I beg to move,
That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2022.
I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for co-sponsoring today’s debate. I am only sorry that the right hon. Member for Barking could not be with us because she is recovering from covid. As Margaret is not here, and therefore cannot be embarrassed, I thought I would say a few words about her. She has championed holocaust remembrance throughout her 28 years in the House and has proven to be one of our most courageous warriors against antisemitism and racism of all kinds. I will miss her enormously when she steps down at the next general election, but I feel fortunate to have served alongside her and to be able to do so for some time yet. I am sure we all wish her a speedy recovery.
Holocaust Memorial Day has been a national day of commemoration for over 20 years and our debates have become a regular fixture in the parliamentary calendar. We use this day to fulfil a solemn obligation, an obligation of remembrance: to never allow the memory of those who died in the holocaust to be forgotten by anyone anywhere in the world. This year’s theme, “One Day”, encourages us to put aside our differences for just one day, to come together to understand more about our past, and to resolve to act for a better future. I hope that Members from across the House will join me at 8 pm this evening and light candles in our windows as a mark of remembrance.
Today, the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember a dark stain on human history, the greatest evil perpetrated by man against man in the long catalogue of human crimes. Today, we mourn with those who mourn, and grieve with those who grieve. We remember the names, the faces and the promise of the 6 million Jews who were murdered. Today, we pay tribute to those who survived and, for all these years, have borne witness to that evil and have served humankind in doing so. Today, we honour and remember the memory of the allied forces, including the 3.3 million British servicemen who left hearth and home, suffered appalling casualties and freed a continent from the grip of tyranny. We pay tribute to the memory of those non-Jewish heroes and heroines who saved countless lives—those people who the people of Israel call the righteous among the nations. In an age of indifference, they acted. In an age of fear, they showed courage and their memory is an example to us all.
As time passes, the importance of this day grows. In 2020, 147 survivors of the holocaust passed away in this country. In 2021, 134 died. The youngest survivor of the camps is currently 77. As the survivors die, the holocaust is moving from living memory to vital history, which is why we must keep their experiences alive. It is why I pay tribute to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, run by the brilliant Olivia Marks-Woldman; the Holocaust Education Trust, led by the indefatigable Karen Pollock; the Wiener Holocaust Library; the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre, which is in my own constituency in Nottinghamshire; and many other organisations and charities for the work they do to document, record and educate.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating and thanking the Prince of Wales for his initiative in having the portraits of seven holocaust survivors painted? This is one way of ensuring a lasting legacy, and of Holocaust Memorial Day remaining in the public’s consciousness.
I will, and I thought the images of those survivors and their families with the Prince of Wales—just yesterday, I believe—seeing the unveiling of their portraits at the Royal Gallery was extremely moving.
Those are some of the reasons why, as Secretary of State, I worked to gain approval for the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, so that, when the time when the last living survivors leave us does come, there will be another permanent centre to reflect, honour and remember those who suffered and died, and to educate future generations. I am grateful to Members on all sides of this House who continue to support that initiative.
Our debate in Parliament also matters. I have come year after year to share my own or my constituents’ experiences of the holocaust. I have talked about my own family, many of whom perished in death camps in what today is Ukraine, but two of whom miraculously survived—my children are their great-grandchildren. Had the right hon. Member for Barking been present, she would have shared with us the experience of her brother-in-law, who is gravely ill.
Herbert was born in Germany in 1930 into a successful middle-class Jewish family. One of his earliest memories is Kristallnacht in November 1938, when his grandfather was assaulted and had all his teeth knocked out. His father had already lost his job as a judge because he was a Jew. Herbert and his little sister were among the very few children who escaped on the Kindertransport. He still has the passport with the Nazi swastika imprinted on it. He remembers little of the journey he took to Liverpool Street—he was only eight. From London he went to Wales, where the children were joined by their mother, who managed to escape. His father did get to Switzerland, but the family were never reunited. Although a refugee, Herbert served in the RAF and has enjoyed a full and fulfilling life in Britain.
The right hon. Lady and I both know how powerful it is to have heard these stories from our own family members, to feel their impact and to have had a personal relationship with those who were victims of the holocaust. It is—I think I speak for all of us in this House who have met them—one of the greatest privileges to meet survivors. It was a huge privilege for me to meet Sir Ben Helfgott, Lily Ebert and Susan Pollack in July, when together we marked the granting of planning permission for the memorial in Victoria Gardens. All were very emotional that day. One said to me, as we walked away, that she could die easier knowing that they had contributed to that project and to educating future generations.
The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important and powerful speech. I had the privilege of meeting Gena Turgel, the bride of Belsen, when she spoke to schoolchildren in my constituency. Does he welcome the work of the trust, which is propagating those memories to the next generation and how important it is that that continuous word-of-mouth is passed on?
I certainly do and the hon. Gentleman makes the point very powerfully. The way we remember is changing. For example, Dov, the great-grandson of Lily, whom I met in Victoria Gardens, is now using his 1.3 million TikTok followers to educate the next generation with her stories. I strongly encourage those who have not seen them to do so. The importance of remembrance remains as strong as ever.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Susan Pollack. Some years ago, I stood with other Conservative Members at the memorial in Kigali, which is probably the largest grave in the world, with more than 250,000 people murdered in the Rwandan genocide. Does he acknowledge that one of the most important points of a debate such as this is to look at where we have failed since the holocaust, and where sometimes the very noble sentiments we express in this House have fallen short?
Absolutely. My right hon. Friend has a long record, of which he should be proud, of drawing the attention of the House to exactly those issues. That is exactly the point I was turning to.
Since the holocaust, human civilisation has advanced by virtually every metric. We live today in the most advanced human civilisation in history, yet we are still capable of such evil. To acknowledge that fallibility and where it can lead is the best corrective to these indescribable tragedies. The genocide committed on the Jews, the Roma, the Gypsies and the disabled in Europe in the 1940s was, as my right hon. Friend says, not an aberration in history. There have been subsequent genocides in our living memory: the millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; the million-plus victims of the Rwandan genocide; and the 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were murdered in Srebrenica.
Today, atrocities continue in Darfur, and last month the Uyghur Tribunal’s judgment in London found beyond reasonable doubt that the People’s Republic of China is responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and torture in Xinjiang region. Its findings were supported by this House in the debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). In each of those cases, we see what happens when the powerless cry for help and the powerful fail to answer.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, it is appropriate that we reflect on the atrocities of the past to draw connections with those of the present. While Britain is, as I can attest from my own family, one of the most welcoming places for Jews anywhere in the world, antisemitism is on the rise at home. This year, the Community Security Trust found that anti-Jewish hate incidents rose by 49%.
On the issue of rising antisemitism, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very good that there are opportunities for schoolchildren to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, to see personally the horrors that were inflicted on those poor people, and that that is something that should be encouraged, to ensure that more people understand the reality of what happened? May I also just compliment him on managing to secure this debate and on his very powerful speech?
I thank my hon. Friend, and return to my thanks to and support of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which sends hundreds of thousands of our young people to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. I hope this Government will continue to support the trust, as previous Governments did, enabling those visits to continue.
Social media is fuelled with antisemitic hatred, with conspiracy theorists growing their followers daily. According to research published last year by the Antisemitism Policy Trust, there were up to half a million explicitly antisemitic tweets per year made viewable to UK users. During the pandemic, we have seen the use and abuse of holocaust language and imagery, with anti-lockdown protesters carrying signs reading “Vaccine Holocaust” and wearing the Star of David. In May last year, we saw a convoy of vehicles drive through north London with speakers blasting out antisemitic slurs and threats against Jews. In December, the passengers on a bus in Oxford Street, who had been celebrating Hanukkah, were subjected to vile and frightening abuse, with racists banging shoes against the bus.
I think it was in the dying days of the Obama Administration that Obama told students at a university that
“ignorance is not a virtue.”
Do we not need to put that across again and again? Ignorance is not a virtue. It is education and knowledge that lead us to understand and not to commit such atrocities against others.
The hon. Lady makes her point eloquently, and of course I agree entirely.
Some of us here have been on the receiving end of antisemitism—I know the right hon. Member for Barking has on many occasions. I recently received a letter telling me to teach my “Jewish Zionist wife” to “put out fires”, as they intended to burn our house down and cremate our children.
As Communities Secretary, I encouraged universities to adopt and use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, a cause taken up strongly by the current Education Secretary, but despite those entreaties some universities have not done so. Only last year the University of Bristol, one of our most respected universities, acted painfully slowly to discipline Professor David Miller, a purveyor of antisemitic conspiracy theories that went well beyond the bounds of free speech. Such incidents are one of the reasons I champion the brilliant Union of Jewish Students.
I will end my speech today as the right hon. Member for Barking would have done, by quoting a diary extract of her grandfather’s. Old, ill and interned, deemed an enemy alien at the time, in an entry before Christmas, he wrote,
“Is the present time a blip? Is Hitler only an episode? Are these ideas going to disappear and the better side of humanity re-emerge?”
We owe it to her grandfather Wilhelm, and all the survivors of genocides, to do all we can to learn from their experiences.
Today, we remember not simply the liberation of the camps, but the triumph of freedom and the human spirit. We marvel at the strength, the resilience and the faith of those survivors and of Jewish people here in the UK and around the world. We must continue to tell their stories. We must use this day to continue the fight against hatred in all its forms. Then, perhaps, one day we will have a future without genocide.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It may or may not be known to the House—it is known to the Government—that permission has been given to appeal the planning approval for the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens. I think we need to be careful about how we speak about it. I did not want to interrupt the exceptionally good speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on a very important subject.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order, which of course is not a point for the Chair, but which might well be important as a point of information for hon. Members participating in the debate. I suppose that, to some extent, planning appeals are sub judice and we must be careful about what we say here in the Chamber.
Order. Although a great many colleagues wish to participate in today’s important debate, I hope that we can manage without a time limit. If everybody, having regard for others’ rights as well as their own, takes eight to nine minutes or less, everyone will be able to get in without a time limit. I do hope that this is one debate in which the Chair can rely on colleagues to think of others, not only of themselves.
I thank the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for his powerful and moving opening speech. May I say how sorry we were to hear of his family’s recent experiences? He has solidarity on the Opposition Benches against those racists.
Every day on my Twitter feed, I see the Auschwitz memorial’s images of people murdered. Those that grab me particularly are the faces of the babes in arms, toddlers, children and teens who were murdered in the gas chambers. Every single day, I wonder how those faces could be treated as the enemy, having their very humanity denied. Every single day, I wonder how it is possible that human beings could do this to such innocents. Every single day, I have genuinely no idea how it happened.
Today, I want to tell the story of Rena Quint, who survived the holocaust at just nine years of age. Rena lived with her mother, father and two brothers. She remembers that across the street was a kiosk that sold ice cream; she remembers her brothers pulling her through the snow on a sledge. She was just three years old when Germany invaded Poland. Her home was in the new ghetto: it took in many sick and hungry strangers, and people died before her eyes.
Then, one day, there was a round-up. All the women and children were brutally forced into the synagogue. Rena, her mum and her brothers were among them. She describes it as a scene out of hell, but she remembers a man at an outside door who beckoned to her, called her by name and told her to run. She still does not quite understand why she let go of her mum’s and her brothers’ hands, but she ran. Rena says that maybe the hand of God pushed her, because all those women and children were transported to Treblinka, and they were murdered.
Rena was given a new name. She was dressed as a boy and joined her father’s forced labour group. She has no idea how she was able to pretend for so long, but pretending kept her alive. She had to work at a glass factory at just five or six years of age, carrying heavy loads in extreme heat all day long.
In 1944, when it was decided that their slave labour was no longer needed in the factory, Rena and her father were packed into freezing cattle cars to Bergen-Belsen. They had no food, no water and no toilets, and they were locked in for three days with the dead and the dying. When they arrived, her father knew that they would be forced to strip for inspection, so they were forced to separate. Rena never saw her father again. She endured the utter horror of the camp for many months, with nothing to eat but sawdust bread and sometimes thin, greasy soup, with cold and disease all around. Rena never cried in response to any of the thousands of deaths that she would have witnessed. Murder was her every day.
And then, one day, when Rena was sick with typhus, she remembers lying under a tree. She felt that it was impossible to get up and she just wanted to fall asleep forever, but then there was a commotion. British soldiers had arrived and they were liberating the camp. Rena remembers getting some milk and bread and going into a hospital tent and being cared for.
Rena has lived a long and flourishing life to this day, but she was so young when her birth family were murdered that she no longer remembers their faces. Rena’s account reminds us of the systemic inhumanity that so many millions of Jews were subjected to during the holocaust, and it speaks of how the innocence of children was so completely disregarded and destroyed by the Nazis.
Rena had to behave as an adult from as young as five years of age while having to deal with things that no adult, still less any child, should experience. We must never forget her story. Her story reminds me of the children growing up today in the Rohingya refugee camps. It makes me think of the children in Bosnia now facing the same rising threat as their parents and grandparents. What are we going to do to stop these young lives being brutalised, too?
This year’s theme is “One Day”. My hope is that, one day, children will no longer be dehumanised or treated as enemies, targets or soldiers. But even when that day comes, as I pray it does, we must remember Rena’s life and her family’s lives and all the other millions murdered.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) after her excellent speech and my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), whom I congratulate on securing this debate. I join everybody in the Chamber in thanking the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust and everybody else who works in this area. I particularly pay tribute to the Antisemitism Policy Trust and its chief executive, Danny Stone, who does so much in supporting and providing the secretariat for the all-party group against antisemitism, which I and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) co-chair.
I will attend the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony in Brigg in north Lincolnshire this Sunday, which will take place at our new memorial there. It is a town I have spoken about before that has little to zero Jewish population but which, through its town council and particularly Councillor Rob Waltham, decided that it wanted to do its bit and to do more to ensure that the memory of the holocaust is never forgotten. That is why, just a few years ago, following a competition in which local schools took part, a local pupil designed a fantastic new memorial in Brigg, and the town will come together on Sunday to ensure that we never forget.
I thank Demeter House School in Brigg, a special educational needs school that has been working with the University College London Centre for Holocaust Education to build its confidence in teaching its children about the holocaust. It is one of 165 schools across England taking part in that initiative, and I pay tribute to it for that.
Why is this debate so important? Sadly, the scourge of antisemitism continues to plague our society and others around the world. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark said, we have seen that in the past year with the case of Professor Miller at the University of Bristol, which failed to protect its students swiftly. This was a racist, antisemitic professor targeting Jewish students, accusing them of effectively being in the pay of the state of Israel—a classic antisemitic trope. In calling that out, as we did not so long so ago in an Adjournment debate, members of the all-party parliamentary group were singled out and attacked as being Zionist agents, agents of the state of Israel or in the pay of Israel.
Why is this debate necessary? As other Members have said, people visiting any social media platform over the past couple of years will have found antisemitic posts linking covid and the development of vaccines to Israel, to Jews, to the classic international conspiracy. We have seen, as has been referenced, the sickening sight of people on anti-lockdown protests wearing yellow stars.
Just last week we saw swastikas on the streets of Bury in protest against covid passes. It is depressing that we even need to say this in this House, but there is no place for antisemitism, these tropes or this hatred on our streets, campuses and society, and it needs a debate such as this to call it out and say, “No more.” [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Absolutely—I could not agree more. Too many people throughout this coronavirus period have casually linked the necessary measures to Nazi Germany. My constituents are largely very sensible people—they have sent me here four times, which proves how sensible they are; and they have done so, I might add, in ever increasing numbers and with a higher percentage of the vote, but I digress—but I am afraid to say that even a small number of my constituents have sent me some of this material. One of them even sent me a photograph of the Nazi health pass, likening it to the vaccine mandate, even though the Nazis and Hitler himself were against vaccine mandates.
That is absolutely why this debate is necessary. We have this debate every year, and each time we can all trot out a whole range of different experiences and examples from the preceding year, as Members have done today—I will not repeat them—which prove the sad necessity for this debate and for the ongoing work we have to do on antisemitism.
I will be very brief. My hon. Friend is taking an impassioned view of antisemitism. Is he aware that just yesterday Jewish shopkeepers in Stamford Hill were attacked? There is a video of the incident and a police investigation is taking place, but it is clear that antisemitism is rife in our society today.
