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Holocaust Memorial Day

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 25 January 2024

Debate resumed.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), and I thank him for his commitment to the Jewish community in Birmingham and to Israel. It is deeply appreciated.

I have sometimes thought that I struggled to grasp the scale of the holocaust, because every time we hear someone’s testimony, we think we understand what the holocaust was, yet it is always only a tiny fraction of it. Every story in the holocaust is completely unique. Differing factors and testimonies include the country someone was born in, where they were made to move when tensions started to rise in Europe, where or how they managed to hide, how they were rounded up, and what happened to their friends and family. Then stories differ in how people watched their parents being murdered, how they cared for younger loved ones, how they got by, and how snap decisions they made saved their lives or those of others.

The holocaust was the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children, but it was so much more than that. The number 6 million is huge, but on its own it does not encompass the true scale of suffering. It is millions of people who did not get the opportunity to wake up in the morning in their homes and feel safe; millions of people who did not have the privilege of making normal, everyday decisions to get married, start a family, go to school, or have a career. It tore humanity apart, and stole the future from 6 million Jews and their future families.

The seventh of October was not on the same scale. It was not over the same long period of time, and it was not carried out by the same perpetrators. It was not even on the same continent. But 7 October was the biggest loss of Jewish life in a single day since the holocaust. On Tuesday I met a delegation of family members of hostages with the Leader of the House. A brave 23-year-old told us that she lost 60 friends on 7 October. Can anyone imagine losing 60 friends in one day? Sadly, many Jewish families know what that feels like.

I have really struggled with this, Mr Deputy Speaker. Accusations of genocide are thrown around too frequently, and I am the last person who would ever wish to draw comparisons with the holocaust. As Lord Pickles said earlier this week, there can be no comparison with the holocaust. We now have the Jewish state, and that was designed to ensure that history does not repeat itself. It was born out of the need to do just that. However, it is true that 7 October was the largest murder of Jewish people since the holocaust, and sadly the comparisons do not end there.

I visited Israel at the beginning of the year. I had the chance to visit the exhibition that survivors of the Nova festival have created. It was heartbreaking. On tables lay shoes, clothing and other items of ordinary festival goers who just went to dance. I could not help but see the table of shoes and be reminded of the pile of shoes in Auschwitz. Lying next to this table of clothes and shoes was make-up—the kind of make-up I use. In Auschwitz you see personal items that make you wonder what that person might have looked like or how they might have lived. When I saw brands such as L’Oréal, I did not have to think about that. I know exactly how they looked and how they might have lived. I know exactly what they were doing on that fateful day when their life ended. I know that they were not any different from me: young women in their 20s or 30s. They were doing what normal young people around the world should do—they were dancing.

I had hoped my visit would help me to understand how the attack happened, and perhaps the true motives. I think it is probably part of the natural human mind and reaction to try to make something so huge and terrifying make more sense. I heard stories about families murdered in a kibbutz. We visited Kfar Aza. We heard about a mayor who will never stand for re-election, because he bravely tried to defend his community, and about the young couple who were going to get engaged and how they texted their parents in the last moments of their lives before being slaughtered. I heard about a teacher set on fire in her house

I watched 47 minutes of this footage. Until then, some of the most disturbing images I had ever seen were of the holocaust and images of bodies strewn across Bergen-Belsen upon the liberation, but I had never known what a body looks like after being tortured, shot in the head, or burned until the only thing left is their teeth. I have seen footage of two young boys witnessing the brutal death of their father. I wondered how they survived. Why did the terrorists so calmly help themselves to a drink from their fridge while they screamed? Why were they not taken as hostages? Why were other children taken hostage? Why were other children and babies murdered without a chance?

The events on 7 October started with rockets, followed by a massacre at a music festival. They slaughtered people one by one, setting cars alight, raping women and girls and throwing grenades into bomb shelters. It did not end there. They went hunting for soldiers in military bases, raped more women, murdered more people and took more hostages. They went house to house, having already identified who lived where. Hamas enjoyed every second of it, even boasting in calls to parents that they had killed at least 10 Jews.

No two stories from 7 October are the same. I felt completely overwhelmed trying to grasp the scale of it, and the scale of the fear. If I am confused now, how must they have felt on that day and every day since? I never believed I would use today as an opportunity to talk about something other than the holocaust. I firmly believe that is what today is for; there are 364 other days in the year to talk about everything else, but I also know what holocaust survivors today are thinking, and I can only begin to imagine how they are feeling. They have dedicated their lives to telling their stories, much like the survivors of 7 October are now doing. They are furious that 7 October happened. It was never meant to happen again. Every year we stand here and say “Never again.”

We rightly label those who seek to distort or deny the holocaust ever happened as antisemites. They have the evidence, and plenty of it, but to them facts do not matter, because they believe they have a deeper understanding, borne of their hatred for Jews. Holocaust denial is antisemitic, so what about those thousands who do not believe that 7 October happened? They do not believe women were raped. They argue about how many babies’ heads were cut off, or if they were at all. Some, who have kindly written to me, tell me that 7 October, if it happened at all, was actually carried out by Israel. Recounting how I have witnessing 47 minutes of death and destruction makes no difference to their view.

One theory within holocaust denial is that the holocaust was carried out by European Jews. Some believe that Nazis and Zionists worked together in partnership and that, as a result of having scammed the world, the state of Israel was born. That theory features in a book called “The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism”, written by President Mahmoud Abbas in 1984. The same theory, but set in 2023, is now gaining traction on social media, particularly among young people. They believe that 7 October was carried out by Israel to legitimise military action against Hamas, or that Israel has been funding Hamas, or that Israel is exaggerating claims of the death and destruction at the hands of Hamas. What is this theory at its core? You tell me.

