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International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

Volume 752: debated on Thursday 27 February 2014

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their priorities during their chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2014.

My Lords, this morning Chancellor Merkel referred to the events of the Second World War as a break with civilisation and declared that she bowed her head to the victims. She referred to the hand of forgiveness and reconciliation stretched out by European nations to Germany. In this spirit I address the question of Holocaust remembrance 75 years after the start of the war.

Few countries in the world have as noble a record as the UK when it comes to Holocaust remembrance. This is the month in which the Government assume the chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is very fitting. The Government are to be congratulated on the recent establishment of the Holocaust Commission, on legislating for the return of stolen art, including Holocaust education in the national curriculum and appointing a special envoy for post-Holocaust issues. They have also housed the Holocaust Archives at the Wiener Library in London and participated in the online publication of the global catalogue of looted art. For all this, I and thousands of others are immensely grateful.

However, in this special year for the UK I have to tell the Minister that survivors need action as well as memorials. They need action to combat the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe and they need help to reclaim their cultural heritage. The Holocaust was not only genocide; it was the greatest theft in history. The Nazis, and in some countries the communists, took not just people’s lives but their religious heritage, their property, their professions and their assets.

Most people are aware of the issue of looted art, most recently through the discovery of a hoard of art in a Munich apartment. But it is not just art. Before the war, Poland was home to more than 3 million Jewish citizens, 90% of whom were killed and their properties occupied by others. There are thousands of properties in plain sight—houses, synagogues and factories—that have not been returned to the survivors and their heirs, of a value that dwarfs the art.

But the price is not all. As Chancellor Merkel said, Europe is bound together by respect for the rule of law. Yet there is one big wound on the body of Europe that must be tended to, otherwise it will fester for ever. Poland is a success story of modern Europe but more than two decades after it became a democracy, the failure to make restitution still blights it. An entire people—killed or forced out—was dispossessed. Poland’s success is built in part on the property of others. This is a property issue like no other. The stolen homes stand for the remembrance and recognition of the history of the Jewish population of Europe and the contribution of Jewish people to the culture and businesses of the countries they once lived in. Museums and tourism to the sites of former concentration camps do not begin to restore that memory. Survivors living in poverty may well ask why Governments contribute to the preservation of the Auschwitz site but not to the relief of their situation. The claims of the survivors need attention to demonstrate that Europe was not made lawless by the atrocities of the Second World War but upholds the law.

Poland is isolated as the only European country not to have enacted comprehensive legislation and settle the claims; indeed, it has retained communist nationalisation laws despite urging by international organisations and, most recently, by US Vice-President Biden. Many survivors live in poverty while their property is inhabited by the now free and democratic citizens of their former country of residence. The fact that Poland was a victim country itself does not remove the obligation to restore stolen property from which its citizens continue to benefit. But ultimately, it is not just about art or property; it is about recapturing people’s history. The art that hung on their walls and the houses where they lived are part of the legacy. If we allow the theft of an entire generation of a people’s culture, it is as if they had never existed. That is why the achievement of restitution must be the Government’s priority this year.

In making this a priority, the Government will be fulfilling their obligations under the terrorism declaration and guidelines of 2009 and 2012. The declaration was signed by 47 countries and called for support for the welfare of 500,000 Holocaust survivors and restitution of wrongfully seized property. This was the culmination of many post-war international conferences on this issue. However, progress is slow in central and eastern Europe, for example Romania. The greatest failure is Poland. There are about 90,000 surviving claimants to property of whom the majority are non-Jewish. On at least 13 occasions, Poland has drafted legislation and then shelved it. It puts every obstacle in the way of claimants in its own courts and makes unrealistic demands of proof, given that those who were killed were unlikely to have left title deeds behind. Its Government are acting in rejection of Council of Europe, US Congress and European Parliament resolutions, in contravention of the first protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights and of hopes held out prior to it entering the European Union. There are survivors here listening to us as we speak and they would say that their experience of claiming and being rejected has led them to believe that Poland is waiting for all the survivors to die out. They do not want total compensation. They do not want the eviction of present inhabitants, but a restitution and reconciliation commission to be set up by Poland modelled on the one that worked well in Austria. Such a commission could distribute a small percentage of the lost value from a fund donated by the Polish Government, with realistic requirements of proof carried out expeditiously.

This is nothing new. In 2001, Austria established a general settlement fund to resolve all remaining issues. The Government set up a three-person claims committee to receive claims using relaxed standards of proof—for example, the 1938 property records, witness statements and birth certificates. The Austrians put $210 million into the fund and more for insurance claims. Claimants no longer had to take legal action at their own cost. The committee dealt with 20,000 claims relating to 240,000 individuals before closing its work. Bulgaria had a good scheme, utilising government bonds and settled private claims.

