Before I ask Peter Kyle to move the motion, may I point out to Members that we are very limited on time, with 13 Members wishing to speak? I am therefore going to impose an absolute limit of 15 minutes, including interventions, on the opening speaker and suggest an informal limit of five minutes for Back Benchers. If that is not adhered to, I am going to have to drop it down to four or even three minutes. However, I hope it will all go well and everyone can have five minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2017.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will try not to rush my speech after that introduction. Let me start by thanking the hon. Members who supported me in the application for this debate, the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it and all the Members, from both sides of the House, who are participating today. Holocaust Memorial Day was established in 2001 as a result of Andrew Dismore’s private Member’s Bill. We owe him a debt of gratitude because since that time it has provided our nation with the annual opportunity to pause to reflect on the holocaust. It is necessary to pause because of the enormity of the holocaust and the impact it had on millions of individuals, on families and on humanity as a whole. It is not something we can consider lightly.
Towards the end of last year, I visited Auschwitz with a group of students from my home town of Newcastle. It was an incredibly challenging and moving visit, but it was made really powerful by the presence of so many young people from the region. Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that we also owe a debt to those at the Holocaust Educational Trust, who make this visit possible for so many young people to ensure that we never forget and that we never repeat?
I am extremely grateful for that intervention, and in a few minutes I will very much echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments. I will carry on with my speech and not take any more interventions, as we can see the ferocity with which Madam Deputy Speaker is clearly encouraging us to make progress. I will get through my speech and allow others to speak.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “How can life go on?” It invites us to consider how our generation can comprehend the holocaust and act on its lessons when so few of those who survived it remain with us. We are entering an age when the lived experience of the second world war and all its horrors is being replaced by one where we experience it through stories handed down, or through the media, books or film. Because fewer survivors remain, it is easier to get away with trivialising those events or making light of them. It is not uncommon these days to hear people who are officious being described as having “Nazi tendencies” or to hear those in public life mindlessly calling others “concentration camp commandants” simply for disagreeing with them or feeling that they have strong views. Those sorts of comments are extraordinarily irresponsible because they casually draw a line from those who deliberately attempted, through state murder, to kill every member of an ethnic or a religious group—the first and only time this has happened in history—to 21st century daily life in a country such as Britain. To do that not only trivialises the horrific events of the past, but makes the job of those who set out on the malicious path of outright holocaust denial that much easier.
For the reasons I have outlined, I completely agree with the words used just last night by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) at a Holocaust Educational Trust event. He urged people
“to push back when people lazily reach for glib comparisons that belittle what happened, calling those we disagree with ‘Nazis’ or claiming someone’s actions are ‘just like the Holocaust’. Ultimately, we must be prepared to do that most un-British of things—we have to make a scene. Maybe that’ll be in private. Maybe in the media. Maybe on Twitter…What’s certain is that if we don’t speak out against hatred and anti-Semitism it will become normalised. It will become part of everyday life. And once that happens, the consequences once again will be tragic.”
He was speaking as a Minister and a Conservative MP. I see his predecessor as Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), is present, and I look forward to hearing his contribution, which I am sure will echo those views and elaborate on them. I stand here as a Labour MP, yet I share the Secretary of State’s sentiments. I look to see how I, and my party, can strive harder to avoid language and actions that are, or are perceived to be, anti-Semitic. As individuals and as a political party, we must do more. Not only should we react swiftly when there is anti-Semitic activity; we should be doing more to prevent it in the first place, because the point of offence is the point at which we know we have failed.
It is hard even to imagine the events we are remembering today, because of the sheer scale of human suffering involved. Approximately six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the second world war. Anti-Semitism was the defining element of Nazi ideology. The persecution of Jews started immediately after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, with policies designed to force emigration. The intensity, ferocity and brutality of such policies escalated throughout Nazi rule, resulting in mass murder and genocide. It is therefore understandable that the holocaust plays such a painful and powerful role in modern Jewish culture, both here in Britain and around the world.
I am fortunate to have a large and thriving Jewish community in my constituency of Hove and Portslade, which is proudly home to four well-attended and active synagogues. The community plays an active role in all aspects of life in our beautiful city on the south coast, from participating in festivals to hosting a dedicated Remembrance Day event to remember Jews who fell fighting the Nazis as part of the allied offensive. The community has welcomed me to events and helped me to understand Jewish culture and traditions, including the impact and importance of the holocaust in modern Jewish life. Rabbi Andre and Rabbi Elle in particular have invested many hours in answering my questions and discussing the complex history and modern faces of Judaism, both in my own community and further afield.
The great thing about a group that is so welcoming and integrated into the ebb and flow of community life is that it inspires others to share, learn and join in, which is why next week I will proudly join students and staff at Blatchington Mill, a local school that is holding an event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day at which people from throughout the city will come together to reflect on the meaning of the holocaust for today’s generations.
As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day next week, it is appropriate that we in this House memorialise these terrible events. The memorial date was chosen to respect the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by allied forces on 27 January 1945. The death camp sited in the Polish town of Auschwitz has become symbolic of the holocaust because of the sheer scale of murder that occurred there: 1.1 million lives were savagely ended at that place.
