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Lidice Massacre

Volume 539: debated on Monday 30 January 2012

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(James Duddridge.)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening about the Lidice massacre and the events that followed, which demonstrate that amidst even the worst evil something good can flourish. No one in the House will need reminding that last Friday was Holocaust memorial day, which marks the day 67 years ago when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops and reminds us all of the atrocities committed by the Nazis.

We will never fully understand or come to terms with extermination on such a scale just a few generations ago, but thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the many other organisations that work to tackle hatred and discrimination, I hope that we might go some way to preventing it from happening again, at least on such a scale. May I therefore take this opportunity to put on record my appreciation for those organisations and pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust and others for their work?

Lidice is a village in the Czech Republic about 20 km west of Prague. The events that I will speak about in a moment were triggered on 27 May 1942 by the assassination of the Nazi Lieutenant-General and Deputy Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, who is said to have been a close friend of Hitler. As Heydrich travelled through Prague, two Czech parachute agents carried out an attack on his transport vehicles. Although he was not mortally wounded by the blast, the attack led to an infection that killed him on 4 June 1942. Hitler is said to have been wild with rage, and wanted to make an example of the Czech people. He ordered the arrest and execution of thousands of Czechs and sanctioned the destruction of Lidice.

On 10 June 1942, just six days after Heydrich’s death, Nazi troops moved into the village of Lidice and rounded up all 173 of the men who were over 16 years of age. By the afternoon, all of them had been executed. The 203 women of the village were rounded up and, after the forced abortion of four pregnant women, were transported to various concentration camps. It is believed that three women died on the death march, and 49 women were subsequently tortured to death. A total of 105 children were separated from their mothers. On 2 July 1942, 82 of those children were gassed at Chelmno extermination camp on the orders of Eichmann. Only 17 of those 105 children survived the war. The village of Lidice was set on fire and the remains destroyed, so that no evidence of Lidice having ever existed could be found, albeit with the entire murderous attack being filmed by the SS.

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate so near to Holocaust memorial day. I visited Lidice in 2007, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Mrs James), where we saw, not only at the memorial garden but in the museum, a film called “The Silent Village”, which depicts what happened. It was made in 1943, as a result of the remarkable co-operation between the South Wales Miners Federation and the Government’s Crown Film Unit. The film tells the story that my hon. Friend is now outlining. I use it for teaching purposes, to tell the story of what happened all over Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Would my hon. Friend commend that film for educational purposes today?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention, because “The Silent Village” is indeed an extremely powerful film and I would recommend that it be viewed.

In all, only 170 of Lidice’s population of around 510 people survived the war. Similar reprisals were carried out across a large area of what was Czechoslovakia. It is estimated that in total around 1,300 people were killed. However, unlike with other Nazi murders, there was no attempt to hide what had taken place.

Almost as soon as the news reached Britain, Barnett Stross, a doctor and city councillor in Stoke-on-Trent, enlisted the help of local coal miners. Together they set to work on founding the “Lidice Shall Live” movement, a name created by Stross in response to Adolf Hitler’s order that “Lidice shall die for ever”. Stross invited the Czech President, the Soviet ambassador and the president of the miners federation to a launch event, which was attended by around 3,000 people. In the months ahead, donations were collected from miners and other workers to rebuild Lidice. In Barnett Stross’s words:

“The miner’s lamp dispels the shadows on the coalface. It can also send a ray of light across the sea to those who struggle in darkness”.

The link between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent carried on after the war ended, with Barnett Stross elected in 1945 as Member of Parliament for the area now largely represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), although parts are also in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and on representing the views of his constituents in Fenton and elsewhere. I agree with him about the heroic role played by Sir Barnett Stross. Does he agree that it is hugely important that Stoke-on-Trent pupils understand the heroic part that the city played in world war two, not only because of Sir Reginald Mitchell, who designed the Spitfire, but because of this story of internationalism and solidarity in a city that has, unfortunately, in the past been plagued by fascism and the British National party. This is a story of hope.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Stoke-on-Trent is a city that has much to offer and fantastic potential. We need only to look back at its history and at the wonderful things that its people have achieved to see that its future is assured. It can rightly be proud of the positive things that it has done, although it needs to learn lessons about some of the negative things that have plagued it in recent years.

In 1947, Lidice began to be rebuilt, with the help of the £32,000 raised by people from the potteries. That is the equivalent of about £1 million in today’s money, which is not a bad feat for an impoverished community in north Staffordshire. In 1955, Barnett Stross led an initiative to construct the world’s largest rose garden, with 23,000 roses donated by numerous countries around the world. The rose garden formed a bridge between the site of the old Lidice and the new Lidice. In 1966, Barnett Stross initiated the new Lidice art collection.

