I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of Holocaust Memorial Day.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House for selecting this subject for debate. I note that the Deputy Leader of the House is on the Front Bench for the opening of this debate.
Holocaust memorial day is a theme that unites right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I welcome that. Last year’s topical debate on this issue was probably the most well attended that we have had. In debates such as today’s our clear message is one of shared resolve around the most important issues. I am keen to allow as many contributions as possible, so I will keep my remarks as brief as I can—and briefer than I would have liked. That shared resolve must be about not just learning more about the holocaust, genocides and other atrocities, but learning from them. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in committing afresh to ensure that the lessons at the heart of Holocaust memorial day are remembered and applied.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend because he has made an important point, particularly in the wake of the recent troubles in Gaza and southern Israel. There has been a real upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks in my constituency and borough, and more widely. The Community Security Trust recorded more than 150 attacks, the highest number since it started keeping details. That is a very serious matter. Does my hon. Friend think that those responsible for those attacks could learn a lot if they studied what had happened during the holocaust?
I am grateful for that intervention; my hon. Friend deserves a huge tribute for the progress made in the past few years in commemorating Holocaust memorial day and learning the lessons of the past. When we speak to holocaust survivors, or the families of those who died in the holocaust, about the criminal damage of synagogues and the desecration of graves in cemeteries, we find that they have a sense of déjà vu. It renders them speechless. Those who research the history of the holocaust see the dehumanisation and hatred that begins at one end of the spectrum and leads ultimately to the killing of 6 million people.
I totally agree with the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). Holocaust memorial day is for remembering all the victims of mass murder and killings, and we remember those killed in Gaza, including the young children. Does the Minister not deplore the fact that the Vatican has brought back into the fold a British-born bishop who is a holocaust denier and obviously pro-Nazi? Although I accept that the Vatican has totally dissociated itself from his remarks, is it not unfortunate that that bishop is allowed to be so senior in the Catholic clergy, given that he simply denies that the gas chambers existed?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has a rich history of fighting anti-Semitism and racism. Let us be clear: those who deny the holocaust are not historians revising history—their views demonstrate anti-Semitism. We must make sure that our children understand, through education, that the holocaust did occur. We cannot pretend that it did not or allow those who say that it did not to have the oxygen of publicity.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has already given way generously in the early stages of his speech.
There are misguided souls who labour under the misapprehension that virulent and violent anti-Semitism is but a shameful historical fact, but not something with which we currently need to trouble ourselves. Will the hon. Gentleman use the authority of his office and the content of his speech to set out, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) did, the facts to the contrary?
In the process, will the Minister—a generous fellow—be kind enough to pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who, sadly, is not in his place today? He is the author of a truly outstanding book entitled “Globalising Hatred: The New Anti-Semitism”. I had the good fortune to receive it as a Christmas present from my wife, who paid £12.99. The right hon. Gentleman would not like me to say this, but it is available new on Amazon for £9.
The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is passionate about these issues and chaired a report on anti-Semitism. Today he is in his constituency, where there have been announcements and cuts are being made, trying to save jobs and to help those who might lose their jobs to retrain.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who chairs the all-party group on genocide prevention; we must not forget that contemporary genocide also exists. He and others from both sides of the Chamber are right to ask the Government to make it clear that anti-Semitism is unacceptable in 2009 and that those forms of hate crime that still occur in the UK and around the world need to be stopped as soon as possible.
Has Her Majesty’s Government made any representations through its diplomatic envoys at the Holy See—the Vatican—about our disgust at the fact that the bishop who denied the holocaust has been taken back into the fold? If that has not happened, will the Minister give assurances that it could happen? Many people feel that the issue should not go unremarked by the wider world.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. Keen as I am to empire-build and to take over Departments and the responsibilities of other Ministers—[Interruption.] I take the point. I will find out what efforts have been made via open channels and behind the scenes to express our view to the Vatican about the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I will get back to him via correspondence.
I am sorry to keep labouring this point, but what the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, and has just been reiterated, is of critical importance. The Pope has made a decision to take someone who is an unrepentant denier of the holocaust—one of three people who were excommunicated for other reasons—back into his Church, not because that person denies the holocaust but in spite of the fact that he denies it—a denial that has recently been repeated. Can the Minister impress on his colleagues the importance of the Government taking a firm view and expressing it in no uncertain terms? I am sure that British Roman Catholics, British Jews and, indeed, British people of no religion whatsoever will be absolutely horrified about what His Holiness the Pope has done.
I pay tribute to the role that the hon. Gentleman has played with regard to David Irving when he went to Oxford. We all know the protestations that the hon. Gentleman made about his disgust at that happening. Let me put it to him this way. Having spoken, as he has, to many survivors of the holocaust and bereaved families, and being aware of the psychological trauma that goes through communities in relation to hate crime, I am caused great concern by the fact that somebody who can deny that the holocaust took place can hold high office or be invited to august institutions to debate the subject. Many Members in this House will share the feelings that the hon. Gentleman has expressed and find the promotion of such a person highly unsavoury. I will turn to the issue of holocaust denial later in my short opening remarks, because it is still, 64 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, raised by so-called academics and opinion-formers.
As the Member for Chipping Barnet, I have the great honour of representing constituents who include survivors of the holocaust. Does the Minister agree that as, sadly, fewer and fewer survivors are left to tell the story directly, it becomes more and more important to educate younger generations about the holocaust so that we can learn lessons, dispel the lies told by holocaust deniers, and try to counter anti-Semitism, the upsurge in which has already been mentioned?
The hon. Lady raises an important point, although I think that I am in danger of taking 12 interventions when I am still on the first page of my speech. I will come on to the important role that the Holocaust Educational Trust plays. This week, I had the pleasure of going to the Holocaust centre in Newark.
Let me return, if that is permissible, to my speech. The shared resolve that I mentioned about four minutes ago must be not only to learn more about the holocaust and genocides and other recent atrocities, but to learn from them. I am sure that hon. Members join me in committing afresh to ensuring that the lessons at the heart of Holocaust memorial day are both remembered and applied. It is hard to find words with which to speak meaningfully and sufficiently of the holocaust: tragic; evil; devastating; depraved. But the more we speak of the holocaust, and the more we learn about it, the more we must accept that none of these words by themselves is adequate. Perhaps because we can never understand the horror, we can properly say only that it is incomprehensible.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is being very generous with his time. Of course, we commemorate the holocaust through Holocaust memorial day, but does he agree that while the day is being celebrated in schools and town halls throughout the country, it is important that children and other people recognise that genocide and racism are rampant in the world right now; that we must be careful that we do not only talk about the past, but try to learn lessons from, for example, Rwanda and Darfur; and that young people, in particular, must be aware that they are not only commemorating the past but should be learning lessons for the future?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was at the Holocaust centre on Monday—the hon. Member for Buckingham will know about the fantastic work that it does through the Aegis Trust and the all-party group on genocide prevention—a phone call was received for Dr. Stephen Smith from colleagues in Darfur, where a village had been surrounded by people who may well have committed further genocide. Let us be clear: the victims there are Muslims, so the idea that the victims of genocide are only Jewish people is not true. There are lessons that we can learn about contemporary genocide where the victims have been Christians, Muslims, Jews, those of other faiths, and those without faith. We need to learn that lesson across society.