In November last year, I visited Auschwitz with 200 students from throughout Sussex, along with my colleague from across the Floor, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). Our visit was under the auspices of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I cannot praise highly enough the thoughtful, engaging and extremely powerful way the trust guides students through the process of learning about and experiencing Auschwitz. Before the visit, students get together in a set of structured seminars to learn the history, policies and facts behind the holocaust, even meeting a holocaust survivor. They then visit Auschwitz. Finally, when they return, they meet again to talk about the lessons and what it means for them as individuals and us as a society—the past, the present and the future. These fortunate young people will carry the burden of knowing the full horror meted out to Jews by Nazi Germany. They will also benefit from the wisdom that experience bestows.
Two of the students on my visit were from Brighton and Hove—Joe and Mattie from Cardinal Newman and Brighton College schools. They showed the depth of thinking, sensitivity and thoughtfulness that makes me so proud of young people today. Together, we saw: the cells in which people who tried to escaped were bricked up and starved to death; the wall against which so many people were shot dead that the ground beneath could no longer soak up the blood; the desperately cold cabins where people slept; the train tracks that brought people to their deaths in cattle trucks; and the sidings where doctors—the people trained to save and enhance life—used their training to decide who was strong enough to work and who should be put to death that very day. For those of us who celebrate the good of which humanity is capable, it is a shattering place to visit.
At the end of our tour, guided by extraordinary staff from the Auschwitz museum, we gathered at the top of the Auschwitz-Birkenau rail tracks. We stood directly between the remains of two former gas chambers where tens of thousands of people lost their lives. There in the darkness, we listened to poetry read by students. Then a rabbi sang prayers, which echoed around the still remains of huts, gas chambers and the forest. The beauty of the prayers, for a moment, pierced the horror of our location. The symbolism of Jewish prayers being sung in that place was lost on no one.
As we departed, we left behind us lighted candles along the tracks. From the entrance, they looked like a blazing pathway of light into the terrible darkness that still hangs over that place. That is the image that remains most strong in my mind, because a blazing pathway of light is what history needs from our generation and those in the future. It will come in the form of remembering, of learning and of being brave enough to confront hatred. For those of us in public life, it will mean using the power we have to unite and temper at times of anger and confusion and never to exploit.
Those are just some of the many lessons that I have learned from listening and discussing not only the holocaust, but its role in shaping modern Jewish life in Hove and across Britain. It is also why moments of reflection such as this, in the House of Commons through to the community schools and living rooms across the country, are so desperately important.
It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) who made a very thoughtful speech. I have to say that I agreed entirely with what he said.
Last April, I visited Treblinka, the former Nazi death camp, which the people of Poland have preserved as testimony to man’s inhumanity to man. No country suffered more than Poland and the world is grateful for the way in which it has acted as the custodian of these absolutely terrible places.
Treblinka was unambiguously a death camp. Most victims survived only a few hours, and those who were too frail to make it to the gas chambers were escorted to a hospital, which was a façade—it was an open pit at which they were shot and then thrown in. Some of the victims were still alive when they were thrown in.
The Nazis, in their shame, destroyed their apparatus of genocide in the face of the advancing Soviet troops. The best estimate is that somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews and around 2,000 Roma were killed in Treblinka’s gas chambers. More Jews were killed at Treblinka than at any other Nazi extermination camp apart from Auschwitz. It is a grim place. There is a dignified monument and carefully laid stones remembering the different communities.
I laid a wreath at the site and following the visit, as most politicians do, I tweeted my observations. Within minutes I received a tweet that said:
“No one died at Treblinka, it was a transit camp. There were no gas chambers, no crematoria, no mass graves”.
I have no idea whether the person who sent me that tweet believed it or not, and it is too easy to dismiss this as yet another example of our post-truth world’s fake news, which is all too prevalent on social media, but I think there is something more sinister going on. Members will recall the long-established 10 stages of a holocaust or genocide starting with classification and working through persecution and extermination. Of course, the 10th and final stage is holocaust denial: it did not happen; the numbers are exaggerated; there were not that many Jews in the first place; they brought it on themselves; the Jews are using it to justify their actions. To forget or belittle continues the holocaust.
This month sees the release of the film “Denial”, which depicts one of the most infamous libel trials of the past 20 years involving the American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, and David Irving. If one looks at the trailer, and at the comments made beneath it, one can see that there are thousands of abusive comments claiming that the holocaust was a fake. Only a few days ago David Irving claimed that he is inspiring a new generation of “holocaust sceptics”—a fancy way of dressing up holocaust denial.
It is in that context that we should see the building of the new holocaust memorial and learning centre just a short walk from this Chamber in Victoria Gardens. I am proud to be a member of the foundation alongside the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond). It will establish the memorial in a massively important place. An international design competition was launched in September 2016, and 92 teams have expressed an interest. Ten were shortlisted and when the competition ends on Monday we will see them on the web and will take the exhibition around the country.
It will be a lasting monument of which we can be immensely proud, but, as we are running short of time and others want to speak, and, given that last year we lost Elie Wiesel, I would like to end with a quote from him that explains why we are doing this. He said in his Nobel prize acceptance speech:
“What all victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs”.
I very much welcome this debate and the fact that it was a decision of this Parliament, made on an all-party basis, that has led to our having Holocaust Memorial Day in this country. Holocaust Memorial Day gives us an opportunity to focus on reflections about the enormity of the holocaust and the extermination of millions of European Jews with the aim of eradicating European Jewry, who were seen as a malignant, evil force, as well as an opportunity to reflect on current anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitism is indeed a virus. It spans different religions and different political parties, and it changes its form over time. I very much welcome the Government’s acceptance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, because it is important that we focus on what anti-Semitism means in this day and in this era, as well as what it has meant historically.
