I beg to move,
That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2016.
As we begin, I would like to thank those who gave their support to enable this debate to take place, particularly the hon. Members for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), and the Backbench Business Committee for granting our request.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, which will take place in just under a week’s time, on 27 January, is “Don’t stand by”. The holocaust did not begin with the systematic slaughter of Jews in Europe or even with a brick through the window of a Jewish shop during the Kristallnacht of 1938. It began with a simple idea that our differences mark us out as superior or inferior to one another. That simple idea spawned a hateful ideology, expressed through Hitler’s Nazism, that the Jews were at the centre of a global conspiracy to control the world at the expense of Aryan destiny. Some 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, among them 1 million Jewish children. It was pre-meditated slaughter on an industrial scale never before witnessed in human history. Alongside innocent Jewish men, women and children were political prisoners, Romanis, Slavs, gay people, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Russian prisoners of war and many others. They met their fate on the streets, where they were beaten sometimes to death; in concentration camps, where they were often worked or starved to the point where they lost their lives; and, most chillingly, in the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps. It is estimated that some 42,500 facilities in German and Nazi-occupied territory were used to concentrate victims, and around 200,000 people were perpetrators of the holocaust planned by Nazi leaders at Wannsee.
This year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is not about leaders; it is about bystanders. I am talking about the bystanders who said nothing as Nazi propaganda targeted the Jews; the bystanders who watched as Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked by the Nazis; and the bystanders who looked the other way, even as the sickly smell of burning human flesh from the ovens was carried by prevailing winds from the chimneys of the Nazi death camps to surrounding homes.
Although we might reflect today on the unique crimes of the Nazi holocaust, we should never avert our eyes from the most uncomfortable truth of all—that its perpetrators were not unique. They were ordinary men and women carrying out acts of extraordinary evil.
If the holocaust demonstrated the very worst of human nature, its survivors represent the very best. The crimes they witnessed and the evil to which they were subjected are impossible to imagine, but through their courage we are able to reflect on the horrors of the holocaust so that we might learn the right lessons as we strive towards a world free from hatred, persecution and genocide.
Many of us will have personal experience of listening to the testimony of survivors, and I am delighted that so many of them were recognised in the new year’s honours list. I pay particular tribute to my constituent Ivor Pearl, who received the British Empire Medal for services to holocaust education and awareness. On accepting the honour, Ivor said:
“I think I can speak for most of us when I say that when I give talks I feel all the victims are there behind me looking over my shoulder and as such I accept this honour on their behalf as well”.
Another resident of llford North, Bob Obuchowski, would surely be among them. Bob lived in Clayhall and passed away in 2014. His double act with his daughter, Sue Bermange, was almost legendary. She supported Bob in sharing his testimony and continues his work today.
In that context, I champion the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. Led by the indomitable Karen Pollock, its outstanding work keeps the memory of those remarkable holocaust survivors alive so that each generation can bear witness to their extraordinary fortitude and reflect on how it was that ordinary men and women unleashed the horror of the Nazi holocaust. Its “Lessons from Auschwitz” project has now taken more than 28,000 students and teachers from across the UK to the Nazi concentration and death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. They include students from my own constituency, most recently from King Solomon High School and Woodbridge High School, who travelled to Poland in October 2015.
I pay tribute to successive Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments for funding those visits, and I hope that the Minister may be able to give us some good news about continued funding for this important project this afternoon, or at least take away from the debate the desire of this House to see that funding continue.
I rise to pay great tribute to Karen Pollock. As someone who established the Srebrenica safe area in March-April 1993, I am deeply appreciative of the fact that she said that the Holocaust Memorial Fund also refers to the 8,373 Bosnian Muslims who were killed in a holocaust much closer to our time. I appreciate very much that the Holocaust Memorial Fund cares about those people just as much as it does about the victims of the foul Nazis.
I share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Gentleman. I will talk about other genocides later in my speech.
I know from my community in Redbridge that schools across the country are doing some outstanding work to deliver holocaust education as part of the national curriculum, including, of course, acknowledgement of other genocides. It is vital that holocaust education remains a compulsory part of the national curriculum at key stage 3 to ensure that all young people receive this valuable education. I also congratulate the Prime Minister on his initiative of establishing the Holocaust Commission and on the appointment of the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) as the Government’s special envoy for post-holocaust issues. I know that he is respected on both sides of the House for his commitment and determination and for how he goes about his work in that role.
With the onward march of time, the number of survivors left to bear living witness to the crimes of the holocaust diminishes, and so with every new generation comes an even greater responsibility to ensure that their warning from history is never forgotten. Of course, even as they rebuilt their lives, many continued to suffer, whether through silence because the crimes they suffered were unspeakable, premature death as a result of the injuries they sustained, or the ongoing persecution they experienced as a result of being different. Among them were those who were branded with the pink triangle, the Nazi mark of the homosexual. Like other victims of the Nazi holocaust, gay men and women were rounded up by the Gestapo. Many were imprisoned, and some were castrated and subjected to cruel medical experiments. Others met their end in the gas chambers of the death camps.
For many of those people, the end of the second world war did not bring about their liberation. Nazi law remained in place and their suffering at the hands of the state continued. Some were even sent back to prison by the very same judges who had sent them off to concentration camps under the Nazis. I do not mind telling the House that I wept last summer in Berlin as I read the stories of those LGBT survivors of the holocaust who later went to their graves unable to share their story, shunned by their Governments and without any acknowledgement of the suffering they had experienced under the Nazis and, I am afraid, under the subsequent Governments of West and East Germany.
I am inspired by holocaust survivors such as Rudolf Brazda, the last known concentration camp survivor to be deported specifically for homosexuality. Before the Nazis came to power, he and his boyfriend had been accepted in an increasingly tolerant society. A Jehovah’s Witness accepted them as her tenants and Brazda’s family acted as witnesses to a symbolic marriage ceremony in their home.
As Berlin’s thriving lesbian and gay scene was dismantled by the Nazi regime, Brazda and his partner were arrested and they never saw each other again. Brazda served a six-month sentence before being deported to Czechoslovakia. He was arrested again in 1941 and was forced to serve another 14-month prison term. In August 1942, he was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp and there he was beaten, once having his teeth knocked out. He was subjected to forced labour and survived only through a combination of strength and luck.
It was not until 2008, ahead of the unveiling of the memorial to homosexual victims of Nazism in Berlin, that he felt able to speak out. Those countries that continue illegally to discriminate against LGBT people and those that would have those countries continue to discriminate against LGBT people should reflect on his words before his death in 2011. He said:
“If I finally speak, it’s for people to know what we, homosexuals, had to endure in Hitler’s days...it shouldn’t happen again.”
I pay tribute to all those communities targeted by Nazi hatred and to their survival. In particular, I pay tribute to Jewish communities in the United Kingdom, the state of Israel and countries around the world that stand tall in lasting defiance of Hitler’s evil ideology. I am proud of the Jewish community I represent in Ilford North. Though smaller in number than it has been in previous decades, the Jewish community in Redbridge continues to flourish. Chabad Lubavitch, led by Rabbi Sufrin, has expanded its activities within Redbridge and out into Essex. I recently attended shul with Redbridge United Synagogue, which now meets at the Redbridge Jewish Community Centre. Sinclair House is the largest community centre of its kind in western Europe, delivering social, welfare, education and community programmes to more than 2,000 people every week. Wohl Ilford Jewish Primary School, Clore Tikva Primary School and King Solomon High School provide high-quality education to children from all our diverse communities while maintaining their proud Jewish heritage and traditions.