It is the sheer enormity of the holocaust and Nazi persecution that is difficult to comprehend. The victims of the holocaust were Jews, Roma and Sinti Gypsies, black people, Slavs, disabled people, gay people, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses and trade unionists. However, our inability to comprehend must never become an excuse for reluctance to remember. We must never forget the great horrors that haunted this continent in the last world war and have done so since. Even though the scale of the Shoah was unprecedented, since world war two the same cycle of evil has been played out—if such things can be measured—in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur. The list goes on. As I said, the victims of genocide have been Muslims, Christians, Jews, and those of other faiths and none. It is precisely for this reason—because the list does go on, and because evil does recur—that the holocaust should be written in our present, not just consigned to the past.
Let me deal with the issue of holocaust denial. Holocaust denial and obfuscation are anti-Semitism masked under a veil of pseudo-historical revisionism. It is a gross insult to the victims of Nazism and to survivors of the holocaust. The best weapon against holocaust denial is education. The memory of the holocaust needs to be preserved and its contemporary lessons passed on to future generations. I pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, whose work with schools and communities has had a big role to play in this. Karen Pollock and her team do remarkable work all year round, not just around Holocaust memorial day and week.
I am extremely sorry to interrupt the Minister, who has been incredibly generous. As he will know, holocaust deniers often try to conjure up an image of themselves as being in some sense a victimised minority. Will he take the opportunity to point out that David Irving had his day in court when he chose to pick a fight with Deborah Lipstadt, the author of “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory”, and lost because he had lied and distorted the record? He got it wrong, and he was exposed: we should keep reminding ourselves and others of that fact.
As someone who has spent my life, in Parliament and before, defending human rights and civil liberties, I find it offensive that someone like David Irving uses freedom of speech as an excuse to propagate such hurtful lies. It causes huge distress, not only psychological but physical, to victims of the holocaust when they hear people such as him saying the things that he does to the audiences that he has been given.
It is essential to hear the voices of survivors, who have shown the resilience of the human spirit, and essential to honour the memory of the victims, whose stories we must not forget. To truly learn history’s lessons, it is essential that we ensure that the baton passes from the citizens of today to the citizens of tomorrow: our young people.
It was my privilege to attend the national Holocaust memorial day commemoration in Coventry last Sunday. That started, for me, with a reception for survivors. About 100 survivors were present at St. Mary’s Guildhall for the lunch. I was humbled and deeply moved to meet and hear the stories of just a handful of them. I would like to pay tribute to their vitality and dignity. So much hatred was thrown at them, for no reason other than the accident of their birth. The way in which they refused to be robbed of their dignity, and displayed such courage and determination, serves as inspiration to us all. The theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day was “Standing up to hatred”. That message, though inspired by state-sponsored atrocities, should resonate with us all in our everyday lives. It was a privilege to attend the event with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Home Secretary. My hon. Friends the Members for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) were also present.
The holocaust teaches us that, tragically, too many people are prepared to stand by or look the other way when they see acts of hatred occurring. At that event we heard the testimony of Regina Franks, a survivor of both Auschwitz and Belsen, a woman whose experience of hatred never conditioned her to hate in return, and whose voice—just one voice out of millions who suffered in the concentration camps or in subsequent genocides—somehow helps us to understand how a single person can make a difference. That is why it was right that we heard contemporary voices say how they would stand up to hatred. Among them were the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but so too was a 15-year-old boy from Coventry, who had been moved to stand up to hatred because of what he had seen on a visit to a concentration camp. We all need to commit ourselves to challenging prejudice, wherever we see it in our society.
In a month when we celebrate the election of the first black president of the United States, it is appropriate that I should quote what Martin Luther King said 40 years ago:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
We all know that, left unchecked, racism and prejudice can have catastrophic consequences, and on Sunday it was good to hear that 15-year-old confirm that he would not allow prejudice to go unchallenged. I was proud to stand with him, and with all the others there, to show our shared resolve.
I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust. I shall not talk about the funding that the Government have given them, because that would be crude. This is more about the values that we share with those organisations and about standing with them shoulder to shoulder, standing up against hatred and saying with a shared voice, “Never again.”
Holocaust memorial day is, of course, 27 January and on that day this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, laid a wreath at Yad Vashem on behalf of our party.
The debate is necessarily sombre, and as the Minister said, each year it is one in which party politics is irrelevant. Each year, we probe the causes of the horror of the holocaust, its roots planted in the racist ideology of the Nazis and, even deeper, in Europe’s terrible history of anti-Semitism. We honour the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Community Security Trust, the all-party group against anti-Semitism, many of whose Members are in their places, and many other organisations. We condemn holocaust denial, as the Minister rightly did, as we do all racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
We wonder how the holocaust could have happened, and how most Germans could have averted their eyes from the attempted extermination of an entire people in Europe. In 1933, Germany could claim to be the most civilised nation in the world. Less than 15 years later, 6 million people were dead. Before we rush to judgment, however, we ask ourselves each year whether we are certain that we would have behaved more honourably. We always join together in this debate to say, “Never again.”
As the Minister said, the Jewish people were not the only victims of the holocaust. There were also Poles, disabled people, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people and many others. Nor, as has been pointed out from the Conservative Benches, was the holocaust the only exercise in mass murder. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s website refers to Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.
Of itself, anti-Semitism is surely no worse than any other form of that vile thing, racism. However, the location of the extermination camps in Europe and the historical backdrop against which they were set place on us a unique responsibility. As politicians, we must be especially sensitive to eruptions of anti-Semitism, given the speed at which it gathered pace in Germany.
As has been mentioned, since 27 December, there has been what the Holocaust Educational Trust describes as “an unprecedented rise” in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain. Our streets have seen the trashing of Starbucks, Tesco and other shops, assaults on visibly Jewish people, the attempted burning down of a synagogue in north London and graffiti that reads simply, “Kill the Jews”. As the House knows, 27 December was the day on which Israel went into Gaza with overpowering force. I understand why passions run high in relation to Gaza among many people from all backgrounds. As the Conservative Member with the largest number of Muslim constituents, I know the rage, the anger, the feeling of impotence and the sense that democracy has failed.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that neo-Nazi parties could well use the mist of what has happened in the past few weeks to raise anti-Semitism and try to cause divisions in communities in which there has been harmony in recent years?