This year, Holocaust remembrance needs to be refreshed and remodelled for future generations. There are already countless memorials around the world. There is a veritable tourist industry in trips to the sites of former concentration camps. In this country we have three Holocaust museums, memorial days and sophisticated education programmes. There is much to be gained by viewing “Schindler’s List” and reading The Hare with Amber Eyes and The Diary of Anne Frank, but these efforts are not an excuse for not taking the more difficult actions that survivors need. Moreover, all the conferences and education have failed signally to hold back the resurgence of anti-Semitism that we now see on the continent of Europe: the Islamist attacks on French Jews; the rise of Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece; the marches in Lithuania; the resurrection of the blood libel; the antics of footballers and Dieudonné; and Holocaust denial and sales of the forged text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Although the number of incidents reported by the Community Security Trust is down a little this year, it has only returned to the levels of 10 years ago and the totals cannot take account of the anti-Semitism so evident on social media.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights reported on Jewish experiences of anti-Semitism in eight European nations in 2013: 76% said that there had been a deterioration in the past five years and 21% had experienced an incident. I suggest to the Government that we need a vigorous search for, and return of, looted art, and use of the remedies that already exist in law to stamp on the anti-Semitic actions and words that are suffered every day. As chair, they should call on Poland and other countries to honour their commitment to the democratic principle of property rights. There is a case for the creation of a European commissioner for post-Holocaust issues modelled on Sir Andrew Burns’s role, and a pan-European effort to provide some degree of remedy for the great injustices of the past so vividly remembered today in this Chamber.

My Lords, I welcome this debate. In congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing it, I pay tribute to the wonderful speech that she has just made. I also congratulate the Government on their chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The Government take up the chair as anti-Semitism is again rising in many places, as we have just heard. It is often excused as criticism of Israel or support for animal welfare as, again, religious slaughter of animals is attacked—or, as we have recently seen in Denmark, banned altogether even though no Jewish religious slaughter is undertaken there. The latest is that circumcision will be brought into question. The sight of young men making the quenelle gesture in front of concentration camps and before the Western Wall in Jerusalem demonstrates how the message of the Holocaust risks being lost only 70 years after being revealed to the world after the Second World War. My simple message to the Government is this: please use every opportunity to remind people, especially young people born long after the Holocaust, of what happened, and to reiterate that anti-Semitism and any form of discrimination will not be tolerated.

Much is done now to educate and the UK was a founding member of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. I pay particular tribute to Dr Stephen Smith, who leads the USC Shoah Foundation and the Holocaust Centre in Nottingham, which does wonderful work in educating our young people on this subject. This work, and the work of all those who teach and remind us of what occurred, is very important.

However, I fear for the future, for a time when there are no Holocaust survivors left to tell us what happened to them and when the Holocaust appears to many to be just another history lesson. Those who deny what happened are very clever. Even now there is distortion as to what occurred. Unbelievably and shockingly, there is blame on the victims; there is denial of the extent of what took place. Many records have been kept and the USC Shoah Foundation is dedicated to making audiovisual interviews with survivors so that their message is preserved for all time and never lost.

I have a fear that in the future—not in this century but beyond—those clever and despicable people who deny what occurred will dismiss these archives and the harrowing, grainy films of the camps and survivors as computer-generated films that were the product of clever film-makers. That is why educating every generation about the Holocaust and keeping it alive is so important. The creation of Holocaust Remembrance Day, taking place around the world on 27 January each year, has become a fitting reminder of what horrors took place within the lifespan of so many of us. Many people born long after the war are taught what happened and are shocked at the murderous acts that occurred as a barbarous attempt at racial cleansing.

I am therefore pleased that the Prime Minister has set up the Holocaust Commission to investigate what more can be done to ensure that Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial to the Holocaust, along with sufficient educational and research resources for future generations. I hope that the UK will use its chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance to lead all other nations in following our excellent example.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this important debate. In recent years a huge amount of important work has been done, including by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust remains alive for generations which increasingly have no contact with anyone who lived through those terrible years, and it is important that it does so. However, memorialising can distance and weaken the power of example and of history, and the Holocaust should never become dusty and remote history. The lessons that it teaches us about the fragility of civilisation and the repeated need to shore up protections against savagery need to be taught and learnt generation after generation.

However, that is made harder when open wounds remain and, as we have heard, some still do. Restitution is important because, while nothing can undo the evil that was done, it at least recognises that evil was done. The material recovery of property, as the noble Baroness said so persuasively, matters less than that recognition, the recovery of that heritage and the bearing of witness to the fact that such evil was done. Without it, the wounds will always remain raw.