I was not aware of that particular incident, but I am sorry to say that this is happening time and again. Anyone who visits social media or other online platforms, including sales sites such as Amazon, will be able to find books that minimise and question the holocaust. The APPG has raised this many times, in repeated meetings, with the social media platforms and through direct approaches to Amazon and others, but anyone who looks today will be able to find holocaust denial and revisionist material for sale on Amazon.
In the few minutes I have left, I want to talk, in a more positive sense, about some of those heroes who did so much to help save people in the holocaust. This year I came across a book called “The Bravest Voices”, written by Ida Cook. She was one of two sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who have been described as plain and dowdy English spinsters in the 1930s. They were huge fans of opera, and they took it upon themselves to rescue Jews and non-Jews from Nazi Germany. They did that by flying out on a Friday evening from Croydon airport, and returning overnight on Sunday via train and boat from the Netherlands, so as to be back at work at their desk jobs in the civil service in London on Monday morning. As I said, they fell into that through their love of opera, and they met people who were trying to get out of Germany. They would go through the border on the way into Germany dressed very plainly, and they would come out dressed in the furs—they often sewed new labels into those—jewels and valuables of the people they were rescuing, which would then be sold in the UK to raise the funds required at the time for the sponsorship of Jews who wanted to get out.
They did that in a very matter of fact way, and the book written by Ida Cook is wonderful in its modesty. They do not talk about “rescuing”; they talk simply about “getting people out”, “pulling people out”, or “dragging people out”—it is well worth a read. They used their English spinster act. Neither of them ever married. The pen name of Ida Cook was Mary Burchell, who was a famous Mills and Boon author. They enlisted church groups, and others, to facilitate their work, and they assisted countless numbers of people, rescuing them from Nazi Germany. We learn some of the names, and others we know simply by their first name, including a lady referred to simply as “Alice”, who refused to sell a hat to von Ribbentrop’s wife, and who they managed to rescue successfully.
The case that most struck me was that of a young Polish Jewish boy who they rescued at the very last minute in 1939. He was expelled from Germany in October 1938 for being a Polish Jew, and was one of those caught up at the Polish border because of the refusal to allow people into Poland at that time—that is not a criticism of Poland, as borders were closing to Jews all across the world at that time. The boy spent the winter in the Zbaszyn improvised prison camp on the Polish border. By some means, which the Cook sisters did not know when they wrote their biography in the 1950s and never learned, he contacted them, and they received a letter asking if they could raise a guarantee to get him out. The tribulations over the next few months as they tried to rescue him are an interesting and emotional read. They had trouble getting money to him and getting the necessary permits. He had a permit number that would have put him 500 above the permits that were allowed in at that time, but a friendly civil servant here in London did the necessary work. At last, two weeks before the outbreak of war, the Cook sisters were out in Germany meeting the next group of people who they wanted to rescue, when they got word that, by assisting one of the last children’s transports out of Poland, this young boy was able to get to a boat. As they described, he was literally:
“The last man to board the last boat that left Gydnia”.
just a couple of days before the outbreak of war.
That is a very moving story, as is my last point, which is that the Cook sisters downplayed their own role in all this, and constantly throughout the biography play up the role of others. That includes the consul general at Frankfurt during Kristallnacht, who opened up the British consulate to Jews, day and night, and provided food, since Jews had been banned from purchasing food in the days running up to Kristallnacht. He even went out on the streets giving food to Jews. Ida Cook describes that at the end:
“It was a piece of Britain”.
I think that is something we should all reflect on today when we think about other refugee crises, including that we have seen in Afghanistan. It was a piece of Britain, Madam Deputy Speaker, and today when we face other crises we should ask ourselves this: what is the piece of Britain that we want to project around the world?
I rise to speak today to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, which, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, commemorates the 6 million Jews murdered during the holocaust, alongside the millions killed under Nazi persecution of other groups, including Roma and Sinti people, Slavic people, LGBT and disabled people and political and religious minorities. On this day, we also remember the subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Dafur and Bosnia.
As the holocaust fades from living memory, I want to put on record my gratitude to all of the survivors whose testimonies are at the heart of holocaust education, but which come at huge personal cost. It is impossible to comprehend the abjectness of the horrors that they experienced, the trauma that follows them through their lives, or the sacrifice that bearing witness entails. Marceline Loridan-Ivens said:
“If you only knew, all of you, how the camp remains permanently within us. It remains in all our minds, and will until we die”
Similarly, Shlomo Venezia, said:
“Everything takes me back to the camp. Whatever I do, whatever I see, my mind keeps harking back to the same place. It’s as if the “work” I was forced to do there had never really left my head…Nobody ever really gets out of the Crematorium”.
Those who survived the camps were greeted with
“incredulity, indifference, and even hostility”
upon their return to their communities. Although the allies won the war against Nazism in Europe, antisemitism has never been defeated, and fascism grew rapidly in the UK in the post-war years, contrary to the narrative of triumph over Hitler.
Jewish soldiers such as Morris Beckman and Jules Kanopinski returned to London to find fascists staging outdoor rallies in the east end,
“shouting out the same antagonism and the same filth as before the war, and now even worse—they were saying the gas chambers weren’t enough”.
The anti-fascist 43 Group that they and their comrades established, and the later 62 Group, would be breaking up, on average, 15 fascist meetings a week and engaging in regular physical confrontation with fascists, including in the battle for Ridley Road, which was memorialised this year in a BBC drama. The irony is not lost on me that, in the very week that Ridley Road was released, my synagogue in Manchester, where much of it was filmed, had our Friday night service gate-crashed by the far right. It may be a historical drama, but the hatred in it is very much contemporary.
I have sat in synagogue while fellow Jews have been slaughtered elsewhere in the world for practising their faith, as I am, and so to proclaim our faith proudly, to stand as proud Jews, is itself an act of defiance. As the partisan vow declares, “Mir veln zey iberlebn”, which means, we will outlive them. From generation to generation, the Jewish spirit endures.
In Kveller, Rachel Stomel writes:
“In the context of Jewish law, remembrance is not a reflexive, passive process directed inwards. Our sages teach us that the way we fulfil the Torah’s commandment to remember the Sabbath—'Zachor et Yom HaShabbat le’kodsho’ (remember the sabbath day to keep it holy)—is by active declaration in the performance of the kiddush, the Shabbat blessing over wine. We are commanded to remember the Amelikites brutal massacre of our people—'Zachor et Asher asah lecha Amalek’ (remember what the Amalek did to you)—through intentional, public, verbal affirmation, and by ridding the world of the evil that they represent. Neither of these Torah commandments can be fulfilled by quiet contemplation, memorialisation must manifest through specific action.”
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “One Day,” both as a call to action for that one day when we have eradicated the hatred that leads to genocide and because one day, as a snapshot of what happened, can be helpful in seeking to understand and process the enormity of the holocaust. The brutality and the hopelessness of the concentration camps and the lengths to which the Nazis went to extinguish any faint glimmers of hope are summed up in this quote from the survivor Shlomo Venezia, who was forced to work in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, emptying the gas chambers of bodies, including those of family members, processing their hair and teeth, and loading them into the ovens for cremation. He said:
“One day, while I was presenting my testimony at a school, a young girl asked me if anyone had ever emerged from the gas chamber alive. Her schoolmates laughed at her, as if she hadn’t understood a thing. How could anyone survive in those conditions, when the deadly gas used had been carefully developed to kill everyone? It’s impossible. In spite of everything, however absurd her question may seem, it was quite relevant, since it did indeed happen.
Few people ever saw and can relate this episode, and yet it is true. One day when everyone had started working normally after the arrival of a transport, one of the men involved in removing the bodies from the gas chamber heard a strange noise. It wasn’t so unusual to hear strange noises, since sometimes the victims’ bodies continued to emit gas. But this time he claimed the noise was different. We stopped and pricked up our ears, but nobody could hear anything. We told ourselves that he’d surely been hearing voices. A few minutes later, he again stopped and told us that this time he was certain he’d heard a death rattle. And when we listened closely, we, too, could hear the same noise. It was a sort of wailing. To begin with, the sounds were spaced out, then they came more frequently until they became a continuous crying that we all identified as the crying of a newborn baby. The man who had heard it first went to see where exactly the noise was coming from. Stepping over the bodies, he found the source of those little wailings. It was a baby girl, barely two months old, still clinging to her mother’s breast and vainly trying to suckle. She was crying because she could feel that the milk had stopped flowing. He took the baby and brought it out of the gas chamber. We knew it would be impossible to keep her with us. Impossible to hide her or get her accepted by the Germans. And indeed, as soon as the guard saw the baby, he didn’t seem at all displeased at having a little baby to kill. He fired a shot and that little girl who had miraculously survived the gas was dead. Nobody could survive. Everybody had to die, including us: it was just a matter of time.”
Elie Wiesel speaks of watching Jewish babies thrown alive into the vast ditches where bodies were burned, confirmed by Telford Taylor at the Nuremberg trials. Lily Ebert testifies of witnessing babies torn from their mothers’ arms and dashed against walls. I have seen the piles of teeth, hair and shoes that represent a tiny fraction of those who passed through Auschwitz-Birkenau, and how small those chambers were, with up to 1,200 people piled into a tiny space so that no poison gas would be wasted. This was not, as we might imagine, a quick process, with it taking up to 12 minutes to be poisoned to death, crushed in among hundreds of panicking people, desperately trying to cling to life, trying to break or claw their way out. Seven hundred Jews were murdered in the gas chambers on the very day before they were set to be liberated and many more died by disease or by suicide in the months following liberation. There are some things that a human just cannot endure.
These survivors witnessed day in, day out what no human being should ever be condemned to see: the very depths of man’s cruelty and inhumanity towards his fellow man laid bare. The Hasidic mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, said:
“If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.”
If man can sink to these depths once, to industrialise the brutalisation and murder of their fellow humans, they can and will do so again. Indeed, “never again” rings hollow with the genocides that have taken place since the holocaust, and our failure as a nation to learn the lessons of the past as this Government turn away refugees from other parts of the world knowing full well the fate of the refugees from the holocaust denied safe passage to Britain and the US, and returned to their deaths.
We allow a minority in public life to degrade and debase the memory of the holocaust—to make inappropriate comparisons with modern day events as though there can be any parallel drawn, rhetorical or otherwise, between, for example, those who choose not to be vaccinated, or a particularly poor performance in the football, and the experience of the victims of Nazi persecution. We still see the cancer of antisemitism in our communities, with the threat of hate crime in person and online a daily reality that we should not have to live alongside.
Today we honour the victims, the survivors, the heroes and the martyrs of the holocaust. We cannot change the past, but by bearing witness we can change the course of the future. Ira Goldfarb said of his father, the survivor Aron Goldfarb, that
“throughout my father’s life, survival adopted a new meaning. Survival to my father was carrying the nightmares of his childhood and choosing to find joy, humor, and compassion in life every single day. Survival was seeing the worst of humanity and still offering his last piece of bread to someone who needed it more, still building lifelong friendships, and being a devoted husband and father.”
It is hard not to be moved by photos of a beaming Lily Ebert celebrating her 98th birthday in lockdown with thousands of cards sent by well-wishers, or welcoming the birth of her 35th great-grandchild. I can think of few people more deserving of happiness. May we draw strength from their strength, and courage from their courage, as we build a more decent, respectful and inclusive society where all of us can live in peace, harmony and security.
“I have a request of you: this is the real reason why I write, that my doomed life may attain some meaning, that my hellish days and hopeless tomorrows may find a purpose in the future.”
These chilling words are those of Zalman Gradowski, a Polish Jew deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and forced to be a cog in a factory of death. Zalman was forced to be a member of the sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to perform a variety of duties in the gas chambers and crematoriums. In October 1944, Zalman led this group in revolt and managed to destroy one of the crematoriums. He was murdered during this revolt. Knowing he would soon be killed, Zalman wrote his first-person account of what he described as the “inferno of death” that he was living in and hid these words in the ashpit of crematorium 3, hoping that one day a citizen of the free world will find them and tell the story of him and his family. Zalman asks in his writings:
“Can the dead mourn the dead? But you, unknown ‘free’ citizen of the world, I beg you to shed a tear for”
“when you have their pictures before your eyes. I dedicate all my writings to them—this is my tear, my lament for my family and people.”
I wish to now grant Zalman’s wish and list the names of his murdered family members for all to hear, know and remember in this place: his mother, Sarah; his sister, Libe; his sister, Esther Rokhl; his wife, Sonia; his father-in-law, Raphael; and his brother-in-law, Wolf. They were all killed on 8 December 1942, gassed and incinerated. They have no grave. Zalman also mentions his father, Shmuel, his two brothers, Eber and Moyshl, and his sister Feygeleh, who were all taken and never seen again. This was his entire family, and they will never be forgotten.
An estimated 1.3 million Jewish people were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and 1.1 million were murdered. When allied troops liberated the concentration and death camp 77 years ago today, just 9,000 prisoners were found alive. All in all, an estimated 6 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in the holocaust.
The holocaust was not the birth of antisemitism, and sadly neither was it the end. It is the world’s oldest form of hatred and has taken on many forms over the centuries. However, the same themes always seem to prevail: Jews are made scapegoats, forced to answer for the actions of others, and they are depicted as both weak and all powerful.
Just two weeks ago, a British man walked into a synagogue in Texas and took the rabbi and three congregants as hostages. Why? Because he believed that the Jews of that small congregation had the power to grant his demands. I saw the effect that the incident had on my Jewish friends: they stayed glued to their phones and TVs all night praying for a peaceful outcome; they went to sleep not knowing whether they would wake up to yet another massacre of fellow Jews in their sacred house of worship.
It is a sad state of affairs when synagogues all over the world are still forced to be guarded by soldiers, police or security and when Jewish schoolkids in this country must still take part in regular terrorist drills and be prepared for the worst in case it happens. I pay tribute to the incredible work of the Community Security Trust and its volunteers, who work tirelessly to keep the UK Jewish community safe.
The Secretary of State for Education rightly calls antisemitism a virus that continues to mutate. As we know, the best way to deal with a mutating virus is to vaccinate. Education will always be the vaccine against all forms of hatred. For that reason, I commend the work of the amazing charities, organisations and their staff who dedicate their time to ensuring that the next generation are taught about the evils of antisemitism and where that hatred can lead.
The Holocaust Educational Trust is an amazing charity and one I was proud to work for myself. I am glad that two of my staff members, Alex Moore and Bradley Langer, are ambassadors for the trust; Bradley also works for them. Holocaust Memorial Day might just be one day a year, but the staff of the trust work hard all year round, travelling to schools across the country and teaching about the horrors of the holocaust. They have now taken over 41,000 young people to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau through their Lessons from Auschwitz project, giving them the opportunity to see that historical site for themselves. They campaign tirelessly against those who try to deny or distort the holocaust and they help survivors share their testimony with anyone who will listen.
I also commend the innovative work of George Salter Academy, in my own constituency, as part of the University College London Beacon School programme—a flagship initiative led by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education. They are truly leading the way in holocaust education in West Bromwich East.
I also pay tribute to Freddie Knoller BEM, who very sadly passed away yesterday aged 100. Freddie was an Auschwitz survivor and a resistance fighter, and his work and fight against antisemitism will never be forgotten.
Sadly, one day in the near future, the holocaust will move from being living history to just history. All of us who have had the honour of hearing a survivor share their testimony are now their witness. It is up to us to carry on their legacy, to say to our children, “I met a Holocaust survivor; I listened to their testimony. It happened to them and their family, and it must never be allowed to happen again.”
I would like to end this speech on a positive note by also celebrating the incredible Lily Ebert BEM. At age 20, when she was deported to Auschwitz, she made herself the promise that if she survived she would tell everyone the truth of what happened to her and her family. She has made millions of people around the world her witness and continues to jump at every opportunity to share her story. I wish Lily a huge “Mazal tov” on the arrival of her 35th great-grandchild, and I echo her remark that the Nazis did not win.
I start by paying tribute to all those who have secured this debate and those who have already spoken so movingly, thoughtfully and powerfully. I say to the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), who opened the debate, how moved I was by what he disclosed about the comments made to him and his family. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) that the solidarity of the House is with the right hon. Gentleman and his family. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for all her work in this area, over so many years.