Next week, as we do every year, people from all parts of the community will gather at the Holocaust Memorial Garden in Valentines Park in llford, thanks to the initiative led by Councillor Alan Weinberg to provide a lasting memorial for the victims of the holocaust. Though the Jewish community in Redbridge and elsewhere continues to thrive, we cannot be complacent about the threat posed by modern anti-Semitism, whether it manifests itself on the right or the left of the political spectrum. I am proud to be a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism, under the exceptional leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann).
Successive reports published by the Community Security Trust, to whom I pay tribute, show a continual increase in anti-Semitic incidents across the United Kingdom, including violent attacks. Last year, a delegation from the APPG visited France, to look at the rise in anti-Semitism there, where thousands had taken to the streets to pronounce “Je Suis Juif” in the wake of the murder of Jews on the streets of Paris.
We know that although Jewish people make a great contribution to public life here, too many Jews in politics are targets for anti-Semitism, both online and offline. Many right hon. and hon. Members will recall my predecessor, Lee Scott, speaking powerfully in this debate last year about his experience of receiving abuse and death threats because he was Jewish, and I pay tribute to him again for his courage and unshakeable commitment in standing up against that anti-Semitism.
“Never again” is a common refrain at events to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, but I am afraid these words ring hollow. “Never again” will find meaning only when Jews can live freely and safely in all parts of the world. “Never again” will find meaning only when difference and diversity is celebrated, rather than denigrated. “Never again” will find meaning only when genocide is confined to history.
I want to end with a reflection on our responsibility, both as individuals and as the state. I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) in his place. He is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for genocide prevention. Often debates in this place about Britain’s foreign policy consider the consequences of action under the shadow of previous mistakes. But as Holocaust Memorial Day is used to commemorate all victims of genocide, and as a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for genocide prevention, I hope that in its future deliberations this House will also consider the consequences of introspection and inaction. The genocide in Cambodia, the genocide in Rwanda, the genocide in Darfur—each should rest on the consciences of powerful nations who chose to look the other way.
Closer to home, it is for every citizen to reflect on those occasions where we have looked the other way: when someone was called a name, when someone was mistreated, when someone was bullied, beaten or even murdered, because they were different. Yehuda Bauer said:
“Thou shalt not be a victim, thou shalt not be a perpetrator, but, above all, thou shalt not be a bystander.”
It is fitting as the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and an exhortation for this House and for every citizen we are sent here to represent.
I am grateful to follow the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), and I am grateful to him for his tribute to Lee Scott, his predecessor. I, along with a number of Lee’s friends, recognise the enormous personal risk that Lee took and endured, and we appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s acknowledgment of that.
I associate myself with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has spoken many times in this Chamber about Srebrenica and the genocide there, and he does well to remind us of that today.
The hon. Member for Ilford North mentioned that we travelled together to France in autumn last year to look at anti-Semitism there. I vividly recall meeting Jewish students and hearing them talk of how frightened and wary they were on their campuses. I cannot help reflecting on the disgraceful attack on Jewish students at King’s College London just two nights ago. A peaceful meeting—it was literally about peace—was broken up with obscenities, the breaking of a window and the offering of violence. Frankly, we have seen broken glass before, at Kristallnacht. If we need to know who the new fascists are, we need only look at those who perpetrated that attack.
I associate myself with all the remarks that have been made about the Holocaust Education Trust and Holocaust Memorial Day. In September I had the honour of being appointed the UK’s post-holocaust envoy. I took over from Sir Andrew Burns, who held the job for the previous five years. I had the opportunity of working with Andrew on many occasions when I was at the Department for Communities and Local Government. He is a very distinguished man and is very well respected across Europe and around the world. It is a genuine honour to follow him in that role.
I want to concentrate my remarks on what “Don’t stand by”, the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, is really about. I will look at that through two of the organisations for which I am responsible in the UK. The first is the tracing service. It began as a way of reuniting people who had been separated during the holocaust, but now it focuses on finding and returning property that was stolen by the Nazis. In addition to the Nazis’ enthusiasm for violence, bigotry and anti-Semitism, running through their DNA was corruption and theft. Essentially, the Nazis were thieves. They stole people’s jobs, their equipment for doing their jobs, their possessions, their property and their identity. They tried to steal the very existence of the people they sought to destroy. Because there is no honour among thieves, they stole from themselves.
Even now, more than 70 years after the end of the war, we are still trying to reunite people with their stolen property. There are many Governments across Europe who have wonderful equal opportunities policies and marvellous remembrance of the holocaust but who fight tooth and nail with obfuscation to prevent people from getting their property back. The Nuremberg laws still reign more than 70 years after Hitler’s death. We must not go away with the idea that this is just about stolen Picassos and Klimts, because sometimes it is about very small objects. It might be a book with the signature of a long-lost grandparent or mother, and that might be the only piece of paper that has their signature on it. But still various Governments refuse to hand them back.
I am extremely glad to hear what my right hon. Friend is saying. I associate myself, in particular, with the remarks of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who opened the debate. My right hon. Friend might be aware that a very important book, “Post-War Lives”, by a distinguished German historian exposes the extent to which the 8 million people in Germany involved in the run-up to the war remained on the files, which were only discovered afterwards, and that in the post-war period, despite the fact that they were known to be accredited Nazis, a significant number of them were regrettably appointed to the West German authorities and to the Government. Is he aware that there might be some connection between that fact and what he is saying?
I am certainly aware of a particular property—I might want to say something about it outside the Chamber—that was stolen from a Jewish family. It actually went through the hands of Adolf Hitler, who gave it to his favourite photographer, who kept it. After the war, the Bavarian authorities, because they could not find the original Jewish owners, decided to give it back to the Nazi who stole it, which was an extraordinary thing to do. There are a number of files still closed in this country with regard to people to whom we gave an amnesty. My ambition and hope, which I know is shared by the Prime Minister, is that we will at last open those files and answer some of my hon. Friend’s questions. It is important that we press hard. In this country we have a pretty good system with regard to disputes that is worthy of export, but until that property is returned to the people it was stolen from and acknowledged as theirs, the rule of Hitler continues.
I pay tribute to the excellent opening speech by the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, not least for his chairmanship of Conservative Friends of Israel. On the eve of the invasion of Poland on 22 August 1939, Adolf Hitler said to his generals:
“It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me.”
He also made reference to a previous genocide that was largely forgotten in 1939, saying:
“Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very important that the west keeps a very strong defence; that we, the British, and indeed the whole of Europe, do not stand by if we come across any examples of genocide; and that the message we send to any tyrant thinking of committing genocide is that they will be held to account in future?
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point that I obviously endorse and agree with. However, these events often start not with an invasion but with small things, and we need to be vigilant about the small things as well. I am in no way diminishing the excellent point that he makes.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is an organisation comprising 30-odd nations that deals with holocaust remembrance. It has done an excellent job in starting to map the killing fields—the various killing sites. Auschwitz tends to dominate our view, and a visit there is truly heart-breaking, but it represents only some 15% of the numbers murdered. Someone was just as likely to have been shot in a ditch or killed in a field, or, to use Himmler’s dreadful expression, “annihilated through labour”. A lot of people died in the quarries and building the camps, and it is important that we remember their graves. We are living in a decade when a number of countries are not so keen to register where those places are. Over the coming decade, we need to have a very comprehensive understanding of where they are.