Of course, the restitution of assets is not the only way for such recognition to take place. The German artist Gunter Demnig, for example, has created the concept of “Stolpersteine”, small memorials positioned in places associated with the victims of Nazism. There are now hundreds of them in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and other European countries commemorating, among others, Jewish, Roma, homosexual and Christian victims of the Nazis.

However, the restitution of assets still has a crucial part to play in this process, not just for the victims of the Nazis, because the people of central and eastern Europe suffered from not only their tyranny but that of the communists. As the noble Baroness so compellingly argued—and I associate myself with everything she said—it is regrettable that Poland remains the only major European nation without legislation on the restitution of assets stolen during the Holocaust. As we have also heard, more needs to be done to make restitution effective in Romania, Hungary, Croatia and Latvia.

I hope that that will be a priority for our Government during their chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, but I hope that it will not be the only one. Of all the crimes against humanity, genocide occupies a unique place because of the way in which it seeks to exterminate entire peoples, their cultures, their society and everything that sustains them as a people. If remembrance of the Holocaust is to fulfil its purpose, we cannot be complacent about what has happened since the Holocaust took place. To the shame of the world, in the past 20 years we have been witness once again to what can only be described only as genocide. We have seen it in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur and, for all the efforts now to secure accountability for those crimes, the civilised world failed to prevent these terrible crimes against humanity—crimes that have amounted, again, to genocide.

Moreover, we have seen brutal repression in Tibet and systematic attempts to eradicate Tibetan culture, and a savage onslaught on the Mayan people and their culture in Guatemala. No continent can take pride in its record in recent years in preventing these terrible atrocities that remind us that the Holocaust, for all its horrifyingly unique characteristics, was not the last of the ways in which civilisation can be overwhelmed by savagery—savagery that is rendered all the more terrible by the way in which the power of modern technology has been applied to its perpetration. History is harsh on those who, whatever they might say, in the end do little than more than wring their hands.

My father’s uncle and his family lived in a small town in what is now the Czech Republic. The family graves in the Jewish cemetery suggest that the family had lived there since before the 18th century. Ten thousand Jews lived in that town and the remaining population was about 70,000, most of whom were Sudeten Germans who had lived there since the 17th century. My uncle was a second father to my father. The town was a place of refuge for him from a difficult childhood in Vienna, and his first job was in the family firm there.

When the Nazis invaded, my grandmother, grandfather and father managed to escape to London. My grandmother’s brother refused to go with them; Jews had lived through hard times before, he thought, and this, too, would pass. He, and all his family, died in the death camps. After the war, the new state of Czechoslovakia expelled all the Sudeten Germans. In less than 10 years, that pretty little spa town had been entirely depopulated. Such tragedies happened over and over again to millions of people throughout central and eastern Europe. Such brutality still continues all over the world.

Debates such as this help to keep these memories fresh, and help us to remember why we need to remain vigilant—and, I hope, prompt us to do better in future in preventing such tragedies. For that reason, we all owe the noble Baroness a debt of gratitude for securing this debate today.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for initiating this debate. My contribution is about testimony and how we can ensure that personal witness of the Holocaust in World War II, and other holocausts across the world since then, can be sustained, and what we in the UK can contribute to the international understanding of that in the coming year. Diplomacy is one of the great strengths of this country, and I hope that we will demonstrate clear, diplomatic leadership on the issue of restitution during our leadership year. A lot of work has been done, not least through the Terezin declaration in 2009. Some countries have been very responsive on restitution, but all should because it is never too late to do so.

The commemorative events planned over the next five years in relation to World War I demonstrate how, as a country, as communities and as human beings, we will ensure that the memories of the horrors of that war will never fade. Of course, so many UK families have memories passed down between generations. We have personal possessions, war memorials, public buildings paid for by subscription, monuments, films, plays, museums and wealth of personal testimony in books, many written shortly after the war. Of course, study of World War I is in the national curriculum. It is vital, now, that we clarify how we will maintain personal testimony of the Holocaust as well.

A lot has been done in developing resources in teaching and learning by the Holocaust Educational Trust since its creation in 1988. It has brought understanding to new generations, particularly since 1991, when Holocaust studies became part of the national curriculum at key stage 3. The trust tells us that when students listen to a survivor tell their personal story, they will often say that it is the most memorable lesson of the year. We should acknowledge that, within its capacity, the trust does an excellent job in teacher development, resourcing schools, colleges and universities, and in enabling visits to them by survivors and visits by students to Auschwitz. Its beacon school and regional ambassador programmes should be commended.