Figures from the Community Security Trust show us shockingly that there has been a resurgence of anti-Semitism and of anti-Semitic discourse. It is important not to exaggerate that—most British Jews will go about their lives without experiencing anti-Semitism—but there is a profound unease across the UK’s Jewish community with the increase in both anti-Semitic incidents and comments. As the Community Security Trust report on anti-Semitic discourse shows, that sometimes reflects insinuations and allusions if not direct anti-Semitism.
It is always important to remember that anti-Semitism does not lie solely in one religion. Historically, Christianity was often the source of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitism is found in extreme Islamic sources, too. We have only to look at the Hamas charter to see very clear, explicit anti-Semitism, with references to Jews wanting to rule the world.
Anti-Semitism is not only found on the right. Conventionally, people sometimes think that anti-Semitism is confined to the right of politics. That is not, and has never been, the case. It is a fact that people who declare themselves anti-racist are not necessarily opposed to anti-Semitism, and do not necessarily even understand what anti-Semitism is. Shocking as I find that, as a person of the left and a Labour party member, I recognise that there is a fight-back and that it is being led by non-Jewish people as well as by Jews.
This week, there has been a showing of the film “Denial” here in Parliament. The film shows, as the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) mentioned, the trial where the holocaust denier, David Irving, sued Deborah Lipstadt. He was alleging that the holocaust did not happen. It is truly shocking that today, as that film is being shown, and as he was defeated so conclusively—indeed, he had sued Deborah Lipstadt, not the other way around—it is reported that there are more supporters for the lie of holocaust denial, including more online supporters who appear to be gathering new force. This is a reminder of the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day, this debate and the continuing role of the UK Government, with all-party support, in combating modern day manifestations of anti-Semitism.
It is an honour and a privilege to co-sponsor this debate to mark this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and to follow the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Transport, on which I serve.
Last November, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) and I stood with 200 young people from across the south-east of England on the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where 1.1 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis. I had travelled to Poland as part of the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, run by the excellent Holocaust Educational Trust.
The train tracks run right into the camp. Ahead are the watchtowers where the guards would have been positioned at all times. At the end of the tracks are the remains of the gas chambers. To the left and right, as far as the eye can see, are the barracks where those selected to work were held.
As we stood on the train tracks, our educator read to us an extract from a young boy who stood on those same train tracks some 74 years earlier. That extract has stayed with me and I want to share it now:
“‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words were spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand; we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sister moving away to the right. Tzipora held my mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking, my father held on to my hand.”
These are the memories of Professor Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, who has already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). Elie spent the rest of his life working to ensure that the holocaust was never forgotten. He passed away in July 2016 aged 87, just a few months before my visit.
Today we debate this horror, and we speak in honour of Elie and all those who either perished in the camps or, against all odds, survived. Many of those who lived on dedicated the rest of their lives to ensuring that their experiences would never be repeated. Their stories act as a reminder of the evil that mankind can deliver to itself when hatred, prejudice and violence are left unchecked.
Yesterday in Parliament, I spoke to six young people who have made the same trip to Auschwitz over the past few years with the Holocaust Educational Trust. They have all been young ambassadors for the trust and have devised imaginative ideas to ensure that the horrors of the holocaust act as a flame to guard against the darkness of hatred and division. Time does not permit me to mention all their stories, but I will mention the final young ambassador I met—a lady called Charlotte Heard.
Charlotte told me that she had been keen to develop her knowledge of the holocaust, as she had a great-grandmother who was in a concentration camp in the last year of the war. Little was spoken about the experience and Charlotte lost her great-grandmother in 2015, motivating Charlotte to complete her “”Lessons from Auschwitz” project in April last year. On her return from Auschwitz, Charlotte and a fellow attendee from her school set about creating a memorial that would inspire others. This is how she described her work to me:
“We wanted to involve the students within our school as a way of uniting them. We have a school that has 40+ different languages. We thought this was very poignant as many cultures and races were victims of persecution, but of course in particular the Jews. Therefore the hands represent the many different students within our school and although they may be different in appearance, language or traditions, their hands are something that unite them, and join them together. The words I have painted on one of the panels read; ‘I believe in the sun, even when it is not shining. I believe in love, even when I cannot feel it. I believe in God, even when he is silent.’ These words were written inside a cell in the Cologne concentration camp, and we chose this because it shows the struggle that the Jews had faced. However the prisoner had never lost faith in his God. Therefore, as ambassadors whose role is to ensure we make the existence of the Holocaust in our past live on, these are key words that could inspire all the students in our school.”
These young ambassadors are doing an outstanding job of reminding their peers of what happened during the second world war. The importance could never be greater. First-hand experiences truly deliver the power but, 75 years on, these voices are being lost. We therefore have to find imaginative ways to appeal to the consciences of others. We live in a society where negativity, cynicism and casual insults are never far from the surface.
We should never assume that the horrors of the Third Reich could never be repeated in Europe. The Germany of the 1930s had culture, history and people of differing creeds living side by side, yet the murmurings of hate quickly turned an entire country into a place where sending Jews, Romany Gypsies and other groups to their graves was accepted by millions of people who had previously lived and worked among them. The noise of hatred in 2017 may be low, but a civilised society must aim to switch it off before it can deafen us.