Our view of the holocaust has been refined over 70 years—the past 10 years have been very influential—but for a number of countries in central Europe it is still very much a contemporary event, in the sense that they had significant anti-Jewish laws similar to the Nuremburg laws and were willing participants in them. In coming to terms with the holocaust, it is important to recognise that. We are sometimes guilty of complacency. We talk about the people who did not stand by and who did the right thing, and say, “Of course, that’s us—we’d do that”, but the truth is that most people did not. It is impossible seriously to contend that people did not know what was going on.
I think there were various reasons why people did not interfere. First and obviously, they might have been anti- Semitic. They might have been indifferent. They might have been ambitious. After all, to be a successful Nazi, people had to show that they believed in the programme. They did not want to be denounced by their neighbours. Of course, it was also the law, and people like to obey the law. It is possible, however, that they rather enjoyed the loot and the auctions of Jewish goods and properties; they might have enjoyed looting their neighbours’ properties and benefiting from their hard luck.
I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing me to intervene and to reinforce what he is saying. I have dealt with people who carried out what was clearly a holocaust, and the one thing that rings all the way through with most of them is that they are normal people but they carried out obnoxious crimes. One day, I hope we will understand what it is that makes normal people—I have had dinner with them in Bosnia—do such foul things. I hope very much that the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust will try to ascertain what does that to people who one might actually like.
Order. Before the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) continues, I should say that I did not want to interrupt any of the hon. Members who have made interventions, because they are making very careful, balanced points, but we cannot have long interventions, because there is not much time left for the debate.
I will not detain the House for much longer, Madam Deputy Speaker. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). If he will forgive me, I would timidly suggest that Primo Levi made the same point when he said:
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions”.
It is fair to say that the holocaust was not committed by monsters, but that monsters were created out of that very process.
In case we are feeling a little smug, let us consider this: in the latter part, people were allowed to take a bag containing 20 kg of their possessions. That is roughly the amount we are allowed to take as luggage on a flight. What happened to the rest of their possessions?
I was in Jersey in September and visited the German hospital, which has done a marvellous job in making a timeline. I listened to the testimony of a family who, when the Germans occupied Jersey, had not been able to decide whether to leave and go to the United Kingdom or whether to stay. They decided that they would leave, but when they got to the docks they changed their minds. When they got back to their farm, they found that it had been completely stripped by their neighbours. It had been completely looted, including the furniture, carpets and fixtures off the wall.
We need to understand and appreciate that it could have happened—and could happen—here. It is important to be vigilant, to speak out and to acknowledge that what happened at King’s College was a disgrace. When the Minister replies to the debate, I hope he will tell us what we are going to do to protect free speech in our universities and colleges, to ensure that people can go about their business without fearing that they are going to be attacked. I look forward to the Government saying that.
Finally, Martin Gilbert ended the preface to his excellent book “The Righteous” with an old Jewish saying:
“Whoever saves one life, it is as if he saved the entire world.”
I salute those who did the right thing. I salute those who stood up against the Nazis. We will remember forever those who died in such a cruel and wicked system.
I thank the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for securing this important debate. It is a privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles).
On 1 November 2005, the UN General Assembly designated 27 January as international holocaust remembrance day. In Britain, we mark it as Holocaust Memorial Day, and we have done so since 2001. It is a national day of commemoration of the millions of Jews and others killed during the holocaust. The lives of 6 million Jews and many other minority groups who perished at the hands of the Nazis must be remembered. It is a time of remembrance for all the victims—the Roma, the gays, the Sinti, the mentally and physically disabled—as well as all the victims of more recent genocides.
Genocide does not take place on its own; it is a process that can begin if racism, discrimination and hatred are not challenged and prevented. Today, we are part of that remembering, as well as part of that challenge and prevention. Over the coming week, there will be commemorations, services and events across the UK. Such remembrance is as important now as it has ever been.
I speak as one who has been moved by the tragedy of the holocaust. I have had the privilege to speak to survivors from Auschwitz-Birkenau. The scale of their suffering shows the savagery of which humanity is capable, but the survivors show us how magnificent and courageous the human spirit can be. As each year passes, however, there are fewer survivors able to share their testimony. By educating future generations, we are ensuring that their memory lives on, and that the holocaust never becomes another detail of history.
The work of organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Commission is therefore vital in keeping these memories alive. The holocaust is perhaps the greatest moral lesson against racism, hate and prejudice, and the establishment of a new holocaust learning centre and national memorial is an important part of that.
Holocaust Memorial Day does more than commemorate and recount the human suffering; it is also a time to pledge that it will never ever happen again. In recent years, Europe has seen a rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, fuelled by the rise of extreme right groups in countries such as France, Hungary and Greece. I and others have been troubled by the reports of French Jews moving to Britain in search of safety. We should not, however, imagine that Britain is free of anti-Semitism; we know only too well that it is not. We must stand up against prejudice and discrimination of any kind, whatever form it takes, and we must heed the lessons of the holocaust.
Given the increase in both anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic attacks, will my right hon. Friend join me in celebrating the incredible work done by the Community Security Trust and Tell MAMA to ensure that the words “Never again” actually ring true?
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in paying such a tribute and in giving such support. All the organisations we have mentioned today need and deserve our support.
We must do all in our power to prevent future genocide around the world. The theme of this year’s commemoration is “Don’t stand by”. Elie Wiesel said that he
“swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
The holocaust saw many examples of heroism, sacrifice and altruism. I would like to mention the late Sir Nicholas Winton, who sadly passed away last year. He organised the safe passage of children from Czechoslovakia to Britain before the war broke out. His act of magnanimity saved the lives of at least 669 children and thousands of their descendants.
It is inspiring, too, that World Jewish Relief, which was instrumental in rescuing tens of thousands of Jewish refugees through the Kindertransport, last week committed itself to supporting the integration of Syrian refugees into the UK. The organisation will provide employment and language support to some of the 20,000 Syrian refugees that Britain accepts.
Finally, as we approach the centenary of the Balfour declaration, it is my view that the holocaust truly demonstrated the need for a state for the Jewish people. I would like to reaffirm the state of Israel’s right to exist.
We must speak up and not be bystanders in the face of genocide and persecution. We must have courage and not look the other way. I do not underestimate how hard that can be, but it is easier if we all speak up, stand together and accept that we must not stand by. I pay tribute to the Jewish community here in London and the UK for their significant and positive contribution and engagement. They will not bow down to anti-Semitism and discrimination, and we will stand with them.
I align myself with every word that my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan), said. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for securing this debate.
Like many other hon. Members, I begin by paying tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which does such great work with schools, colleges and communities across the United Kingdom to educate us all about the holocaust and its contemporary relevance.