I will not even ask that we say “never again” one final time in this place before we make it a reality. Instead, people should understand what has happened to the Jewish people in October last year and since. We have the largest increase in antisemitic incidents on record, in response to the largest murder of Jewish people since the holocaust. The Chief Rabbi, Sir Ephraim Mirvis, last week made an important intervention. He said that claiming Israel is carrying out a genocide

“is a moral inversion, which undermines the memory of the worst crimes in human history.”

He said:

“It is a term deployed not only to eradicate any notion that Israel has a responsibility to protect its citizens, but also to tear open the still gaping wound of the Holocaust, knowing that it will inflict more pain than any other accusation”.

I will finish by quoting holocaust survivor Manfred Goldberg, who selflessly has spent so many years educating young people here in the UK with his testimony. He said:

“The majority of people in this country are not Jew haters, but they are often our silent supporters. And all that it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to stay silent.”

On this Holocaust Memorial Day—the day we remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered by Nazis—let us also think carefully about the current rise in antisemitism and what we, as individuals, are going to do about it. If 7 October was a fresh warning to the world about where antisemitism can lead, let us remember that it is against that backdrop that we are seeing record increases in antisemitism. None of us can afford to stay silent.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), who gave such testimony of what has happened. I thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for opening the debate in her customary fashion, telling us the story of her relatives and what they suffered, and reminding us that we should not be comfortable about what happened in the United Kingdom when Jewish survivors arrived. Indeed, it is even more important today that we recognise the atrocities that were directed towards the Jewish community before the second world war, and that continue today.

I declare my interest as co-chairman of the all-party Britain-Israel parliamentary group and the all-party parliamentary group on holocaust memorial, which we hope will be erected alongside this place. Some 79 years on from the end of the holocaust, we still have people persecuting and attacking people based solely on their religion. It is unacceptable, and I am proud that the Government are committed and steadfast in their support for Israel and the wider Jewish diaspora.

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “fragility of freedom.” That is particularly fitting, given the unstable position we find ourselves in today all over the globe. Although there will always be mild tensions between communities, we have to remember that there is a war raging in Europe, a terror war raging in Israel and Gaza, attacks in the Red sea, the Sudan war and growing concerns on the Asian continent. I have never felt more grateful to live in this country and to work in the heart of a thriving, free and fair democracy.

We often take for granted the privileged position of being able to get up in the morning, work in a career of our choosing, and be confident that we are being represented by elected individuals looking to represent our views. We do not fear for our lives every moment of the day, and we are not on constant alert for potential rockets. Sadly, that cannot be said for the rest of the world’s population, or even the Jewish population in this country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) referred to.

Each year the remarkable survivors of the holocaust grow older, and sadly year by year their numbers decrease. It is therefore vital that we make a continued, conscious effort to learn their stories and the true history of the holocaust, so that we not only let them live on, but educate each other to ensure that we never allow the same atrocities to occur. I have had the privilege of visiting many of the holocaust sites across Europe and in Israel over my years in Parliament. Each time, I find the most remarkably striking thing to be that despite the abominable and unimaginable conditions that Jewish prisoners had to live through, somehow they maintained hope that liberation would occur.

Hope is one of the strongest, most determined and powerful attributes a person can possess. Many interviews with liberated prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps describe their fellow inmates losing hope and thus sadly passing quickly thereafter. Without hope, they lost purpose and died. I remember from a book I read that there was a rumour around one of the camps that they would be released on a specific date in 1942. The prisoners held on to that bit of hope for several years, until, several days before the alleged release date, they realised it was a malicious lie from the Nazis. A prisoner recounts how, almost instantaneously, many of those disheartened people died. For them, their hope was over and they could no longer hang on.

Last week, the temperatures around London plummeted. When I left home, my car thermometer was regularly reading minus 1° or even lower. I was lucky to be wrapped up in my hat, scarf and coat, but I could still feel the bitter cold. That puts into perspective how harsh the conditions were for the people in the camps, where temperatures frequently reached minus 10° and below, and blankets of snow covered the camps. Imagine that with minimal clothing, bare feet and bodies of skin and bone—it must have been unbearable. With people then physically and psychologically tortured on a daily basis, it astounds me how they never gave up and remained hopeful that one day they would be free.

I have an overwhelming amount of respect for the survivors of the holocaust, who so importantly and bravely share and recount their stories over and over for the benefit of others. To live through those circumstances and then be brave enough to share them continuously with others is a phenomenal feat, but it is crucial.

Antisemitism is not new, and it did not originate with Hitler. Throughout Europe, Jewish people have been subjected to antisemitism since the middle ages. The hatred escalated significantly after the great war, when the reparations placed on Germany and its allies were extreme. We had the Wall Street crash, followed by the depression, leading in turn to rampant inflation in Germany and the collapse of the Weimar republic.

Last year, I related some of the challenges faced between the wars in this country, particularly on the growth of antisemitism, but we should remember that the same thing happened in the United States, growing from the traditional hostilities of Christianity towards Judaism. Jews have been targeted since the middle ages. America was rife with antisemitism from the early colonial days. However, as Jews represented only a small part of American society, it remained dormant. Antisemitism flourished in the 1880s with the arrival of 2 million Jewish immigrants fleeing eastern Europe, particularly from parts of the Russian empire, where persecution was frequent.

Towards the end of the 19th century, conditions for Jews worsened with the passage of ever more restrictive legislation and recurring Government-initiated violent attacks against Jewish communities, commonly known as pogroms. Consequently, Jews began fleeing in great numbers to the United States. Many Americans, who originated traditionally from north-west Europe or Scandinavia, grew increasingly anxious about the arrival of mass immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, whom they considered to belong to inferior races, and they frequently questioned their religious beliefs.