Today marks the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Today, we remember those 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the holocaust, alongside millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in all subsequent genocides. This Holocaust Memorial Day is as important as ever in marking the memory of those terrible events.
I was reflecting that I visited Auschwitz some years ago with the Holocaust Educational Trust. One of my most striking memories is of the huge piles of luggage, dolls and toys, shoes and other ordinary, mundane items, which were probably those that meant the most to the people who were murdered in that camp. I will always remember that about Auschwitz—the ordinary and mundane alongside the most evil.
The holocaust is fading from lived memory, with the gradual passing of those who suffered and survived and of those in the greatest generation, who fought the Nazis and liberated the camps and Europe. It is up to all of us to ensure that this history and its lessons are never forgotten. I, like many others, pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust for the brilliant work that it does, and to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, as well.
After the events of recent years with covid, I look forward to once again meeting Hull’s remaining Jewish ex-servicemen and the community in Hull who gather every Remembrance Sunday to mark these events, and the immense contribution of the Jewish community to our country and to our very survival. As a member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I am proud of the work that we do in maintaining the graves of so many Jewish ex-servicemen and women who fell while defending our country.
As we know, we need to be vigilant as there are those who still seek to deny the facts about the holocaust, a form of fake news spread for decades by antisemites, challenging whether the holocaust actually happened or the magnitude of it, and more recently questioning the internationally agreed definition of antisemitism. Remembering what happened in the holocaust is even more important, as we have seen a rise in antisemitism abroad and here in the United Kingdom. The first half of 2021 saw the highest number of antisemitic incidents in a six-month period recorded by the Community Security Trust. It is important that we note the work that trust does, day in, day out, providing security and keeping the people of the Jewish faith safe.
We must ask ourselves, why is that trust still required and why have we failed to combat the pernicious hatred of Jews that lingers, particularly online? Online disinformation often parrots long-standing antisemitic tropes that demonise Jewish people as happened in Germany in the 1930s; now they are spread by digital technology. The right hon. Member for Newark set out some shocking statistics about what can be found on social media platforms. This House must do something about that. Other hon. Members have talked about antisemitic messages around the covid anti-vaxxers, which are sadly too prevalent on social media.
We must be aware of the different forms that antisemitism takes in the United Kingdom. It is no longer just the far right and skinheads trying to sell National Front publications in Brick Lane. Shamefully, in recent years my party allowed the stain of antisemitism to find a home in the party. Under the leadership of the current leader of the Labour party, we are working very hard indeed to combat that.
The horror of the holocaust has reshaped our understanding of international law, human rights and collective security after 1945. We have a responsibility to people throughout the world to protect them from persecution, but I regret to say that we have too often failed. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on human rights, and we are only too well aware of the growing breaches of human rights around the world. We know that too many genocides have been carried out since the holocaust—in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, to name but a few—and we should also be shamed by the current genocide being carried out against the Uyghurs in China, the plight of Christians in some countries, what happened to the Yazidi women, and what is happening now to the women in Afghanistan. Of course, there is also the stain of Islamophobia, which is still around in our communities and institutions and which needs far more attention. It is the “othering” of groups that we need to be vigilant about and take action to tackle, and we need to recognise where that “othering” can lead.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “One Day”, but we must continue the work to eradicate antisemitism and hatred, in this country and throughout the world. Antisemites, of whatever variety, are invariably the enemies of peace, freedom, democracy and the rule of law. Only by defeating them, and all those who peddle hatred and prejudice, can we live in confidence that we will never see another holocaust.
Instances of genocide continue, and, very sadly, I have been witness to them—in particular, in Bosnia during 1992-93, when I commanded the battle group of the 1st Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment. Let me give the House an example.
On 22 April 1993, I learnt that women and children had been massacred in a village in the Lašva valley. I did not believe it, so I went there, taking about 30 men and about six vehicles. As I approached the village of Ahmići from the south, I was struck by what a beautiful place it was, or had been. The first building I saw was the mosque, which was new, but wrecked. The minaret had been broken by explosions, and it was pointing at the sky like a pencil. Most of the other buildings in the village—it was a linear village, about a mile in length—had been destroyed by fire. Some had not been destroyed; we later discovered that they belonged to Bosnian Croats, not Bosnian Muslims.
Each building had been destroyed by fire, explosions or shooting. The windows had black marks around them, and the roofs had collapsed. Only later, because we did not see it immediately, we discovered that bodies were underneath the roofs. Outside the houses, the gardens looked kind of normal, except for the detritus of war: downed cables, bricks, burnt-out cars, and dead pets. Everywhere was the disgusting smell which comes from the chemical reactions that accompany death. It was cloying and it was foul.
I went all the way to the far end of the village, the north end. I deployed my men, and we started looking. We did not see bodies initially—until we came to house number seven. The murderers had failed to disguise what had happened there. At an entrance to the house, there was a man and a boy. They were dead. They looked like they had been burnt. They did not seem to have clothing on them. The little boy, or the teenage boy, had his arm upwards in front of his face, and his fist was balled, and the bones had been burnt through.
My soldiers said, “Look behind the house, Sir.” I went into a cellar. The cellar had agricultural tools and strings of onions or vegetables on the walls. In the middle, there was this mass—this greyish, blackish mass. I did not really understand what I was looking at—then I did! The first thing that hit me was the disgusting smell, and then I realised I was looking at bodies—at least two adults, several children. One of the women, and they were women, presumably being protected by the men who were killed at the door, had her back so arched back. Her back was bent—she was lying, and her head was back. God! She was burnt. Everything was burnt, except for her eyes. Her eyes were not burnt. I fell back in horror at what I had found. I rushed outside and was violently sick.
Later, one of my soldiers, and he was a bandsman, because we used the band as stretcher bearers and I asked the band to help clean up, was shovelling the remains—shovelling the remains—of a human being into a bag on a stretcher, and he turned to me and said, “Sir, this is Europe in 1993, not Europe in 1943.” I did not know what to say.
On the memorial in that village, which I am going to visit shortly—at Easter—there are 116 names of everyone killed, as far as can be ascertained. My men and I dug a mass grave and put, as far as we could tell, over 104 bodies into that mass grave. They were Bosnian Muslims; there was not a Bosnian Croat among them.
We did not just discover them, but found families lined up—shot down. One little girl was holding a puppy. The puppy was dead, and so was she, killed presumably by the same bullet. We took that family to the local morgue. Next day, we went back and discovered that the bodies had been put back at the house because it was the wrong morgue. We had taken them to a Croat morgue, not a Muslim morgue.
Within a month, I was in Srebrenica and watched more genocide occurring, this time with Bosnian Serb artillery firing at human beings. There were about 20 people killed around us as we went. Some of my soldiers were slightly wounded, no one killed.
You see, I consider Holocaust Memorial Day to be so incredibly important not just because of the people who were killed in the second world war in the 1930s and the 1940s. It was not just the second world war: the Germans, or the Nazis—forgive me, I am not talking about the Germans; I am talking about the Nazis—managed to start doing it before the second world war. Then we have had instances since, with Darfur, Bosnia that I have witnessed, Rwanda and Cambodia.
My mother visited Belsen in 1945. She was in the Special Operations Executive. I did not know that until a few years before she died. I did not know she was a spy. Women are always much better at keeping secrets than men. I said to her, “Why, mum, have you never told me that you went to Belsen in 1945 looking for SOE officers?” She said, “Robert, I was ashamed.” I said, “Why were you ashamed? You did things like learn to parachute when you were 22 and put yourself in danger. You did everything you could.” Colleagues, she said, “I was ashamed because it happened in my generation.”
The purpose of Holocaust Memorial Day, and the memorial of all those people who died in the second world war and all those who have died in genocides since, is for us to feel collective responsibility for stopping it from happening again. That is why this day, and this memory of all those innocents who have died, is so incredibly important.
First, I wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for having secured this debate. It is a privilege to follow the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whose speech, giving first-hand witness testimony to genocide, is so important in this place. It is always a privilege and an honour to listen to him speak on Holocaust Memorial Day and on other occasions when he recounts his service, not just to our country but to the Bosnian Muslim community. This debate is always a difficult debate for me personally, as a descendant of victims of the holocaust, so I apologise if at any point, I get a little emotional and have to pause for a second or two. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber understands.
As others have done, I thank the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Yad Vashem, the POLIN Museum—which is actually in the Warsaw ghetto—the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre near me in Huddersfield, and those organisations that fight antisemitism today such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, HOPE not hate, the Community Security Trust, and others. There are many organisations that both keep the holocaust alive today and fight antisemitism, and we should be grateful to them all.
This year’s theme, as we know, is “One Day”, and for me, that means that we have hope that there may be one day in the future with no genocide. It is also about one day in the lives of victims of genocide, when they themselves are facing that genocide every day, and know that that day might be the last day they live. They wake with that thought beguiling their senses, and if they are fortunate enough to survive that trauma, the trauma lives with them and becomes intergenerational trauma. I am not sure how many generations that trauma persists for, as two generations separated, I still feel that trauma, especially on days like this. I hope my children do not feel it, and are not driven by some of the same fears that generations of Jewish and other people have felt.
One of my drivers here in Parliament is that genocide must end and that we must strive for human rights for all, so I speak out for the Rohingya and the Uyghurs, and act as the chair of International Parliamentarians for West Papua. A genocide against one people is a genocide against all people, and we must stand together against genocide wherever and whenever it occurs, without any thought of our own interests. Benny Wenda, from the Free West Papua Campaign, gave me this message for Holocaust Memorial Day. He is exactly the same age as me, so in context, this is 30-odd years ago that he is talking about:
“When I was a child, my village was bombed by the military and many of my family members were killed. I have witnessed my own aunties being raped and dying of their injuries and my mother being brutally beaten in front of my eyes.
Although we carry this burden, we also carry great hope. Our hope is for the next generation to be free from persecution, free from violence, and free from oppression. One day. We carry the hope of peace, and we look to the lessons of our shared history to guide the way.”
I hope that more Members present might join the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, and find out more about the genocide that is carrying on there to this day.
I want to finish by telling the story of one part of my own family. My paternal great-grandfather was David Laks. He was murdered by the Nazis in the Belzec death camp in 1942. Teresa, my maternal great-grandmother, died of natural causes in 1938 before the start of the war. David and Teresa had five children. Salka and Fanka were the eldest daughters. They lived in central Poland and were murdered, along with their families, in unknown circumstances—I really did not think I would get this emotional; I am sorry—by the Nazis.
We all greatly appreciate the good work that the hon. Gentleman does in this House, but we are also very aware of the good work that he does in Papua New Guinea; I think he has been an inspiration to us all. I hope that that gives him the chance that he needs to continue.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me that chance to pause and collect myself. It is very useful in debates such as this to have colleagues who will do that.
The middle child was called Zygmunt; I will come back to him later. The fourth child was my grandmother Regina, who survived the war and lived into old age. The youngest sibling was my great-aunt Marisia, whom I have spoken about in a previous Holocaust Memorial Day debate.
I am going to describe one day in the life of Zygmunt Laks and his family—his wife Guta and their son Karol, who was born in 1939. Zygmunt Laks lived in the Łódź ghetto and worked in a garage after the Nazis took away the family restaurant. The situation in the ghetto worsened; Zygmunt stopped work and just sat in the ghetto apartment with a large axe, waiting for the Nazis to come and take them away. There was an easing in the situation in the ghetto, so he decided to go back to work, but the next day he returned from work and his wife and son were gone. On that day, an SS officer shot Karol, who was just two years old, in the head in front of his mother.
Karol was my uncle—a child who never got to see adulthood, an uncle I never met. I often think about how small my family is: I am an only child of only children, with very few relatives. A lot of our family are just ghosts—just ghosts of the past who were taken away from us by the holocaust.
Guta was never seen or heard of again, but it is assumed that she, too, was taken to Belzec death camp and never returned. Belzec is one of the lesser-known death camps, but it is estimated that as many as 800,000 may have perished there in the very short period—just two years—in which it was in operation. Zygmunt eventually escaped the ghetto to Ukraine, but was killed by a bomb as the war was ending and never returned home.
That this part of my family history survives is due to my aunt, Aviva Hay, who compiled her father’s memoir into a book, “We Are What We Remember”, a holocaust memoir of our family. My father, who I know is watching at home, contributed to this account and very much keeps alive the deep and scarring memories of our family’s experience in the Shoah.
The most tragic thing for me is that the fate of the Laks family is not unique or rare; it is the common story of European Jewry. Today is so important, because we have one day each year that we can share and remember—one day to say that we will not forget—but we have every other day to do all we can to strive for a better world and no more genocide.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who shared with the House such powerful and important emotional experiences. We respect him greatly for having had the courage to do that today.
I draw the House’s attention to my interests, as set out in the register, and congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on launching this important debate for the House of Commons and the country so eloquently today. I echo the comments he made about our very good friend, the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who sadly cannot be with us today but with whom I have worked extremely closely for many years on issues of economic crime and dirty money. Any cause that she supports and to which she brings her formidable powers is one worthy of the House’s greatest attention.
Every year, we convene in this Chamber and in venues around the country to proclaim, “Never again”—never again will we stay silent in the face of hatred, never again will we stand by as people are murdered because of who they are, never again will a holocaust be allowed to happen. Yet, around the world, these things are happening again and again. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), with very direct experience, once again impressed the House hugely with his knowledge and understanding of these things, but the words of his mother—that we have a duty in our generation, a duty that cannot be shirked—were particularly powerful.
We have shamefully borne witness to genocides in Bosnia. I have stood among the gravestones at Srebrenica, not many hundreds of miles from here, in Europe, marvelling at what took place there. I have stood in Darfur and heard testimony and witness, particularly from women, about the brutality of what George Bush, the President of the United States, described as a genocide. We have seen these things in Burma too, and in Rwanda, where in 1994 nearly 1 million people, predominantly Tutsis, were murdered by their Hutu neighbours over 90 days.
I would like to focus my comments on Rwanda and the genocide there because the UK now has a connection to it, although it is not widely known. Once the killing stopped, those allegedly responsible for these appalling events fled far and wide, some to neighbouring countries, others to Europe, North America and Canada. I regret to say that, in the UK today, five people suspected of taking part in the genocide are living freely among us.
Over the years, many countries, such as Sweden and Canada, which initially harboured the suspects, went on to extradite them to Rwanda to face trial in the gacaca courts. Other countries, notably Germany, prosecuted the suspects in their own domestic courts. Britain has done neither, even though, extraordinarily, the arrest warrants were issued as long ago as 2006. In 2015 and 2017, a British district judge and our own High Court ruled that, even though the evidence was compelling, none of the suspects could be sent back to Rwanda, because such action could breach their human rights. While I did not agree with that assessment, given that Rwanda had long abolished the death penalty and constructed a justice system that was considered progressive, I had faith that Britain would none the less deliver justice by placing the suspects on trial here. This country has comprehensive legislation that allows for the prosecution of suspects accused of war crimes, irrespective of their nationality or the countries in which the crimes took place. With no statute of limitations, there is no legitimate reason why justice should not be expedited. I was a Member of this House when that legislation was passed.
I thank my right hon. and very good Friend for making that point. I have given evidence in four war crimes trials in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I also formed an organisation in 2000 to chase war criminals—it did not last long, but we tried. May I entirely endorse the last comments my right hon. Friend made, about us in this country chasing war criminals until they die?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has said.
As to the circumstances I described, we are, alas, still waiting. Last March, a group of senior Members of Parliament and peers, including no fewer than three former distinguished Law Officers, decided it was time to act. Firm in the belief that the UK should be no safe haven for war criminals, we set up the all-party parliamentary group on war crimes, with the sole purpose of seeing what could be done to accelerate the investigations and legal proceedings. I have the honour of co-chairing this group with Lord Jon Mendelsohn, former secretary of the original war crimes group, which was instrumental in passing the legislation to which I referred. That legislation is available, and is relevant to the Rwanda case I mentioned. In the last 10 days, we have sent a letter to the Home Secretary, and copied it to the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Mayor of London, the Attorney General and the Lord Chancellor, because we want a specific, proper response, with dates and details of the legal process that must now take place in respect of the people concerned.