The memories of my own visit to Auschwitz with a local school will always remain with me: the industrial scale of the extermination programme, which affected people at all levels, including very normal people, as has been said in this debate; the individual lives that were lost to their families and communities; and the terror, horror and depravity that underpinned the 20th century’s greatest act of evil. Although it is essential to remember every one of the lives lost in the holocaust, we ought to keep in mind those who survived. We must remember those heroes who managed to escape and who helped others to escape the fate that the Nazis had in store for them—those who did not stand by.
Corrie ten Boom is one such example. Her inspirational book “The Hiding Place” recalls not only her horrific ordeal, but her miraculous release. Corrie tells of how, when the Nazis began persecuting Jews in the Netherlands, a member of the Dutch resistance designed a hidden room behind a false wall, where the ten Boom family and others could hide. That hidden room, which was some 30 inches deep—the size of a medium wardrobe—provided a sanctuary from the Nazis. When the Nazis raided the ten Boom household in 1944, six people were using the hiding place, but hundreds of Jews before them had managed to escape the Nazis’ clutches.
Such examples show that, amid the terror, communities rallied. Despite the threats that they faced, families remained strong and stuck together. Before she died in a Nazi concentration camp, Corrie’s sister Betsie spoke words of comfort to her:
“There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.”
Even in those darkest of hours, people facing unimaginable horror kept faith in God and in one another. It is my honour and privilege to be hosting a dramatisation of the life and works of Corrie ten Boom on Monday evening in Parliament. I invite all hon. Members to join me for what will be a moving event.
We must remember the holocaust and everything about it, honour those who died and learn the lessons. As has been said in this debate, we have often said, “Never again,” and we still do so today. We must learn from the examples of Corrie ten Boom, her sister Betsie and others. Corrie opened her home to refugees, both Jews and others, who were members of the resistance movement—men and women who were being sought by the Gestapo and its Dutch counterpart. As refugees flee persecution, and indeed genocide, in other countries, we must search our consciences and ask what we are doing to help those in need. How can we be more like Corrie ten Boom? How can we ensure that we do not stand by?
Sadly, this year and in recent years we have witnessed genocide in other lands, and a deliberate attempt to eradicate whole communities because of their faith. In Syria and Iraq, Yazidis and Christians have been persecuted and murdered. To our shame, the response of the international community has been slow and ineffective. Before Christmas, I and 60 other parliamentarians wrote to the Prime Minister to request that the United Kingdom recognise the genocide that is being perpetrated and our responsibility to take action. We must call this what it is: genocide. That is not a matter of semantics; it is because the United Nations, and others, need to ensure that, post-holocaust, there is accountability to ensure that we bring the perpetrators to account, so that they will at some stage face justice. We must also encourage those 127 countries to face up to their duty to take necessary action to prevent and punish the perpetrators of these evil acts.
Another famous holocaust survivor, Simon Wiesenthal, who later became a Nazi hunter, sought to absolve the blame from human beings by saying:
“God must have been on leave during the Holocaust”.
I do not take that view. I believe that humanity was on leave during the holocaust—on leave from its senses, its duty and its morality. We must ensure that we learn the lessons of the holocaust, and as we remember what happened 70 years ago and see what at times is happening now, we must provide shelter and protection for those who need sheltering. We must not be on leave during another genocide.
I am delighted to speak in this debate to mark the 71st anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and death camps, particularly in light of the fact that fewer and fewer holocaust survivors are able to share their stories. It is important that their stories, their experience and their horror are never forgotten.
We live in an increasingly dangerous world, and the story of the holocaust is not just the story of the Jewish people, but a terrible and chilling indictment of mankind itself, and the cruelty and barbarity of which it is capable. As a former English teacher with more than 20 years’ experience, I am particularly grateful for the excellent work carried out by the Holocaust Educational Trust. Since 2006, the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project has enabled 3,000 pupils and teachers in Scotland to learn and remember the lessons of this brutal part of our recent past.
The importance of teaching this shameful episode from the past to our young people cannot be overestimated. I recall teaching a second-year class in Airdrie Academy in north Lanarkshire more than 20 years ago about this part of history, when we studied the novel “Friedrich” by Hans Peter Richter. It is a moving story set in 1930s Germany of friendship between two young boys—one German and one a German Jewish boy. As Nazi hatred permeates their world, their neighbourhood and their friendship, the German boy finds himself increasingly estranged from his Jewish friend, which leads to tragedy.
As part of teaching children about that period, I was successful in securing a visit from the late Reverend Ernest Levy, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, although his father, brother and sister did not survive. Despite his advanced age and frailty, he made the trip from his home in Giffnock, Glasgow, to Airdrie Academy to meet the children and tell his story, which he still found hard to do almost 50 years later. He talked of the continuing lack of tolerance in an angry world, and he set out his experiences and his will to survive the brutality of Auschwitz in his book, “Just One More Dance”. I am honoured to have met this man of huge courage and gentleness. I will never forget him, and I do not think that the young people who met him ever will either.
Indeed, I said a silent prayer for Reverend Ernest Levy and all those who were so brutally and cruelly killed when I visited Sachsenhausen camp just outside Berlin, again when I visited Auschwitz some years later after his death, and a few years later in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. It is some comfort to know that he spent the last 48 years of his life happily in Scotland, after his surviving brother and sister persuaded him to settle there, telling him about the welcoming nature of Glaswegians and the freedom for Jewish people to worship in peace. There was anti-Semitism, they said, but it came from ignorance, not hatred. They believed that he could help to alter that, and he spent the rest of his life doing so. He went on to become a leading figure in the Scottish-Jewish community, and a passionate advocate of interfaith dialogue. A testament to the relationships that he built between faiths was evident in the outpourings of tributes, grief and deep respect that he received from leaders of all faiths on his death.
Despite the enormous human suffering, the unspeakable waste of human life, the unimaginable cruelty and inhumane barbarism of the holocaust, it is extremely depressing to think that tolerance in societies around the world is still a challenge. As Holocaust Memorial Day events take place across Scotland and the UK, we must remember these terrible events and reflect on the fact that as a species we have not moved very far forward at all. We have seen other people subject to genocidal attacks, such as those in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Darfur and other places. Commemorating the holocaust is essential for our past, but it is even more important for our future. It is right that this House should debate it and highlight the importance of never forgetting and not standing by.
I will end with the thought that UK poet laureate, Scotland’s own Carol Ann Duffy, put in her poem “Shooting Stars”:
Remember these appalling days which make the world
The future is not yet written. The world need not be forever bad. The question is what we are prepared to do to make the world good.
It is an honour to follow the very moving speech from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) on introducing the debate.
As a statistic, 6 million people dying is hard to fathom. I think for many of us it is hard to imagine how any human being could murder that number of people, so it is vital that we bring it back to individuals. I pay tribute to the work the Yad Vashem museum has done to capture the personal testimonials of the survivors, so we can see for posterity what happened in Nazi Germany and try to learn the lessons. I first went to Yad Vashem 24 years ago and I have been back six times since. I have never left there without tears in my eyes. It is a deeply emotional experience. I urge hon. Members on all sides to go there and to see for themselves what happened and the history of the Nazi persecution.
I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. It does such wonderful work in informing young people of the misery, torture and brutality of the Nazi regime. It is vital that we continue that work, because for everyone, particularly younger generations, it is hard to fathom how human beings could do this to other human beings. I remember going—it is seared in my consciousness —to Auschwitz-Birkenau and seeing at first hand where the great synagogue used to exist. It is now just a set of trees. I saw the work camps where people were crowded in absolutely inhumane conditions, and the terrible railway that brought people to their deaths. They were brought there at the point of a gun and absolutely dehumanised by the people who murdered them.