We rarely talk about the antisemitic movement in America—more often than not, we concentrate wholly on Nazi Germany—but it was a grave situation across Europe, and also specifically in the States. Antisemitism became ever more common in almost every aspect of American culture.

What I struggle with is this: what is it that people hate about Jews? Is it about religion? What is it that has come across the ages? I just do not get it.

I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. It is hard to understand blind prejudice, but that is what it is. People are possibly fearful of the success of those who strive to do better for themselves, their children and their children’s children. That is the only reason I can think of: that people are jealous of what Jewish people have been able to do, solely through their own efforts.

I turn back to what happened in the United States. Newspapers and magazines were commonly printing antisemitic attacks. There were racist cartoons. Antisemites represented high positions in the federal Government. There was Jewish exclusion from social clubs and discrimination in employment opportunities. Many towns adopted zoning regulations to prevent the sale of land and houses to Jews. From 1922, following the example set by the leading University of Harvard, many prominent educational institutions imposed strict quotas on the number of Jews they allowed to study.

Throughout the 1920s, renowned car producer Henry Ford published a weekly newspaper called The Dearborn Independent, which attracted an audience of over 700,000 people. He launched a vicious and persistent campaign against “The International Jew”. He blamed the Jewish community for all that was wrong with society, from threatening the capitalist system to undermining the moral values of the nation. Notably, he even blamed them for the great war.

Many miles across the globe, that narrative was gaining traction in Germany with the rapid rise of the Nazi party under Adolf Hitler. Hitler, of course, was a prominent member of the German Workers’ party following the establishment of the Weimar republic, and often a firm favourite in the party for his engaging and passionate speeches. Throughout the 1920s, Hitler would ferociously campaign across Germany, promoting his party’s values of anti-communism, antisemitism and ultra-nationalism, appealing to both the left and right of the political spectrum and gaining considerable momentum as a result.

The political landscape in Germany took a sharp turn following the Wall Street crash in 1929. The economy slammed to a halt, and the USA loans that were helping repay the great war reparations soon dried up. The Nazis used that polarising landscape to exploit the crisis and loudly condemn the ruling Government. Slowly but surely, the Nazi party was gaining more and more support.

In 1932, Hitler ran for the presidency but faced defeat to the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg. The Nazi party became the largest party in the Reichstag, but it was still short of an absolute majority. Despite initial hesitations from Hindenburg, Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933. Although not yet a dictator, that was a pivotal moment for Hitler and his party. Soon after, the Reichstag was set on fire. Hitler was quick to hold the communists accountable for such actions and persuaded Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree, which severely curtailed all liberties and rights of German citizens. Hitler began to use that to eliminate political opponents and then all those who opposed him. With the groundwork for a dictatorship firmly in place, in 1934, following the death of President von Hindenburg, Hitler merged the chancellery with the presidency and became Führer, the sole leader of Germany.

The Nazi persecution of the Jewish community continued: subtly at first, then more and more discriminative, until in 1938 it took an exponential and unignorable turn. The night of Kristallnacht was a significant moment in the persecution of Jews in Germany. Until that point, although still despicable, the repressive policies had been largely non-violent. However, on the night of Kristallnacht, the Nazis torched synagogues, vandalised Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and murdered over 100 Jews. In the aftermath, some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to the concentration camps. After Kristallnacht, the conditions for German Jews grew increasingly and drastically worse. As we know, by the end of the holocaust, some 6 million Jews had lost their lives—a truly shocking figure.

It saddens me that, almost 80 years later, the Jewish community is again being unjustly marginalised. The conflict in Gaza following the horrific terror attacks on Israel by the Hamas terror group on 7 October is a terrifying example of religion-based hatred still occurring today. The repercussions include a huge surge in antisemitic hate in the United Kingdom. It is truly appalling that in this country today schoolchildren have to hide their uniforms on the bus to protect themselves just because they show them to be Jewish.

My constituency of Harrow East boasts a large number of Jewish communities. The cultural, economic and diverse contributions that they bring are invaluable, and we should celebrate, not condemn, what they have brought to our society. It is at times like this in this country that we need to come together as one to fight hatred, not ignite further cultural wars. Israel is a small country, and it is highly likely that Jewish people in the UK will have family, friends or connections who are suffering from the deadly attacks that Hamas are inflicting on the state of Israel every single day. I urge hon. Members to reach out to friends or local people and offer their thoughts, prayers and support at this undoubtedly difficult time.

We must always remember the great struggle of the Jewish community, and learn from the holocaust to ensure that never again will such grave actions take place. We must do so for the sake of not just our generation but future ones to come, and out of respect for all those who sadly lost their lives during the holocaust. I will end with an important point from Zigi Shipper: “do not hate”.

I feel humbled and privileged to take part in this solemn debate. This year, as in past years, it is an opportunity to show the House of Commons at its best. It is an honour to follow the powerful interventions by the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and others.

Every year in preparing for Holocaust Memorial Day, I struggle all over again to comprehend how a well-educated, highly cultured and seemingly civilised society in Germany could turn on its Jewish citizens with such cold-hearted barbarism. Those Jewish communities had been part of central and eastern Europe for centuries, and were so dehumanised by hate-filled Nazi propaganda that most people just stood by when their Jewish neighbours were herded in ghettos and then on to trucks and trains bound for the death camps.

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to remember a series of genocidal crimes, including the holodomor perpetrated on the Ukrainian people, about which I have spoken in past debates. But it is hard to think of anything that can match the sheer scale of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis in carrying out murder on an industrial scale, brutally cutting short the lives of six million Jewish men, women and children, and millions of others just because they were gay, Roma, Sinti, disabled or because they were brave enough to resist the Nazis. We need to remember the heroes who stepped up and saved people, sometimes putting their own lives at risk. There were heroes here who organised the Kindertransport and saved many lives.