However, each new generation—which is, in practice, only a school’s generation—moves on, and another takes its place. That is why the work of the trust is a continuous process. This raises the question of how we can maintain personal witness and testimony in the years ahead. I have on several occasions led discussion at events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. I have done so following a performance of “The Tin Ring”, a dramatisation of the autobiography of Zdenka Fantlova, a Holocaust survivor. The importance of this dramatisation is that it takes witness testimony and transfers it into a theatrical landscape where that testimony can live on the through the performer.

Testimony not communicated is not actually testimony. Sometimes drama can be the most effective way of communicating it. Sometimes that can be in writing, film, poetry, sculpture, art or painting, and sometimes it can be through another person, in particular through the testimony of the children of survivors. But my concern in relation to the debate is that we should use our leadership role this year to encourage the spread of good practice internationally on how to preserve personal testimony in the years ahead.

That is very important. There were two facts in the Library briefing that I think should be of concern to us. The first is that research shows that over 40% of teachers say that teaching the Holocaust is difficult in terms of managing cross-curricular co-operation, dealing with the emotional content, and responding to student misunderstandings or prejudice. I find that a very high percentage and it needs to be reduced. Secondly, the briefing refers to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s UK country report of October 2012, which states that in 2010-11, 13,276 people came before the UK courts charged with hate crimes, either for assault or verbal abuse, most of them racially motivated. More than 80% were convicted. Those figures tell us that we have to maintain our vigilance, and therefore memories, and that the testimony must not be allowed to fade.

My Lords, in 1985, Ronald Reagan’s visit to Bitburg became the subject of controversy. He had been visiting the graves of members of the SS and he decided that he would therefore also visit Bergen-Belsen. I remember hearing this on the radio in my bedroom and thinking that my mother would be interested because she was a survivor of Belsen. I went down to the kitchen where Mum was doing the washing up. “Mum”, I said, “Ronald Reagan is going to Belsen”. “So what?” she replied. “I’ve been”.

In my brief contribution to the debate that the wonderful as well as noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has secured, I want to make just three points. First, Holocaust remembrance is about to face its biggest challenge. We are going to need to think about how to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive when the distinct and irreplaceable voice of the survivors can be heard no more. I recall my mother preparing to speak at our synagogue and telling me for the first time that she and her sister had seen their family friends, Margot and Anne Frank, arrive in Belsen, and that her sister had recorded the event in a little pocket diary, the keeping of which was in itself a crime under the camp terms. She asked me if I thought the children would be interested. Yes, I thought they would be interested. My mum is still alive and continues to give talks about her experiences, but how do we replace that electrifying testimony? That is the job of the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission to consider and should also be a priority during our chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

My second purpose in speaking is to lend support to the campaign of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for compensation for Polish victims of the Holocaust. On the mantelpiece of my parents’ home is a clock embedded in a statue of Marshal Pilsudski, the leader of the Second Polish Republic. On the hour it plays Polish anthems, although generally we switch it off. My father was born in Lviv, which is now in Ukraine, but he was deeply proud of having been born a Pole. On his deathbed he told me that I should always honour the Polish people and never blame them for the crimes committed against them. So I do, and I am happy to do so. The revival of a free Polish nation and its emergence as a great European power is one of the happiest political events of my lifetime. It is why I can say with confidence and belief that I know that Poland will respond to the case the noble Baroness has made today.

Stalin’s Soviet Union stole my father’s house and the family business when it imprisoned and exiled my father’s family. In 2005, Poland made compensation available for this theft and we are pursuing the claim, although I have to confess that progress is slow. I am sure that as that claim has been recognised, so Poland will understand and respond to the noble Baroness. Poland is our friend, a friend of liberty and justice, and a great modern nation—and that is what great modern nations do. Helping our friends do the right thing should number among our priorities as chair of the alliance.

I have one other point to make. The alliance has 31 members and four observers. There are more than 190 countries in the world. Not to belong to this alliance and not to adhere to the Stockholm declaration is not just to show disrespect to those who died, it is the canary in the coal mine. It demonstrates that a country does not want to teach its children about hatred and genocide. We should make it our business to leave the alliance bigger than we found it.

In the 1920s my grandfather Alfred Wiener began collecting Nazi artefacts and literature. He believed in the power of truth to set people free. His library helped produce the evidence that tried the Nuremberg defendants and convicted Eichmann. It showed that truth will always have assailants and victims and will always retain enemies, but that truth can be victorious. Let us dedicate our chairmanship to that task.