The job of the new war crimes group is not to presuppose the guilt or innocence of the suspects. We simply want to ensure that due process is followed, and that justice, already excessively long delayed, is not denied. After all, it would be wrong to have these serious allegations hanging over the five suspects for 16 years if they turn out to be untrue. The apparent inertia—the lack of grip, concern or urgency—shames us all.
I would like to say that the APPG has made progress in getting answers to the questions that we have posed to the investigating authorities, but alas, the answer is a flat no. One of the problems that we have identified is that the UK’s former dedicated war crimes unit, set up in the 1990s to investigate suspected Nazi criminals, no longer exists. In its absence, there is a sub-group operating under the auspices of SO15, the Met police’s counter-terrorism command. That group has neither the budget nor the manpower to bring the matter to a conclusion; and aside from that, terrorism and war crimes are two quite separate things, each requiring its own specialised skillset.
Germany’s war crimes unit is able to draw on the full panoply of state support. Only a few weeks ago, we heard that a Syrian war criminal was tried and convicted in a German court under the principle of universal jurisdiction. That arrest took place only in 2019, yet Britain is struggling to complete a process that started 16 years ago. The main problem is that we simply do not have the resolve or the political will demonstrated by other countries to ensure the availability of necessary resources. Denmark does; the Netherlands do; and clearly Germany does. Why are we so far behind?
Britain has the rule of law and accountability—values that we should cherish, uphold and promote at all times. The situation is inexcusable. We must demonstrate the same sense of resolve and urgency when it comes to Rwanda as we rightly did with regard to suspected Nazi war criminals. Failure to do so would send the very dangerous and damaging message that the UK could become a refuge for war criminals. We may not always have the power to prevent atrocities, but if we truly care about the victims of genocide, the least we can do is offer the survivors justice. The souls of those murdered in the Rwandan genocide cry out for justice, but from Britain they hear only a deafening silence.
I thank the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for securing this debate. I also thank hon. Members who have spoken powerfully this afternoon, particularly the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who told us of their personal experiences. I was horrified to hear of the racist attack experienced by the family of the right hon. Member for Newark. I join colleagues in reaffirming my commitment to working with him on fighting racist hatred.
Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember, reflect and reaffirm—remember the atrocities of the past, reflect on their lasting impact around the world, and reaffirm our commitment to ensuring that we never see such atrocities again. As other Members have done, I want to pay tribute to the important work done by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which plays an important role in amplifying the voice of survivors and ensuring their stories are not forgotten. I attended its virtual events yesterday and was particularly moved by the testimony of holocaust survivor Dr Martin Stern. Stories like Dr Stern’s make such a difference. Only by hearing these stories told can future generations learn from the past and continue to work to prevent genocide around the world.
I was born in south-east Turkey and grew up hearing stories about the horrors faced by the Armenian people in that region. Almost 100 years ago, a whole culture and a whole people were systematically destroyed and had their identity erased in an act of appalling violence. Families were torn apart, with children never seeing their parents again. Some 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children were killed. Vibrant, centuries-old communities were simply wiped off the face of the map.
Now, over a century later, the fight of Armenian communities around the world for justice and recognition goes on. The Armenian community in the UK has been consistently at the forefront of that fight. I praise the work of the Armenian National Committee, which is a fantastic advocate for the UK Armenian diaspora. There are many colleagues across the House who have been passionate friends of the Armenian community in the UK. In particular, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who sits alongside me as a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Armenia, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) for their tireless campaigning on this issue.
Despite their campaigning and that of so many others in the UK, the Government are several steps behind the position of many of our European neighbours. France, Germany, Austria, Poland and Denmark are just some of the countries that have taken the step of acknowledging that the horrendous acts that occurred constitute a genocide. The devolved Administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh have also taken that important step, yet still our Government refuse to do so. In April last year, we saw the incredibly important moment when President Biden recognised the Armenian genocide, the first time the American Government had officially done so. Why then, are we in the UK so far behind others when it comes to recognition?
It is time that the Government acted to provide Armenian communities in the UK with the recognition they have been fighting for. What happened to Armenian people 100 years ago was a genocide,, and it is about time that our Government recognised that.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), who remembered another genocide that took place in the world.
It is fair to say that antisemitism is nothing new. We only have to look back to Shakespeare to see that antisemitism was rife during that period in our history. It has been prevalent in societies across the world for centuries and it is still prevalent today. I recalled earlier the attack on shopkeepers in Stamford Hill only yesterday. What makes the holocaust different is that it shows the ultimate destination of antisemitism: a systematic attempt to wipe out the Jewish race and anyone of Jewish religion—not just people who were openly Jewish, but anyone who had Judaism in their genealogy. I speak as someone in that position. I would not be here today if I had been alive in Germany in those times. That demonstrates the way in which people’s backgrounds were traced to see whether any relative or any person of Jewish blood was present. It was systematic, deliberate and intentional.
I was at school with many Jewish children. No one spoke about the holocaust. Half of my class were Jewish, but no one ever spoke about the holocaust during those days. It was ignored, perhaps to be airbrushed from history forever, because it was such a tragedy. The relatives—fathers and mothers—of many of my friends had come from eastern Europe as refugees, but they never spoke about the holocaust either. When we were at school, we never got the opportunity to learn about its horrors and what people went through at that time.
I remember my first visit to Yad Vashem. It was not the Yad Vashem we see today; it was a much smaller, more intimate formation in its early days, going back to 1992. It was a pivotal moment for me on my first visit to Israel, seeing Jerusalem, seeing Yad Vashem and seeing first-hand what had gone on during the holocaust. It had the first ever recordings of survivors—people who had sadly passed away, but who had recorded their testimony in advance—plus early photographs and other details of what had gone on in Germany and eastern Europe in particular during the holocaust.
That made Yad Vashem more intimate, in many ways, than it is now. It is a much bigger operation now, with much more testimony and evidence of what happened, but when I heard the names of the children who had been murdered by the Nazis being recited, one name after another, it brought home to me how people could commit such systematic murder of children—wipe them off the face of the planet—and what a terrible experience it was.
I have had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem four or five times now, and I remember on one particular occasion going into the cave the hon. Gentleman describes, where the recordings of children’s names and ages just continue. By coincidence, there was a run of names, two boys and a girl, the same age that my two boys and my daughter were at that time. I broke down in tears, because that is where it really hits home: “This could be you. There but for the grace of God go we all. If politics turns nasty and turns against you, this is the end result.” That is why Yad Vashem and all holocaust memorials are so important.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I freely admit—I am not ashamed to say it—that I cried. I cried for humanity, I cried for the people who had been lost and I cried for our whole being and how we could ever have allowed such a thing to happen.
I declare my interest as co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on holocaust memorial. I look forward to the holocaust memorial and learning centre’s being built, so we can have our own facility where we can commemorate the lives of those who were lost, and commemorate those who survived. When I was first elected to the House in 2010, the first all-party group I joined was the APPG on combating antisemitism. It is right that, across the House and on both sides of the political divide, we stand against antisemitism.
I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I believe I share the view of most students who have seen Auschwitz for only one day that it would be better if people could stay a little longer, just to appreciate even further the terrible crimes that were committed. The problem with that, of course, is funding, and the fact that lengthening the amount of time spent away might reduce the numbers who could go on such visits.
The problem I see with the programme of Auschwitz-Birkenau visits is that students learn about what went on there and think that that was it. We must remember that it was not just Auschwitz-Birkenau: there was a network of death camps and forced labour camps right across eastern Europe and Germany, where Jews and others were forced into slave labour and then systematically exterminated.
I have often wondered how a civilised nation such as Germany could get into a position to commit such inhumane acts. When we talk about 6 million Jews being killed, it is a number; it is hard to personalise that down to individual circumstances. It is hard to visualise the horror of the attempt to wipe out the Jewish race. We should remember that it did not take place over one or two years. It was a deliberate, long-term attempt by the Nazis to eliminate the Jewish race.
We should also remember that the roots of the holocaust go back to the end of the great war. Germany was subjected to severe reparations. That led to incredible poverty in Germany, which then gave rise to the Nazis, who could say, “It’s the Jews’ fault you haven’t got any money. Let’s take it out on the Jews. If we take Jews out of their position, we can spread the wealth.” It was a deliberate policy of the Nazi party to spread this hatred and it should never, ever be allowed to be repeated. There needs to be a greater understanding and appreciation that, from the early 1930s onwards, this systematic approach led to the Shoah. We have to remember that.
We must also remember that antisemitism was rife in this country at that time, and we should not think that it was not going on elsewhere either. That thought process and the demeaning of Jewish people was going on, and that is one reason why few people were allowed to escape from Germany and come here. Had they been allowed to do so, many people who lost their lives in the camps would have survived.
I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute once again to pay tribute to Karen Pollock and her brilliant team at the Holocaust Educational Trust, who do such wonderful work to educate people—young and old—about the horrors of the holocaust. Not everyone can go to Auschwitz-Birkenau and witness the crimes that took place. We talk, as other Members have, about the shoes, the spectacles and the clothing at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the memory that I have above all else is walking across the park with the lakes. There is an eerie silence. There is no wildlife. No birds tweet, no animals cry and the reason why the wildlife know is that that is where the Nazis emptied the ashes from the crematorium. The wildlife know what happened there and so should we.
One aspect of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s work that has become more important is the outreach programme. Last year, more than 600 schools partnered with the trust to enhance educational provision. That is important because it allows holocaust survivors to give their first-hand testimony, lead workshops and ensure that young people understand what happened and learn lessons.
One of the most famous survivors was Gena Turgel, who lived in Stanmore in my constituency. In many ways, she was a pioneer of holocaust education, as she was going into schools and colleges way before any of the current structures were set up. She was born in Krakow and had eight brothers and sisters. She was only 16 when her home city was bombed on 1 September 1939.
Here is the part of Gena Turgel’s story that I think is most pertinent. Her family had relatives in Chicago and they planned to leave for the United States, but they made their decision too late, as the Nazis had already invaded and closed all the entry and exit points, so her family had to move to just outside Krakow. In autumn 1941, she moved into the ghetto, and then moved after some of her family were shot by the SS in the ghetto. She was then forced into a labour camp, and in 1945 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was sent with her mother on the death march from Auschwitz, leaving behind her sister, who they never saw again. They then arrived in a further labour camp, were forced on to trucks, and travelled under terrible conditions to Bergen-Belsen, where they arrived in February 1945. On 15 April 1945, the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen and among the liberators was Norman Turgel, who became Gena’s husband. Gena passed away in 2018, but her record is in a book called, “I Light a Candle”, so her legacy lives on.
Hermann Hirschberger was born in 1926 in Germany. He lived with his mother, father and older brother. He attended a local non-Jewish school, but when the Nazis said that Jewish children could not go to school any more, he was forced not to go. He was beaten up going from home to school and back again by people who were his friends when he was in school, because the Nazis had said that Jews were not allowed to exist. At 9 pm on 9 November 1938, the synagogues were burnt and businesses, homes and shops were smashed. Windows were smashed and homes and buildings were burnt to the ground. This is known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
After that, Hermann’s parents realised that they had to escape, but they could not—they were not allowed to. However, Hermann was one of the first to come on the Kindertransport to this country, where he built his family. He never saw his parents again. Hermann and his brother had a long journey to get to the UK. They were taken to a hostel in Margate, where Hermann had his bar mitzvah, and remained there for about a year. They regularly wrote to their parents. Two days after war broke out, their parents wrote to say that they had received their permits—they would be allowed to leave. However, once war broke out, they were not allowed to leave. They were sent to a camp in the Pyrenees and eventually murdered in Auschwitz- Birkenau.
In this country, Hermann and his brother were separated and then reunited. Hermann went on to marry and live in my constituency. He regularly spoke to schools about his life and what happened to Jewish people when they came to this country as refugees—by the way, it was not a happy experience for those people. We should own up to that and honour that memory.
Of course, we honour Hermann’s memory, because sadly he died on 1 January 2020. I had the privilege of meeting him on many occasions and hearing about his experiences both in this country and before he arrived. The reality is that, as time goes on, survivors are, sadly, no longer with us, so it is important that we capture their testimony and every other aspect on video, in audio and in writing.
I have had the unfortunate opportunity to witness at first hand the plight of the Rohingya and see what still happens in this world. We have a duty to ensure that people who have perpetrated murder are brought to justice and suffer for the war crimes that they have committed, and that we help and assist refugees.
The theme this year is “One Day” when we put aside all our differences to remember what happened not only in the holocaust and in persecution by the Nazis but in the genocides that have followed. We hope that one day there will no longer be any genocide. Today, we learn about the past and empathise with others, but we must take action for a better future.
I end with a quote by Iby Knill, a survivor of the holocaust, who said about the camps:
“You didn’t think about yesterday, and tomorrow may not happen, it was only today that you had to cope with and you got through it as best you could.”
It is a real privilege to follow all the Members who have spoken so movingly in the debate; I am humbled by their contributions. I thank the right hon. Members for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for getting the debate organised.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial day is, as we all know, “One Day”. When holocaust and genocide survivors are asked to provide testimony, they often start with “one day”. One day, Franziska Schwarz Mikus was sterilised by the Nazis because she was deaf, as part of their process of persecuting anyone who did not fit their ideal. In her case, it was because they believed that disabled people were imperfect and worthless. On that one day, the Nazis took control of Franziska’s body and her life choices. They wanted to prevent people whom they deemed unfit from being able to procreate.
It is estimated that between 1933 and 1939, 360,000 individuals were subjected to forced sterilisation because they had physical or mental disabilities or were simply perceived to have disabilities. Too much of this hatred and prejudice still exists. We must not forget those who were—and still are—persecuted and denied basic human rights for who they are.
Today, on Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember 6 million Jewish people murdered in the holocaust and millions of lives taken away under Nazi persecution of other groups, including Roma, Sinti, black people, gay people and disabled people. We also commemorate the genocides that took place after the holocaust in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Currently, in Afghanistan, minority communities such as the Hazaras and Christians face persecution, too.
Tonight at 8 pm will be a national moment when people across the UK will light candles in their windows to remember those who were murdered for who they were, and stand in solidarity with those living under prejudice and hatred because of who they are in the world today. We must continue to remember, because history has taught us the danger of allowing acts of intolerance and persecution to continue unchallenged.
Unfortunately, as time passes since these events, identity-based persecution has not lessened. To take one example that has already been referred to, the rate of antisemitism in the UK has risen year on year for the past decade. According to the UK Jewish Community Security Trust, there was a 49% increase in antisemitic incidents in the first six months of 2021, compared with the previous year. Earlier this month, in another act of antisemitism, this time in Colleyville, Texas, a Jewish community was left terrified after hostages were taken by an armed man besieging a synagogue. Continual acts of vandalism and terror at synagogues, mosques, and other religious places in the UK still take place, far too often by those who wish to foster hatred.
I believe the Government should commit to a joined-up, whole of Government approach to dealing with modern atrocities, and I am heartened by some of the speeches I have heard today about war criminals, and how they are continually hunted so as to be brought to justice. Far from “never again”, we are seeing mass atrocity crimes again and again, and we need the tools to uphold legal obligations and our moral responsibilities abroad.
A broad range of non-governmental organisations and academic institutions have amassed a wealth of experience and credibility around the world, and these can be drawn on to work towards a meaningful and sustainable political dialogue. Let me give two Scottish examples. The University of Edinburgh’s Global Justice Academy has vast experience, which should help to draw attention and find solutions to what is going on across the world. An NGO based in Scotland, Beyond Borders, hosts the Women in Conflict 1325 fellowship. Its programme brings together a range of women from conflict-affected areas, providing expertise and guidance in conflict resolution, mediation and reconciliation. That is such important work.
As we know, lived experience is the most powerful witness, and we are grateful to all who share their experiences, so that we can never forget. In that regard, it is absolutely clear, and has been made clear this afternoon, that there are no “sides” in the Chamber today. I have been moved and humbled by the contributions from my colleagues. I find it hard to single out a single person, so I thank all those who have gone before me.
It seems almost unimportant in the context of what I have listened to today, but I also remember the effect on my father who was one of the armed forces who helped holocaust survivors at Bergen-Belsen and who was forever affected by what he saw. I woke up many nights with my father standing over me; he was suffering from what is now referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, which was then totally unrecognised. My godmother and aunt told me that he never recovered from what he saw; he was never the same person again. This is why it is so important that we remember. We and our children must never be allowed to forget what happened and what is still happening. We need to make sure that what happened in the holocaust is never forgotten.