It is not so much the piles of shoes or spectacles that I remember; it is the walk across the park where they put the ashes after they had burnt the bodies. Nature has a way of demonstrating what happened. As one crosses that park, the birds do not sing. There is no form of animal activity or birdlife at all. There is total silence. That will live with me forever. I well remember going with students who started the day in a buoyant mood. As the day went on, they became more and more depressed and silent. It brings it all home. I pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust. I hope its work goes from strength to strength as we seek to educate the young.
We have heard about other terrible events across the world: Rwanda, Cambodia and others. I just want to highlight one. It is the 26th anniversary this week of another genocide—one that is never talked about. I am talking about the Kashmiri Pandits, who were forced from their homes, in which they had lived for hundreds of years, at the point of a gun. The women were raped or forced to convert to another religion, just because they supposedly had the wrong religion. The issue is never spoken about or debated for some bizarre reason, although I had the honour this week of participating in seminars and meetings at the Indian high commission pointing this out to the world. We must continue to highlight it.
There is another danger that has not been mentioned. I mean the holocaust deniers—the people who claim it never happened. We need only look at this country for people who deny it ever happened. They need to be exposed and re-educated. We also have to combat the countries that deny it ever happened. We should remember that only 60 years ago the Jewish population in Arab countries was 2.3 million. It is now less than 100,000. They have been forced to leave their homes and are now refugees. That was another form of genocide and forced evacuation. It is clearly wrong. We must always stand up for those people and make sure that we do not stand idly by.
I am grateful for the chance to contribute to possibly the most important debate we will have this year. There can be few subjects as fundamentally important to the survival of the human race as learning the lessons of this dreadful period of history.
I commend the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for an exceptional and passionate speech, and I forgive him for stealing some of what I intended to say, because it makes it easier for me to keep within the time limit. I am also happy to associate myself entirely with the praise offered to organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust, particularly now that, as others have said, there will soon be no one left with first-hand eyewitness experience of what happened. The Holocaust is moving out of our collective memory into our collective history. It is vital that, while the events are behind us, the lessons remain always in front of us.
I echo the hon. Gentleman’s comment about how the Holocaust was committed by ordinary people. I remember watching the groundbreaking documentary series “The World at War” in my early teens. It included interviews not only with military personnel and the victims of German bombs in London, Coventry and elsewhere, but with people who had taken part in the Holocaust and contributed to the genocide, some of whom had served time in prison for their crimes. Some 20 or 30 years later, they had understood that what they had done was wrong and had gone back to being perfectly ordinary, decent human beings. The single most important lesson is that ordinary people can do genuinely diabolical and hellish things to each other if the circumstances are right.
I saw that in Rwanda one time. I came across a reconciliation village where a man who had been involved in the genocide but had moved on in life was a babysitter—believe it or not—for a woman whose family had been annihilated in the genocide. It was a powerful experience, and it echoes the point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) about very ordinary people doing ghastly things.
I think the best example we will ever see of reconciliation in the aftermath of such dreadful things is that set by the late Nelson Mandela. People could look at the experience of truth and reconciliation in South Africa in trying to move on from conflicts in other parts of the world.
As others have said, this year we are being asked to reflect in particular on the ordinary people who allowed the Holocaust to happen, sometimes through active participation but more often through passive compliance and by doing nothing. Again, the fact that these were ordinary people should serve as a warning to us. It happened not so long ago, not so far away from here, and it could happen here—and it will happen here if we allow circumstances to develop in which ordinary people begin by not speaking out when they see anti-Semitic or racial abuse. Within a few years, they find themselves actively participating in acts of violence and murder—acts of such depravity that they cannot be adequately described in words.
Whether it be the anti-Semitic racism that we see in the far right in parts of Europe, the Islamophobic racism that we see on the far right here in the United Kingdom or the white supremacist racism of the Ku Klux Klan, the message must always be that there is no such thing as an acceptable level of, or an acceptable type of, racism. To defend oneself against a charge of racism by accusing someone else of the same thing simply does not wash. A racist is a racist; racism is wrong without exception. The tolerance level for racism is and must always be absolutely zero.
One way to help combat racism is by taking small steps to encourage a spirit and atmosphere of what is sometimes described as “tolerance”. However, I do not like that term much. I do not think we should “tolerate” the diversity of our society; I want to celebrate it. Tolerance is what one does to things that are not all that good; celebrate is what one does about things that make our lives and our world better. We should celebrate the fact that there are so many different faiths, so many different positions, so many different personal choices that people make about how they are going to live their lives and with whom they are going to live them.
As one small example and as part of the celebration of diversity, a decision was taken in the early days of the Scottish Parliament to begin each day with a “time for reflection” that was not exclusively dominated by the predominant religion in Scotland, so that all religions and all faiths would have a chance to lead that celebration. Indeed, people who did not publicly identify with any faith group or religion but had something important to say were equally welcome. That is a practice that I would tentatively suggest this House might want to look at, possibly in addition to the more traditional prayer service with which we open each day.
I am enormously proud of the fact that next week, on the 71st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Scottish Parliament’s time for reflection will be led by two pupils from Auchmuty high school in Glenrothes. Lauren Galloway and Brandon Low recently visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Lessons from Auschwitz scheme. I hope that politicians in Holyrood, London and elsewhere will listen to the lessons that those young people have brought back for us to hear. I know I speak for everyone here when I say I long to see the day when “never again” is not a prayer or a promise, but a statement of fact delivered for the benefit of future generations.
Seventy-four years ago yesterday, a group of men—and they were, sadly, all men—met at Wannsee, a nice lake and idyllic location in Berlin, and decided systematically to murder 11 million-plus Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the like. As a result of discovering that fact when I was young, I developed a rather morbid fascination with the holocaust. I could not quite understand why a sophisticated country that had given birth to famous chemists, philosophers, historians and composers could find itself hosting a conference at which such dreadful deeds were planned.
The sheer industrial scale of what happened is seen in the places of Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz. Another particularly dreadful episode happened at Babi Yar in Ukraine, where over 33,000 men, women and children were shot over the course of two days, just 29 years before I was born. I had this fascination, and I could not understand the word “holocaust”, meaning “holo” or whole and “caustos” or burned. I could not understand how intelligent, sophisticated, educated people could design purpose-built gas chambers and commit such a crime.
When I was practising as a doctor in Aylesbury, I had two patients who had survived Auschwitz. I clearly remember the lady with the tattoo on her arm, and I particularly remember the man who came in suffering from serious depression. Ten hours after I admitted him, he committed suicide, rather shockingly, on the ward. I think that that personal experience was what drove me to visit Yad Vashem for the first time in 1998; subsequently, like many other Members, I visited Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust. It drove me to try to understand, as best I could.
I agree with those who have said today that it is important to remember other genocides. I am thinking of, for instance, the genocide of 1915 in Armenia, of what was done by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, when almost 25% of the population died, and of the more recent genocide in Rwanda, when the killing rate actually topped that of the Nazis: some 600,000 people were killed within six to eight weeks of the start.