My Lords, in seeking the Government’s priorities, which were so admirably set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, I also want to draw attention to some of the victims of the Nazi regime who are less remembered. I refer to the Romani population of Europe, called by themselves Roma. I say this without wanting in any way to diminish the enormity of the Shoah, and the memory of those of my Polish grandfather’s family who died in Auschwitz. I should declare that I am chair of the Department for Education stakeholder group on the education of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma children, and I am president of other relevant organisations which are shown in the register.

I hope the Minister will tell us how the Government’s new Holocaust Commission will deal with the Roma genocide. Can he tell us whether the Government have invited any UK Roma organisation to be affiliated with the International Alliance? One of the aims of its committee on the genocide of the Roma is to find ways of drawing Roma representatives into its working processes.

I do not think that the public as a whole are aware that a quarter of the Roma population of mainland Europe were killed by the Nazis, or cares much that the descendants of those who remained are still harried, persecuted and sometimes killed because of their race throughout the European mainland. There is a history of ignorance. Little regard was paid even by the Nazis to what they were doing. In contrast to the meticulous documentation and photographing of Jewish victims, few records were kept of the Roma. Some think that this is because, ironically enough, the Roma were more Aryan than most Germans, being descended from 15th-century migrants from the Punjab, which presented a problem to Nazi racial theorists.

While the fate of the Jewish victims of the concentration camps and the gas chambers was acknowledged soon after peace was signed, it took until 1982 for the German Government to recognise the Porrajmos or Roma annihilation. Even now, the word is probably unfamiliar to many noble Lords. It was not until 2012, after 20 years of campaigning by Roma groups, that a memorial to the Sinti and Roma people murdered under the Nazi regime was opened in Berlin. A campaign to place a memorial on the site of the Lety Roma concentration camp in the Czech Republic, where there is now an industrial pig farm, is so far unheeded.

However, as my noble friend said, it is not enough to commemorate. One Roma man I talked to said, “There is a Kristallnacht every weekend in the Czech Republic. Today it is nothing extraordinary to see patrols of extremists in T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Burn the Gypsies’”. Segregated education of Roma children en masse exists. Forced sterilisation exists. Inhuman and degrading treatment by police exists. All these are included in recent evidence from judgments in the European Court of Human Rights.

Another aim of the IHRA’s Roma genocide committee is to include Roma history and the contemporary situation of Roma in the school curriculum. Can the Minister tell us how far the Institute of Education and other bodies funded by Her Majesty’s Government to improve holocaust education have got with that?

The European Commission is well aware of the situation. Following the wretched deportation of hundreds of Roma people from France in 2010, it proposed in 2011 a Roma integration strategy which all member states of the EU signed up to. Yet the UK did not devise a specific strategy, saying in 2012 that they had got as far as setting up a national Roma contact point and a ministerial working group for the Gypsy and Traveller community with a list of commitments, although this had been set up for other purposes in 2010. Eventually, they were persuaded to include issues specific to the Roma people from the European mainland. We nevertheless hear insults and bigotry stereotyping all those of Romani and Traveller descent throughout the tabloid press and in casual conversation in a way that would not be tolerated for any other ethnic group. It is not unknown for parliamentarians and even Ministers to talk, for instance, about the proximity of Travellers having a “negative impact on business”. However, the negative impact is in the other direction: Travellers and those of Romani descent have by far the worst outcomes in mortality, general health and education of any ethnic group in the UK—although again, this is not often remarked on.

At a time when we still mourn the greatest fighter against race prejudice, Nelson Mandela, those of us who joined in the struggle against apartheid might well have cause to be ashamed of our continent. Europe, the nursery of so many ideas of freedom and justice, could do better. The UK, which is capable of great tolerance and humanity, could do better—save for the shining example of the Welsh Government, who have a comprehensive strategy. Our political leadership could do better. The leadership of the faith communities could do better in this country, although they have joined in an open letter to the Romanian Government. Nelson Mandela spoke of an,

“inalienable right to human dignity”—

what we also call human rights. We still need to make that a reality for our Gypsy, Traveller and Roma citizens. I look forward to the Minister’s comments.

My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this important debate, which is very timely given that the United Kingdom took over the chairing of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance just this week. It is also very timely in view of the address we heard this morning from Angela Merkel and the great grace and dignity with which she spoke of the awful events of the previous century.

The Foreign Secretary, my right honourable friend William Hague, in launching the chairing of this important alliance, noted that the United Kingdom was,

“one of the three founding members of the Alliance”,

and was “proud” once more to take up the leadership. He continued:

“We pledge to use our chairmanship to strengthen the efforts of the IHRA’s 31 member states”.