On the appalling situation in Gaza and southern Israel, does the hon. Gentleman agree that people who support the Palestinian cause do themselves no justice by suggesting that what is going on there is another form of holocaust or genocide? It clearly is not and, by suggesting that, they undermine their own case and do not do anything to contribute to the attempt to find a long-term resolution of the conflict in the middle east.
I broadly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and in fact he has anticipated part of the direction in which I intend to take my speech. Although this is not a debate about Gaza, and you would rightly rule out of order any Member who tried to turn it into one, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to make the point that we must appreciate how strongly many people feel about the situation. I wish to put on record our position that any alleged war crimes must be investigated.
In many ways, that is related to a point that has been made from the Conservative Benches, which is that feelings about this issue are not confined to members of any one ethnic or religious group.
It is incontestable that what happens abroad can stir violent extremism at home. However, I wish to make it absolutely clear that violence abroad must not be allowed to spill on to the streets of Britain, from whatever quarter. People must take great care not accidentally to inflame what they rightly decry. We must all take great care when language involving holocaust comparisons is used, as the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said a moment ago.
It is inevitably asked how people who have experienced suffering can inflict suffering on others. We cannot avoid asking that question in relation to the Palestinians, and some Israelis acknowledge the force of it. However, there is a crucial difference in character between the horrors of war—yes, even of wars in which war crimes are committed—and the holocaust, which was the attempted extermination of an entire people on an industrial scale.
I am sure that the overwhelming majority of those who recently took to the streets to protest peacefully about the carnage in Gaza will have been appalled by the anti-Semitic attacks that the CST has recorded. I hope that all would therefore concede that banners with stars of David alongside swastikas, and placards conflating Israel with Nazi Germany, are not only distasteful but risk inflaming anti-Semitism. I am sure that the House would agree that costumes portraying anti-Semitic stereotypes—for example the demonstrator who, in caricature, wore a mask with a hideously large nose and devoured an imitation bloody child, thereby suggesting the blood libel of Jews eating gentile children—are nothing less than Jew-baiting.
Today, as we say, “never again”, we must look forward with hope. Jews, Muslims, Christians and others up and down the country are working together to build mutual understanding, cohesion and peace, as the council for Christian and Muslim relations in my constituency does. Such groups are not silent, so it would not be accurate to call them part of the silent majority, but they are certainly part of the decent majority, and I hope that the whole House recognises what they do.
The recent spike in anti-Semitic incidents can reasonably be expected to ease. None the less, I believe that we have been warned. Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, recently prayed for the destruction of the Jews
“down to the very last one”.
Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, spoke of the worldwide necessity of martyrdom in relation to Gaza. Mahmoud Zahhar, a Hamas leader, said that the killing of Jewish children is now legitimate “all over the world”.
I close with three swift questions to the Under-Secretary, who, as ever, made a good speech today. First, will he give the House a categorical assurance that all police forces will record anti-Semitic crimes by the end of 2008-09, as promised. Secondly, what is the Government’s view of reports that the Muslim Council of Britain boycotted Holocaust memorial day this year? If they are true, will the Government’s engagement policy in relation to the MCB change? If so, in what way? Thirdly, Ministers rightly met groups concerned about the conflict in Gaza and Israel recently. What steps is the Under-Secretary taking to ensure not only that Ministers meet groups, but that groups from different religious backgrounds and from none can meet each other in such circumstances—obviously, I am referring not only to Gaza and Israel—to help reduce tensions?
I have spoken briefly because many hon. Members wish to participate in the debate. We welcome it and, together, we say, “Never again.”
I add my thanks to the Leader of the House for allowing us to have the debate today. I hope that it will be an annual event, as many Members from all parties support it.
Holocaust memorial week is an opportunity to remember and honour those people who lost their lives in the holocaust. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary said, 6 million Jews, as well as Roma, Sinti, disabled people, Poles, Russians, political opponents, homosexuals and trade unionists were murdered by the Nazi regime. Approximately 1.5 million children were killed in the holocaust. Those children would have been our future, and we should honour their tragically short lives. One of the most affecting parts of the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem is the memorial to children. It is a silent memorial. When one thinks of the noise and movement of children, a silent memorial is very affecting.
I commend the Under-Secretary and the Opposition spokesman for their excellent speeches. Both used the phrase, “Never again”, which is used frequently about the holocaust. However, to society’s cost, the world has failed more than once to prevent or halt genocide—in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and now Sudan. In our interconnected world, we have a responsibility to act to prevent any repetition of the mass murder and attempted extermination of a people that was the holocaust. That is only one reason for the holocaust’s relevance today.
In the 1930s, Germany was hijacked by the rise of far-right nationalism, which preached intolerance, hate and racism. In recent years, we have witnessed an increase in support for far-right parties here in local elections and abroad in countries such as Austria. That is why this year’s theme—stand up to hatred—is so important in a year of European elections. I hope that hon. Members of all parties will work together to combat any racism and religious hatred that threatens to come out of those elections.
Racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism plague community cohesion and race relations, and all politicians must unite to work against the reactionary and illogical mantras of the far right. Remembering, and educating people, especially young people, about the holocaust are invaluable tools in confronting racism and bigotry. That is why I am so pleased that, working with Conservative-controlled Swindon borough council, we are together bringing the “Anne Frank and You” exhibition to our town in April. It will help to educate and emphasise the relevance today of the holocaust of yesterday to not only our young people in Swindon but the whole Wiltshire community. It will help us to tackle some of the local problems that we have experienced between different religions and races and different parts of our community in Swindon. It will also help children to understand and reflect on what is happening in the world today and on what happened in the past.
I pay special tribute to Rod Bluh, the leader of Swindon borough council, members of whose family were on the last trains out of Nazi Germany before the second world war, for his leadership and determination that the “Anne Frank and You” exhibition should come to Swindon.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Lady. I am sure that she agrees that genocide and mass murder do not stem from only one part of the political spectrum—we think of the works of Stalin, and of Mao in the cultural revolution. Like the Under-Secretary, last summer I spent some time with VSO, and I was sent to Cambodia, where an auto-genocide happened. At that time, I was a young boy and blissfully unaware of what was happening there. That happened in an extreme left country, but was stopped by another country from the same part of the political spectrum. Vietnam’s interference and invasion thankfully stopped the mass murder of a third of the Cambodian population. Is not the overriding point the one that the Under-Secretary made about others standing by—
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I did not mean to suggest that bigotry and hatred came from only one part of the political spectrum. I thank him for making that point.
The fundamental themes of justice, political literacy and identity inspire and motivate young people to recognise their rights and responsibilities as citizens. We hope that that will come out of the “Anne Frank and You” exhibition. By making sense of the past, and realising where unchallenged discrimination can lead, young people are empowered to contribute positively to a future society that we hope will be free from discrimination and hatred.
I pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which seeks to educate not only children but all people, including parliamentarians, about the holocaust, not just for its own sake, but so that we might learn the lessons that it holds for us today. I have the privilege of being a member of a cross-party party group that the Holocaust Educational Trust took to Poland last year. We visited several places to witness the continuing effect of the holocaust and the concentration camps on modern Polish society as well as the effect on Poles when it happened.
One visit that will stay with me for ever was to Majdanek concentration camp. We do not hear much about it in this country because almost everybody died; there were few or no survivors to bear witness. I find it difficult to articulate how I felt after that visit. Although we went in July, it was a horrible, drizzly, foggy day, and the area seemed surrounded in gloom—rightly so. As we went into the huts, I was struck by the smell and the visual drabness of the whole area. My imagination still goes into overdrive about what happened at that terrible place. It is right that the Polish nation and the world keep such places available for us to visit.
I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in taking sixth formers from my constituency and those of other hon. Members to visit Auschwitz each year. I hope to visit it this year, with children from my constituency. I think that they will find it as affecting an experience as I did, and it is through such experiences that we keep alive what happened during the second world war and ensure that it does not happen again.
Another feature of our visit was an opportunity to meet some of our counterparts in the Polish Parliament, and representatives from its President’s and Prime Minister’s offices, to discuss ways of identifying and combating anti-Semitism and racism. We told them about the British Government’s support for the Holocaust Educational Trust’s student visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We need to ensure that dialogue and discussion continue between our parliamentarians and Polish parliamentarians, so that, through the European Union, we can encourage Poland to come more into this century as well as to look back and deal with the issues arising from the holocaust and the second world war that it has found so difficult to deal with.
I, too, was on that visit, and what struck me when we visited the Warsaw ghetto was that the consequences are still with us today. We saw the tram tracks on what was formerly Warsaw’s equivalent of Oxford street, which had been completely devastated. We also visited the villages, the majority of whose populations had been Jewish, where the Jewish people had been entirely wiped out. It showed just how close the Nazis had been to succeeding, and I think that that emphasises the importance of what my hon. Friend is saying today.
My hon. Friend has eloquently made the point that I was about to make. Even though the liberation of Auschwitz took place 64 years ago, we cannot say that the problems are not still with us today. They are a stain on Europe, particularly where those concentration camps were situated. We need to work closely with the Polish Government and the Polish people to enable them to overcome that stain, to recognise where Jewish people lived in their country, and to celebrate the past as well as recognising the difficulties that the people in that country faced in dealing with—or not dealing with—what was going on among them at the time.
Majdanek was a camp that was situated right on top of a community in a city. It was not hidden from civilisation. That is shocking. I give that example not as a condemnation of the Polish people but as a warning to all of us. If we are not careful, it will happen again among us. That is the true meaning of “Never again.”
My parents were among those who were provided with refuge in the UK from the turmoil of war and the fracturing of a continent. For that reason, I am extremely proud and grateful that, as a nation, we honour the victims of the holocaust by officially commemorating this day. I would like to pay tribute to Europeans across the continent who provided refuge to those fleeing persecution. I only regret that, once again, the press—with one or two noble exceptions—seem to be too busy to attend this debate in person. I hope that that absence will not be repeated next year.
The philosopher George Santayana said:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Our aim is to live by that moral and to remember the 6 million victims of the holocaust, as well as the many other victims of genocide who have already been mentioned. Unfortunately, genocide remains a stain on the 20th century, with around 150,000 victims in East Timor, 500,000 in Cambodia, 500,000 in Ethiopia, and more in Tibet, Bosnia and Rwanda. Genocide continues even now in Darfur and towards the Karen people in Burma. It is also worrying that the international community has not been able to draw a line under the Rwandan genocide, with remnants of the tribal tensions spilling over into the present conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The situation facing the indigenous people of West Papua is just as bad. One of the worst examples is the displacement and killing of thousands of people to make way for the giant American and British-owned Freeport mine, the largest gold mine in the world, which has reduced a sacred mountain to a crater and poisoned the local river system. We talk about this here, but, collectively, we still allow it to happen elsewhere.
I also pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which is so ably led by Karen Pollock, and without which I doubt we would be having this debate. Sadly, however, there are threats to the holocaust’s memory. According to the BBC, 94 per cent. of funding for the museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau comes from Poland, with only 6 per cent. coming from elsewhere. I would like to ask the Minister whether our Government would consider making a more formal financial contribution, in order to keep the memory alive. The impact of visiting the museum in Auschwitz is profound, and almost no one who has been there can forget it or deny the holocaust.
Last year, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau under the aegis of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and it was indeed a profoundly moving experience. I also went to see how the trust prepared the youngsters before they visited the site, and I was hugely impressed by the contribution of a man called Joe Perl, a holocaust survivor. After all he had been through, he was still filled with enough love of humanity to carry his message to those young children. I was also impressed by the fact that when the children came back, they were encouraged to talk about their experiences and to think of ideas to ensure that these things can never happen again.
I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman. The lessons to be learned from Auschwitz are a priceless contribution to education, and I encourage all right hon. and hon. Members to write a letter to their local schools to encourage the take-up of that scheme.
In addition, I would like to cite a film that I saw recently. It was called “Defiance” and it chronicled the outstanding contribution of two heroes in Poland: the Bielski brothers, Tuvia and Zus. They harboured 1,200 citizens in the forests of Poland to give them protection at the height of the holocaust. They personify the heroism of so many in Europe’s darkest hour.
Education is our greatest weapon against the recurrence of genocide in Europe. I join others on both sides of the House in honouring the victims of the holocaust, along with those who were brave enough to condemn it in the past, and those who promote its memory in the present so that it can serve as a practical reminder for the future.
We must also commend the work of the Kindertransport, before world war two broke out, in securing the future for more than 9,000 Jewish children. Such examples show the human race at its best, in contrast with the very worst, as illustrated by the holocaust. Let us also remember the fragility of tolerance. People may make a pariah of Germany, but in the Channel Islands, which were occupied, there was a degree of co-operation by people not far from here. That suggests to me that we have to be vigilant, ensure that the underlying causes of intolerance are challenged, and hope that this kind of behaviour never ceases to be characterised as wrong—an opportunity to scapegoat by those who are unwilling to see the bigger picture.
The holocaust of world war two is a salutary lesson in what has happened on our own European doorstep. But, more than that, it is a blood-stained testimony to what happens when an ordinary, decent society is allowed to descend into extraordinary barbarism through the abandonment of basic human rights. It is our duty to end the systematic killing of people and groups across the globe, long after the eye witnesses to the holocaust are gone. The few remaining holocaust survivors will not always be with us, and that is why we need the museum. Standing up to hatred means taking a stand for a future in which we simply do not allow systematic killing to take place anywhere in the world. That will require us to revisit our approach to foreign policy, because we do not always get it right.