We also need to reflect on this country’s approach to its mandate in Palestine and its decision to seek to reduce Jewish migration there in the 1930s, just when so many were trying to flee attacks in Europe. It is possible that many more could have escaped the Nazis if the British mandate authorities had taken a different approach. Even after the savagery of the holocaust was fully revealed, British resistance to Jewish migration to the Holy Land continued. Those Jewish people trying to make a new life for themselves in the Jewish state that had been promised were turned away and left in displaced persons camps. Some were even sent back to Germany, from where they had come.

As everyone has said, it is crucial that we remember the victims of the holocaust at a time when antisemitism is rising again in a way that is utterly unacceptable in any civilised society. The coming days are an opportunity once again to warn younger generations of the appalling consequences of antisemitism and where it can lead. I would recommend that anyone wishing to understand what happened visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is the only museum that has reduced me to tears. One of the most powerful exhibits is the display of shoes taken from holocaust victims at the concentration camps. These personal possessions—suitcases, glasses and shoes —provide one of the defining images of holocaust remembrance.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), I felt a palpable sense of shock a few weeks ago when I saw another collection of shoes and belongings forever lost to the Jewish people who owned them. I saw that in an exhibition in Tel Aviv on the Hamas terror attack on the Nova music festival. The items had been retrieved from the Nova site and provided a truly chilling and harrowing reminder of the Yad Vashem display. I saw the Nova exhibition as a part of a trip to Israel declared in my Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

During that visit, I, too, saw the chilling 47-minute film of footage from the 7 October attacks. I did not want to see the film, but I felt I ought to. The horror of that footage stays with me in my nightmares, and I mean that literally—it haunts my sleeping hours. Once you see it, you cannot ever unsee it. I do not want to dwell on the horrors that the film contained, but I was struck by the brief clip shown of young people hiding in portaloos or seemingly in a rubbish skip at the festival. Those scenes are painfully reminiscent of the holocaust and of scenes portrayed in films such as “Schindler’s List” of children desperately trying to find any hiding place to escape the liquidation of the ghetto and deportation. It was a horror to see those scenes replayed just over 100 days ago. We should be in no doubt in this House of the genocidal intentions of Hamas towards Israel and all Jewish people—intentions in their founding charter, and which they have reiterated many times since the 7 October atrocity.

I want to conclude with a reflection on the recent brave article by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, responding to those who accuse Israel of genocide. We should heed his words that misappropriation of the word “genocide” is an affront to the victims of the unspeakable crimes that we remember today. As he said, its use in this context is the ultimate demonisation of the Jewish state. It is a moral inversion that undermines the memory of the worst crimes in human history. As we say, “Never again”, on Holocaust Memorial Day, and we renew our commitment to combating antisemitism and racism, let us remember the November march in London, where hundreds of thousands turned out to support Israel and the Jewish community, many with placards telling us, “Never again is now”. Our vigilance against anti-Jewish hatred must never cease, wherever and however it manifests itself.

It is 22 years since I attended my first Holocaust Memorial Day event in Hendon. I would have thought that after all these years there was nothing left to say, but today’s contributions show that there is ever more to say, which in many ways is a great disappointment.

The first event was held in a marquee in Hendon park. I welcomed the idea of Holocaust Memorial Day, but I did question the sustainability of such an event and whether it would continue in the longer term. In 2002, antisemitism was not the issue that it is today, and certainly not as it was leading up to and including the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. The first event was well attended by many people. Many were Jewish, which is not surprising, because many of my constituents are of the Jewish faith. Holocaust survivors also attended, such as my good friend Renee Salt, and I was as pleased to see her then as I am each year.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) said, over the years I have welcomed attending the event—I never say that I am pleased to attend, because that is not appropriate. I value attending it. Over the years, Barnet Council has acknowledged more than the shoah—the name that Jewish people use to describe the holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. Past speakers have included not just survivors of the Nazis and their relatives—some of them even elected councillors in Barnet—but people who survived the Bosnian massacres, the Rwandan genocide and the purge in Cambodia.

For many years, I have been interested in the holocaust. I was interested in how it happened, how it came about, why no one spoke out against it, why ordinary decent middle class Germans either did not know about it or refused to accept that it happened, and what consequences remain today. I remember reading Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” books when I was a teenager. He brought the horrors of the holocaust to me, from the third generation since the war, in the late 1980s. It should be remembered, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) reminded us, that it was just 40 years since the end of the second world war at that time. For people who had experienced the 1939-1945 war, such perceptions of events would be the same as the ones I have of the Falklands conflict in 1982.

Spiegelman’s book ends with his father’s emigration to America, so it has been left to other authors, such as Leon Uris in his book “Exodus”, to describe what really happened to most displaced Jewish people after the war. It has been acknowledged and is not disputed that the UK refused to take refugees from Jewish communities after the second world war. Many other countries in Europe also refused. Some populations took part in the murder of Jews alongside the Nazis. Others had simply misappropriated Jewish lands and property, and were not giving it back. Jewish people had nowhere to go and it was vital that a homeland was provided for the survivors. Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and it was the right course of action to re-establish the country on 14 May 1948. Almost half of all Jewish survivors of the holocaust, 49%, today live in Israel. About 18% live in north America and about 18% in western Europe. Approximately 1,200 survivors live in Britain, many of them in the Hendon constituency.

As Lord Blencathra told the Holocaust Memorial Bill Committee this week, the way different generations discover our history has changed. Many now read information from the internet. We all know that not everything that appears online is entirely accurate. But this has an impact on what people learn and their perceptions of past and current conflicts. For many people around the country, the holocaust is something they know happened but it does not impact them. But that is not the experience of many people in my constituency.

