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Holocaust Remembrance Day

Volume 334: debated on Wednesday 30 June 1999

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4.32 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce a national day to learn about and remember the Holocaust.
This year, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time on a visit sponsored by the Holocaust Education Trust. As I went round the various blocks, I felt a sense of powerlessness and of the dehumanisation which still pervades the site. I could only wonder at the absolute terror that the Nazis' victims must have felt. The cold-blooded, methodical processing of fellow human beings was brought home to me by the huge and tragic piles of personal belongings and by the detail, such as the systematic removal of laces from the mountains of victims' shoes. The sheer scale of the operation was revealed only at Birkenau, where 1.5 million people died.

At Auschwitz, I was privileged to be in the company of 150 teachers from all parts of Britain who specialise in holocaust studies. We all came away with a sense of the overwhelming importance for all communities and for people of all ages to commemorate, and learn from, the holocaust.

I appreciated more than ever how unique the holocaust was. It was a defining episode of our century, a crisis for European civilisation and a universal catastrophe for humanity. It remains an unparalleled act of genocide in its vast scale. It was perpetrated by evil, harnessing the processes and technology of what was a modern, industrialised country.

The need to commemorate the holocaust applies in Britain as much as anywhere. Our country made terrible sacrifices to defeat Hitler. The period of Nazism and the second world war remain a defining episode in our national psyche. However, we were not affected directly by the holocaust in the same way as occupied mainland Europe.

Although the holocaust is now taught as part of the history syllabus for 13 and 14-year-olds, those aged over 25 have not been so privileged. For instance, I did not study it when I was at school. Learning about, and remembrance of, the holocaust must extend beyond formal education and childhood. It is right that our busy way of life should be punctuated by a day each year so that learning and remembrance can continue. That is why we need a holocaust remembrance day. It will provide a national focus for promoting a democratic, tolerant and respectful society. It will emphasise the positive values of Britain and of civilisation and draw attention to the consequences of the alternative.

More recent persecutions in Rwanda and the Balkans have dramatically and tragically underlined the lessons of the holocaust. Those lessons are just as relevant decades after the war as they were when Auschwitz was liberated in 1945. NATO's reasons for intervention in Kosovo graphically demonstrate that the holocaust still has a clear resonance for today's world leaders. It is vital to retain that understanding in future generations of leaders, which is why a remembrance day is so important.

The holocaust remembrance day in Britain could be marked in a number of different ways. For example, nationally, there could be a service or ceremonial occasion, perhaps including a keynote speech by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has given great encouragement by setting up a consultation, through the Home Office, on the concept of a remembrance day. Lighting a yahrzeit candle in memory of all victims of the holocaust could form a central part of such a ceremony.

In schools, the remembrance day would emphasise that the holocaust is important and more than a mere academic subject. The day would lend itself to assemblies, school projects, exhibitions and fund-raising events. The message would extend to the wider questions of anti-racism, tolerance and respect, and of understanding the values and customs of different groups in our society.

For the first remembrance day, literature could be distributed to all households to explain the relevance of the holocaust and the importance of the remembrance day. In Sweden, for example, the Prime Minister's office has already produced a book on the holocaust to be given free to each family who ask for it. Local communities could also mark the day together with events and ceremonies in their churches, synagogues and town halls.

Those events would generate great media interest nationally and locally. The remembrance day would be a catalyst to scheduling television and radio programmes about the holocaust and related issues of genocide, racism and human rights, which would emphasise why the remembrance day is so important.

Clearly, there needs to be consideration of what is the best date for a remembrance day and we need to bear in mind the main objectives, which are to touch the population as a whole and to let schools use the day to reach out to young people. There are several possible dates, but I suggest the Monday nearest 27 January, which is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. That would be a convenient time of year for schools and would harness one of the most powerful images of the horror of the holocaust.

That date has the additional advantage of coinciding with the date likely to be recognised as holocaust remembrance day in other European Union countries.

The new Labour Government are committed to building a fair and prosperous society in which everyone has a stake and the rights and responsibilities of individuals, families and communities are properly balanced. In our ethical foreign policy, we are seeking to spread the values of human rights, civil liberties and democracy, which we demand for ourselves. Our citizenship programme in schools will be designed to teach equality and diversity, democracy, the duty to act responsibly, the ability to recognise forms of manipulation and persuasion and concern for human rights. A holocaust remembrance day would be another focus for those building blocks of a civilised society.

Each day, the link with the holocaust through its survivors is weakened as they pass away or their memories fade. It is vital to ensure that remembrance of the holocaust as a unique tragedy is perpetuated, and I believe that we should not delay in that.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew Dismore, Ms Karen Buck, Mr. Tony McNulty, Mr. Fabian Hamilton, Mr. Stephen Twigg, Mr. Mike Gapes, Mr. Peter Bradley, Mrs. Louise Ellman, Mr. Ivan Lewis, Mr. Stephen Hepburn, Mr. James Clappison and Dr. Evan Harris.

Holocaust Remembrance Day

Mr. Andrew Dismore accordingly presented a Bill to introduce a national day to learn about and remember the Holocaust: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 23 July, and to be printed [Bill 131].