I conclude by thanking Karen Pollock and her team at the Holocaust Educational Trust for continuing to ensure that this country remembers the unspeakable evil that created the holocaust. I also thank the trust for delivering these new voices—the young and not so young—who will continue to ensure that we never forget what occurred and that we do all we can to stop the undercurrents that, if left unchecked, could make it occur again.
Holocaust Memorial Day marks a crime that we must never forget. We must never forget the genocide committed by Nazi Germany, and we must always remind ourselves of the horrors that anti-Semitism can produce.
At 10 am on 27 January—Holocaust Memorial Day itself—the Holocaust Educational Trust will host a live webcast with holocaust survivor Mala Tribich. The webcast will be livestreamed to schools across the UK, and more than 600 schools have signed up so far. The filming will take place at Kingsmead School in my constituency. I am very proud that it is happening there, and I commend the school for hosting it. The event at Kingsmead is very important, and it will have a significant impact. We thank Mala for being willing to share her terrible experiences and give her testimony to educate our young people. We also thank the Holocaust Educational Trust for organising the event.
Even when it makes for difficult hearing, we have a moral duty to listen to holocaust testimony. Survivors speak not only for themselves but for those who did not survive to tell their story. Arek Hersh is one such survivor. When he was 11, the Nazis invaded his home town in Poland and transferred him to the Lodz ghetto. He was then taken to an SS camp called Otoschno, near Poznan. After 18 months, Arek was one of only 11 of the original 2,500 men left alive.
Arek escaped transfer to the gas chambers at Chelmno twice, before being transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At Auschwitz, he was selected for death by Dr Josef Mengele, but when he saw that healthier and fitter people were in the other line, he ran across while the SS guards were distracted. Arek was a slave labourer in Auschwitz, before being forced on a death march to Buchenwald. He was then transferred to Theresienstadt, where he was liberated by the Russian army.
Arek describes life at Auschwitz and the death march:
“We were chosen to work on agriculture for the SS. First with two horses they ploughed the field and for fertilisation they bring us ashes from the crematorium and”
“strew it on the ground and the bones, you could feel the bones.
We marched out on the 18th January 1945, the death march, and we walked for about 3 days without any food in the striped pyjama, we were freezing, it was so cold.
It was terrible.
And we arrived at the station and we were loaded on the station and we were taken to a place called Buchenwald next to Weimar in Germany.
The camp was about 8km from Weimar in a forest. And there we were more dead than alive when we arrived.”
Arek lives in Leeds today, and is now 88 years old. His first-hand testimony reminds us of the brutality of Nazi anti-Semitism. His testimony is also a powerful rebuttal to those today who continue the awful practice of holocaust denial. Let us be clear: those who minimise, trivialise, distort or deny the horrors of the holocaust do so to legitimise the anti-Semitism that fuelled it. We must recognise that whenever people claim the gas chambers are a myth, argue that the holocaust is Jewish propaganda, distort Nazi history, minimise the number of holocaust victims or attack holocaust memorial days, they do not do so out of historical interest or a desire for debate; they do so from nothing but prejudice, bigotry and naked anti-Semitism.
Do not the testimonies that my right hon. Friend is referring to show the continuing relevance and importance of Holocaust Memorial Day? The vast majority of people in this country are decent, but we have seen a rise in hate crime—41% between July 2015 and July 2016. Although it has since gone down, it is still higher than it was, so the continuing relevance of those testimonies speaks to us all.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I would add that we must never be bystanders.
When Arek wrote his autobiography, he called it “A Detail of History”. He chose that title as a direct riposte to French fascist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who disgustingly referred to the Nazi gas chambers in those terms.
Our words of remembrance today will mean nothing if we do not commit ourselves to action. Preserving the memory of the murdered is not a theoretical exercise. We must act to oppose all those who deny, distort or dismiss the holocaust in the present day. As Arek Hersh has said:
“What hurts the most is not the actions of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”
We must support the brilliant work done by groups such as HOPE not hate to counter racism and fascism in our society. Perhaps most of all, we must support the fantastic work done by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
The only way to truly eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and holocaust denial in our society is through educating people. This is what Arek Hersh has devoted his life to for the past 20 years. In his words,
“If you talk about”
“to people…people learn, and if anything like that could come up again they would stand up against it, so that’s why I talk about it all the time.”
In his words we must follow. We must remember, we must mourn, and above all, we must educate, so that racism and anti-Semitism can never flourish again.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan). I commend the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for the way in which he introduced this debate.
Jewish people have suffered anti-Semitism throughout the centuries; there is nothing new in that. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) reminded us, it is still rife not only all over the world but in this country, and we can never forget that fact. However, it reached its peak with the systematic attempt by the Nazis to wipe out Jews from across the world.
I grew up in an area where we were educated among Jewish people, Hindu people, Muslims, and people of all religions and origins, but the holocaust was never talked about. On my first to Israel in 1992, I saw not the wonderful museum that is now Yad Vashem, but the original museum. That brought home to me what life was like for the Jewish people in Germany and beyond who suffered the systematic attempt to wipe them out. It also brought home to me that we must educate young people across this country on the need to remember what happened, because it is very hard to contemplate that systematic attempt to wipe people out, and very easy to think that it was about just a small number of mad people. But it was not: large numbers of people were involved. We must remember that it is not good enough to pinpoint just the evil people who did this; we should also pinpoint those who stood by while recognising what was going on.