Yesterday, I spoke to a neighbour of mine, who told me about her daughter’s university experience at University College London. As she said, they are a liberal Jewish family who have a Jewish faith but are not orthodox. You would not know by looking at them that they are Jewish. Unless my constituent’s daughter told you she was Jewish, it would not be apparent. But what her daughter has heard in lectures and in the university itself are things she refuses to leave unchallenged. I have known her for many years and she is not a belligerent person, but students have told her that there are no Arabs in Israel, all Jews are wealthy and Jews control the world—all the usual tropes that we are now hearing more and more. She has pushed back but has been shunned by the other pupils, who refuse to sit next to her in lectures. Another student complained that there is an antisemitism tsar at UCL. My constituent’s daughter said that it was not a competition or even a privilege to have such a tsar, but that explanation was rejected and a demand was subsequently made for an anti-Islamophobia tsar, for no other reason than there is an antisemitism tsar. Young people in my constituency are now fearful of attending university and it is obvious why. Jewish students are held responsible for the actions of the Israeli Government, and the same is now steadily creeping into our schools.

There is a clear link between these attitudes and the terrorist attacks in Israel on 7 October. Those attacks were no different from what the Nazis were doing. Their intention was to kill as many Jews as possible and it remains a real concern to many of my constituents. Just like the holocaust deniers, there are deniers of what happened in Israel on 7 October. I will struggle a bit at this point, Mr Deputy Speaker. I cannot turn around and look at my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy). We did visit Israel a few weeks after the attacks and we did see things that I certainly never expected to see. And I did warn my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet not to watch the 47-minute video. We saw not only that video, but another video.

When we were at the Shura base, the colonel, I believe it was, in charge opened the mortuary. Just like my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), what I remember is the smell. It was the smell not only of blood and death, which I have smelt before, but formaldehyde, some kind of chemical used to preserve the bodies. Many of the bodies, approximately 200, were left there because they could not be identified. The reason they could not be identified is that some were headless, some were just a head, some were limbs and some were bodies fused together by fire. What really upset me and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole was when the colonel whipped his phone from his pocket and showed us a video. I will not even mention what was on it. I do not talk to my staff or my family about what was there, but it was something that is not in the 47-minute video and it is not something that can be forgotten.

The events of 7 October are also quite personal due to the fact that Nathanel Young was one of the first to be killed. He was a student in my area at Beit Shvidler School. I recently visited the school and was upset when I saw his photo on the wall. The photo showed him with me and Lord Cameron at the 2013 Chanukah event at No. 10—he was part of the choir. I remember him distinctly because of his exuberance and vitality.

In the weeks since 7 October, I have received several emails from constituents. This has been touched on by hon. Members today and it is important to outline some of what people have said to me. One email said:

“I am writing to you today as a concerned member of your constituency and, more importantly, as a British Jew who is increasingly fearful for the safety of my family, friends, and community. Recent events have compelled me to express my deep concerns about the rise of antisemitic incidents and the apparent inadequacy of the response from law enforcement. Following the advice from the police on October 7th, instructing our sons to conceal their Jewish symbols while traveling to school, my family and I were already grappling with a heightened sense of vulnerability. As a community, we have observed instances where the police seemed to turn a blind eye to chants and unpleasant behaviour during weekly marches, fostering an environment where antisemitic sentiments are allowed to flourish unchecked. Recent events have left me questioning the assurances we once held that if these protests were to turn violent, the police would intervene decisively.”

She goes on to mention the alleged assault on a group of Israelis in Leicester Square on 20 January. She concludes by saying that she feels that she cannot allow her son

“to use any Hebrew or Jewish-sounding words when traveling, out of fear that he may become a target for senseless violence. It is deeply disheartening to realize that, in London 2024, Jewish people feel compelled to hide their identity and censor their innocent language for their own safety.”

Antisemitism is not restricted to my constituents. I have been subjected to two incidents in recent weeks, the second of which remains under consideration for prosecution, so I cannot say any more.

In conclusion, I will be attending Holocaust Memorial Day this year in Hendon. I will value it as much as ever. There will be a day when the Shoah will be an ancient historical tragedy, but unfortunately that will not be for many more years yet.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the time for this debate. I was very happy to be a co-sponsor of it. I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for the way in which she opened the debate. It is very important that we have this debate every year in the Chamber and this year it is all the more pressing. Like others, I would like to put on record my thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for their year-round work, as well as their support at this time of year.

It is Burns Night tonight and his famous line:

“Man’s inhumanity to man

Makes countless thousands mourn!”

well stands the test of time when we look at the world today, and when we look to the holocaust and the continued impact down the generations. Like the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), I am often frustrated by the increasing polarisation of politics and views. There are far more shades than black and white, and public discourse is always the better for appreciating that, and trying to at least understand the spectrum of views that are different from one’s own.

On this particular issue—perhaps it is the exception that proves the rule—the importance of holocaust remembrance and understanding why it matters is something black and white: there is one clear way in which to look at these issues. In an age of increased tension, global flux and the growing influence of those whose very purpose is to foster hatred for others, we need to be ever more clear about the need for “never again” to mean exactly that; but it will not happen without specific and concerted effort.

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “fragility of freedom”. To me things seem that bit more fragile and that bit more strained, and I was struck by hearing the same point made earlier this week by Rabbi Rubin, the Senior Rabbi of Scotland. I often speak in this place about the importance of freedom to follow the religion of one’s choice or to follow no religion, and across the globe that freedom is increasingly under threat. We are witnessing eye-watering spikes in antisemitism and Islamophobia. We need to mean what we say and stand up against that hatred—against the misinformation and disinformation, the tropes and the trolls, and the plain holocaust deniers. The hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) made a good point about the significant challenges in the online space.