I am grateful that the Government have done a great deal to embrace the memory of the holocaust. We are not just standing up against hatred; we are taking a stand for a future in which the honour of those who died in the holocaust will never be abandoned, and in which the errors of the holocaust will never be repeated.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. We all know the history of the holocaust, and it is a shame that we do not all believe it. The crisis in Europe between 1914 and 1945 is a subject that has interested me all my adult life. Fully understanding the effects of world war one and the treaty of Versailles on the German nation is, I believe, fundamental to understanding—if it is possible to understand—how Hitler rose to power in Germany.
My hon. Friend mentions the period between 1914 and the second world war. We commemorate the holocaust, of course, which relates only to the second world war. Does he agree that it is about time we also acknowledged the Armenian genocide committed at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1915, which is unfortunately often forgotten, although it was cited by Hitler as one of the sources of the genocide against the Jews in the holocaust?
My hon. Friend is right. I hope that people in history will learn from history—from its good points, anyway.
For people in Hitler’s Germany who were not Jews, not gay, not disabled, not a Jehovah’s Witness, not a communist or a Roma and who kept their noses clean, life under Hitler, after the failures of the Weimar republic, could be good or even fine. So what does that really say? To me it says that if people are prepared to close their eyes to what is happening to the people they work with, if they are content to turn away from what is going on in their streets, and if they can put out of their minds what is happening to members of their family, things are not so bad.
It is the ability to turn a blind eye to hatred and intolerance that worries me today. We cannot and must not judge people on their sexuality, religion or ethnicity—yet all too often we do. I am also concerned when we all too often allow others to express these views without appropriate challenge. There are people who display these intolerances in our country’s politics today—they are sometimes dressed up, but they are there. We are failing the victims of the holocaust and every decent tolerant person in the UK if we fail to face down this challenge, and that is what it is—a real challenge.
The policy of Hitler and Himmler towards the persecution of non-Aryans was often a piecemeal approach—deadly, yes, but piecemeal none the less. It was a policy that grew into action, the stronger the Nazis became. We all know the end results. History shows us what happens when fascists dress up their policies to gather public support. To give the German people the benefit of the doubt, they could not see the extreme nature of what was coming. Today, we can see what happened and we must face up to and resist the opportunity to embark on such policies, both domestically and internationally. It is no defence for us to turn our back on persecution and genocide, wherever they happen. Yes, it might be a long way away, but so, too, in relative terms, was Germany a long way away from the average Briton in the 1930s.
What do we make of those who peddle holocaust denial, those who fuel a propaganda movement that is active in many countries? It is the responsibility of everyone in positions of power and influence to do everything they can to counter such statements—failure to do so is unacceptable as it increases their credibility. We must face down and defeat those who deny that the holocaust took place. Such remarks are offensive beyond words; they are the work of bigots. We must challenge these people, whether they are Heads of State, leaders of political parties, bishops or revolutionary freedom fighters, for want of a better expression. Genocide is not something that died in 1945; it is still here today.
While we are here in the Chamber talking about this subject in a relatively calm and measured way, we must spare a thought for those who are caught up in this horror—people seeing members of their family killed, raped, dismembered and trying to do just enough to get through till tomorrow when—guess what?—they face the torture, rape and killing all over again. I fear that the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust will never end. I call on this Government and other democratically elected Governments to step up their efforts as we try to stamp out genocide and hatred.
I was fortunate to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau and come back—but more than 1 million did not. When I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, there were pupils from two schools in my constituency—Lornshill academy and Crieff high school—visiting for the first time. I am happy that other schools in Ochil and South Perthshire continue to send their pupils there; I hope that they will continue to take up that opportunity for years to come. The impressions left on pupils after these trips are, as we know, often life changing. With every life we change in this way, we may save thousands. To me, that is a good rate of interest.
Wandering though Auschwitz, one would not really appreciate what went on. Sure, there are areas where the gas chambers and the like still exist, but at first sight this place could be any kind of campus; indeed, it had been a Polish army barracks. Birkenau brought the real horrors home to me: the remaining horse-shed accommodation, not for horses but for humans, and the railway track in, but not out. If anyone needs to see how man’s inhumanity to man is best displayed, go to Birkenau.
Every year I urge secondary schools in my constituency to take part in this visit programme and I will continue to do so. Although the lessons are historical, the impact is, sadly, as relevant today as it ever was. To stand up to hatred is something we should all be prepared to do. To fail to do so tarnishes the memory of everyone who has been subjected to persecution and increases the likelihood that it will be us next.
May I first apologise to the Minister, as I have a long-standing doctor’s appointment that will pull me away? I want to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) that I thought he made an extremely good and thoughtful speech. Unusually, I would like to compliment the Minister on his excellent and well balanced speech.
I was brought up in the aftermath of world war two, as were many others. I was brought up with “Exodus” by Leon Uris—not only the book, but the film with its haunting theme music. When I was brought up, there was no question but that one saw the issue of the holocaust as an integral part of the experience of world war two.
During 1978, I went to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where it is true that the birds do not sing, which is most extraordinary. I was stationed in Germany, surrounded by old work camps, which again brought the issue home to me. Last February, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Auschwitz with the HET.
As a matter of interest, I was once vice-chairman of the all-party genocide group, which was founded by my friend and former colleague, Oona King, after a visit to Rwanda, where, of course, 2 million were killed. I have also been vice-chairman of the all-party Sudan group, and I note that Bashir may be charged with war crimes over what is alleged to be genocide in Darfur. I would welcome that. I say that not because my CV is terribly interesting, but because as a result of my age, I know a lot about the holocaust. I regret to say that as survivors increasingly die off, fewer people do.
I wish to praise and devote the rest of my speech particularly to the work of the HET, which has rightly been much mentioned. I praise the HET not because it took me to Auschwitz—although I am very grateful for that—but because what it does is valuable and absolutely vital. The trips are very moving, particularly for those who do not know much about the history of the 20th century. The education it provides in schools and elsewhere is again vital.
As people will know, the HET was founded by my former parliamentary neighbour, the noble Lord Janner, and Merlyn Rees in 1998. I welcome the Government money given over the past couple of years—about £1.5 million a year, I believe—to assist the programme. That is valuable, although the visits took place long before the Government money arrived. I would like to say to every Member in the House that if they have not visited Auschwitz, they should do so. It is really valuable, and to take children there is hugely moving.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the outstanding contribution to the memory of the holocaust created by Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Janner illustrates how every single one of us has the capacity to make a substantial difference to the opportunities for the public of today and the children of tomorrow to learn the lessons of Auschwitz?
I would indeed agree, which is why we need to inculcate tolerance of others in our society.
Let me touch briefly on holocaust denial. To anyone who has looked at the facts, it is of course absolutely ridiculous, but as the HET says, it is best defeated by education and knowledge. David Irving, whom we have heard about already, went to prison in Austria for some of his ridiculous utterances. Although I have no time for the man, I wonder whether sending such an idiotic figure to prison is the best answer.
