Marina Smith MBE, co-founder of the UK National Holocaust Centre and Museum – the birthplace of the Aegis Trust for genocide prevention – has passed away on June 26th 2022 at the age of 87 following a short illness and an extraordinary life of service to humanity.
Born in Kolkata, India, on November 16th 1934, Marina moved with her family to Ireland aged four. Attending Wesley College in Dublin, its Methodist foundations would set the tone for her life of faith. Moving to England at 14, by 18 she was a trainee teacher. Gaining her Certificate in Religious Education from Westminster College, Oxford, Marina became Head of Religious Education at Spondon Park Grammar School in Derbyshire, where she met Eddie – then the Minister at Ilkeston Methodist Chapel. Married in August 1964, by 1973 Marina had moved with Eddie and their two young sons, Stephen and James, to Ollerton – a North Nottinghamshire mining town.
In 1976, Marina gave up full time teaching and became a full time Minister’s wife; a role she truly made her own. Then, in 1978, Marina and Eddie made the momentous decision to give up their roles in the Methodist Church and start something new from scratch; a conference and retreat centre for people from all walks of Christian life to reflect on what their faith should mean in practical terms within society. Renovating a derelict ten-bedroom farmhouse they named the place ‘Beth Shalom’, meaning ‘House of Peace’.
A family holiday to Israel in 1981 would set their course for the future. Expecting to reinforce Christian convictions, they left with challenging questions about the some of the Christian world’s failings, especially its conflicted relationship with Judaism and its contribution to antisemitism and other injustices.
Her first son Stephen pursued these questions through his studies. It was a journey the family shared. After their sons Stephen and James visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in 1991, Marina and Eddie travelled with them to European Holocaust sites. Soon after, the development of Beth Shalom as the UK National Holocaust Centre was conceived.
The Holocaust Centre opened its doors for the first time in September 1995. Becoming its first Education Director, as a former teacher of Religious Education Marina understood the importance of the Centre’s work in shaping the attitudes of future generations. Its aim is to combat racism, antisemitism and the kind of discrimination that leads to the exclusion of ‘the other’. Her pedagogical knowledge and experience of teaching in the classroom were fundamental to the creation and implementation of a highly successful Holocaust education programme.
Described by Kindertransport Bob Rosner as “the engine in the boiler room keeping everything going”, she was in a sense the spiritual mother of the Holocaust Centre, who made this House of Peace a home for survivors.
“When I think Marina, I think ‘Mother’,” child refugee Gina Gerson recalled on Marina’s 70th birthday. “Marina has such a huge capacity for empathy, sympathy and just love. And there is enough not just for her immediate family, but somehow for all humanity.”
When her sons launched the Aegis Trust for Genocide Prevention in 2000, Marina was whole-heartedly behind them – and the family of survivors and peace-builders who regard her as a mother widened once again.
The Aegis Trust was commissioned to establish the Kigali Genocide Memorial following a visit to the UK National Holocaust Centre by Rwandan officials in 2002. Attending its opening in 2004 was one of Marina’s last major engagements as a Director of the Centre. Recognized in the Queen’s 2005 New Year’s Honours List with an MBE for services to Holocaust remembrance and education, later that year she stepped down from her formal role.
‘Retirement’, however, was never really a word in Marina’s lexicon, and she didn’t slow her work rate for a moment. Every day, she would be hosting visiting survivor speakers, writing and responding to an endless flow of correspondence, and providing love, wisdom, prayer, hugs and afternoon tea to all comers. Her ability to understand, deeply connect with and care about people on an individual basis was legendary.
“Most people feel suspicion when they encounter pure goodness. They are unused to it and initially do not know how to react. However, to be touched and encompassed by Marina’s love is such a privilege,” Kindertransport Steve Mendelsson commented on Marina’s departure from her formal role at the UK National Holocaust Centre. “Her tireless efforts on behalf of humanity have earned her the respect and admiration of all who know her. She has carved a unique place here on earth, and ranks with the saints.”
Writing on the same occasion, Lady Amelie Jakobovits stated, “The Centre you and the men of your life have created is unique in its beauty and the depth of its teaching … For this, no one on Earth can thank you enough, only the Almighty can do so.”
Marina is survived by her husband Eddie, her sons Stephen and James, and her seven grandchildren. Executive Chairman of StoryFile, the World’s first AI conversational video platform, Stephen is also Director Emeritus of the USC Shoah Foundation and holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education. James is Life President of the UK National Holocaust Centre and CEO of the Aegis Trust for genocide prevention.
The Smith family has invited all who wish to make a donation in honour of Marina and her extraordinary legacy here: https://marinahsmithfoundation.org/
Personal tributes to Marina can be given here: https://marinahsmithfoundation.org/write-a-tribute/