Of course it is important to reflect and remember, but I think the most important thing that we should do is try to understand. I have long thought that killing the people who were convicted at Nuremberg was a mistake. I think that we should have kept those people alive, and tried to understand what on earth drove them to behave in such a way. And what of justice? Of course it is important to bring people to justice, but fewer than 10% of people were ever charged with any crime in connection with the holocaust. The numbers are not much better when it comes to the Khmer Rouge, and certainly not when it comes to the Armenian genocide of 1915.
We need to understand how people could do those things by day, and then be normal by night. There are famous photographs of Hungarian Jews arriving in June and July 1944, when 12,000 a day were being gassed, and there is the Höcker album showing SS men and women partying in the evenings and afternoons in the intervals between gassing thousands of people. How can that have been?
It is very easy to stand here and make speeches. It is very easy to say that we should not be bystanders, but should act. It is very easy to say that we should not do this and we should not do that. Forgive me, but we have stood idly by in the case of Rwanda, idly by in the case of Darfur, idly by in the case of Syria, and in the case of the Yazidis in particular. We are not doing much better than our predecessors. Indeed, I suspect that we do not have the determination and courage of some of our predecessors, who actually went to war to defeat evil. I think it is about time that this country rediscovered that determination, that courage, and that strong belief in the values of freedom and the equality of people, irrespective of their faith, gender or sexuality. It is about time that Britain, France and, yes, Germany—and America—rediscovered that courage, because otherwise such genocides will continue to happen in the future, and I very much hope that they will not.
So much has already been said during this extremely powerful and thoughtful debate, but let me add two stories from my own life and my constituency.
I recently took my parents-in-law, who were visiting us for the holidays, to a museum in my constituency of which some Members may be aware. Remarkably, the National Holocaust Centre, a few miles north of Newark, is the only museum dedicated to the holocaust in this country, although I hope that that will change in the near future.
My parents-in-law are the children of holocaust survivors. My wife’s grandfather and grandmother were Jews who lived in a village near the city of Pinsk. The Nazis came to their village. At the time, Pinsk was 90% Jewish; today it is 0.05% Jewish. The Nazis rounded up the able-bodied young men and took them to labour camps. The young men were told that if they tried to escape, their families back in the village would be killed. As we can imagine, however, word came to the camp pretty quickly that everyone in the village had been shot. Most had actually been burnt to death, and their bodies had been dumped in an open grave outside the village.
Furnished with that reality, my grandfather-in-law narrowly succeeded in escaping from the camp, and spent the remainder of the war fighting as a partisan in the forests of what is now Belarus. At the end of the war he returned to the smouldering ruins of his former village, amid the wreckage of his former life, and discovered that every single member of his family had been killed. Remarkably, the following day he met my wife’s grandmother, who was herself a holocaust survivor with a similar story, and every single one of whose family had also been killed, most of them at Auschwitz. They fell in love, and the rest, of course, is history. My mother-in-law, my wife and my three daughters are the result. So it is a great privilege for me to represent that museum.
Let me tell the House briefly about the two founders of the museum. Their story is not as well known as perhaps it should be, and it is worth retelling today. Twenty years ago, two brothers from Nottinghamshire, who are not Jewish and have no family connection with the holocaust, visited Israel to study and were captivated—if that is the right word—by Yad Vashem, which was being constructed at the time. On returning to their parents’ farmhouse in a remote area north of Newark, they persuaded their parents, who were extremely socially aware individuals themselves, to convert their farm into a holocaust education centre and over the next 20 years they have done exactly that. They have realised a remarkable vision and James and Stephen Smith—those two constituents of mine—are now among the most extraordinary individuals leading in holocaust education and genocide prevention around the world. They have founded the Aegis Foundation that works to prevent genocides and runs the genocide museum in Kigali in Rwanda, which is partly funded by the Department for International Development. They also run Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which is now attempting to create 3D visualisations of remaining holocaust survivors so future generations can hear, to some extent first-hand, the stories when survivors have long departed.
The brothers had two profound driving ideas behind their mission. The first was that when the survivors are gone, we need to be able to tell the story—that although there are many museums all over the country, and even in my own rural constituency, at least one museum should be our conscience. It should be here for future generations, and I hope it will be. Secondly, they believed this museum should remind us of our common humanity by showing that whatever motivated the attacks on the Jews was a virus—a virus that exists in all of us and which exists in the world today. We see that alive and well, as we have heard already—in ISIS, in Boko Haram, and in anti-Semitism in Paris and in this country.
As an individual who grew up in the Church of England and walked though my village in Shropshire to Sunday school classes, it is a deep sadness and a shame to me to take my children to Hebrew classes and have to knock on the door and pass through security and sophisticated alarms so they can join four and five-year-olds learning a bit about their Jewish heritage. That is what we are fighting for today—to remember, to keep the flame alive, and to try at least to ensure that it does not happen again.
It is an honour to be speaking in this debate today. We have heard many very moving and thoughtful contributions from Members across the House, and it is evident that this is a topic of great concern to all of us. I must add my voice to those commending the outstanding work of the Holocaust Educational Trust.
It is an honour for me to represent East Renfrewshire. My constituency is home to Scotland’s largest Jewish population, as well as to other engaged and active faith groups. Their congregations and leaders add so much to our local communities, promoting positive relations and the importance of working together and learning lessons from the past.
As a number of Members have rightly pointed out, as fewer and fewer holocaust survivors are able to share their story, it is more important than ever that we take steps to make sure that their stories continue to be told, and it is fitting that the theme of this year’s commemoration is “Don’t stand by”. The message this gives could not be clearer or more important. It is about us all: we must not stand by—and we must also be aware, as we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and others, that these terrible acts often involved ordinary people.
I am very proud of the diversity of modern Scotland. It makes us all better to live in a diverse, vibrant country, but we can never take the diversity and tolerance of our society for granted. Scotland’s Jewish community is a vital and important part of our society. Every member of that community has the right to feel safe and we on the SNP Benches join the others here today who have condemned anti-Semitism; it is wholly unacceptable.
We have heard about our duties to refugees from the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and, as Europe struggles to get a grip on the refugee crisis stemming from Syria, we must not stand by and ignore cries for help from men, women and children fleeing not only the barbaric control of Daesh, but the evil regime of Assad.
In 1999, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Jewish community leaders in Britain whether they felt it would be a good idea to have a Holocaust Memorial Day. They told him that they themselves did not need one, because Jews already had Yom HaShoah, a memorial day on which the whole community remembered all those who had been lost. However, they pointed out that it was important for our whole society to have a Holocaust Memorial Day for the Jewish people and for the other victims of the holocaust, including Roma people, trade unionists, people with disabilities, gay people and Jehovah’s Witnesses—all those who, along with the Jews, were so terribly singled out for the crime of being different, as the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said. This is important for wider society too, so that we have the opportunity to listen and to learn.
It was a huge honour for me to be invited to march with the Jewish war veterans at the Remembrance day service in Newton Mearns in November and then to join the community at the Newton Mearns synagogue for an excellent, thoughtful service at which their brave and selfless contributions and the losses and sacrifices of so many were remembered.
We must remember not only the horrors of the second world war but the subsequent genocides, including those in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia. This year marks the 21st anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica, which has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). The cemetery there has more than 8,000 obelisks marking Muslim graves. Organisations including Remembering Srebrenica and the Mothers of Srebrenica work to ensure that we remember and help us to try to learn.