In conclusion, I thank the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for its work to keep remembrance front and centre. I also thank the Holocaust Educational Trust for what it does to help our young people understand the history of the holocaust and genocide today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows). I echo what she said earlier. Today has been a really moving day. We have had some great contributions. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), who, unfortunately, is not in her place, on bringing this debate to the Chamber.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for her excellent speech. When I had the opportunity to pop back to my office to grab a bit of lunch, I made sure that I told everyone in the office to listen back to it, because it was probably one of the most moving speeches that I have heard in this place. My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whom I have known for many years, speaks from the heart. His own experience brings a wealth to this place.
Today, I join my colleagues and people around the world to commemorate those who were killed in the holocaust. It was 77 years today, on 27 January 1945, when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, marking the end of oppression and killing in the largest Nazi concentration camp.
Holocaust Memorial Day is about remembering a genocide that killed 6 million Jewish people, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution. In addition, we also remember the people who were killed in the genocides that followed—in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
The holocaust may have ended nearly 80 years ago, but the lessons that we must learn from genocides should remain with us in the generations to come forever. Given that it was such a tragic and disturbing point in our global history, I, like many other colleagues, find it hard to digest that it happened less than 80 years ago. However, there are still Holocaust survivors alive today who share their story so that people can hear at first hand what it was like to live in one of the darkest moments of our global history—what it was actually like for someone to be persecuted because of their ethnicity or their beliefs, and even what it was like to survive being sent to a concentration camp.
I applaud the brave men and women who choose to relive those events time and again, but who do so in the hope that their story will prevent a genocide ever happening again. I also pay tribute to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust for the work that they do to spread awareness and education of the holocaust. Colleagues have already spoken about the excellent work of Karen Pollock, and it is only right that I add my voice to what they have said.
It is unfortunate that we will not be able to hear first-hand accounts from holocaust survivors forever. There is a real worry that, because of that, our ability to connect with personal stories from survivors will reduce. This is something that we need to be conscious of, and I know that some excellent work is going on—colleagues have already spoken about this—to ensure that lived experience is retained for future generations. One of the ways that HET does so is via its excellent ambassador programme, ensuring that we do not forget the lessons of the holocaust. More than 40,000 ambassadors commit to educating themselves about the holocaust, speaking to holocaust survivors and visiting Auschwitz.This year, in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, I contacted HET to arrange to speak to some ambassadors in my constituency to understand the work that ambassadors do and how they are helping to educate others about the holocaust. I had a really interesting conversation with a constituent of mine, Adam Bowers of Croxley Green, who is in year 13. Adam was able to educate me and discuss what he had learned about the programme, including doing extensive research on political extremism. He actually heard from a holocaust survivor and visited Auschwitz virtually, as unfortunately the ambassadors were unable to go in person this past year. I was incredibly impressed with the work that the ambassadors in my constituency have done in their commitment to sharing what they learned with their school and the wider community of South West Hertfordshire.
The holocausts and genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur are stark reminders to us all of the darkest times in humanity. It was that humanity that was lost and forgotten when the persecution of millions of innocent people took place. Let us all never forget the atrocities that have taken place before and make sure that we take the lessons from previous genocides to ensure that this never happens again.
I am truly humbled to speak in this debate today. I wish to pay tribute to and thank all speakers who have shared their family experiences and, in the case of the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), their own experiences.
Bill, a constituent of mine and fellow parishioner who I went to church with, once asked to have a few words with me. He was one of those that walked into Belsen. He said, “There isn’t enough being said about it, Marie. I am worried that people will forget.” His wife was with him, with tears flowing down her cheeks. He said he could never, ever forget what they found when they walked into Belsen—the horrors and the inhumanity that the poor people there had been treated with. Bill never slept a single night without remembering horror stories and having nightmares. I said, “Let’s have a word with Father Martin”, the priest. He said, “Oh, I can’t do that.” I said, “Come on Bill—you owe it to those people that you found.” We had a word with Martin and said, “Can we have a mass and some talk about Belsen? It would perhaps help Bill if he shared some of his experiences.” We did that. Bill was so humbled but so thankful that he had done it. Bill is now at peace and resting. His wife said how he had never, ever slept one night in peace.
The holocaust is the greatest evil that mankind has ever inflicted. It was a systematic butchery of Jews, Gypsies, Roma, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and whoever else the Nazis believed were undesirable. In the grand scheme of things, it was not that long ago that this evil occurred. Many people are still alive today who survived the barbaric concentration camps. As someone born just after the war, I am always struck by how recent the holocaust still feels. During my childhood, more and more of the harrowing details and images became public. I can still remember learning about it for the first time and wondering how such evil could ever have existed. That is why it is so important to always remember how recent it was. Today we sometimes question how such evil could have occurred in the past, yet after the war people wondered how this evil could have occurred then. The 1930s and ’40s had television, music on the radio, and free elections with women able to vote. We are not talking about a historical event that occurred in the dark ages; it happened in the modern era. That is why, when we say “Never again,” we must mean it, and we must act on it. We have to guard against antisemitism and all forms of hatred that can fester wherever they exist.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge)—one of the bravest women I know, and my very dear friend—for securing this debate. We must never forget the holocaust; it is the starkest, darkest and gravest reminder of what happens when evil, hate and prejudice are allowed to grow, and why we must stop it.
I thank the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and the other Members who secured this debate. Like others, I am shocked to hear of the abuse that he and his family have endured. I extend my sympathies and my solidarity to him and to his family.
I put on the record my particular thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and the many other hon. Members across the House who have made passionate and heart-wrenching speeches about stories of the holocaust. I also thank the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust for all their work each and every day to ensure that we understand what happened, and the Community Security Trust, which works hard to continue to protect the Jewish community against rising threats of antisemitism.
My visit to Yad Vashem will stay with me for all my days. Hearing colleagues mention their experiences is heartening but very saddening. Six million Jews were tragically murdered in the holocaust, millions of others were murdered and many became displaced. To truly say “Never again,” we must remember these events every year, if not every single day.
I am grateful to hon. Members who have reminded us of those genocides that have happened since and are indeed happening in our lifetime. We cannot say that we did not know in this House. The suffering of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the genocide of the Uyghurs in China have been highlighted, but I also want to share my increasing concern about the open calls for the killing of Muslims in India.
It should worry us all in this House that the president of Genocide Watch, Dr Gregory Stanton, has reminded the world that he predicted the Rwanda genocide and is predicting that genocide could happen in India following an event at Haridwar. Indeed, a senior member of the Bharatiya Janata party, Ashwini Upadhyay, attended that Hindutva Haridwar event at which an open call to kill Muslims was made.
Some commentators have suggested that such views come from fringe groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose ideology is inspired by the Nazis, but such a view was taken before the holocaust happened. Muslims are also a minority community in India. It is incumbent on us not just as Members of this House, but as fellow human beings, not only never to allow the world to forget, but to ensure that it never happens again.
I want to put on the record the contribution of one person who is no longer with us: a special gentleman, a friend and a true hero to Bradford, whom we sadly lost last year to covid. Rudi Leavor came to Bradford with his parents and his younger sister Winnie as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1937, aged 11, having been raised in Berlin. Rudi wrote about his journey in his memoir “Berlin to Bradford”. He said that it was a blessing in disguise when his parents were first arrested by the Gestapo:
“Had they not been arrested, we might not have escaped the fate of millions of Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
When Rudi came to Bradford, he trained as a dentist, and in later life he gave service as the chair of a local synagogue. His lifelong service to Bradford is one that will forever remain with all Bradfordians. The cross-faith and multi-faith work that he was involved in has left a legacy, and he has left very big shoes to fill. His story, like those of so many others, needs to be heard on Holocaust Memorial Day to highlight the reality of Nazi Germany and the huge contributions that British Jews made to the UK after arriving here.
When we speak about the holocaust and look back at how the world let such things take place, we cannot ignore the scourge of everyday antisemitism, which is very real here in Britain, too—the shameful, shameful antisemitism that exists and the rise of the far right. We have seen synagogues attacked, the attack yesterday that the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) referred to, the attack in Oxford Street and the driving of the cars through north London. These are all shameful acts by individuals who are clearly filled with hatred.
From January to June 2021, the Community Security Trust recorded 1,308 anti-Jewish hate incidents nationwide. That is a 49% increase from the 875 incidents recorded in the first six months of 2020. The rise of antisemitism across our society and in the online world must be challenged by individuals, but there is also a huge onus on the Government. The online harms Bill is a once-in-a-generation piece of legislation and it must be able to combat the online racism and antisemitism that is so prevalent.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a day to reflect on other genocides that have incurred huge losses of life. We remember their victims and commit to not letting atrocities, such as wars, happen again. It is also an occasion to remember Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda, Bosnia and China, as I have mentioned. Similarly, it should remind us all of the importance of standing up to all types of hate, racism and prejudice by being upstanders and not leaving communities to suffer in silence.
It is an honour and privilege to follow so many moving speeches. I have been to many holocaust memorials across Germany and eastern Europe throughout my life: Bergen-Belsen, close to my home town of Hanover; Dachau; Auschwitz-Birkenau; the row of two or three houses that is all that is left of the Warsaw ghetto; and, most hauntingly, the Ponary massacre memorial outside Vilnius.
Whenever I am directly confronted with the stories of unspeakable atrocities committed by the German state during the 1930s and 1940s on the Jewish people, I feel a crushing sense of horror and shame. I was born in 1960; it was not my generation that was directly responsible for the terror. However, I feel acutely a collective responsibility for what happened in my country of origin, and that we should never forget and should work towards a world in which such awful suffering never happens again. If we want to be serious, we cannot just let the holocaust disappear into the history books—another time, another people, another place—but keep it alive and learn from it.
My grandmother was half Jewish. Her first husband was Jewish. My uncle was in Dachau in 1936, but got out with the help of Scandinavian friends. All my mother’s half brothers and sisters had to leave Germany and, except one, never returned. My grandmother’s anguish about her children and their families hung over my mother, who was the youngest, every day of her childhood. While my mother, who was only a quarter Jewish, survived Nazi Germany, her life was marred daily by exclusion, discrimination and fear. I would not be here if the war had not ended the way it did, because my mother would never have been allowed to meet my father, who was not Jewish.
My grandmother’s second husband, my grandfather, was not Jewish. He was a judge and was appointed to the Court of Appeal in Leipzig in 1927. In 1933, only months after he came to power, Hitler installed the Volksgericht, or people’s court, which was a political court to deal with anybody who was seen as an enemy of the state and which signalled the end of the rule of law. My grandfather resigned.
My grandfather’s youngest brother was schizophrenic and was murdered by the Nazis through one of the programmes of euthanasia. Although that is not directly related to the holocaust, it is worth remembering that there were German victims too, like my great-uncle, for whom there is no grave either.
My grandfather died before I was born, but I know through my mother that he never forgave himself for not becoming politically active to stop the rise of Hitler.
There are volumes and volumes of history books analysing the rise of the Nazis, citing the political instability after the first world war, the loss of national pride in being a great nation, and the Russian revolution leading to the fear of communism which drove many Germans into the arms of the fascists. It was the extremes of left and right that destroyed the moderate political centre. With that came illiberal and intolerant attitudes towards anyone who could be painted as the enemy. From there it was only a small step towards viewing people from a different race or culture as not being worthy of our human compassion and protection. The Nazis deliberately stoked irrational fear to win elections. Once Germans had elected, in a democratic vote, a barbaric leader, they could not free themselves from the monster they had helped to create. Only a world war did that.
“Wehret den Anfängen”—resist the beginnings—is what I learned from my German history lessons. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has published “The ten stages of genocide” so that people and communities can recognise the warning signs. Discrimination, dehuman-isation and polarisation are among those warning signs, and sadly they are part of our political reality today, under our own eyes.
The fight against intolerance, exclusion and inhumanity is ongoing. I owe it to the memory of the millions of Jews who perished in the holocaust at the hands of the country where I was born to convert the shame that I will always feel into political activism. I will stand up and speak out about the need for us to keep our eyes wide open to where barbarism begins.
I thank the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for securing this very important debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), and the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for their incredibly moving and powerful speeches.
As has been said several times during the debate, when people think of the holocaust—the Shoah—we instantly go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We instantly think of Bergen-Belsen . Earlier this week I was in Kyiv, in Ukraine, on a European Jewish Association delegation to Babi Yar, which was the location for the largest mass grave of 100,000 Jews who were killed one by one. There was no gas chamber; they were all shot. Their only crime was being Jewish.
While I was at that delegation, I took part in a symposium to discuss holocaust education, and the rise of antisemitism in football and on our streets across Europe. This is something that we all need to take extremely seriously. We need only consider the instances of last year, when there were not only antisemitic tropes such as blood libel on the streets of London, but convoys being driven throughout the country. It was not right then, and it is not right now.
I have spoken many times in the House about how proud I am to represent the constituency of Bury South, which is home to an extremely large and thriving Jewish community. Within that community there are a number of holocaust survivors, some of whom I have been privileged to speak with personally. I will never forget the way I was addressed by a Kindertransport survivor at a Jewish communal meeting before my election. In the United Kingdom, in 2019, he spoke about the fears for his family caused by the rise in antisemitic hate crime. To be approached in this manner and experience the dawning realisation that the lessons of the holocaust have not been learnt is something that should shock us all.
As the number of holocaust survivors tragically continues to dwindle, I also pay tribute to the second and third generations who are the children and grandchildren of the survivors. They work so hard to preserve the memory of their loved ones and ensure that future generations are aware of the holocaust, the worst crime ever committed. Let me I specifically mention the work of Noemie Lopian. She has published the memoirs of her father, a holocaust survivor, Dr Israel Bornstein. Alongside the grandson of a high- ranking SS Officer, Derek Niemann, they tour the country speaking about their families’ stories and instilling the importance of tolerance and fighting prejudice.
As has been mentioned throughout the debate, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “One Day”. This is extremely powerful, and manages to encompass the whole lives of those poor victims and the survivors. It was inconceivable to someone having a happy childhood and growing up with a loving family that “One Day”, within a relatively short period, they would be facing the most unimaginable horrors. I read the words of a survivor, Iby Knill, who stated that from one day to the next, everything could change. She said that one day, she was greeted with an embrace; the very next day, people ran across the road to avoid being seen with her. I read the words of my constituent, Ike Alterman, someone who is rightly revered across the entire Jewish community and by royalty following his recent meetings with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I will read the following section from his memoirs word for word:
“One day in 1942, they said that all Jewish people must congregate in the town square. You could only bring with you what you could carry in your hands and everything else you had to leave...So we were all lined up in the square, standing there for hours and hours and nothing was happening...Each line was about five deep and they started counting the people. I was standing behind my father and he told me to stay on my tiptoes to make me look taller than I was. So there was my dad, my mother, my sister and my little brother. And they came and they counted and just between my father and my mother they stopped, their hand gesture divided us. So my father and I were saved and the rest were marched out through the square...My little brother with his hands above his head. Rifles on them. Never to be seen again.”
For Ike and millions of others, the following years led them to suffer and witness abhorrent and unspeakable crimes. However, those incarcerated in the most appalling, brutal conditions dreamed that one day, they would be free. How the survivors managed this, I will never know, but they built new lives for themselves and thrived; they started businesses and had families, and now have countless numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is therefore imperative to tell the whole story of a survivor’s life, and I therefore commend the My Voice project, which is co-ordinated by The Fed in my constituency. That project documents the life stories of holocaust survivors living in Greater Manchester, and is unique in being located in the main Jewish social care provider in Greater Manchester, which enables it to provide holistic wrap-around care to the survivors as their testimony is recounted. The concept was provided by Margit Cohen, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport in 1938. She stated,
“I have to tell you my life story, my whole life story before I die.”