I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Finkelstein that that is not nearly enough members in an international community of some 180 or 190 states. We must see it as a major aim to extend that. The aims of the international body are of course, as the Foreign Secretary said,

“to promote education, remembrance and research”—

interlinked aims—

“to strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect on its consequences”.

The Foreign Secretary went on to say:

“Among our aims for 2014 will be to intensify work on the IHRA’s programme of academic, educational and commemorative research and to continue to extend the influence of the organisation beyond the confines of Europe and North America”.

I will return to that aim because it is an important one.

The Foreign Secretary’s stated aims reflect the Stockholm declaration, which is, in effect, the founding document of the organisation as an international body. It emphasises the importance of upholding the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it and of preserving the memory of the Holocaust. That is an extremely important aim and a touchstone in our understanding of the human capacity for good and evil—there was of course good in those times as well, that of people who sought to combat that dreadful evil. The declaration also recognises the responsibility of the international community to combat genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia. I will come back to the genocide point, which the noble Lord, Lord Wills, also mentioned.

The three core themes, as I said, are interlinked and grants are awarded for promoting these aims. I was pleased to see, just this month, that some school pupils from Pembrokeshire—an area that I used to represent in the National Assembly for Wales—are going to Poland to visit Auschwitz. I appreciate the point about the danger of a sort of Holocaust tourism industry but it is important that the memory of these dreadful events is kept alive. On the basis that hearing is not like seeing, these visits are important and vital. Indeed, there is a very real danger if we do not do these things that Holocaust memory will die. There is evidence, as has been stated, of many schoolchildren and others not really understanding this. This will certainly be perpetuated as people die who have direct memory of those dreadful events.

I agree very much with what the noble Baroness said about property restitution. This is a vital part of our chairmanship of the international institution. Through the EU and other organisations, we need to put pressure on Poland and other states. Poland is perhaps the most obvious state that is not fulfilling its obligations, but there are others and they need to be pressurised during our chairmanship to live up to their international obligations. That is an important priority. As has been said, there is an urgent need for action because the longer this goes on, the more difficult it becomes and the fewer direct survivors there are.

Finally, I applaud the work of the alliance and its important aim of extending its influence beyond Europe and North America. The link between holocaust and genocide has been noted and is important. In the past year I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which is a deeply moving experience: you see people of all ages and racial and religious backgrounds in tears and hugging each other, which is a measure of its impact. I also visited the site of the killing fields just outside Phnom Penh, and there was a similar thing going on there. I remember as a younger man, probably in my teens, visiting the Anne Frank House, and these things are important. Restitution is also important. I associate myself with everything the noble Baroness said and I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, like others, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on securing this timely debate, and all noble Lords who have contributed to a knowledgeable, passionate and, in some respects, very personal debate.

There is no party-political divide on this issue. We stand as one in our commitment to the Stockholm declaration and its acknowledgment that:

“The Holocaust fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilisation”,

and we must commit to remembering the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us and reaffirm humanity’s common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice.

In remembering, we must not just look back at the Holocaust as a now-distant historical event. We need to understand that genocide does not take place on its own. It is a process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented. If we have any doubt about that, we have the horrors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and now Darfur to remind us—as my noble friend Lord Wills said, to the shame of the world.

My noble friend Lady Whitaker reminded us that genocide under the Nazis was not confined to the Jewish community, although of course it is estimated that as many as 6 million Jews perished during the Second World War. The Romani population, those with physical and mental disabilities, and homosexuals were just some of those also persecuted. My noble friend made some telling points about the current plight of the Roma community in Europe and the discrimination it faces.

Therefore, remembrance of the Holocaust is not enough. This is why the Alliance was formed: to place political and social leaders’ support behind the need for Holocaust education and research, as well as remembrance. We helped its creation and we support it still. We welcome the pledge of its new chair, Sir Andrew Burns, to do more to ensure that future generations can understand the cause of the Holocaust and reflect on its consequences, and that its remit must include: support for the struggle against historical revisionism; the fight against Holocaust denial, in particular, and denigration; as well as the continuing fight against anti-Semitism and racial and religious prejudice.

Sir Andrew set out a number of issues in his new White Paper, including working processes and outreach. On the first, he is seized of the need to address the problems of the restricted financial resources of Governments and NGOs, as well as the need to make deliberations more accessible to less well resourced countries. Perhaps the Minister might say something about the resourcing of the alliance. Sir Andrew’s focus on plenaries being more content-driven and less administrative will doubtless ring true with many.

The White Paper notes that 13 of the Governments who were represented at the Stockholm forum in 2000 and endorsed the declaration are still not affiliated to the alliance. These need to be encouraged into the fold together with others. Further plans approved in 2010 to seek engagement with countries in north Africa had been put on hold but a tentative revival of this is suggested.