I remember my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau; it is seared into my consciousness. Going there and seeing at first hand what happened brought home to me the importance of the testimony of those who survived the death camps in proving what had happened. I was privileged to welcome to this House—together with the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin), who is unfortunately unable to be with us today—Kitty Hart-Moxon, who, aged 16, was forced to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the point of a gun. She survived to tell the tale, and to come to this country to give her life to being a nurse, to build a family, and to build a life. When, on her arrival, she went to live with the Jewish community in Birmingham, they wanted to ignore the fact of the holocaust—to forget about it. It was a terrible thing, but they wanted to turn a blind eye to what happened. It is important to recognise that in this country way back then, there was almost an attempt, not to belittle the holocaust, but to try to forget about it. In 1978—a long, long time ago, before Holocaust Memorial Day was ever thought of—she went back to Auschwitz-Birkenau to do a documentary, “Return to Auschwitz”, and she wrote a brilliant book. That is almost the forerunner of what we now see in the Holocaust Educational Trust. She is a very brave lady who is very outspoken, quite rightly so, on the work she has done and what we have to do to combat such attempts.
There are three major feature films on this subject: “Schindler’s List”, “Sophie’s Choice”, and now, “Denial”. The first two will be well known to right hon. and hon. Members across the House. “Denial” will be on general release next Friday—Holocaust Memorial Day. It is about the trial of David Irving. Having brought the case himself, he was eventually put on trial, where he was proven to be a holocaust denier and shown to be the fool that he was. I think that that is symptomatic. It is a brilliant film, and I recommend that colleagues across the House see it.
I pay tribute to an honourable lady in my constituency, Gena Turgel. She was born in Krakow in 1923, the youngest of nine children. When the Nazis bombed her home city on 1 September 1939 at the outbreak of the second world war, her family planned to move to the United States, but unfortunately they tried to do so too late. The family moved to just outside Krakow, and in 1941 she had to move into the ghetto. She entered the ghetto carrying a sack of potatoes, some flour and a few other belongings, and she stayed there with her mother and four siblings. One of her brothers was shot by the SS in the ghetto, and a second brother fled from the ghetto and was never seen again.
Gena and her surviving family were eventually sent to Plaszów labour camp on the edge of Krakow. She later discovered that her sister Miriam and her husband, who had married in the ghetto, had been shot after the Nazis caught her trying to bring food into the camp. In the winter of 1944-45 the camp was liquidated, and Gena and her family had to walk to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of a forced death march.
In January 1945, Gena and her mother were sent on a death march from Auschwitz, leaving behind Hela, Gena’s sister. They never saw her again. After several days, they came to Leslau—that was the German name for the place—where they were forced on to trucks. They travelled under terrible conditions for three to four weeks, eventually arriving in Buchenwald concentration camp. Then they were sent on cattle trucks to Bergen-Belsen, where they arrived in February 1945. Gena worked in a hospital for the next two months and tried to support her mother as best she could.
On 15 April that year, the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen. Among the liberators was Norman Turgel, who became Gena’s husband just half a year later. Today Gena lives in Stanmore and is in close touch with her children and grandchildren. She wrote a book recently called “I Light a Candle”. At the age of 93, she goes to schools up and down the country to inform people about what happened.
I commend the early-day motion that was tabled in my name, on a cross-party basis, commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day. It has been signed so far by 44 hon. Members, but I hope that many more will do so later. The book of commitment from the Holocaust Educational Trust is available for Members to sign—it has been available this week and it will be available next week—in the Members’ corridor. I encourage Members from right across the House to sign the book of commitment, to demonstrate that we commemorate those victims and make sure that we all know that life will go on.
I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for his speech and for calling on all hon. Members to sign the book of remembrance over the next few days.
I declare an interest as a member of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation, along with the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). It is the first commission that I have ever served on with the right hon. Gentleman, and it may be the first time that we have ever agreed on anything. It is an honour to serve with him in that task. When I was First Minister of Scotland, I was responsible for the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, working in conjunction with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
The right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar talked about man’s inhumanity to man. That is a quote from Robert Burns; the full quote is
“Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!”
It is highly appropriate, because Burns night is on 25 January, two days before Holocaust Memorial Day.
The debate has been moving, as hon. Members have recounted their personal insights and, in some cases, recollections. It has also reflected the fact that although the holocaust was the greatest crime of the 20th century and perhaps the greatest crime in human history—the greatest example of man’s inhumanity to man—anti-Semitism was not restricted to the 20th century, and certainly not to Islam, but was the norm in medieval and early modern Europe, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) reminded us.
Some years ago, I was privileged as First Minister to write the foreword to a book called “Scotland’s Jews”. I claim no special virtue for the Scottish nation, but I was able to recount that Scotland was one of only two nations in the whole continent that have never had any anti-Semitic legislation on the statute book. Scotland’s declaration of independence of 1320 contains an appeal to Pope John XXII to respect the rights of Jews, Greeks and gentiles, all of whom, the declaration says, are equal in the eyes of God. It stands alone among medieval documents in making that call. We should remember that anti-Semitism and its consequences have been with us for the greater part of recorded human history.
I want to say a word about the work of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation and the Auschwitz project because it gets to the heart of what many Members have said. The Auschwitz project takes Scottish schoolchildren to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There is a similar project in England. Since its inauguration in 2013, 358 post-16 establishments have taken part in the project—more than two thirds of all local authority, independent and special schools and colleges in Scotland. I was privileged as First Minister to hear the personal testimony of the pupils who had been to concentration camps. Without question, not one of those pupils will forget that experience or have any truck with a holocaust denier.