My Voice captures survivors’ stories in their own voices by sound recording and transcribing the storyteller’s words into individual books. These are more than just artifacts of oral history: they are records of each person’s experience and heritage, encompassing their entire life before, during and after the war years. The project intends the completed books to be used as groundbreaking educational resources to further understanding of the persecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazi regime; to counter prejudice and revisionism; and to give courage and hope to other survivors of tyranny and oppression. To date, 30 life story books have been produced, and a further 12 are in various stages of production. The project works closely with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which houses the books in its museum, and the team of volunteers who work on the project also received a Queen’s award for voluntary service. I conclude by thanking those brave survivors for telling their stories.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) and his passionate and moving speech. I thank the right hon. and hon. Members who secured this important debate, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge): I wish her well in her recovery, and thank her for all she does. I also thank the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for its vital work each and every day, and thanks must also go to the Holocaust Educational Trust for everything it does to teach future generations about the holocaust and subsequent genocides.
I will make just two brief points. The first is that when remembering and reflecting, it is crucial that we do not picture the atrocities perpetrated during the holocaust as purely historical events. The seeds of antisemitic prejudice, distrust and hatred first took root many years prior to the ghettos being built, Jewish businesses being destroyed or the trains being loaded, and despite the horrors of the holocaust, antisemitism remains with us to this day. Antisemitism is felt all too keenly by Jewish communities in this country and across the world. That is exactly why today’s debate and the events taking place across the country today are so important. We must never cease trying to understand and comprehend the pernicious antisemitism that led to the holocaust and still exists today—only then can we seek to defeat it.
Secondly, today is an opportunity to celebrate and defend the daily reminders of the Nazi defeat. Each synagogue and celebration of Jewish life in this country serves as a powerful reminder of the Jewish people’s strength in the face of unspeakable horrors. My own city of Coventry is no stranger to resilience when confronted with disaster and destruction. During the second world war, the blitz levelled Coventry’s streets, buildings and many houses of worship. However, in the over 75 years since the war, Coventry has never stopped rebuilding, rebounding and remembering its history. There is no better example of this resilience over the past year than the restoration of a previously abandoned synagogue in the heart of my constituency of Coventry North West. Today, after decades of non-use, I am proud that we now have a place for Judaism to thrive in my city once again—a place for people to gather and learn about Jewish history, culture and faith, and a home for communities to come together and support one another.
This is what defeating fascism and overcoming one of the darkest chapters of our history looks like. We must always treasure these symbols of resilience and defiance. It is just one of the many ways that we can stand together, in this Chamber and across the country, to say never again.
First, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and others on securing this important debate, and I join my colleagues in saying that there is absolutely no place for the vile antisemitic abuse that he and his family have faced.
I want to thank the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for his really moving account of the horrors he witnessed while serving in Bosnia. I also thank the hon. Members for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) and for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) and of course my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) for sharing the stories of others, which I think is very important if we are going along with the message of never again. It is a particular honour and privilege to participate in such an important debate, and to follow the moving speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel).
Holocaust Memorial Day is a time for us to remember and reflect on some of the most horrendous and atrocious acts committed by mankind. We reflect on the harsh conditions forced upon those who, under Nazi ideology and eugenics, were deemed secondary beings or subhuman. We remember the 6 million Jews who were targeted and murdered by a fascist regime that used vile antisemitism to justify and legitimise its cruel treatment of millions of innocents. We must not forget the millions of others who were murdered under this regime—millions of Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, Roma and Sinti people, Polish, Serbian and Slovenian citizens, LGBT people, the disabled and so many more.
It is important for us to reflect on the antisemitic propaganda and lies that were peddled to justify what was one of the biggest atrocities in our modern history, because we are currently seeing a situation where antisemitism, hate speech and hate crimes continue to rise internationally, in particular across Europe. In Europe, more than one in four Jewish people has experienced antisemitic harassment at least once, and almost half have expressed that they are worried about being subjected to antisemitic verbal insults or harassment.
Not so long ago, in June 2019, Vivienne Walt pointed out that for each of the previous three years, the UK had reported the highest number of antisemitic incidents ever recorded. In France, with the world’s third biggest Jewish population, records showed a 74% spike in antisemitic acts between 2017 and 2018, and in Germany antisemitic incidents had risen by more than 19% on the previous year. We cannot kid ourselves into believing that antisemitism was just a problem of the early 20th century; it is very much present in today’s society, it is on the rise and it must be stamped out. As a holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, wrote:
“If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again.”
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Holocaust Educational Trust do such great work and make many efforts to ensure that we also use this day to remember the other atrocities that occurred in the 20th century—in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and so many other places. The importance of remembering those tragedies and recognising the vile ideology that sought to justify them cannot be understated. Failure to remember risks that these tragedies will occur again.
Unfortunately, it seems that we are failing to learn the lessons of those past atrocities; as we sit here today, millions of people across the globe are still subjected to targeted campaigns of persecution, violence and genocide. Uyghur Muslims are being systematically targeted and Rohingya Muslims are persecuted in Myanmar in what has led to the creation of the world’s largest refugee camp. There is the Saudi coalition against Yemen, which has led to widespread famine and was just last year described as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis. In Ethiopia, we are seeing the warning signs of genocide as Tigrayans are being murdered, raped, tortured and displaced by ongoing conflicts.
Time and again, we have seen what happens when prejudice, bigotry, xenophobia and racism are left unchecked, allowed to fester and—worse—installed in power. We cannot be complacent, given the ever-rising levels of bigotry and all forms of racism that we are seeing closer to home. It is crucial that we should proactively condemn the far-right ideologies that are rearing their heads in the UK and across Europe, peddled by regimes that seek to legitimise the heinous acts that we have seen in the past and are still witnessing today.
When we see far-right extremism being peddled on our own shores and antisemitic and racist hate crimes increasing, we must recognise that for what it is. We must stamp it out immediately. We must address it and always recommit ourselves to saying, “Never again.”
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), who has a long track record of standing up to racism and antisemitism. I add my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols), who both spoke so powerfully about their own family situations.
My constituent John Hajdu MBE brings a teddy bear into local London schools when he speaks as an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. He will be leading us this Sunday at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium. As an Arsenal supporter, I will have my fingers crossed behind my back when I enter the stadium, but I look forward to a day of contemplation with my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and others, led by our mayor, the young Councillor Jogee, and the veteran Jewish Councillor Sheila Peacock, who has worked tirelessly on standing up to antisemitism since she was a schoolteacher in the 1980s.
Sheila has now reached her 90th birthday and is still leading the community in Haringey to talk about the issues raised at this time of the year. She has also commemorated the peace garden outside the Bruce Castle Museum, where local rabbis come to bless and conduct prayers. That is always a moving occasion in Haringey, which is home to a community of 180 languages and, in its diversity, probably represents all the different tragic genocidal incidents that Members have mentioned today.
I also put on the record my heartfelt thanks to the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who described his own experience when in the armed forces of seeing people being murdered in a genocide. We are so lucky to have debates such as this—how serious they are and how the emotion gets to us. What a nice antidote to the week we have had. We play our roles in the Opposition and the Government, but it is so important that, as a Parliament, we have these moments that bring us together around the things that matter.
I want to reach out to the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). If he needs any support, as somebody who has personally experienced antisemitism, those of us on the Labour Benches here today would want to offer that support, and to remember the Jewish communities still terrified as a result of the recent Beth Israel attack in Texas and the traumatising effect it had not only on Jewish people in the United States, but across my community. That attack happened in a synagogue and I will link that with what we are being encouraged to do tonight: to light a candle to represent hope.
What do we do when we have these terrible situations, such as the one described by my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West, who explained why he now has such a small family—so many of them were killed ? What do we do when we hear about attacks on a faith community, such as the casual attack overnight on two of the Haredi community in Stamford Hill? We try to do as the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, not shying away from the pain but welcoming it, so that it makes us remember and do things differently.
That reinforces our energy to take on, for example, what the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) talked about: perpetrators who are still living here in the UK and have not been brought to justice. Is there more we could do as a Parliament as a result of today’s debate, not to allow that just to drop in the air it was spoken into, but to pursue it, particularly given that we now see some dangerous trends in the Bosnia and Herzegovina situation, for example? I know my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who will speak next, has long experience of living in Banja Luka and understanding the community there, and has spoken of it in this House. What can we do as a result of today’s debate to prevent another possible genocide from happening in that region?
The legacy we are talking about happens not only in this House, in our debates and our foreign policy, but in our communities. I know all hon. Members here will know people doing similar work. When we were talking with the Minister for Afghan Resettlement, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who is leading the Afghanistan welcome programme, I was struck that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West talked about visiting refugees in his locality within weeks of their arrival in the UK. That practical action plays an important role.
A local rabbi in Muswell Hill, David Mason, has joined the Methodist Church, the Quakers and a number of other faith communities to provide a warm welcome for refugees, who are housed in very low-quality accommodation in quite an affluent part of London. We see that inequality, with people who have very little and others who have quite a lot; we walk the same streets, but we have different lives.
Much that is happening at local level is because of the experience that survivors have put into practice. It is the women from the synagogue who prepare meals once a month on a Sunday, bring toys and games for children to play with, have helped children to register at school and assisted refugees to register with a GP, get into college or find a job as a bicycle mechanic—all those basics of the journey one makes in a new community.
I was honoured to go to Auschwitz with a number of schoolchildren, some from Hornsey School for Girls, a number of years ago. I got to see first-hand the dreadful situation there—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North mentioned it in her speech, so I will not repeat it—but also the importance of experiencing how bleak that place is. At sundown, when the tour is over and we feel the freezing Polish weather and the grey sky, it makes one think of the suffering but also gives one that sense of, “What can we do differently? How do we light the candle? How do we give people hope?”
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way—I wanted to speak in the debate but I was in a Bill Committee, which is why I have come in late. I am a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and I want to mention all the work it does in remembering people’s lives, including the visits to Auschwitz that she is talking about. It also works to make sure that these things never happen again and to raise awareness about subsequent genocides, including in Rwanda and Cambodia. Will she join me in paying tribute to the staff, to the trustees, to Laura and Olivia and to everyone else at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust? They do such a fantastic job.
Indeed, I will. My hon. Friend has a long record of promoting the values of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and has done an enormous amount to emphasise their work not just nationally but locally in the Hampstead area, where so many survivors made their home when they first came here following the second world war and where they have made a strong contribution. Indeed, many Jewish members of our communities are active in organisations such as CARIS—Christian Action and Response in Society—in Haringey, which provides food, clothing, education and legal advice to newly arrived communities. We also have the remarkable Haringey Welcome, which promotes dignity and respect for migrants and refugees in our borough.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I know you agree with this being a day when we try to reflect on the words we use in Parliament. Some of my Jewish constituents have written to me when we have had debates about immigration in the House and asked that we always try to have those debates in a respectful way. They have asked that, when we talk about groups such as the Gypsy and Traveller community, we try to understand other perspectives and not just use language that may denigrate groups that are already experiencing a lot of discrimination.
Indeed. One of the other local groups in my constituency, the Sir Martin Gilbert Learning Centre, which brings history to life, is another way of not forgetting and of informing a future approach that holds the light—that light that we all want to put in our windows tonight so that we never forget, but also so that we can go forward in a positive way, always trying to prevent violence from happening again and to remember the lesson about how discrimination begins. That reflects the important point that the hon. Member for Bath made about rooting out the beginnings of discrimination and negativity and trying to address them.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for presiding over today’s excellent debate; it is one of the best I have been in since I was elected in 2015. I look forward very much to what the Minister and the shadow spokespersons have to say and also to lighting a candle this evening so that we may never forget.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and all the other speakers in this powerful and moving debate. As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity, I am very pleased that we are having this debate, with so much time set aside for it.
I thank Mr Speaker for organising the event in Parliament later this afternoon. It is so important that we as parliamentarians come together to remember, to mourn, to say, “Never again,” and to ask what we can do. I also thank and congratulate the sponsors of the debate—the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols)—on securing the debate and on their speeches.
I am very conscious of the fact that we are in the Chamber speaking for so many others. I am thinking of some of them as we sit and stand here today. I am thinking about my constituent who lives in Roehampton, having fled the genocide in Rwanda. Since then, she has been unable to see the rest of her family or to go back to Rwanda. That is a pain that she takes with her every day. She has rebuilt her life and she now has children, who have never been to Rwanda. She will probably never go there again or see the rest of her family, who are scattered around the world. It is that shockwave of pain that is behind all the stories and all the numbers we are talking about today.
I am thinking about the young woman I met who came from Srebrenica. When I was working near there, she told me that she had lost her brothers and her father one day in July 1995. They left the town and they were never seen again. She was not able to bury them. She was not able to go and mourn them. She felt like they could still be alive—that speck of hope was there and it was absolutely heartbreaking.
I am also thinking of Dr Martin Stern, who yesterday spoke to the all-party parliamentary group on prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity. He told us the powerful story of how, when he was five, he was taken out of school and sent to camps, and then escaped from them. To his great cost and credit, he tells that story again and again. I pay tribute to all the holocaust survivors who tell their story and have kept the light alive; and to those in later generations, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), who continue to tell survivors’ stories.
I absolutely echo those thanks to Lord Dubs. I was going to say the same thing. As for all those holocaust survivors listening to the debate who have not been able to tell their story, I am sure other Members will join me in saying: “We understand that. You survived. Not everyone has been able to tell their story.” I thank Lord Dubs—a Member of the other place, and a former Member of Parliament for Battersea, which is near my constituency. He has been inspirational when we have worked together to support refugees.
I would like to underscore why this debate is so important, and highlight ways in which we parliamentarians could do better. We cannot say in this debate that mourning and remembering is doing enough. We say “never again”; there are things that we can do, and we on the all-party parliamentary group have been learning that. First, we must remember and mourn the 8 million Jews who died in camps. Every single one of them is a story that echoes through the generations.
“Never again” has become “time and again”. Dr Martin Stern, the holocaust survivor, said in our meeting yesterday that he wants to remember, but he also wants to make sure that we look at genocides that are happening now, and at potential genocides, and take action on them. Genocide remains an ever-present reality in Rakhine state, in Xinjiang, in Tigray—I could go on. The Early Warning Project reports that today, in 15 countries, there are ongoing mass killings, and Yemen, Pakistan and India are at high risk of having new mass killing incidents break out. In Bosnia, we see a slide into increasing nationalism, anti-secession rhetoric and holocaust denial—denial that Srebrenica took place. These are all harbingers of what can come next. Now is the time when we can stop that.
Another reason why the debate is important is that holocaust denial is shockingly prevalent in the UK, as Members have rightly mentioned. A November 2021 survey led by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found that 9% of respondents believed that the holocaust was myth, or that the number of Jews killed in the holocaust had been greatly exaggerated. A third of respondents reported seeing fake news—holocaust denial or distortion—online. Popular social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were most frequently cited as the locations where that material had been seen.
The hon. Lady makes the important point that particularly on big social media platforms, online spaces are being created where people can target others with abuse, and where hate speech, religious hate, antisemitism and Islamophobia are normalised. Those are really serious issues that need to be addressed when the House considers the online safety Bill.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. On a point made by my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), we are used to the holocaust denial rhetoric that comes from the far right, but it increasingly also comes from the far left. Does the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) agree that it is important that all of us, when we speak on these matters and fight antisemitism, do so with equal weight and force whether it comes from the far right or the far left, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North pointed out?
The whole process of othering a group of people because of their identity must be stopped at every opportunity. Online hate speech, wherever it comes from, is linked to rising antisemitism, which Members have mentioned. It is no surprise that between January and June 2021, 1,308 antisemitic events were recorded—the highest number in any recorded year, and an increase of 49% since 2020. I know that we stand together in the House today to oppose this.
I thank, as others have done, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Aegis Trust for their work. I, too, have visited Yad Vashem. I did so as a teenager and will never, ever forget it. That is testament to the power of education.
I worked in Bosnia and Serbia during the war, and four years later I returned to run the Christian Aid Bosnia office, rebuilding villages in north-west Bosnia and supporting the return of refugees. I saw how a country that seems to be peaceful, and communities that seem to be ethnically diverse and happily co-existent, can slip into conflict and genocide. I have seen the necessity of building peace every single day. That is what we are doing in this debate, and that is what this afternoon’s event here in Parliament will be doing: it will be building peace.
I am pleased that Roehampton library has organised a Holocaust Memorial Day event involving local councillors and local people. The librarian staff should be thanked. St Mary’s church in Putney organised prayers for Holocaust Memorial Day. There are 17,000 events taking place across the country, and that is so important to building peace.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about all the different communities that are coming together to support Holocaust Memorial Day and to remember all the people who lost their lives. I want to take this opportunity to be a bit cheeky and mention JW3, the Jewish community centre in my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. It does so much work to build peace and bring together communities. It hosts events for Holocaust Memorial Day, including for other religious communities. It welcomes everyone. It is a model of peace, and I pay tribute to it and to the chief executive, Raymond, who does so much work in bringing together communities.