Stross made numerous visits to the rebuilt Lidice, ultimately being awarded the highest state award possible by the Czechoslovak Government, as well as a British knighthood in 1964. Sadly, as we approach the 70th anniversary of the Lidice massacre, the events of June 1942 and the links between Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice have been largely forgotten. Unfortunately, few of my constituents were aware of the “Lidice Shall Live” campaign, or of the critical role that the people of their city played in helping the surviving residents of Lidice to return to their newly rebuilt village.

I am therefore delighted that, following initial work by Alan and Cheryl Gerard, a group of my constituents, businesses and councillors have come together to ensure that the tale of Lidice will live on. On Friday, the “Let Lidice Live” campaign was launched in Stoke-on-Trent, involving a partnership between that group, Staffordshire university and Stoke-on-Trent city council. Through the formalisation of links between Stoke-on-Trent and Lidice, a series of events to mark the 70th anniversary in both countries, and the continuation of the highly successful international children’s exhibition of fine arts, the campaign seeks to ensure that the story of the massacre, and of the heroic response, will live on, not just this year, but for years to come. It is worth noting that the children’s exhibition of fine arts, which was established in 1967 as a national event, became an international one in 1973 and has gone on to become well known among children and teachers, not only in the UK but all over the world.

On the theme of art, education and internationalism, is my hon. Friend aware of the work of the Josef Herman Trust? The film, “The Silent Village”, was made in the village of Cwmgiedd, near Ystradgynlais in the Swansea valley. Josef Herman was a Polish artist who came to Ystradgynlais fleeing anti-Semitism in the late 1930s. Today, the secretary of the trust is one of the children who played a part in the film. I pay tribute to Betty Rae Watkins, who is now encouraging children to become engaged in art and, through that, to learn about the holocaust and about one of its survivors, the great Polish artist, Josef Herman.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting on record the fantastic work that has been done there.

In recent years, about 20,000 very good works of art have come regularly from the Czech and Slovak Republics, and from 50 or 60 other countries, to the Lidice children’s exhibition of fine arts.

The 70th anniversary will be marked by a Lidice exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels, and there will be two new documentaries about the events in 1942 and the surviving children. There will be a commemoration on the anniversary of the day of the massacre, which will be attended by the Czech president. The city of Stoke-on-Trent has a great programme of events to mark the anniversary, with more being planned.

As time goes by and we lose first-hand accounts of Nazi atrocities, it becomes all the more important to educate future generations about the consequences of intolerance and prejudice, and about the atrocities carried out during the second world war and, sadly, since. Events such as Holocaust memorial day provide a crucial focal point, but at times it feels as though the sheer scale of the slaughter in the second world war can be too horrifying to comprehend, and the individual stories risk being lost. Lidice provides an illuminating light amidst one of the darkest periods of human history, with the generosity of the British people and the defiance of the residents of the village ensuring that Lidice did indeed live.

Sadly, as we have seen in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur in just the last 20 years, we have not seen the end to genocide or a limit to the suffering that we as humans are willing to inflict on our fellow man. It is my belief therefore that it remains vital that we never forget what happened in places like Lidice, and I hope that the Minister will join me in paying tribute to those who seek to ensure that Lidice shall live.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello)on securing this debate, on doing the House a huge service by reminding us of the true horror of what happened in Lidice in 1942 and on illuminating for us the links with Stoke-on-Trent and the huge sum of money raised from miners to rebuild the village. We heard about the 3,000 miners who attended the public meeting called by one of the hon. Gentleman’s predecessors, Sir Barnett Stross. It is good to be reminded of these important parts of our history and European history, and he has done that at an appropriate time, with last Friday being Holocaust memorial day.

Holocaust memorial day gives us the opportunity to remember the victims of this most evil of periods in the world’s history, along with subsequent victims of genocide—as the hon. Gentleman reminded us, such evil does not go away—and atrocities during the war, such as the terrible massacre at Lidice. It also gives us time to reflect on the lessons of the past: genocide does not occur overnight; it is a gradual process and begins when the differences between us are used as a reason to exclude or marginalise, leading to prejudice and hate. We need to learn the lessons of the holocaust, so that future generations do not repeat the mistakes of the past. That is why it is important that young people are taught about the holocaust—to ensure that prejudice and discrimination are not allowed to take root in our society.

The Government firmly support holocaust education, which is why we have allocated £1.8 million this year to promote young people’s understanding of this period of history. About £1.5 million of this funding is for the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project, in which I understand the hon. Gentleman has participated. I add my tribute to his for the work of the trust.