Another development outside the alliance, but sitting full square with its agenda, is the launch of the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission. This has been referred to by a number of noble Lords and I think the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, sits on the commission as an adviser. We have been pleased to participate in this on a cross-party basis. The Commission’s remit is to investigate what further measures should be taken to ensure Britain has a permanent and fitting memorial to the Holocaust along with sufficient educational and research resources for future generations. The Labour Party fully supports this. The point is made that we will not always have with us the survivors who have shared their stories. In Luton, at this year’s Holocaust memorial event, there was only one local survivor of those who arrived via Kindertransport.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, spoke with passion and justice about the need for restitution. When in government, we fully supported Holocaust asset restitution and we continue to see the issue of restitution as morally important as well as legally and culturally vital to honour. We endorse the Terezin principles and strongly encourage the Government to use diplomatic efforts to encourage other states to sign up to and honour what the declaration called for. There is particular concern about Poland, as we have heard today. Poland is yet to become a signatory to Terezin and we believe that it has a moral duty to sign up to the declaration and to honour it. As we have heard, survivors of the genocide need and deserve restitution.

A number of speakers have recognised that the Holocaust is unique. For the first time in history, industrial methods were used for the mass extermination of a whole people—the systematic and planned attempt to murder European Jewry. We have to do everything in our power to ensure it never happens again. Support for and working with the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance will help to that end.

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking and paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, for her contributions, not just to this debate but to the issue. This is an important debate for everyone, and we have seen and heard many personal and moving interventions from noble Lords today. The Holocaust will always have a universal meaning given its magnitude, the unprecedented and unparalleled suffering involved—as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, said—and the scarring of humanity that took place. We are collectively committed to ensuring that all our children and future generations understand the events of the Holocaust and can reflect on its consequences. We also remember the many lives which were so cruelly cut short, and we support and sustain the survivors, who are all too few. We are truly honoured by the presence of some of them here today.

Our determination to remember the Holocaust and to learn the lessons of history domestically is reflected at the highest levels of the Government, as seen by the Prime Minister’s recent creation of the new cross-party, multifaith Holocaust Commission. Internationally, as noble Lords have acknowledged, the Foreign Secretary’s envoy for post-Holocaust issues, Sir Andrew Burns—who I am delighted has joined us in the Public Gallery today—draws together activity across government. Along with the executive secretary of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Dr Kathrin Meyer, and with academic and non-government experts, Sir Andrew provides a clear British profile, presence and influence in this field.

I also pay tribute to all the Government’s partners in the UK delegation to the IHRA, which is drawn from academic and civil society organisations. Their activities in the field of post-Holocaust issues, and the best practice they are able to share with the IHRA’s other members, are the real heartbeat of the organisation. I particularly thank the brave survivors who every day actively visit schools and community groups to share their first-hand testimonies and help us in the ongoing struggle against Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism. We are truly honoured by the presence of two such incredible people, brother and sister Ben Helfgott and Marla Tribich, who have joined us to listen to the debate today.

It is a great privilege for the UK to succeed Canada as chair of the IHRA. It is an honour for us to be at the helm of the foremost international body committed to promoting multinational co-operation in Holocaust education, remembrance and research. As several noble Lords pointed out, the alliance is now at a crossroads. From three initial country members, it has now grown to a sizeable regional alliance, encompassing 31 member states. I assure my noble friends Lord Bourne and Lord Finkelstein that outreach to new countries is central to the IHRA and is a priority in our chairmanship. Yesterday, our special envoy for post-Holocaust issues briefed ambassadors from a number of interested countries, and we will continue those conversations with countries such as Australia, Albania, Morocco, El Salvador, Uruguay and Moldova. Other countries not yet part of the organisation but registering interest in it include Macedonia, Portugal and Turkey. These countries, of course, have their own Holocaust history and their own experiences to bring to the organisation.

A key part of the Holocaust issue is education, remembrance and research. The alliance has recently launched a multiyear work plan which will feature prominently in our chairmanship throughout this year. This includes addressing the deficit of knowledge of what took place outside of the death camps. The name of Auschwitz, for example, is horribly etched in our minds and sends shivers down our collective spines, and I assure my noble friend Lord Shipley that we recognise the importance of ensuring the impact of the Holocaust is not forgotten when the survivors are no longer with us. We pay tribute to the book The Tin Ring and to organisations such as the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Association of Jewish Refugees, with which we work actively and imaginatively to ensure that survivors’ stories are kept alive and are shared through various innovative ways. We are actively looking to share our best practices with other members of the IHRA.