We also heard earlier about Richard Williamson—a self-appointed bishop, I think, in a sect of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he has recently been readmitted. I watched him on YouTube shortly before I came here and found out that the gas chambers did not exist! He denies their existence. People like him are best defeated by education, knowledge, fact and ridicule. Frankly, I deprecate him completely. I believe that the holocaust denier who is currently in the highest position is President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and I find that much more worrying than the views of some silly man called Richard Williamson.
Education is important. As survivors die off, there will be fewer people to tell others what happened to them and to move us all. That was brought home to me today by the obituary, in The Daily Telegraph, of a Pole called Alec Maisner, who became an air vice-marshal in the Royal Air Force. He was not Jewish, but he was at Warsaw university in 1939, when Stalin took over Warsaw, and many of his fellow students were Jewish. He spent two years in Stalin’s labour camps in Siberia before coming to Britain and becoming an air vice-marshal.
I mention that not because it represents part of the holocaust that we commemorate—of course, Stalin killed some 25 million people, probably his own people, for almost any reason, but not particularly for racist reasons—but because as people like the air vice-marshal move on, we need to keep the knowledge alive. That is why I say again that I praise the work of the HET and hope that we will indeed learn the lessons of history.
The theme of Holocaust memorial day is “Stand up to hatred”. With that in mind, I want to quote from an article about Carl Schmitt. If anyone is an exemplar of hatred, that man is. He was an anti-Semite; he made it very clear that he was a Nazi; and he was a
“leading political thinker of his day”.
“held that liberalism is too weak to sustain passion and conviction at times of crisis. For him, real politics is about identifying an enemy and a cause you are willing to die for.”
That is the sort of pernicious, vicious material that is often peddled today by the British National party. We should be very aware that that is exactly the philosophy that it peddles within our communities.
Some years ago I, like many other Members, was privileged to visit Auchswitz and Birkenau. I say “privileged” because the HET, to which I am very grateful, invited me to take along some young students from Stockton. I echo what others have said today when I tell the House that the visit would have been valuable to me in any event, but in the company of those young students I found it more valuable than I can say.
There was an ugly reality in the human tragedy that those camps represented, and they clearly had a powerful impact on the students. I hoped that the visit would meet a real need and give them a sense that when humans work together, their solidarity ensures that we can cope with any problem with which we are faced. I believe that the visit did that, but it did a great deal more as well.
The students were mortified as they looked at glass cases full of human hair, shoes and glasses, and read the heartbreaking statements of people who had managed to escape and to survive that hideous period. They told their stories of how, during the bitterest of winters, they were made to take off their shoes and were given a pair of shoes both of which were for the left foot or which did not fit them. The humiliation was absolute. That was the absolute force of what the Nazis were about. Those people were starving; they were emaciated; and children were dying around them. There was a hideous sense of fear, which could be felt through what those people were saying. They were so frightened because, while Auschwitz was dreadful, Birkenau was worse. Many knew that they might have to make that journey knowing that it would be the last journey that they would ever make.
The hideousness of those atrocities was overwhelming. I saw it in the students’ eyes. These were robust, up-for-it students who had been full of beans at 6 am on arrival at the airport that morning, feeling that this was a good visit. However, as soon as Auschwitz hit them, their heads were down and they did not know where to look. They could not believe that humanity had been so degraded. They could not believe that it had produced the hideous glass cases that they had seen and the stories to which they were listening. There was a powerful, overwhelming, eerie silence.
The move from Auschwitz to Birkenau was horrendous—all of it. I wanted to cuddle the students. I wanted to put my arms around them and say, “Together, we can ensure that this will never happen again.” However, that would not have been appropriate. I knew that, like me, they had to face that reality. They had to ask themselves the question, “What would I have done if I had been in Germany or Poland at that time?” I am not a Jewess; they are not Jews. What would we have done? Would we have held the line? Would we have supported those people? Would we have done all that we could to protect them? The question is profound. We all want to believe that we would have supported those people, but I still ask myself this question: would it have been “me and my children first”, or would I have been a decent person and said, “Humanity comes first—all people come first”?
I have to tell the House that that was an awesome visit. Eventually, something very positive came out of it. I went to the school assemblies and heard the youngsters talk. They gave their impression of the day; they read poems; they discussed with their groups what they had faced and what had happened. I had a feeling that the visit had strengthened their need and concern for human solidarity always to be in their lives—their principled position. It is possible to learn from the holocaust, and to learn from the hideousness of the 1930s.
Like many other Members, I was a student, and this was a specialist area of my politics degree course. I knew the numbers, and I knew what the Nazis were about, but facing it is a different matter. I tried to explain to the students that it is sometimes necessary to understand that fear can be transformed into indifference, causing people to say, “I do not want to know”. The inability to respect differences becomes a way of blocking out the fact that something is happening in one’s own street.
It is important for us all to recognise that a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is very valuable. It is equally important for us all to understand—as those students clearly understood—that any form of racial superiority is a tool used by some to divide humans. It is not there to produce human respect; it is not there to produce the best in all nations.
Today, we hear the statement to which we all cling and which we must repeat loudly and clearly; we must stand up to hatred. We must say to those who look the other way that if they do not stand up and support decency, there will inevitably be a Rwanda, a Darfur or a Bosnia. One day it might be them and their families who are involved, so standing up is important.
Footballers gave us a tremendous example. Black players were spat at and had things thrown at them while they were playing, but they stood up and said, “Give racism the red card.” The fact that ordinary youngsters, often from impoverished backgrounds in my communities, have leaders who will give them a steer and something to believe in is crucial. We can do something; we do not have to turn away.
We must learn the lessons of the 1930s and say to our children and our communities, “Never again.” I would—
It has been a truly excellent debate, particularly the emotional and moving speech by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). I was a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on Holocaust memorial day, which has attracted 176 signatures from Members of all parties. On Tuesday, Holocaust memorial day, I was delighted to welcome the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks to Lady Margaret school in my constituency for morning assembly. The school, always ranked as one of the country’s best performing comprehensives, did us all extremely proud, led by the headmistress Sally Whyte.
Two girls participated in the HET visit to Auschwitz in November with me, and we heard from both of them. Both Jennifer Gannaway and Lara Hawkins spoke, with short but moving accounts of their day in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jennifer spoke of how the accumulated possessions of the victims, which are so clearly on display in Auschwitz, left an important impression on her:
“It decoded the 1.1 million killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau into 1.1 million individuals whose names we saw on the side of their suitcases."
Lara described the overall chilling effect of the experience:
“The only way I can effectively describe to you my feelings after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau was that I felt completely numb and hollow inside.”
Most importantly of all, we heard from a holocaust survivor, Mrs. Mala Tribich. I believe that she is one of only a couple of dozen holocaust survivors in the UK. The role that people such as Mrs. Tribich are playing and will continue to play in the coming years is a vital one; there is nothing more effective in learning about the holocaust than hearing it related at first hand.
