with those remembered serves to honour them, but this also connects our memory to sense impressions that go beyond the memorial itself. Memorial gardens are living memorials as they represent growth, rebirth and regeneration as well as decay. The typical features of memorial gardens in Britain include flowers, benches, trees, water features, walkways, memorial plaques and figurative memorials. Memorials in gardens share the serenity of their environment and reflect its beauty.
But there is a contrast between the beauty of flowers, for example, and the horror and death that is remembered in British Kindertransport memorial gardens. British Kindertransport memorial gardens highlight a distinction between the respect for life and the inhumanity of the Holocaust. This tension is not resolved: the gardens honour both the living and the dead. With the passing of several Kinder due to Covid-19 it seems fitting to remember Britain’s Kindertransport memorial landscape because this is a time of national mourning as well as a time to celebrate the lives of those we hold so dear to us.
At the National Holocaust Centre and Museum (NHCM) there is a memorial rose garden where over 2,000 roses have been dedicated by survivors, their families and friends as well as by school children, charities, organisations and staff. The traditional planting of a rose symbolises a sense of belonging. While it is more traditional to leave a stone on the grave of the deceased to physically honour them within the Jewish faith, the roses nevertheless have the same function which is to show that you care enough about someone to visit their grave. The layout of the garden is in keeping with the design of British war grave sites because there is a standardisation of presentation which creates a sense of equality. There is also a personal touch to this garden as each rose is accompanied by a plaque, inscribed with an intimate message. There are also several physical memorials situated around the garden such as the memorial to the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust as well as to those who survived in hiding. Therefore, in remembering the Kinder we also remember the children who were unable to make similar journeys to safety.
The rose garden at the NHCM highlights the importance of individual memory because it is a space where the victims and their families can come together; this group understands what it is like to experience injustice. The plaques which accompany the roses attest to the diversity of the Kindertransport experience as they bring into focus the wider history of rescue and adaptation. David Brown’s volume Behind the Rose (2011), published by the NHCM, further facilitates a wider understanding of the garden. In the edited volume survivors speak about how many of their family members were murdered in the Holocaust and how they do not have graves.
The garden symbolises their resting place. It becomes a physical marker which remembers their story.
The roses dedicated by second and third generation reflect upon the family that they never knew. There is a sense of overwhelming loss within this garden but there is also a sense of hope because some roses remember the survivors while other their rescuers; the people who did not stand by but acted. The roses also show that individuals, communities and a nation continues to commemorate the Holocaust. This garden proves that memory will not fade away as the garden is a marker, it is rooted in the ground as well as in the hearts and minds of those who visit it.
Linking past and present
There are also several memorial gardens which remember rescuers such as Sir Nicholas Winton and Major Frank Foley. The gardens created to memorialise the rescue efforts of Sir Nicholas Winton are found in Princes Park, Golders Green and Oaken Grove Park, Maidenhead. In Princes Park there is a sculpture which depicts five children playing football, flying kites, sailing boats on a pond, climbing trees, and sliding down a slide. The memorial shows the Kinder’s childhoods continuing in Britain, where they could play again. This stands as a reminder that Britain continues to support the growth and development of all children who play in the park today.
In Oaken Grove Park visitors can read several quotes by Sir Nicholas Winton on memorial plaques. This landscape garden, where visitors are invited to ‘reexperience’ Sir Nicholas Winton’s difficult road to rescue, invites empathy and seeks to engage visitors emotionally rather than just commemorate a rescuer. It could be argued that the garden establishes a direct temporal and experiential connection between the historical figure and the present-day visitor or passer-by because the visitor stands and moves in a space symbolically linked to Sir Nicholas Winton’s life and activities. There is an immediacy or connection created between the visitor and the memorial which is something that appears to be absent from more abstract memorials or memorial plaques, for example.
The Frank Foley trail, in Highbridge in Somerset, connects with the memorial gardens to Sir Nicholas Winton because it honours another British hero who rescued Jews from Nazi persecution. The Foley trail consists of a plaque found on the war memorial in the Southwell Gardens, a figurative statue, a memorial plaque above the front door of the house where he was born, and a road which has been renamed after him. The trail passes through the memorial gardens, inviting visitors to imagine they are walking in the footsteps of Foley. This is like the Sir Nicholas Winton garden as visitors share his life trajectory – the memorial does not just honour an individual, it also asks visitors to share his experience by walking these same footsteps.
While the Foley memorials within the gardens share similar characteristics to the Sir Nicholas Winton memorial gardens because they emphasise a moment in time – rescue – the fact that they are placed within the wider context of the trail also retraces Foley’s life from birth to death. For example, the statue which was dedicated in 2018 is not far from Foley’s grave in the local cemetery.
The memorials to Sir Nicholas Winton and Major Frank Foley accord with British memorial traditions because they focus on the unsung hero. These two figures are accessible to all members of the public because they are presented as ordinary Britons who acted when they saw injustice. They celebrate the achievements of these two men but they also seem to concentrate British memory around male rescuers. There are no memorial gardens in Britain which specifically focus on the bravery of female rescuers.
Many Kinder as well as their rescuers have expressed their passion for gardening to me over the years. It made me think about how gardens are typically an earthly paradise created by God and humans as a safe enclosure. Could they be an image of the soul? I’d like to think so because after all the suffering in the world a garden can bring such joy, such hope and such love in times of need.