Some hon. Members even yesterday expressed some doubt about building a memorial in Victoria Gardens, but—trust and believe me—it is a highly appropriate place for it. Regardless of where it is built, it should be emphasised that one aspect of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation’s work is the learning centre that goes with the memorial, as was shown in the past few days in the special edition of the “Antiques Roadshow”, which took place in the Palace of Westminster. It included many moving stories, including one about Jane Haining from near Dumfries that was told by her nieces. Jane was arrested by the Nazis for protecting Jewish girls at the Scottish mission school in Budapest, which was run by the Church of Scotland. She was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. That testimony to powerful action showed that not everyone stood aside as the atrocities were happening, as the films that have been mentioned exemplify. Many people rallied to their fellow human beings.
The educational project and the learning that goes with it are vital because, sadly, few survivors of the holocaust are still with us and their number gets fewer by the day. The teaching and personal experience that can be imbued through family connections, the learning centre and visits to the concentration camps are therefore all the more vital.
There will be no dissenting voices from the Benches today, but I want to argue one fundamentally important point. Recognising and commemorating the significance of the holocaust, of man’s inhumanity to man, is not restricted to any religious grouping or any point of view. It should be commemorated by those who take a pro-Palestinian, a pro-Israeli or just a pro-peace view of the middle east. Last year, as a Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day outside the Strasbourg Assembly. I was led to make a point of order because the Israeli diplomat representing the Israeli Government at that commemoration launched an attack on President Rouhani of Iran who was visiting France at the time. It was inappropriate in that context and it was particularly inappropriate because President Rouhani is one of the Iranian leadership who is not a holocaust denier.
All of us who are a part of humanity, regardless of affiliation, point of view, political party, religion and all the rest of it, must recognise that there are those among us who would seek to deny the terrible crimes of the past for their own cynical motivations. Those who do not deny it—who acknowledge it, face up to it and recognise it, which is the first step in preventing it from happening again—should be embraced by us, whatever their point of view, as fellow human beings.
I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for securing the debate. It is very relevant at this time of year, but it is also very relevant to me and many of my constituents. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) is correct to say that there are fewer and fewer survivors, but a significant number of them live in my constituency: people who lived through the holocaust, people whose families perished in the holocaust and people who escaped the holocaust because their relatives came here. One former constituent, Rev. Leslie Hardman, was a witness to what happened. He entered Bergen-Belsen with the British Army. During the day he was engaged in the circumcision of babies, and later in the day he was engaged with burial and cremation.
It is appropriate that the theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “How can life go on?” I want to take this opportunity to highlight the work of the Holocaust Survivors Centre in my Hendon constituency, which I have visited on many occasions. I know several survivors who visit regularly to eat together, give each other support and receive pastoral care in the later years of their life. As I know from the many people who visit, it is a much-cherished organisation that serves the community.
I would like to mention one person in particular. Renee Salt lives above the survivors centre and speaks to schools on behalf of the Holocaust Education Trust. Renee was born in Zdunska Wola, in Poland, in 1929. She lived with her parents and her younger sister. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Nazis marched into her town and decided to take over her flat because they liked it so much. Renee and her family were simply thrown out into the street with no possessions. She went to live with various relatives who were able to look after her. By the end of 1939, as the war continued, however, the Nazis established a ghetto in the town where all the Jewish inhabitants had to live. Seven people lived in one room, which must have been a terrible existence. In 1942, the Nazis announced that everyone in the ghetto would be moved. Believing that they would soon return to their one room, the family hid Renee’s grandparents and four-year-old cousin in the attic. That was the last time they ever saw them.
The people who had been assembled were told to hand over all the children under the age of 18. Renee’s mum had decided to hide Renee and her sister under her coat, but her sister was found and taken. Renee was fortunate enough not to be noticed, so she went with her parents to the Lodz ghetto. In 1944, the Nazis said that the ghetto was to be liquidated and that they should all go the train station to another camp. Renee and her parents volunteered to go, and were taken by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they managed to survive a selection.
Renee and her mother were then transported to a warehouse in Hamburg. In 1945, they were moved again, this time to Bergen-Belsen—a repeat of the nightmare. Renee and her mother were liberated from Bergen-Belsen on 15 April 1945 by the British Army, including by Rev. Leslie Hardman, whom I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. Unfortunately, Renee’s mother died 12 days later.
Like other Members, I have visited Auschwitz on several occasions. Seeing really is believing and understanding. Watching the faces of the pupils from my constituency was not only very moving but very telling. I last visited Auschwitz on 27 January 2014, when, alongside Lord Howard, I attended the International Holocaust Memorial Day through the inter-parliamentary gathering at Auschwitz. The temperature that day fell to minus 10°—never in my life have I been that cold—and I remain incredulous that people survived those conditions. But survive they did, and many then moved to the UK, including to Hendon. On another visit to Auschwitz, I discovered the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel. In it, he speaks about his time in the camp and the problems he faced. One line, in particular, has remained with me:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
That is why we continue to remember and to commemorate the holocaust.