Mrs. Tribich brought many of us at the assembly close to tears as she described how, as a small child, she lost her parents and almost all her immediate family. She described arriving at Ravensbrueck and being processed on arrival. She had her clothes removed and her hair shaved. She said:
“When we emerged the other end, we could not recognise one another, we all looked the same. Our identities, our personalities, our very souls had been taken from us. We were dehumanised.”
Mrs Tribich also said something important:
“Whenever I speak to young people in schools I am invariably asked ‘Do you hate the Germans?’ Well, generally speaking it is not in my nature to hate, but more particularly I always state categorically that I do not attach any blame or hold any sort of grudge against the post war generations. Forgiveness of the perpetrators, however, is quite another matter.”
It is that on which I wanted to reflect briefly today; how we and other European countries are dealing with this horrible past.
I have relatives in both Germany and Russia. I also have a huge number of Polish constituents and go to Poland fairly frequently. I wanted to compare how those countries are dealing with their pasts, as regards the holocaust and anti-Semitism. Before I go down that road, I do not want to give any impression of equivalence in the historical experience of those countries. The holocaust was very largely a Nazi German perpetration, the result of the evil mind of Adolf Hitler and the active participation of thousands of Germans and the passive contribution of millions. The Poles and Russians also had millions of victims at the hands of Nazi Germany.
Germany has, in my view, done a pretty good job of dealing with its past. All post-war German Governments have recognised the special responsibility that Germany has towards both the worldwide Jewish community and Israel. Most Germans I know are shocked by modern-day anti-Semitism. German towns and cities do a pretty good job of preserving historic Jewish memory; the refurbished Oranienburger strasse synagogue in Berlin is testimony to that. The Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps are well-preserved and attract a lot of visitors. There are still anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, but they are pretty rare, so I commend the work Germany has done over the past six decades. Poland is another interesting case—itself a tragic victim of Nazi-German crimes—but also with a difficult past in relation to its former Jewish citizens.
As I have said, I visited Auschwitz in November. I have been there before; my previous visit was in February 1991, when Auschwitz was still arranged as it had been in the communist era, which had only just drawn to a close. What was striking about Auschwitz in 1991 was that the Jewish nature of the holocaust had been written out almost entirely. Of course, a lot of Poles were murdered in Auschwitz as well, but the impression given at that time was that there was no specifically Jewish aspect of the holocaust.
I am delighted to be able to say that the arrangement of the camp museum has now been thoroughly changed for the better. Primacy is now given to the Jewish nature of the holocaust, but space is also given to the thousands of non-Jewish victims—including Poles, Roma and homosexuals—who were targeted by the Nazis out of pure prejudice. There is, for example, a Catholic shrine to a Polish victim beatified by Pope John Paul II. That is an extremely sensitive area and more needs to be done, but may I commend the improvement over the past couple of decades in how Poland has dealt with the tragic history of its former Jewish citizens?
The HET rightly includes during its “Lessons from Auschwitz” trip a visit to the excellent new museum of Jewish life in Oswiecim. At the museum, one gets the impression of how important Jewish life was in towns in Poland before 1939. The same is true of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which shows the importance of Jewish life across central and eastern Europe in the years prior to the holocaust.
Finally, let me say a little about Russia. I do not have enough time to go into the details, but I think Russia needs to do more to combat anti-Semitism. Partly, this is a hangover from Soviet times, when, due to foreign policy reasons, anti-Semitism was disgracefully encouraged on political grounds. I saw that in my work in the late 1980s, when I was active in the Soviet Jewry movement on behalf of refuseniks and the student and academic campaign for Soviet Jewry. Anti-Semitism was very much part of the official ideology of the Soviet Union. Therefore, I think Russia would do very well to learn from some of the historical experience of Germany and Poland since 1945.
I commend the work of the HET. Some 64 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is a challenging role for it to keep learning from that terrible and unique historical experience. It does its job well, and long may that continue.
I start by following the example of other Members, of all parties, who have contributed to the debate, by paying tribute to the HET—to Karen Pollock, Lord Janner and the entire team. They take the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s out to schools, and that is vital. Without that message, the deniers who would lie to people across the world would have strength. They prevent the deniers that strength, and we should praise and commend them for everything that they do; may they go from strength to strength, and long may they continue to keep the memory alive when the survivors are no longer alive.
I would like to pay tribute to somebody else. We may not agree on many things, but on this issue I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who in 1999 proposed a Bill to introduce a day to learn about, and remember, the holocaust. I say to the hon. Gentleman that we owe him a debt of gratitude; thank you.
Last Tuesday, I stood at the holocaust memorial in my neighbouring constituency of Ilford, South, together with the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). I would like again to pay tribute to councillor Alan Weinberg; he is now leader of the council but in his mayoral year he initiated the construction of the memorial at which we now hold the annual ceremony. I was moved by the mix of people who attended that ceremony, which included schoolchildren from across the borough. I should say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) that my local imam was also present; I cannot say what happens elsewhere, but in our area the imam attended and the Muslim community was represented. Indeed, children from the Muslim community spoke about the holocaust, and we should all pay tribute to that.
One of the most moving moments of that ceremony was when we all united and said the Kaddish, which is the holy memorial prayer in the Jewish religion, for the 6 million people of all religions who perished in the holocaust and the millions who have perished since in other genocides around the world. We have to ask ourselves whether we have learned anything. I am not convinced that we have when I see some of the things that take place, be it in Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia or elsewhere. We must learn from history. Why do we do this to each other? I am not clever enough to know the answer.
I would like to relate a moving story from a few years ago. I was humbled and honoured to visit Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. I went with two of my closest friends, Alan and Tana Fox. Tana was born in Theresienstadt, when her sister, Bela Molnar, was four years old—they were the family Goldstien; they had survived the holocaust. Standing with the couple at Theresienstadt moved me to tears. I wondered how humanity could have done this: how man could have done this for any reason. There is nothing, and there will never be anything, in this world that could justify people doing such things to each other.
We also visited Babi Yar, where Jews were rounded up, thrown into a ravine and shot. Again, I was moved to tears, and that does not happen often. One hon. Member mentioned that no birds sing at such locations, and that is true; no bird sang when I made my visit—there was not a sound. As I walked around, it was impossible for me to comprehend truly what had taken place. I cannot comprehend it, and God forbid that I should ever be able to do so because that would mean that it had happened again.
My hon. Friend’s mention of Theresienstadt reminded me of one of the brightest aspects of the whole holocaust disaster: the behaviour of the people of Denmark, from the monarch down. There were 10,000 Jews in Denmark and the people of Denmark were tipped off by an anti-Nazi German diplomat as to when those people were going to be rounded up, and they got the vast majority of them safely away to Sweden. Only 500 or so were rounded up; they were sent to Theresienstadt and thanks to the ongoing campaigns on their behalf most of them survived even that experience. One thing that is not mentioned often enough is the outstanding behaviour of the Danes, including the king, who said, “If my people are going to wear a yellow star under occupation, so will I.”