However, there are other sites across Europe where mass shootings took place which remain relatively unknown, and other people suffered, such as the Roma people mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. We are taking forward the Roma integration strategy within our broader social inclusion and integration policies because we believe that is the best approach in a diverse and decentralised country such as the UK. Our approach is fully in line with that of countries we are working with at all levels.

The recent IHRA conference in Krakow on killing sites demonstrated that work still needs to be done to anchor Holocaust remembrance in our societies, and we are ensuring that Holocaust deniers do not get their way in any sense. We want to ensure that we curb these perverse and dangerous views. I assure my noble friend Lord Gold that I understand the sentiments he expressed. Tackling Holocaust denial or trivialisation is another priority of the organisation. This struggle is so important because it confronts a form of anti-Semitism which risks raising its head again, as we have already seen in parts of Europe. I assure my noble friend Lord Gold that we work actively through IHRA’s committee on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial to ensure that the international community takes action to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is seen. That means that the IHRA is not just a legacy-based body looking backwards, but, more importantly, is tackling anti-Semitism now.

The UK has, from the beginning of the alliance, played a leading role in Holocaust education, remembrance and research. Our chairmanship, 15 years on from the initial political impetus that launched the body, and 70 years on from the end of the fighting, brings us back to the centre. We plan to use this year to build the necessary government support to reaffirm the original declaration from the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust including to,

“remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us, and reaffirm humanity’s common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice”.

I hope that reassures my noble friends Lord Bourne and Lord Finkelstein in this regard.

I assure the noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord McKenzie, that we are not complacent about what has happened since the Holocaust in Rwanda, Cambodia, Srebrenica and Darfur. During the Balkans conflict, I visited Bosnia and Croatia. The situation was heart-wrenching. We work actively with international partners to ensure genocide prevention, including the concept of responsibility to protect, but there is always more we can do. That is why we are planning a reaffirmation of the Stockholm declaration, as I have already said. The IHRA will also need to address the future more directly and the “solemn responsibility” accepted at Stockholm to fight the evils of genocide, ethnic cleansing, anti-Semitism and xenophobia.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, the noble Lords, Lord Wills and Lord Bourne, and other noble Lords rightly drew attention to the issue of restitution. This is key to the concerns of the UK and the mandate of Sir Andrew Burns. The issue of restitution of property wrongfully seized by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945 is on the agenda. What has been described as the last injustice of the Holocaust has been played out recently in front of our media with the discovery of artworks stolen from victims of the Nazis and hoarded away or even displayed in museums. Sir Andrew continues to respond directly to the families of UK victims of the wrongdoing by actively lobbying other Governments to address Holocaust-era restitution issues. He and my ministerial colleagues have raised the issue of restitution of property with Ministers and officials from Poland, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia and Lithuania. We are also having discussions with the US and Israel, interested non-governmental organisations and relevant international organisations such as the European Shoah Legacy Institute in Prague.

I reassure all noble Lords that we will continue to raise our concerns about the lack of implementation of international declarations on restitution. Moreover, we will go on highlighting UK initiatives on restitution, including the Spoliation Advisory Panel, established in 2000 to advise claimants and institutions in the UK on claims for the return of works of art lost during the Nazi era, and will continue to push this through bodies such as the European Shoah Legacy Institute.

The record of other countries in addressing the issue of restitution of property, whether communal or private, is not all negative. For instance, there was the extraordinarily successful Austrian operation to compensate Holocaust survivors. We must also recognise that issues of legislation are matters for sovereign parliaments and that international agreements in this area of restitution are ultimately non-binding. We believe that there is more that countries can do to right this wrong. We will continue to put pressure on them and to play our part, bilaterally or collectively, through the offices and channels of the European Union.

I feel honoured and humbled to be responding to a debate of this magnitude and importance, not least by the presence of Holocaust survivors with us here this afternoon. I came across a prayer for Yom HaShoah which was found on a piece of paper in one of the concentration camps. It reads:

“Lord, remember not only the men of good will but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted upon us. Remember, rather, the fruits we have borne thanks to the suffering: our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart that have grown out of this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits we have borne be their forgiveness”.

The Prime Minister, on visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in 2006, wrote:

“We owe it to those who died—and those who survived—to build a world in which this can never happen again”.

The pledge of our Prime Minister is the pledge of our Government. That is why Britain will remember. That is why Britain will never stand by. That is why I say to everyone present, both domestically and internationally, the past will never die, and its valuable lessons will not be forgotten as we build our future and our tomorrow for the benefit not just of ourselves but of generations to come.

Sitting suspended.