On Monday, I visited Edgware and District reform synagogue, where I heard Mala Tribich tell over 100 pupils from a local school about her experiences of the holocaust. Mala’s name has been mentioned already for the work she does for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and I pay tribute to the trust and to Karen Pollock and her team for the work they do—it was an inspiring move in 2012 to take the England football team to Auschwitz to show them what occurred there. We also heard first-hand testimony from Mala’s brother, Ben Helfgott, about his experience. It not only highlighted the issue but brought the holocaust to the attention of a new generation.
Some of my staff have asked me about my experiences and visits to Auschwitz, and I am pleased to say that when it gets warmer, in the spring, I will be taking my parliamentary office staff to Auschwitz. I think I can give them a good experience, given the number of times I have visited and the number of books I have read.
I want to finish on a positive note, by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) for the work he has done. He has been a tireless campaigner on this issue and a real friend to the Jewish community. On behalf of my constituents, I truly thank him.
Finally, I want to thank every Member here today. I have many Jewish constituents, as I have said, so one would expect me to be here—I understand that—but I am particularly grateful to each and every Member here today who does not have Jewish constituents or those who experienced the holocaust.
One day last November, I had the unforgettable experience of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with students from Ealing Independent College and the Holocaust Educational Trust. I say “one day”, but it was a long and, in some ways, difficult day. We flew out of Luton at 6 am and were back at 11 pm. For all of us—200 of us from schools across the London region—the memory of that day will remain with us forever. The icy conditions—it was minus 4°—and the emotional demands of the day set a harsh context for bearing witness to the horror of the atrocities committed in the death camps. Startlingly, if a one-minute silence had been observed for every person who perished at that camp, we would have been there for more than two years.
Seventy-plus years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, this subject still has enormous contemporary relevance. It has been pointed out that with the passage of time there are fewer and fewer camp survivors, Kindertransport children and people who liberated the camps, so we owe a huge debt to people and organisations such as the HET and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, headed up by Olivia Marks-Woldman, whom I was at school with in Ealing. The commemorations next week up and down the country are crucial to educating successive generations. We can only understand our present and future if we understand our past.
This is a debate about the 6 million Jewish victims of the holocaust, but it extends to the millions of others the Nazis exterminated, including Romani Gypsies, communists, socialists, trade unionists and gay people. It also includes those slaughtered in other genocides. Holocaust education campaigning evolves. We have already heard mention of the “Antiques Roadshow” at the weekend featuring memorabilia and other astonishing artefacts from Auschwitz and of those on display at Yad Vashem in Israel. That brought it into the nation’s living rooms on prime time television.
This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day schools pack contains recipe cards—things such as Rwandan vegetable stew. That is another way of digesting information about cultures attacked in genocide. I think there are other recipes from Cambodia and Bosnia. Culture is transmitted subtly, and when there are no grandparents, culinary tradition and memory die.
All communities must learn lessons and be vigilant against racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia and all forms of hatred in the contemporary world. There are worries that following the verdict in the EU referendum, and even following the events across the Atlantic that will come to fruition tomorrow, prejudice and racism are in danger of becoming acceptable, and that holders of those abhorrent views may feel disinhibited from expressing them.
Holocaust Memorial Day has renewed significance this year. We live in a time of post-truth politics and fake news. Members have mentioned the film “Denial”, which I had an opportunity to see earlier this week. It deals with the trial in which the Nazi David Irving opposed the American academic Deborah Lipstadt. I warmly recommend the film, which is a fact-packed treatment of the downfall of the UK’s most notorious rewriter of history. It is frightening to hear that he is making something of a resurgence. I think that such views are as ridiculous as those of people who think that the earth is flat, and we need to call them out.
At the end of last year, I attended my first-ever Rabbi’s Tisch, which is a Friday night meal. It was a great event, which was held at Ealing Liberal Synagogue. The presence of a Community Security Trust guard on the door served as a reminder that, while all communities deserve to worship in safety, that is not always possible.
It is deplorable that pigs’ heads are left on the doorsteps of mosques in the UK, and that we hear of the desecration of Jewish graveyards in Europe. Just over the border of my constituency, the Hammersmith Polish centre was attacked in the wake of the Brexit result. It seems that there has been a resurgence of hate-filled political rhetoric—ditto the scapegoating and vilification of migrants and refugees.
Last year the Kindertransport refugee Ernest Simon addressed us at Ealing town hall. He told us about the train trip from Austria into the unknown that he had made as a child in 1939. The first question posed to him in the Q and A session was “Should we take in Syrian refugees?” His answer was an emphatic “Of course”: we had a moral duty to do so. All debates such as this resonate with contemporary events.
There is a large Polish community in my constituency, and this week, along with members of the all-party parliamentary group on Poland, I met here a cross-party delegation of visiting Members of the Polish Parliament. They, too, voiced concern about the rising tide of hate crime, and we reassured them that strong ties bind our two nations. They also asked me whether I had been to Poland. I did not have a straightforward answer to that question. Yes, I had flown to Krakow, but what we saw there was something that all of us will remember forever: something utterly unforgettable and outside the accepted norms of what takes place in everyday Poland, the like of which we must make sure that we never witness again anywhere.
The diversity of my constituency is one of the reasons why it is the best in the whole world, along with the strength of our many communities. I have constituents of all faiths and of none, and the constituency contains numerous churches, a mosque in Acton and another in Ealing, and a liberal as well as a reform synagogue. I am proud to say that next Friday we will have our annual remembrance event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It has become an annual date in the calendar—as has this debate, a parliamentary fixture that is much looked forward to.