The Lessons from Auschwitz project gives the opportunity for two sixth formers in every school in the country to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to learn the lessons of the holocaust, but the course is more than just a one-day visit to the former concentration camp, as students take part in seminars and hear first hand from a holocaust survivor. They not only deepen their knowledge of the holocaust, but learn what can happen when prejudice and racism gain a foothold in society. So far, more than 8,000 students and more than 2,000 teachers have taken part in the project in England. Crucially, when those students return to school, they are expected to pass on what they have learned to their peers at school and to their communities.

Effective teacher training is also fundamental to teaching about the holocaust. The Government recognise this, which is why as part of our £1.8 million for holocaust education funding we have allocated £250,000 for the Institute of Education’s holocaust education development programme. This programme helps to ensure that teachers are equipped with the training and resources they need to deliver effective holocaust education. The Lidice massacre is included in the teaching materials for this programme.

To date, some 550 teachers have benefited from this professional development programme, with two full days of workshops and online activities. A further 2,000 teachers have benefited from other forms of professional development on the holocaust, while a pilot group of 36 teachers has completed the country’s first taught master’s module in holocaust education. The level of teaching expertise in England’s schools on the holocaust is now higher than ever before—a welcome fact.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the second world war and the holocaust are compulsory parts of the history curriculum at key stage 3. Schools can teach pupils about the Lidice massacre as part of their history curriculum, but they are free to design their own curriculums that will best meet the needs of their pupils. I hope we can all agree about the fundamental need for a greater emphasis on knowledge and content in the current national school curriculum, which was our reason for launching a review of the curriculum.

I thank the Minister for giving me an opportunity not only to express my admiration for the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) for raising this subject, but to mention that I was at school myself when I read a remarkable book called “Seven Men at Daybreak” by Alan Burgess. It told the story of the seven Czech and Slovak parachutists who assassinated Heydrich, and, at the end, what happened to Lidice afterwards. I do not know what the copyright position is now, given that the book was written so long ago, but I think that, in the context of the educational project that both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister have in mind, a reprint of that book would probably have as profound an effect on the schoolchildren of the 21st century as it had on me some 40 or 50 years ago.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing his own personal history, and that book, to the attention of the House. I shall look into what he has said.

The new national curriculum will be based on a body of essential knowledge that children should be expected to acquire in key subjects during their school careers. It will embody, for all children, their cultural and scientific inheritance, will enhance their understanding of the world around them, and will expose them to the best that has been thought and written.

Our commitment to the importance of history is clear from its inclusion in the English baccalaureate. The national curriculum review will consider the extent to which history should be compulsory, and at which key stages. We are considering the recommendations of the expert panel, and will also listen to the views of others before making final decisions. If we conclude that history should remain a national curriculum subject, we will expect the programme of study to continue to include teaching about the second world war and the holocaust. Every young person needs to understand it, along with the lessons that it teaches and how it shaped the modern world.

It is of concern that some subjects, such as history, have been less popular choices at GCSE in recent years. For example, in 1995 more than 223,000 students, representing nearly 40% of pupils in schools, were taking history GCSE. By 2010 the figure had dropped by over 25,000, and only 31% of pupils—just under a third—are now taking the subject. The Government want to encourage more children to take up history beyond the age of 14. We introduced the English baccalaureate—which recognises the work of pupils who achieve a GCSE grade between A* and C GCSE in history or geography, as well as maths, English, science and a language—to encourage a more widespread take-up of a core of subjects that provide a sound basis for academic progress. The baccalaureate has already had a significant impact on the take-up of history. According to an independent survey of nearly 700 schools, 39% of pupils sitting GCSEs in 2013 will be taking history. That represents a rise of eight percentage points, and a return to the 1995 level. If more children study history for longer, that can only be a good thing, as it will give them a good grasp of the narrative of history.

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on securing the debate. Does the Minister agree that it is all-important for pupils to hear the personal testimony of holocaust survivors, and that everything possible should be done to preserve that testimony even when survivors are no longer with us in person?

Of course I agree with the hon. Lady. That is why the visits to Auschwitz are so important. As part of those visits, pupils will meet a survivor. As she points out, however, as time passes fewer survivors will remain alive, so we need to do all that we can to record their experience. That is important, because it dispels and puts to rest the views of those who seek to say that these things did not occur, and provides a helpful personal history to record the events of the holocaust.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South, and indeed all Members, agree that the Government’s continued commitment to holocaust education will ensure that future generations learn the important lessons of the holocaust and that no one in the country, or indeed the world, forgets the evil events of that awful period of world history.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.