We also need to be vigilant, and face hard truths. Intolerance and hatred are increasing, and those who peddle hatred, here and throughout the world, do feel empowered. The hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) spoke powerfully about the huge dangers posed by people spreading conspiracies, and the efforts to erode and deny democracy. We need to remember that genocides do not just suddenly happen in faraway places. They are always the product of the gradual and deliberate “othering”, demeaning, dehumanising and diminishing of people simply because of their identity. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), they are fuelled by ordinary people acting in extraordinarily awful ways, empowered by the encouraging and normalising of hatred. That leads to the industrial-scale evil described by the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers).

I was fortunate to attend my local holocaust memorial event at the start of the week, as I do every year. These events have been, without exception, profoundly moving, and this year’s was no different. I am grateful to East Renfrewshire Council and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, especially Kirsty Robson, for putting it together so effectively. Our young people were at the heart of that event, and I applaud them all for their efforts. Students from all our local schools were there, notably Christopher James and Sarah Bone from St Ninian’s High School, who spoke about their involvement as Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors, and Lexie Davidson from Mearns Castle High School, who has been working with the Anne Frank Trust. Kaela-Kaliza Molina, a young woman whose mother was caught up in the Rwanda genocide, read us a poem that she had written about the experience of her mother and so many others. It was entitled “We all bleed the same”, and you could have heard a pin drop.

The point that that young woman made—that point about the fragility of freedom—is illustrated very effectively by individual histories. The right hon. Member for Barking talked about her own family’s journey, much of which seemed to have been highly dependent on chance: it struck me that it could have been a very different story. We need to remember that we are talking about people and families, not just about the unfathomable number that we think about so often when reflecting on the holocaust while neglecting the individuals who perished.

At the event we also heard from Geraldine Shenkin, who spoke powerfully about her lovely mum, Marianne Grant, whose story has been captured in materials used in Scottish schools thanks to the work of Vision Schools Scotland, as well as in a beautiful book of her mum’s art which is now on permanent display in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Geraldine was exceptionally brave in telling that story, and I know that in doing so she spared us some detail because she was aware of the number of schoolchildren who were in the audience. Suffice it to say that her mum endured the most terrifying, inhumane and shocking treatment as she survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz before her liberation from Bergen-Belsen.

Marianne Grant was an artist, and while in Auschwitz she was forced to draw for Dr Mengele, known as the Angel of Death, whom she recalled walking back and forth in front of her nose in his black uniform as she drew, “like a clock pendulum”. The horrors that she experienced are beyond our imaginings, but of course they would have been unimaginable to her too until her life was turned upside down in that most horrific way.

The same can be said of the lives of Henry and the late Ingrid Wuga, Kindertransport children who escaped and later met, married and made their home in my constituency. They have changed countless lives with their work telling our young people about the reality of the Holocaust, and we owe them both a huge debt of gratitude for that. Henry Wuga is about to turn 100, and I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in sending him our very best wishes.

The importance of that kind of work, sharing the truth about the Holocaust, is ever greater. I met Gathering the Voices again this week, and heard more about Martin Anson, whose story is so important. He talked about the growing anti-Jewish sentiment in his Bavarian home town in the early 1920s, his activities in the anti-Nazi movement, stormtroopers assaulting his family on Kristallnacht, and his imprisonment in Dachau before he managed to emigrate to Scotland just before the outbreak of the war. His son Steven told me about a trip that he made last year to his father’s former home, where a stone called a stolperstein had been laid down in the ground—unusually, to record that someone who had lived there had survived; usually the stones record those who have been lost. On that visit, Steven was struck by the warm welcome that he received from the family who were currently living in the house. It was an incredible story to hear, and the generosity of spirit of the current occupants is, I think, a ray of hope in a very harrowing history.

It would not be a Holocaust Memorial Day debate for me without my touching on another ray of hope, offered in the person of Jane Haining, the Scottish matron in a Budapest school who refused to leave her young Jewish charges despite knowing what the dangers were, and who paid for that decision with her life. She said:

“If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?”

That sentiment is one worth holding to at a time when everything seems a bit more fragile and less certain than the circumstances that we have, perhaps, become comfortably used to. Jane Haining is the only Scot to be named as Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

It will take all of us—all of here, but all of us in our communities too—to say that we will not tolerate anti- semitism, we will not accept hatred, and we will not accept people’s being othered and demeaned because of their identity. Freedom really is fragile, and all of us together are the key to sustaining and strengthening it. Let us try to heed the terrible lessons of the past. Let us try to work hard together to keep alive the voices of those who survived, so that those who come after us can hear their testimony too, and can protect that fragile freedom.

It is a great honour to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition. I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for introducing it, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the time.

My right hon. Friend told us about her family’s personal experiences during the war and immediately after it. She spoke about the fact that freedom is fragile, and that has certainly been apparent in the debate. She also asked, “When will we ever learn?”, a question that has been repeated by many Members on both sides of the House.

As we have heard, this Saturday, 27 January, is Holocaust Memorial Day and the 79th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is an opportunity for us to come together to remember the 6 million Jewish victims murdered by the Nazi regime, as well as the millions of lives lost to genocidal violence in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) mentioned the testimony of Daphrosa on the horrors of the Rwandan genocide. This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day marks the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide and the murder of up to 1 million Tutsis in just 100 days by violent Hutu extremists.

We remember the families, communities, cultures and traditions lost forever to hatred and persecution, and we pay tribute to the survivors. Their lives irrevocably altered by devastating violence, we owe them great gratitude for sharing their testimonies and exposing the true horrors they experienced, in order that we can all bear witness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) said that, as a child, he heard about some of the events of world war two, but that he was an adult when he learned about the atrocities that were committed. He stressed the need for us to continue to educate people.

Recalling his return to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said:

“It has swallowed an entire people…a people with hopes and memories.”