I thank my hon. Friend for her praise for peacebuilders. Peacebuilding is not easy. It sounds like it is a nice, cuddly thing to do, but it is actually very difficult, especially in areas of conflict. I have seen how hard it is in different areas of Africa in which I have worked. It is hard here, it is hard anywhere, so we must thank, praise and support peacebuilders around the world,
There were clear risk factors in Srebrenica leading up to the day when 8,372 men and boys were taken out in July 1995 and killed. That was one day of horror, but many days led up to that event. Right now in Tigray, thousands have been killed and rape is being used as a systematic weapon of war, and people from Tigray are being taken off the streets of Addis Ababa and detained. It is all based on ethnicity, and it is happening right now. These things are preventable. The holocaust was preventable, and these disasters and crimes against humanity are preventable.
I want to highlight four things that we can do. First, we must fulfil existing obligations in the United Nations genocide convention and the International Criminal Court Act 2001. I remind the House that the UN genocide convention places on the UK these responsibilities: an obligation not to commit genocide; an obligation to prevent genocide, which, according to the International Court of Justice, has an extraterritorial scope, so it is not just about what happens here in the UK; and an obligation to punish genocide. We have been hearing that there are war criminals in the UK who are not being taken to justice—that must end. The UK also has an obligation to enact the necessary legislation to give effect to the provisions of the convention.
That is a profound and wide-ranging set of obligations. Can the UK honestly say that it is living up to them? Have we had a review of our obligations under the convention? Can we look at what we are doing and take action to increase our efforts?
Secondly, we need to approach genocide and crimes against humanity as actionable events, not just consequences of existing conflict and warfare. The action we can take includes establishing the means to identify risk factors and assess threat levels posed by genocide and crimes against humanity. We can monitor at-risk countries, acting swiftly when risk factors are identified, be that through trade, defence, foreign or domestic policies. We can also resource and take seriously our responsibility to investigate, arrest and try or extradite genocide suspects living at large in the UK.
Thirdly—this is what we have been learning about most in the all-party parliamentary group for the prevention of genocide and crimes against humanity—there is the need for a national atrocity prevention strategy, a national Government-wide strategy on the prevention of genocide that includes domestic and foreign policy, putting in place institutional infrastructure to prevent genocide happening in the future. America, for example, has the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act of 2018. It set up a mass atrocities taskforce, with mandates for an annual report to the President. We do not have an equivalent of that, but we should. Without such a strategy and without political leadership in the face of today’s genocides and campaigns of atrocity crimes, opportunities for the UK to influence, mitigate, prevent and protect will continue to be missed and Britain’s promises of “never again” remain unfulfilled. Fourthly, we need to support holocaust education and wider education about other crimes against humanity and genocides.
Finally, we need to equip the next generation to address the genocides of the future, but we also need to take action now. I have to believe that one day there will be no more genocide, but that means that this day we have to take more action.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), as it always is. I have followed her on two or three occasions now. I particularly enjoy following her for a number of reasons, but first because her contributions are always ones I can adhere to and support. Her contribution today was exactly along those lines.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for permitting me to speak on this subject, which is close to my heart. Today, it has been close to everybody’s heart. The contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, whether in speeches or interventions, have been incredibly important. The world is fast approaching the first 100 years since it all happened—that is how fast time is going. We in this Chamber must never take for granted the freedom to debate, disagree and legislate, so it is an honour to be here today to remember the millions of lives lost at a time when democracy for so many broke down. That is what happened: democracy broke down and evil took over.
The holocaust is the most abominable and systematic act of genocide in history and, for some, it happened in living memory. I want to speak today in remembrance of the 6 million Jews who lost their lives. Every single life has a name, and behind every one of those 6 million names is a story. Others have told those stories today, and we thank them for their personal contributions. The hon. Member for Putney and the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) both mentioned Lord Dubs—I have written down here, “mention Lord Dubs”—who came to this country on a Kindertransport. We owe thanks to him for his contribution. Refugees from the Kindertransport came to a small refugee farm in Millisle in my constituency.
I am stimulated to intervene on the hon. Gentleman because this very morning I was listening to BBC radio. A holocaust survivor was taken to Belfast following the war—not, I think, in the period that he describes—and she described the welcome she received and the support she had. Holocaust survivors are becoming fewer. They visit as many schools and educate as many young people as they can. Their testimony can be made available to all schools. I wonder if we should all, as Members of Parliament, ask the schools in our localities to use that testimony as part of their curriculum work to remind people why this must never happen again.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The person that he referred to who came to Belfast then came to Millisle, which is where the Kindertransport children came who were fortunate enough to get out of Germany. It became home for many of them and that is important. Although Millisle is only on the edge of my constituency, the farm is in my constituency. It played an important role in the Kindertransport operation, giving refuge to Jewish children.
A local businessman, Lawrence Gorman, leased his derelict farmhouse to the Belfast Refugee Aid, which is the point that the right hon. Gentleman made. Ballyrolly House, where the children were, has grown greatly. There is now a housing estate there with private housing, as well as Ballyrolly. This small village in County Down became known as a haven from Nazi terror. Years later, many of those children returned as adults to Millisle to thank the people who helped them, including Lawrence Gorman and the residents and people of Millisle who saved lives.
I thank the hon. Member for his constant dedication in his role as the chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief; he is an example to us all. Will he join me in welcoming plans for the UK-hosted ministerial meeting on freedom of religion or belief in July this year, an international conference that will bring together Government Ministers, faith leaders and civil society representatives from around the world, giving us an important opportunity together to review lessons learned from previous atrocities and to ensure that they do not happen again?
I appreciate that intervention and, in return, thank the hon. Lady for all she does as the envoy to the middle east on behalf of Christians and other ethnic minorities. I declare an interest as the chair of the APPG and I am glad that the hon. Lady made that point.
We talk about genocide and today is about the holocaust, but it is also a day, as the hon. Member for Putney said, to remember those who have been subject to persecution, such as Christians across the world and in the middle east, China and North Korea; the Uyghurs in China; the Baha’is in Iran; the Shias in Iran and Iraq; the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia; the Muslims in India; the Hindus in Pakistan; the Yazidis in Iraq; and the Hazaras in Afghanistan. All those are being tortured and murdered because of their beliefs, and that is the issue. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) gently reminded us all of the seminar that is happening this year. It is great to know that the Government will be central in highlighting the genocide that is taking place against many people of different religious groups across the world—it is a salient reminder.
I also want to tell the House about an Austrian refugee, Alfred Neumann, who arranged visas and brought Jewish refugees from Vienna to Newtownards—I suspect that he may be the very guy that brought that young person to Belfast. He came and contributed to life in Newtownards, helped to train people in crafts and to make belts and handbags and create home industries. It has been said that no one in Northern Ireland saved more lives from the holocaust than Alfred Neumann; he was from Cookstown in County Tyrone and he came the whole way to County Down. We are very pleased he did and many people are alive because of it. These efforts, during a period of persecution and loss are worthy of the deepest respect, and I am immensely proud to recognise the contribution of the people of Northern Ireland in providing sanctuary to those who fled such horror.
Some Members in the Chamber may have visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. I am afraid I have not, although it has always been my intention to do so. The right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) referred to education, the importance of which has been illustrated by every speaker today, and I want to talk about what we have done back home. Many younger people in my constituency have recognised the moral responsibility to go to the concentration camps and to experience what took place. My youngest staff member made the pilgrimage at the age of 18 and that part of history has become one of interest and significance to young people.
In our schools in Northern Ireland the curriculum covers the two world wars. It is imperative that remembrance of the holocaust remains a vital element of our curriculum, so I thank my friend and colleague Peter Weir MLA, who as the then Northern Ireland Education Minister allocated funding of £160,000 to support the Holocaust Educational Trust to deliver the Lessons from Auschwitz project to Northern Ireland schools and colleges as part of our education programme. That is what we all want to see, and I am sure that the Minister and the House are united today on how important it is to have that in place. The project ensures that young people learn from that dark chapter of human history, remember it and understand that it must never happen again.
Although the motion relates to Holocaust Memorial Day, I would like to take a minute to highlight the fact, which many hon. Members have referred to, that antisemitism still pervades our society. It is an evil stain on mankind, and for that reason we must continue to support lessons about the holocaust, listen to those remaining few who bore witness, and remember. We must be clear that antisemitism was the foundation on which the genocidal plan was built. The personal narratives of those who survived to bear witness must never be diluted or diminished.
The holocaust remains on the conscience of humanity because in the middle of the 20th century—the most progressive century in human history—humanity experienced its greatest failure. It failed to do what was right; indeed, it did what was wrong, with a vengeance.
Triumph can come from failure, and it must provide hope. I end with a sentence from Magda Herzberger, who was in the concentration camps and prayed to God that she would make it out alive:
“You have to also carry in your heart forgiveness…If you do that, people live in harmony.”
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I congratulate the Members who secured the debate, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for their powerful and moving contributions.
I thank South Lanarkshire Council’s instrumental music service, which worked with schools across South Lanarkshire, including in my constituency, to create a virtual commemorative event through moving spoken word and musical performances. Education is key; like other hon. Members, I want to mention the Holocaust Educational Trust, whose aim is
“to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today.”
It is incredibly humbling to stand in the Palace of Westminster, a globally recognised symbol of democracy, and speak on Holocaust Memorial Day 2022. It reminds me, as I am sure it reminds us all, of our great privilege to live in such freedom and the great responsibility that comes with it. This year’s theme, “One Day”, is poignant.
To look at one day almost does not seem enough. The atrocities of the holocaust and many other campaigns of persecution spanned years. How can we compact the detail and express the horrors fully based on any one day from the period? That, though, is exactly the point: a snapshot in time, a single day. Each day is as meaningful as another, but perhaps for different reasons. It reminds us that that one day is a day in the life of those who survived and of those who did not; it is not a day consigned only to the history books.
The one day that I would like to tell the House about is one of courage, honour and a lasting promise. The exact date is unknown; it is a memory of a father retold by his son. Enver Alia Sheqer recalls the bravery of his father, Ali Sheqer Pashkaj, who ran a small convenience store in Pukë, Albania. One day, German Nazis stopped by in a van filled with Albanians sentenced to hard labour and a Jewish man due to be shot.
The story goes that Ali, who spoke German, invited the Nazis in and plied them with drink. Once they were adequately distracted, he slipped the Jewish man a note hidden in a melon, instructing him how to escape and where to hide until Ali could retrieve him. When the Nazis realised what had happened, they threatened Ali’s life. They held a gun to his head as they interrogated him, but he did not give up his secret. Eventually, the Nazis moved on. Ali went back for the Jewish man and sheltered him for the rest of the war. That man survived the war, moved to Mexico and became a dentist.
I chose that day because it is a story of besa, the Albanian code of honour. It is often reported that Albania ended the war with a larger Jewish population than it started with. Many Jews found sanctuary in Albania, and even after the German occupation the Albanian people refused to break besa. They would not turn over the Jews to whom they provided shelter; they would continue to hide and protect them.
The word “besa” means, quite literally, “to keep the promise”, and someone who acts according to besa is someone to whom a person can trust their life and the life of their family. It is an ethical code by which I hope all of us would act if—God forbid—we ever found ourselves in a position such as the one those brave Albanian men and women faced then. The concept of besa is something we can still apply today, while horrors and crimes against humanity unfortunately still persist. Only last week, a number of us stood in the Chamber to urge the Government to act in support of the Uyghur people, who are facing the horrors of a genocide from the Chinese state.
We might take for granted the privilege of freedom that I mentioned earlier if we cannot imagine a genocide on British soil. We promised to learn from history—after all, we were on the right side of it, and on the right side of history we must remain. We can maintain the moral high ground only if we are supporting the world in learning those same lessons, and actively protecting the persecuted. There must be a political appetite to do that, and I know that all Members in the Chamber today have that appetite.
When we see international conflicts, and how minorities are terrorised and abused, we are quick to stand up and condemn it, but we must also be quick to prevent it. One day could be any day—yesterday, today, tomorrow— but there is a lesson to be learned, and wisdom to be gained from every single day. This evening I will be lighting a candle in remembrance of the millions of lives lost in the holocaust and the genocides that followed. It is a symbol of hope that there will come a time when there are no more mass atrocities and no more genocides—one day.
It is a privilege to speak on behalf of the Scottish National party in this important debate which, for good reason, is one of the key dates in the parliamentary calendar. Some of the speeches we have heard have been utterly harrowing, but that is all the more reason for people to listen to them. Colleagues may have heard me mention, more than a few times, how fortunate I feel to represent East Renfrewshire, which is home to the majority of Scotland’s Jewish population. We are a diverse, vibrant community, and we are so very much the better for it.
Last week I joined children from Calderwood Lodge Primary School for an excellent online lesson about the realities of the holocaust. We heard from Hedi Argent, whose very ordinary childhood in Vienna was turned upside down one day, just because she and her family were Jewish. She spoke so powerfully to the children about her own childhood, and about how as things changed, she was ostracised and bullied at school, by the teachers as well as the students, before her family had to flee. One thing she still remembered vividly was the personal impact on her of one friend—just one—who stood with her against the tide of hate, demonstrating, as Hedi says, that the right thing is not always the easiest.
Last night I was fortunate to attend an excellent event organised by East Renfrewshire Council, where we heard from the family of the late Reverend and Eva Zoltan. It must have been very difficult for them but they told, very bravely, a chilling story of their parents’ experience during the holocaust, made all the more chilling because clearly life had moved quite quickly from just day to day, to terrible, unimaginable horror. We need to carry that thought with us, and increasingly so.
Holocausts do not just happen overnight; they creep up on us gradually, with intolerance, hatred, and the othering of minority groups being allowed to happen, little by little, because nobody is brave enough to do what that wee girl Hedi’s friend did, and say “No, that’s not right. We don’t treat people badly just because of their identity or just because they are different to us.”
I have spoken in this debate every year since I was elected, and it grieves me to say that I feel a bit less positive than I have done in previous debates. I am concerned about rising intolerance, hatred, and a populist divisiveness, which is fanned online but absolutely exists in real life too across the world, near and far. Nowhere is immune. We in this place need to be outspoken because, whether we look to the disgraceful treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in China, or much closer to home—I, too, saw that horrific video from Stamford Hill last night—we should be concerned. We need to be really aware that this is not some dim and distant historic issue. We have heard about genocides since, and now should concern us, too. We have to be willing to speak out positively and publicly about antisemitism, hatred and prejudice.
I am fortunate because where I live that happens in the most powerful way. I have seen Henry Wuga and his late wife Ingrid speaking to young people about their experience so that generations of the future can learn from the past. Henry is an amazing man. This morning, he was on Radio Scotland encouraging young people to be aware of fake news and emphasising that we must always remember to learn—wise words, as ever. Just like Ingrid Wuga, Judith Rosenberg is very much missed in my community because of the enormous contribution that they both made to holocaust education and ensuring that the voices of survivors are heard and preserved. Such conversations, hearing directly from people who have experienced the holocaust or more recent genocides, are one of the most powerful ways of ensuring that the lessons that we must heed are heard. I am glad to join those who have already praised the excellent work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust for all they do in that regard.
The Holocaust Educational Trust supports initiatives such as the vision schools programme, where Mearns Castle and Barrhead high schools have achieved awards for their work in Holocaust education. That is important and very welcome. The importance of proactive work that supports communities to come together against antisemitism, Islamophobia, hatred and prejudice has never been more important, and communal organisations such as the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities and the Glasgow Jewish Representative Council are often at the forefront of making that happen.
The Glasgow Jewish Representative Council recently hosted an excellent interfaith event where there was an unplanned but profoundly moving moment: the first ever Muslim student at Scotland’s only Jewish primary school was overjoyed to meet his Jewish headteacher again after many intervening years—they were both overjoyed, actually. That reinforced the importance of standing together to appreciate differences and calling out hate. That was one day, as today’s theme would have it, which will remain in my mind.