My hon. Friend is, of course, totally right in everything that he said—those events should be recorded and honoured.
There are many holocaust survivors in my constituency. Over the years, they have told me their stories, and I have listened carefully. There were tragedies, where whole families were just wiped out for nothing more than their religion—in many cases, it was not even for practising the religion; it was purely for having a quarter Jewish blood in them.
We face a danger today. In the past few weeks, I have been mortified and saddened to see daubings of slogans such as “kill the Jews” on synagogues in my constituency and at an underground station. Again, I commend my local council for having the daubings removed within minutes of being told that they were there and I commend members of the Muslim community who came to an event at which I spoke the other Sunday to condemn anybody, from any source, who does a thing such as this.
Further to my intervention, I also believe that neo-Nazis will try to capitalise on the situation in Gaza and, under the mist of what is happening there, attempt to divide communities that for so long have worked together to try to achieve harmony. I still believe that my own area lives in harmony. We have harmony—please God may that continue for years to come and may we never be divided by anybody or anything.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is only in relation to Israel that people seem to conflate religion with Government policy? Does he agree that whatever one’s view of the Gaza situation we cannot tolerate using what has happened there as an excuse for anti-Semitism?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not totally agree with him. Of course we cannot tolerate anyone using any events anywhere in the world as an excuse for anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism exists and we have to recognise that. Sometimes events elsewhere in the world are used as an excuse for latent anti-Semitism. Events elsewhere can affect what happens in Britain, but anti-Semitism is not acceptable in any shape or form, as he rightly says.
The holocaust was the responsibility of an individual, or even a small group. Thousands of otherwise ordinary people colluded and co-operated in the murder of millions. We must never let such a horror happen again. I had words written down to say today, but they are irrelevant and meaningless, because they are only words. Every hon. Member, no matter what their political persuasion, must unite to say—as we are today—that hatred and anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and homophobia are all unacceptable, and we will not stand for them. If we do not speak out, we should hang our heads in shame. Those who do not speak out should be ashamed of themselves. Let us pray that it never happens again.
I am grateful to all the hon. Members who have spoken for their wise and insightful contributions to this debate. I expected nothing less, but it was gratifying to hear Members on both sides of the House agreeing on the importance of keeping alive the memory of the holocaust.
It is worth putting on record the big turnout in the Chamber today. Some have had the chance to speak and others have intervened, but many more have sat and listened to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Anne Snelgrove) asked whether this should be an annual event. In my last three and a half years in this place, I have discovered that it operates on convention according to custom and practice. Given that the biggest two topical debates that we have had have been those on this issue, today and last year, I have little doubt that it will become a convention that we have such a debate in the week of 27 January every year.
In the context of such a profound debate and in the time available, it is hard to respond to all the important points that have been made, so I shall confine myself to some that resonated especially strongly with me. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) made an outstanding speech in which he raised three specific questions. First, he asked when police services would start recording anti-Semitic incidents. I am pleased to tell him that I dealt with the Government’s response to the report published by the all-party group on anti-Semitism, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), which recommended that change. We expect all police services to be able to record anti-Semitic incidents by April 2009 and I thank the hon. Gentleman for the vigour with which he has pursued that issue. The pressure that he has brought to bear will ensure that it happens by that deadline.
The second issue that the hon. Gentleman raised was the reports in the press of the alleged boycotts of Holocaust memorial day. He would expect nothing less than for me to say that, first, I will not comment on reports in the press, and secondly, I have received no indication from the group that it has boycotted the event, and nor am I aware of ministerial colleagues being thus informed.
The third point was about the engagement with groups, aside from the excellent engagement that Ministers have had—I do not mean that in a self-congratulatory, backslapping way—with key stakeholders in the past few weeks. That raises the interesting point of the inter-faith dialogue that needs to take place. Much such work is taking place, including the Inter Faith Network, the Government funding of regional faith forums and the Faith in Action grant programmes. We are looking at other ways in which Muslim-Jewish dialogue can take place in forums such as the Muslim Jewish Forum and the Coexistence Trust, which have a huge role to play. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will work with me to ensure that more work is done in that area.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon made an excellent speech, the key point of which was, “Never again.” However, to bring it forward to what is happening now with regard to standing up to hatred, I pay tribute to the work that she is doing locally with young people.
The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) made an excellent and moving speech, bringing forward his personal experience through his parents along with contemporary examples of genocide, which I thought was really important, especially as we move forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) talked about learning lessons from history and taking on those who propagate discriminatory views. That is very important, especially in the current climate.
The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) gave very good reasons why he could not stay until the end of the debate. I was nervous when he complimented me and I glanced over at my Whip when he did so. I am even more nervous now when I pay tribute to him for his contribution. It was an excellent speech. I never thought that I would find an occasion to say something nice about him—he is a man who does not carry himself in a way that garners compliments—but he talked about his age and experience, and his experience was a unique one from which we must learn. He talked about visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau and the impact that that it had on him and the two children. Like many colleagues, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau last year, with two children sent from two schools—Graveney school and Ernest Bevin college. It had a deep impact on me. It was moving, scary, traumatic and shocking.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) made a brilliant speech, in which she gave a moving account of a similar visit. She brought forward the relevance of the role that footballers have to play in 2009 as role models in striking against racism.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) made a great speech, too. He talked about his early-day motion, which was signed by more than 136 MPs. The Chief Rabbi is a great man, and I am really pleased that the hon. Gentleman got the Chief Rabbi to go to a school in his patch. He talked about the impact of the trip on his young children, and, more importantly in the context of a wider audience outside the UK, about the roles that Germany, Poland and Russia have been playing and the differences in how they deal with the matter.
The hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), who has become a friend of mine in the Public Bill Committee on the Business Rates Supplement Bill, made an excellent speech. Over the past three or four weeks, he and I have discussed with anxiety and concern how our respective communities were dealing with the incidents locally and domestically. He made an excellent speech about what has happened in his community and the huge amount of inter-faith work that is going on in his community.
A key role of the day is education. The Holocaust Educational Trust is doing invaluable work, as is the Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire. The Holocaust Educational Trust today announced a new programme to teach primary school children about the lessons of the holocaust.
The holocaust is not a Jewish problem. Nor is it a problem of Roma Gypsies, or Sinti, or of any of the other victims. Nor are the genocides in Darfur, Bosnia, Rwanda or Cambodia problems that belong to their victims. All religions and cultures need to be part of Holocaust memorial day. I was reminded that these problems face us all. Together, we can face up to such problems. Together, we can show solidarity and courage. I commend the House for the way in which we have conducted ourselves this afternoon. It is a tribute to how seriously we take the issue.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24A).