This week we honour those hopes and memories and the rich individual lives that lie behind the dreadful statistics that have been referenced across the House throughout this debate.

We also remember the many others killed by the Nazi regime, including more than a quarter of a million disabled people, up to half a million Roma and Sinti people, and thousands of LGBT people, many of whom have had to fight to be recognised as victims. These crimes were the most terrifying consequences of identity-based persecution.

Today, people around the world, and here in the UK, continue to face deep hostility because of who they are. Over the past decade, we have seen rises in hate crime of every category. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities face persistent discrimination. Many LGBT+ people continue to face hostile environments. And in the months since 7 October, as we have heard today, we have seen an unprecedented rise in incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia. This Holocaust Memorial Day, we must all remember our common humanity. We must remember, too, that the prevention of atrocities begins at home, and we must seek to unite our communities, to prevent hatred and polarisation, and to warn against the dangers posed by insidious hatred.

This year’s “fragility of freedom” theme is a call for us to reject complacency and to pay attention to the processes that restrict and remove the freedoms of those targeted for persecution. As soon as the Nazis took power in 1933, they weaponised every lever of the state to erode the freedoms of German Jews, by passing decrees and regulations to limit the participation of Jewish people in public life. The 1935 Nuremberg laws proscribed marriage between Jews and non-Jews and, in so doing, robbed Jewish people of their freedom of religion and self-identification.

As Nazi horrors spread across Europe, Jews in occupied countries were forced into ghettos and deported to concentration or extermination camps. This was the ultimate manifestation of violence, which took away their freedom to live, but it did not come from nowhere. That is why this year’s theme asks us to remember how climates for genocide are created. It is a reminder that freedom can be vulnerable, and that we should not take it for granted.

By providing a focal point, Holocaust Memorial Day ensures that we come together to remember and to mourn victims of genocide each and every year. Local activities will be taking place all over the UK this week, and I pay tribute to the many organisers who are ensuring that generations of young people continue to hear these vital messages. It is estimated that more than 10,000 such local activities take place across the UK around 27 January each year, which is a magnificent achievement.

I also pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which have worked hard to embed understanding of the holocaust in our education system. It is thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust that learning about the holocaust has been a compulsory part of the national curriculum for more than 30 years. Since 2006, its “Lessons from Auschwitz” project has allowed post-16 students in schools and colleges to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the face of dangerous holocaust denial and distortion, these lessons are of paramount importance.

Recognising the essentialness of holocaust education, we have supported the Holocaust Memorial Bill from its outset. Just like Holocaust Memorial Day, the holocaust memorial and learning centre will provide yet another essential focal point for genocide education and commemoration in the UK. It will preserve the memory of the holocaust, convey the truths about its nature and, crucially, serve as a fitting tribute to the 6 million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis.

I am pleased that today’s debate has given us the opportunity to come together to reject hatred and to strive for a better future, never forgetting the lives, families and communities lost to the most horrifying violence.

This is the first time I have attended a Holocaust Memorial Day debate, and I have to say that I am rather glad it is. I must be honest with the House that, if I had had any idea of the raw emotion, I might have dodged it, but I am so glad that I did not. It has been sad and it has been frightening, but every word has been worth hearing. I thank the House and all those who have contributed to today’s debate. It has been a true privilege to be here to hear it.

As many right hon. and hon. Members have noted, the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the “fragility of freedom”. It is not just about the fragility of freedom in emerging democracies or elsewhere in the world; it is about the threat and the challenge to all mature western democracies. Frankly, we have grown complacent about our rights and privileges, and about our freedom to think, speak, write, congregate, worship and pray. Too much of it is under attack, whether by social media, the ease of populism or the search for the simple in a complex world. So much that we hold dear is under pressure, so let us come together, as this debate has shown the House can do at its best, to champion and defend all that we cherish and hold dear to our hearts.

But let us do more. Let us not just be armchair or, indeed, green Bench democrats. Let us be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) suggested, muscular and robust in our stance and in our defence, because in collaborative defence there is courage, there is hope and there is opportunity.

The big numbers of the holocaust make it hard to envisage, as all big numbers and statistics do, so let us pause for a moment not to think of 6 million as just another statistic. I follow the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter feed, or X feed as we now have to call it, and, virtually every day, it presents a picture or pictures of men, women and children. These ordinary folk were starved, taken from their homes, persecuted and incinerated—the true meaning of the word “holocaust”—for their faith. Let us recommit to always seeing these people for what they are, people, fellow human beings, and never as just a statistic, whether they be Jewish, Bosnian, Rwandan or Cambodian.

What we must always remember, as many contributors have reminded us so powerfully today, is that down the centuries the Jewish people have always been forced to look over their shoulders, with pogroms, the holocaust, displacement, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and the Dreyfus case. They are a people always worried that they are only temporarily tolerated, rather than permanently welcomed.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge)—I am going to call her my right hon. Friend—added a poignancy to her characteristically brave and bold remarks and thinking by reminding the House that, sadly, this is the last of these debates that she will take part in as a Member of Parliament. As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) said, she will be missed but not forgotten. Hers have been important words on this issue, particularly during difficult years for her and Jewish colleagues in her party—thank God that is changing—where she stood bravely on difficult and hostile Benches and made her case, as she did today.

My job is to reply to the debate and respond to speeches, so with the leave of the House I will try to reference a nugget or two from each contribution, because they merit it, as does the seriousness of the issues at hand. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for her words, in speaking for the Opposition, as I am to the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), who spoke for the Scottish National party. I know that the hon. Member for Blaydon has given me a little more time than the usual channels may have agreed to.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), the Father of the House, spoke powerfully about the fragility of democracy. As many Members soon went on to do, he pointed to the importance of education. We do not repeat when we know, and we know only when we are educated. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland spoke about his constituency and the story of rescuing those fleeing persecution in Norway. That historical fact was new to me, and the House will be grateful for it.