I attended the Srebrenica memorial service last year, and one of the most moving parts of the service was when I went out at the end and saw the thousands of schoolchildren who had gathered in the nave of Westminster Abbey to learn and to witness that remembrance. Does my hon. Friend agree with the other Members who have spoken in this moving debate about the importance of educating future generations, and young children in particular, so that we and they never forget and never stand by?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I entirely agree with him.
I am pleased that in Scotland our Government have made a clear commitment to understanding and protecting faith through education, and to the importance of holocaust education. Our young people must have the opportunity to really understand what happened. We have heard about Scottish students and teachers participating in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s valuable Lessons from Auschwitz project. I have met some of those young people, and their commitment to understanding and sharing the story of the holocaust is very important.
Our First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon, reflecting on our annual Scottish interfaith week, described Scotland as a country where all people can live together in harmony, follow their religion or belief and achieve their potential. Our diversity is a strength, as the First Minister emphasised when she recently came to speak to the Scottish Jewish community at the Giffnock and Newlands synagogue. She said that with that strength comes the responsibility on us all not to stand by but to speak up against anti-Semitism and discrimination in all its forms.
Holocaust Memorial Day allows schools, colleges, faith groups and communities all over Scotland to consider that, and to remember the 6 million men, women and children who were murdered by the Nazi regime in occupied Europe. Six million people. That is more than the entire population of Denmark. But even when I make comparisons such as these, it is still impossible to comprehend the numbers. As the hon. Member for Ilford North pointed out, however, we really need to try to do so, so that we can understand the terror and magnitude of that genocide, and its repercussions and impact on all of us, on those who survived and on the generations who came after, such as the family of the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick).
This time last year, I was fortunate enough to be at a holocaust memorial service at the Giffnock reform synagogue, where I heard the son of a holocaust survivor speak movingly about the impact of his father’s experience on him as a person. It was an incredibly moving testimony, and it illustrated very well the broad effects of the holocaust, which extend much further than even the terrible magnitude of the number of victims would suggest.
Yesterday, I visited the Kindertransport statue at Liverpool Street station. There is no doubt that the Kindertransport saved many thousands of young Jewish lives, and those children and their families have added greatly to our society and made huge contributions to our understanding. But it was heart-breaking to learn that at the end of the war, when the British Government committed to taking in another 1,000 unaccompanied children, they could not do so because only 732 orphaned children remained.
The plight of children at that time also exercised the mind of Jane Haining, a farmer’s daughter from Dunscore in rural Dumfriesshire. A devout Christian, she was inspired by a job advert she saw in Queen’s Park church for the post of matron in a Budapest school run by the Church of Scotland’s Mission to the Jews. The school was popular with Jewish parents because of the quality of education that all children, particularly girls, received. As the political situation in Hungary became increasingly precarious, with the Jewish population steadily stripped of its freedoms, the Church of Scotland sent her repeated letters urging her to return home to Scotland for her own safety. Jane refused, and wrote back saying:
“If these children needed me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in these days of darkness?”.
As Hitler’s troops marched into Hungary, Jane Haining is said to have wept as she sewed yellow stars on to her charges’ clothes. This sympathy was known, and very soon she was informed upon, arrested and held in a local prison. She was soon moved to Auschwitz and taken to the labour camps. The treatment being so brutal, she survived for just two months before dying at the age of 47. Many years afterwards, after a 10-year investigation and an initiative by Queen’s Park church, Jane was named as Righteous Among Nations in Jerusalem’s sacred Yad Vashem, recognising her quiet sacrifice for her Jewish children.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I want to talk briefly about the late Rev. Ernest Levy, previously the cantor of the Giffnock and Newlands synagogue in my constituency. In 1938, when he was a child, he and his family had to flee to Hungary from their home in Bratislava. When Germany invaded Hungary, they were deported to the concentration camps. Ernest was held in seven concentration camps in all, including Auschwitz. His brothers had to dig their own graves. His sister was gassed to death. Ernest only just survived and he was found lying in the dust in Bergen-Belsen. He ultimately returned to Budapest, before making his home in Scotland, marrying Kathy Freeman, a fellow concentration camp survivor, in 1965.
Rev. Levy worked with the Holocaust Educational Trust to launch his holocaust testimony, “The Single Light”, in the Scottish Parliament. He brought a sardine tin with him. This tin had literally been his guiding light. During a forced march to Belsen, towards the end of the war, he picked up the tin, discarded by a German guard, made it into a wick and lit a flame. He and his fellow inmates gathered round the flame to sing a hymn. In Holyrood, he again lit the wick in the sardine tin, telling assembled MSPs and guests:
“We sang, and it gave us hope. This tin gave us light.”
It is an honour to be able to contribute to this debate. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions today and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for bringing the debate to the House. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for his eloquent and moving opening speech. Like many Members, he pointed out that the holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary men and women carrying out acts of extraordinary evil.
I thank the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) for highlighting, among many issues, the disgraceful recent attack on Jewish students in King’s College. I thank the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for bringing his experience and knowledge of conflict to the debate. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) for emphasising the need to preserve the memories of survivors. I thank the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) for speaking of the courage of those who did not stand by. I thank the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for bringing us her experience as a teacher and highlighting the importance of holocaust education. I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his passionate speech and for highlighting the work of Yad Vashem. I thank the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) for, again, emphasising that ordinary people are capable, in the wrong circumstances, of diabolical acts, and I thank the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) for giving us his personal experience as a doctor with holocaust survivors. I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for his very personal speech and his support for the National Holocaust Centre. Finally, I thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for her comments on the importance of learning lessons from the past.
The UK played a leading role in establishing Holocaust Memorial Day as an international day of commemoration in 2000, when 46 Governments signed the Stockholm declaration. Our first Holocaust Memorial Day was held on 27 January 2001. In the weeks leading up to and after Holocaust Memorial Day, thousands of commemorative events are arranged by schools, faith groups and community organisations across the country, remembering all the victims of the holocaust and of subsequent genocides. It is vital that we continue to remember and to learn from the appalling events of the holocaust, as well as ensuring that we continue to challenge anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry. This year’s theme is “Don’t Stand By”. Bystanders are encouraged to speak out against persecution to prevent the horrors of the holocaust and other genocides from ever happening again.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is the charity that promotes and supports Holocaust Memorial Day. The UK Government, through the Home Office, had the responsibility of running the Holocaust Memorial Day from 2001 to 2005. In May 2005, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust was registered as a charity, and the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, appointed trustees for the first time.
The Department for Communities and Local Government has funded the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s work since 2007, and, to date, HMDT has overseen massive growth of Holocaust Memorial Day activities. More than 3,600 activities took place across the UK on Holocaust Memorial Day last year. Independent opinion polling in February 2015 showed that 83% of UK adults are aware of Holocaust Memorial Day, and 31% say that they know it well. Some 1.3 million people watched the 2015 UK commemorative event on BBC 2.
Many Members have paid tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which aims to educate young people from every background about the holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today. The trust works in schools, universities and the community to raise awareness and understanding of the holocaust, providing teacher training, an outreach programme for schools, teaching aids and resource material. It continues to play a leading role in training teachers on how best to teach the holocaust.