Another one day that I will remember for the rest of my life was a very different kind of day: the day when I visited Yad Vashem and saw the reality of the holocaust writ large. I saw the magnitude of this stain on humanity, with the cold-blooded murder of men, women and children—so many of them—because they were Jewish, black gay, disabled, Roma or Sinti. Their photographs are there—so many photographs have been carefully collected in the time since—which is deeply upsetting to see. They bring home to you how, one day, everyday people living everyday lives—they were just people—were ripped away and killed in unimaginable horror and unimaginable numbers. Such photos are also posted on the Auschwitz Memorial Museum Twitter account, where, day and daily, we see photographs of men, women and children—often the kind of lovely photos people have on their mantlepiece of beautiful babies or chubby toddlers—who were all killed.
It is really important to have that personal connection to the people who were murdered and look at their faces and into their eyes. Unfathomable numbers of people were murdered in the holocaust, but we must never forget that each one was an individual person—a loved and missed mum or dad, son or daughter—and not just a number to be tallied up. One of them is the only Scot named as righteous among the nations at Yad Vashem, Jane Haining. I have previously called for a more lasting memorial to her, and I applaud everyone involved in the current work on a heritage trail and a school essay competition in her name.
Jane Haining grew up in Dunscore in the Scottish Borders and later travelled to Budapest to take up the post of matron in a Church of Scotland missionary school where many Jewish students were educated. She resisted calls from the Church to come home when it became clear that the situation was becoming very dangerous. Because she refused to leave her students alone to face their fate, she paid for her compassion and solidarity with her life. She was transported to Auschwitz along with them, and she died.
Jane had said of her students:
“If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?”
That is the thing to take away from the debate. It is easy and unchallenging to speak out in the good times, but we really need to be committed to raising our voice and standing up when things are harder, and we all need to do that every day.
It is a real honour to be able to contribute to this debate today. It is not only an essential time for remembrance and learning but an important time of reflection on the current shape of our society and the direction the world is taking.
We have heard some incredibly powerful and emotive speeches from hon. Members of all parties. Many others have shared their thoughts, as I did, when we signed the Holocaust Education Trust’s book of commitment this week. I pay tribute to its, and others’, vital work to ensure that the atrocities that took place are never forgotten and that the horrors of the holocaust that we saw in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which was liberated 77 years ago to this very day, are never repeated.
It was a true privilege to hear from all those who spoke today. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) for his incredibly powerful speech. To speak from personal experience is never easy, especially in this place, but I know his words will have had a powerful impact far beyond this House. I thank the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) for speaking out about the shameful rise in antisemitism in this country and for sharing his own personal experience of antisemitism that no one should be on the receiving end of. My thoughts and solidarity are with him and his family. We have heard many powerful accounts. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) shared Rena’s testimony, which was one of courage beyond her young years. We could all learn from that and renew our efforts to stop more children experiencing the horror that Rena did.
I am especially thankful to my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for highlighting that alongside the 6 million Jews that were killed, Roma and Gypsy people, Slavic people, LGBT communities, the disabled and religious and political minorities were also targeted by this fascist regime. I will not forget the words that she shared with us. They were so incredibly powerful and I am so proud to call her my friend. She is absolutely right when she says that memorialisation must lead to action. My right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) laid out some of the actions that we could be taking, particularly in challenging fake news and online hate on social media. That is key to fighting the abhorrent rise of antisemitism, but also Islamophobia. Genocide, as we have heard so many times today, starts with the othering of people that she spoke of. It is that othering of people that leads to the horrors experienced by the Bosnian Muslim families that the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) so eloquently spoke of.
I want to offer my wholehearted support to my hon. Friend and to say how moving I have found her speech and indeed the other speeches that I have been here for today. I also wholeheartedly support the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the work of the local Jewish community in Reading and Woodley. I am afraid that, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), I have had to be in a Committee today. I apologise for that, but I would like to offer my support, once again, for this debate and say how moving it has been. I am sure that colleagues across the House feel the same way.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and echo his sentiments. We heard some really impassioned and powerful speeches today, but I know that many other Members across the House would have wished to be here to speak.
I am sure we all join my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark) in her commitment to remember the 1.5 million Armenian people killed and to recognise that atrocity and evil act. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Ms Rimmer) said, these evil acts impact people like Bill for many, many years to come. The impact of the holocaust is felt through generations, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West said, so we must protect future generations from this horror.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah) is absolutely right that we must be vigilant and act at the first signs of any potential genocide. We must also remember the atrocities that have taken place across the world, including the murder of 100,000 people in Babi Yar, which my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) spoke about so eloquently. I thank him for sharing the powerful lessons from the Kindertransport children.
As my wonderful friends, the hon. Members for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) said, antisemitism is not an historic problem, but, sadly, a scourge in our modern-day society that we can only beat together. As we have heard in so many speeches, memorials often bring people together. My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) spoke from the heart when she talked about the peace garden in her constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West said, these memorials exist not just to remember the dead, but as a sign of resilience.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) was absolutely right to talk from her considerable experience about the shock waves of pain caused by genocide, particularly the shock waves felt by children, so it was very fitting that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) paid such a lovely tribute to the inspirational Lord Dubs from whom we have much to learn.
I know that the original sponsor of today’s debate could not join us, so let me take this moment to pay tribute also to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and thank her for her years of dedication in fighting the far right—the same extremism and fascism that committed the atrocities some 80 years ago, but just under a different guise.
I echo the pledge that others have made today to fight racism and prejudice wherever they are found. I stand in solidarity with Members on both sides of the House in that commitment, as does the Labour party. Wherever and whenever we see the poison of division and hatred raise its ugly head, we must address it, even when it is uncomfortably close to home, which is why our party’s move to a new independent complaints process has been welcomed by many. It involved extensive engagement with the Jewish Labour movement and the Jewish community, and it is an important step in showing that Labour is, and always will be, the party of equality.
Just as they did then, many decades ago, people, sadly, still need a voice of equality and diversity in the face of tyranny and fascism. Tragically, world leaders are not learning the lessons of the past fast enough. We see that, as we stare at the horror of genocide currently taking place in Xinjiang against the Uyghur Muslims and the more recent genocides that have taken place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur and against the Yazidi and Rohingya, which we are all remembering here today. It is why the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day 2022—One Day—is so sadly fitting. It brings us together not only to remember the 6 million Jews who were killed, but to look forward to a future when, one day, there will be no more genocides and no more war.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust sums it up best when it says:
“We learn more about the past, we empathise with others today, and we take action for a better future.”
I believe that we can have a better future, but it will not come without courage—the courage to stand up to tyranny and oppression wherever we see it, whether that be through diplomacy, through trade measures such as the genocide amendment, or by standing shoulder to shoulder with those who are oppressed simply because of who they are—because that one day, when there is no longer war or genocide, will always be worth striving for.
I shall try to ensure that my comments are suitably timed so that we can get to the event at 4 o’clock.
In her absence, I would like to begin by conveying my thanks to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) whose personal bravery and conviction in combating antisemitism continues to inspire us all, and to the many Members who secured this afternoon’s debate, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), and the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). This consensual debate shows the House at its very best, and I am grateful to all hon. and right hon. Members for their powerful contributions.
The experience and testimony of several Members moved me particularly, including those of the hon. Members for Warrington North, for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I say to the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) that I was gripped by every single word of his speech and incredibly moved. To my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark, I say that, one day, we must surely live in a world where his wife and family are not subjected to the type of threats he described in his contribution.To my hon. Friend—and I do say hon. Friend—the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), I say that, whichever side of the House he sits on, we will be united in our efforts to tackle antisemitism.
Eighty years ago, on a January day not unlike this one, senior Government officials of Nazi Germany met at Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin to discuss the implementation of the final solution to the Jewish question. Almost 60 years later, world leaders came together in Stockholm and declared this one day to be Holocaust Memorial Day. Two decisions—one that saw the destruction of the European Jewish community and a second that ensures they are never forgotten.
Holocaust Memorial Day is a day when we remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the unique evil of the holocaust. It is a day when we remember the Roma, people with disabilities, political prisoners and gay men—all victims of the Nazi regime—and it is a day when we remember those murdered in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
We know that, far too often in far too many places, people have failed to support Jewish communities under threat. In Nazi-occupied Europe, not only were synagogues destroyed, but millions of Jewish people had their property stolen by the Nazis and their state-sponsored cohorts. In the aftermath of the holocaust, returning victims were forced to navigate a frequently unclear and difficult legal path to recover their property from Governments and neighbours who had failed to protect them and were often complicit in their persecution.
For my part, I have visited Israel three times. On the last visit, courtesy of James Gurd and Elkie Clark from the Conservative Friends of Israel, I had the opportunity to visit Yad Vashem. I have seen for myself the members of the thriving and vibrant Jewish community going about their daily lives in a safer environment that they can now call home, but with echoes of communities previously extinguished across Europe. In July this year, I will be in Poland for my brother’s wedding, and I will take the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, hear these stories myself and bear witness to the terrible events that took place there.
Today, we also consider the plight of the many survivors who have persevered for years in attempting to recover their family’s property, with little hope that they would succeed. They are men such as Leo Wiener who still face an upward battle to get reparation for homes and properties stolen by the Nazis and their collaborators. While some countries have made some effort to pay contributions, many have not. Leo came to London with his parents before the war from what was then Czechoslovakia. The family ran several businesses across Ostrava that were confiscated by the Nazis. Leo’s grandparents, aunts and uncles were all murdered in Treblinka. After the war, Leo’s father returned to Czechoslovakia to try to retrieve the family’s possessions. The family home was still standing, but had been looted. He tried over many years to get his property returned, first under the communists and later when the Berlin wall fell, but to no avail. Leo took on his father’s quest, but despite years of effort, he was told he was not a close enough relative to his grandparents to claim compensation.
Leo is not the only one. In Poland, despite years of campaigning, there is still no compensation scheme for private property. In November this year, the Czech Government will host a conference to see how countries have lived up to the Terezin declaration—a legally non-binding document outlining several measures towards the restitution of property belonging to the victims of Nazi persecution. I would urge all countries that have yet to pay restitution or that have outstanding cases to ensure that holocaust survivors and their families finally see justice.
Sadly, across the globe there are still malicious people who actively deny the reality of the holocaust and seek to minimise the extent of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. They try to cast doubt on the use of gas chambers, mass shootings, deliberate starvation and the intended genocide of the whole Jewish people. Of equal and growing concern is holocaust distortion, which is more mainstream, but just as pernicious. It is a subtle and sinister approach that questions numbers and assigns different descriptions to places. Death camps are redesignated as “transit camps”. We have seen lockdown restrictions likened to the Nazi persecution of Jews; we have witnessed anti-vaxxers and others pinning yellow stars to their chests across Europe, and even in some parts of the United States.
However, we do holocaust remembrance a disservice if we remember the dead and forget the present persecution of Jewish people across the world. In December we witnessed a despicable act of antisemitism on the streets of London when a hate-filled group of men targeted a bus in Oxford Street, performing Nazi salutes and spitting at Jewish families celebrating Hannukah, and just over a week ago we saw terrifying events unfold at a synagogue in Texas, where the perpetrator was one of our own citizens. The impact of this attack on the Jewish community must not be understated. It underscores the need for the Government to continue working hand in hand with the Jewish community to ensure that synagogues, Jewish schools and communal buildings are protected. We have already provided £14 million of Government support this financial year. I am proud that my Department and many others in Government are helping the Holocaust Educational Trust to work with universities across the country in challenging the scourge of antisemitism.
Like a number of the previous speakers, I pay tribute to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, to its chief executive, Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE, and to her team, who deliver the annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony and thousands of local activities across the country. I also thank the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Karen Pollock CBE, who works tirelessly to ensure that the next generation learn about the holocaust through the “Lessons from Auschwitz” programme.
I thank my very good friend for allowing me to intervene. May I just mention the extremely good work done by Remembering Srebenica, which we have not mentioned today? It takes children to Srebenica to help them understand what happened in Bosnia. I did not want to miss the opportunity of mentioning Remembering Srebenica, whose activities are often sponsored by the Government. I say thank you to the Government, and thank you to Remembering Srebenica.
I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for that powerful intervention.
Teaching the next generation about the history of the holocaust is paramount when it comes to ensuring that our values of pluralism, democracy and tolerance will never be taken for granted. That is why building the new national holocaust memorial and learning centre next to the Houses of Parliament is so important. The centre will let people view Britain’s story in the 1930s and 1940s in its entirety. It will shine a light on the positive contribution that we made to ridding the world of Nazism, but it will also tell the stories of internment, of professional, well-qualified Jewish women forced into domestic service as the price of security, and the activities of home-grown fascists. We will recognise the 10,000 children saved through the Kindertransport initiative, but also acknowledge that their parents were not welcome, and many of the children never saw their parents again.
I thank my hon. Friend for his warm words about the new centre, which is very important to me, as someone who used to teach secondary school pupils about the holocaust. Does he agree that when the centre is up and running, we must find a way to ensure that students all over the United Kingdom can have access to it? When I was teaching, I found that it was often difficult for young people to understand that they had a direct link to these events. It is really important for them to be able to make use of this facility. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government must do everything possible to support that at the appropriate time in the future?
In my speech I briefly mentioned my uncle, who got out of Dachau and was then interned on the Isle of Man for the whole of the war and could never really integrate. It is so important for people who come here as refugees to be properly integrated and to become part of our communities.
Again, I completely agree. This handing down and sharing of stories and information, person to person, from one generation to another is vital.
While we will recall 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the holocaust, there will also be many deeds of singular courage and resistance, such as those of our own Frank Foley, who was based in the British Embassy in Berlin and bent the rules to help thousands of Jewish families escape Nazi Germany before the outbreak of the second world war. One of them was the father-in-law of my right hon. Friend the late James Brokenshire, and James considered it a privilege to lead on the Government’s plans for the national holocaust memorial in his time as Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary. Sadly, in the not-too-distant future the holocaust will pass from living memory to history. The new holocaust memorial and learning centre will keep alive the memory of those who were murdered during the holocaust and subsequent genocides.
Despite our failure to learn the lessons of the past, we must not give up hope that one day we can imagine a world free of genocide, a world that fully grasps what happens when hatred, intolerance, prejudice and antisemitism are left unchallenged. That very hope was echoed during last year’s Holocaust Memorial Day debate, when our hon. Friend the late Sir David Amess said:
“I simply do not understand and have never understood antisemitism. The most important lesson from the holocaust is that although we cannot police the world, it is simply not acceptable to stand by and do and say nothing when genocide happens.”—[Official Report, 28 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 624.]
At 7 pm this evening, there will be a short online ceremony to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. I hope hon. Members across the House will take this opportunity for a period of quiet reflection. At 8 pm, as people light a candle in their window, we will think of the millions of victims whose time on this earth was senselessly and brutally cut short; but I will also be holding out hope for a brighter future and a day when the enduring values of care, compassion and kindness triumph over the dark forces of hate, intolerance and prejudice.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in the debate. I have attended these debates on almost every occasion since I was elected eight years ago, and to me this was the most personal and powerful set of contributions I can remember. The contributions also continue to be prescient, with antisemitism on the rise at home and genocide and violence abroad.
When I attend these debates, I often think of the debate that took place in this House before the second world war, on 21 November 1938, which ultimately led to the Kindertransport. That debate was opened by the then Member for Derby South, Philip Noel-Baker, who said:
“Dr. Goebbels said the other day that he hoped the outside world would soon forget the German Jews. He hopes in vain. His campaign against them will go down in history”,
as one of the greatest stains on humanity.
“Let there go with it another memory, the memory of what the other nations did to wipe the shame away.”—[Official Report, 21 November 1938; Vol. 341, c. 1440.]
I often wonder whether I would have attended that debate and been one of the 40 Members of Parliament who spoke. I hope I would have done so, and that I would have acted. We are, after all, the legislators of this country, the leaders of our communities, and the responsibility to act today is ours.
I close with a prayer in honour of the 6 million souls who perished in the holocaust:
Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael.
May he who creates peace in the heavens create peace for us, and for all the world.
We will never forget the inhumanity or the cruelty of the atrocities, or the unconscionable pain that millions suffered. Not in our name. Nor should we ever forget the bravery of so many people who fought against this evil.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2022.