My right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) spoke, in his characteristically frank but moving way, about his experience in Yugoslavia, and I wish to make two points to him. First, he is right to remind the House, and we are right to remind ourselves, that those events took place not in a faraway land of which we knew nothing, but on our doorstep, and just in 1993. Secondly, for what it is worth, I wish to say personally to him, because he spoke of his shame and the shame of his mother, that he has nothing to be ashamed about. He and his men did their best, and that is all we as a democracy can ever ask.

The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) is currently in Westminster Hall for a debate about religious freedom, so there is a link even today. She is not in her place for that reason, but she gave us a powerful speech on Rwanda, reminding us of the horror of rape and sexual violence, as my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for Brigg and Goole and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) did in relation to the horrific events of 7 October. I sat and listened as a husband and a father of three daughters, and who would not be moved to think that those horrible events took place just a few short weeks ago.

A common theme has been smell, a sense that is often not spoken about enough. We talk about our memories of what we have seen or heard, but smell can be hugely evocative, be it of a time or place in our childhood, a holiday or whatever. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon is a doctor and he will have been used to the smell of medical things. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole also spoke about the recent smell of death and rotting flesh. The father of a great friend of mine had been part of the medical team that went into Belsen, and until his death he always spoke about the smell that was still on his skin. We should remember that always.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) spoke of the complacency of the view that, “It’s all history.” It is not history; it is happening now. When we think it is history—that either it is not happening or it cannot happen again—we have lost the battle, have we not? What was the holocaust and why should we remember it? We can remember it for the horror, the statistics, the figures and the scale, but the eternal shame, to use the phrase of my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham, is that it was man’s inhumanity to man. We should all be ashamed and embarrassed by it, because it shows, at the darkest and basest moments of humankind, precisely what we can do to each other, in the name of doctrine, theology, ideology. It is a terrible thing that we have somewhere deep within our DNA. Let us resolve to keep it buried.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) spoke powerfully about hatred and prejudice, and he, too, spoke of the importance of education. I want especially to mark the speech made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I hope he will not take it the wrong way when I say that I thought that the frank assessment of current events that he gave us was, for a Birmingham Member, a brave speech. I was pleased to hear it, the House will be grateful to have heard it, and he should be commended for delivering it in the heartfelt and sincere way that he did.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), in that simple memory of a shoe and a piece of make-up, so reminiscent of the museum where the shoes of those who died were gathered up as a reminder, reminds us of the simplicity and therefore the futility; this was ordinary people going about their lives in an ordinary way, on an ordinary day, and suddenly, as a result of somebody’s bigotry and hatred, it was all taken away. The lipstick, powder, mascara, the pair of dancing shoes, whatever it might happen to be, will stand as a longer lasting memorial than any statue or plaque that could be erected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) again picked up on this theme of education, and I pay tribute to all of those—the Holocaust Educational Trust and others—who day in, day out ensure that we never forget. We are right to remind ourselves of the importance of that. People have spoken of the important role that our universities and schools play in ensuring free and fair speech, and ensuring that all voices can be heard, and that tolerance and toleration are the hallmarks of a civilised democracy. They need to step up to the plate and play their part, as does this place, in ensuring that those are preserved and protected.

The hon. Member for Blaydon, who spoke for the Opposition, gave a heartfelt speech, as did the SNP spokesman, and we commend her for that. How right my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East were to remind us of the uncomfortable truth, as the right hon. Member for Barking did, of our slightly uncomfortable position with regard to the welcoming of Jewish children through the Kindertransport but not their parents, and the controls that we placed on Jewish migration and the problems that caused for too many people. I could go on, because this has been a moving debate on a mammoth issue. It has been about history—80 years ago and more recent—but the issue is so fresh and contemporary today that it chills us to the bone.

Before I conclude, I should apologise to the Hansard scribes. My officials will have given them a typed speech but, as usual, I have ignored it, because the speeches I heard from colleagues this afternoon were from the heart, and I wanted to respond, on behalf of the Government, in kind.

However, wherever, whoever and whenever, how they died, where they died, and who they were, let us unite today and always to mark and reflect on all of those who have lost their lives, to both the holocaust and all holocausts. May all of their sacrifices not have been in vain. May all of their memories be a blessing.

I will not detain the House, but I echo the words of the Minister and the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) in saying that the House is at its best when we can all speak across the Chamber in unity on issues that are a million times more important than anything else we debate in the House through the year. I thank every Member of the House who has participated in the debate for their warm and important speeches.

I want to reflect on what the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) said. Like her, I went to the exhibition about the Nova festival, which the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet mentioned. The picture of the shoe lying on the ground, as people were slaughtered at the festival, reminds us of the Holocaust and what we see in Auschwitz, which I do not think any of us can forget. I never smelled the smell in Kfar Aza—I probably went a few weeks after the hon. Members for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) and for Hendon (Dr Offord)—but I felt the misery and horror that people experienced there. I agree with all hon. Members that the growth of antisemitism on our streets today, as with the growth of Islamophobia, should chill us all and make us think about how we do things.

My final words relate to what was said by the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman). Jews have maintained hope through the generations—that is probably why we have survived in the way we have. I hope we can leave today’s debate with a feeling of hope and determination that we will build a society of tolerance, both here and across the world. We should learn that hate will not bring us the peaceful co-existence we all want. Freedom is fragile, and we all have to put every effort into securing freedom for everybody, wherever they live, whoever they are and whatever their background or religion.

I thank all hon. Members who have participated today for the manner in which they have conducted themselves. I am sure that will have been appreciated outside the House, as well as within it.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day.