I was very proud to sign the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of commitment, thereby honouring those who were murdered during the holocaust and paying tribute to the extraordinary holocaust survivors who work tirelessly to educate young people.
I wish to say a few words about the connection between the European convention on human rights and the holocaust. The ECHR was the first international instrument designed to bring into effect, through a dedicated court, the rights contained in the 1948 universal declaration of human rights. The convention came into force in 1953 and now applies to all 47 countries of its parent organisation, the Council of Europe.
The convention aimed to prevent a recurrence of the horrors and atrocities of the second world war. It followed on from the UDHR, which was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. It is easy to forget that, until then, there was almost no system that enabled criticism of, let alone action against, Governments who mistreated people within their borders if their own law allowed such abuses.
Professor Francesca Klug, commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, notes that
“however morally repugnant, Nazi Germany’s racial purity policies were all in accordance with the law.”
It is from the universal declaration of human rights that the international system of human rights protections was born.
As the UDHR was being drafted, European leaders drew up the European convention on human rights. During that time, Winston Churchill spoke about the strength derived from our “sense of common values” and of such a convention being
“guarded by freedom and sustained by law”,
which ensured that people owned the Government, and not the Government the people.
When the UK Parliament passed the Human Rights Act in 1998, it made our human rights more accessible for people here in the UK. There is now a duty on all our public bodies—not just central Government, but the police, NHS, social services, housing and education—to respect, protect and fulfil our human rights. The legal protection of human rights for all is a direct and lasting legacy to emerge from the horrors of the holocaust.
I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House for their wise, passionate and insightful contributions to the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) and the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) for securing this important debate.
Last year, the Prime Minister marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by pledging to build a new national holocaust memorial and learning centre. What was unique about the announcement was that it had cross-party support. That support has continued with the creation of the United Kingdom Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which is turning the recommendations made to the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission into reality.
Today is as much about remembering other genocides as it is about Jewish persecution. This year marks 21 years since the genocide in Srebrenica. It is important to remember the innocent lives lost in the holocaust, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the churches of Rwanda, in the camps of Bosnia and in the arid desert of Darfur. This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme, “Don’t Stand By”, is all the more poignant if we think of all the hatred and prejudice in the world today, some of which has been mentioned in the debate.
Survivors of the holocaust and other genocides would not be here today if it were not for those who did not stand by: people such as Robert Townsend Smallbones, consul-general in Frankfurt, who worked night and day to issue Jewish families with visas as he knew that a visa meant the difference between life and death; or Captain Mbaye Diagne, a Senegalese military officer and a United Nations military observer during the 1994 Rwandan genocide who saved many lives during his time in Rwanda through nearly continuous rescue missions, at great peril to himself.
This year’s theme focuses on the contemporary relevance of the holocaust and subsequent genocides. We are asked to consider our individual responsibilities. We are asked not to be bystanders to hate crime and prejudice. In 2009, I joined a number of Conservative colleagues on a visit to Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred during the 1990s. It truly brought home to me the scale of this merciless atrocity, which took place on our continent just a few years ago. While in Srebrenica, we undertook a number of projects, one of which was installing a computer suite at a local school. I mention that project because I think that schools are vital in the context of this debate as education has the power to bring communities together.
Holocaust education matters. It brings to life the names, the memories and the identities of those who suffered, but none of that would be possible without the dedication of survivors and their families, who visit schools and communities up and down the country urging us to take a stand against hatred and prejudice. A number of survivors were honoured in the new years’ honours list and I want to take this opportunity to mention them each in turn. Zigi Shipper works tirelessly in schools and universities up and down the country. He is so popular and inspiring that students set up a fan page on Facebook. Susan Pollack sees herself as part of a dedicated team ensuring that the lessons from the holocaust and more recent genocides are never forgotten. Ivor Perl gave evidence in the trial of Oskar Gröning, a former SS guard known as the “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”. Lily Ebert ensures that our young people are aware of the dangers of hatred and intolerance and is an inspiration to us all. Jack Kagan played an inspirational role on the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission in 2014. Renee Salt was recognised for her commitment to holocaust education and awareness. Rudi Oppenheimer visits schools up and down the country and spoke at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in my own Department a couple of years ago. Agnes Grunwald-Spier has served as trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and earlier this week published her book entitled “Who Betrayed the Jews? The Realities of Nazi Persecution in the Holocaust.” Freddie Knoller, at 95, still talks to young people about the horrors of the holocaust and encourages them not to stand by. Finally, Chaim Ferster is a survivor of Auschwitz, who uses his experiences to educate others to ensure that we never forget.
I echo the tributes paid today to Karen Pollock, the chief executive officer of the Holocaust Educational Trust who, along with her team, is an inspiration to all of us. I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and its CEO, Olivia Marks-Woldman, who with her team delivered the most successful Holocaust Memorial Day to date last year, with over 3,600 local events. I would like to mention some of the other holocaust remembrance, education and survivor organisations that enrich the work we do, such as the Holocaust Survivors Centre in Hendon, the Anne Frank Trust, which uses Anne’s diary to fight hatred and prejudice in schools, the Wiener Library, the Association of Jewish Refugees, and the National Holocaust Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the work of the Prime Minister’s new envoy for post-holocaust issues, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who made an excellent contribution to the debate. I am glad to hear that he will be focusing on the restitution of property and art, the opening of archives and the role of bystanders as collaborators. My right hon. Friend replaced Sir Andrew Burns, and I hope this House will join me in thanking Sir Andrew, the UK’s first post-holocaust issues envoy, for his wisdom and guidance over the past five years.
I do not have time to mention all the contributions, but I shall reply to questions asked in the debate. First, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar referred to the terrible incident at King’s College this week. I concur with his comments. The actions of a few at King’s College were unacceptable and we expect the police and the university authorities to take the incident extremely seriously, fully investigate what happened and hold to account the perpetrators of that awful action. As my right hon. Friend will know, my Department hosts a cross-Government working group on anti-Semitism, which will be taking the issue very seriously in its future work. In response to the hon. Member for Ilford North, I can assure him that we will continue to do all we can to promote, support and fund the teaching of the holocaust.
It is clear from the contributions made today by hon. Members that we can never be complacent, especially when we continue to see the growth of anti-Semitism and anti- Muslim hatred in Europe and on our own shores. I can only echo what Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor turned Nazi-hunter after the war, said so eloquently:
“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
I would like to place on record my thanks to all the right hon. and hon. Members who spoke so passionately, eloquently and thoughtfully in this afternoon’s debate. As we draw the debate to a close, I want to leave us with the words of Primo Levi:
“It happened, therefore it can happen again”.
Those words are a lesson for all of us to reflect upon, with reference to our individual actions and taking up the challenge presented by the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) in his speech. It is for the House to think about how this country can rediscover the best of its internationalist traditions. That is something for all of us to think on in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2016.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would just like to place on the record, as a new Member of the House, my apologies for not realising that I really should have spoken until 5 pm precisely, so as not to put you in the awkward position of having to find something to say from the Chair in order to take us through to the Adjournment debate, which I am sure we will hear very shortly. It is on the important matter of transport for vulnerable adults, and will be led by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). Although I am unable to stay for the debate, I for one am looking forward to seeing her rise to her feet imminently.