At that event in Ealing and throughout the country, we should mark this shameful episode in history, and also subsequent genocides. We must assess our own responsibilities in the wake of such crimes. We must never forget the holocaust, and we must ensure that such events never occur again.
It is always a great privilege to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Let me add my thanks to the truly amazing Holocaust Educational Trust for its much-needed and excellent work to keep memories alive, but also to remind us of what our future might hold if we chose to ignore the plight of those in our world who are in trouble.
This year, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is a question: “How can life go on?” Given what we have heard today, and during our past debates on this topic, the force of that question is palpable. Personally, I cannot imagine how I could go on in circumstances even a fraction as bleak as those experienced by so many Jewish people, and others, during the Nazi genocide. For many survivors, almost everything that had anchored them was lost. The loving family connections that had given shape to their entire lives, the familiar places and supportive communities that may have been all they ever knew, their sense of our world as a potential home for them—all of it gone. On top of that, those sources of love and security had been taken away by an unprecedented, unrelenting wave of organised, arbitrary hatred.
In reflecting on this, I will draw on the testimony of one survivor, the artist Alicia Melamed Adams, who was born Alicia Goldschlag in Drohobycz in what is now Ukraine in 1927. We can read her story, in connection with a series of relevant—and beautiful and tragic—examples of her painting, in a booklet. It is a remarkable testament to a truly remarkable and very talented woman.
The German army took control of Drohobycz in 1941, when Alicia was only 13 years old. They forced the Jewish population into a ghetto, and Alicia’s family was separated. Her beloved older brother disappeared without trace at the age of 18 after being taken to another camp; he was one of the first to be taken in that area. During this time, she—at 13 years old—laboured for the Gestapo under the constant and explicit threat of beatings and death. In her words:
“At one time I worked as a cleaner for a Gestapo man. He was one of those who shot people in Bronica wood with machine guns—about two thousand at a time. He always used to drink beforehand. Once he said to me, ‘You are very nice, I will never kill you with the others.’ Then he showed me a beautiful flowering tree and said, ‘I will kill you separately and I will put you under that tree.’ I once painted a self-portrait with that tree. I sold the picture and called it ‘Childhood Memories’, but I’m certain the buyer didn’t know what kind of memories they were.”
Alicia narrowly escaped death a number of times, mainly because she was helped due to the kindness of others or sometimes just by luck—fate. Throughout her ordeal, Alicia was only a child.
After the war Alicia met Adam, also a survivor in western Poland, who is now her husband. I wanted to tell his story too, but we simply do not have time in this debate. I urge the House authorities to give us a proper, long debate next time so that we can truly talk about the stories of such people. Alicia and Adam moved to London, where they have lived ever since, but these events leave an indelible mark.
My hon. Friend has painted a moving picture. Does she agree that we sometimes think these kinds of events stopped at the end of the war, but there were dreadful pogroms after the war as well, and that should not be forgotten?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why I plead for more time in these debates so we can draw out these stories and understand the lessons for us today.
Such events leave an indelible mark. After experiencing such intense horror, it is understandably difficult to go on with life in a new place among strangers. Stories like those of Adam and Alicia are relevant to how we should treat today’s refugee survivors—those for whom the question of how life can go on must be so pressing. It is so important that we create an environment for them that offers genuine shelter for body and mind, that genuinely reaches out, instead of shying away, when faced with deeply troubling past experiences and their consequences, and that gives survivors a genuine chance to create a new life in this country, just as Alicia and Adam, remarkably, have had the strength to do. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that Adam and Alicia are still with us today, and nestled in the bosom of their loving family.
I hope today the House will recommit to extending a welcoming, understanding, careful hand to refugees today and tomorrow. We must never let survivors of murderous horror feel such loss and despair that they might question how they can go on with life in our country.
I start by thanking those who keep the memory of the holocaust alive. There will soon be no living memory of the event, but it will have been passed on to future generations. I particularly thank the Holocaust Educational Trust. Like many Members here, I have visited Auschwitz and Birkenau and what struck me most was the industrial scale and the degree of planning to make the camps as efficient as possible. I also thank the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and Eve Gill, a holocaust survivor whom I have heard speak a couple of times. She speaks at many schools in my area and Surrey more widely. I heard about her ambitions and aspirations as a teenager and then about how they were blown apart by the holocaust and that had a real impact on me and on the pupils who listened to her.
We live in a troubled world, and extremism and nationalism are on the march. With ISIS, Le Pen, Geert Wilders, the AfD and Putin, this is an easier environment in which to whip up hatred of people of different faiths—Jews, Ahmadi Muslims or Christians—races or sexualities, such as the gays in Russia. We should not think that the UK is immune from that—other Members quoted a rise in hate crime of 40% over the past three years. It is therefore essential to recall the holocaust each year. We do that not only out of respect for its victims and those of subsequent genocides, but to debunk holocaust deniers, to which the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) referred in his remarks. Such people have had an easy outlet for their bile since the explosion in social media. We also do it to increase the chances that we detect future genocides before they occur. That is our greatest challenge, because we have seen genocides since the holocaust in Bosnia, Rwanda and other countries.
I will finish by mentioning South Sudan. There is evidence from the chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan that a genocide is under way and that a steady process of ethnic cleansing is ongoing in several areas, with killing, abduction, rape, looting and the burning of homes. Millions of people have been displaced by civil war, different groups are being dehumanised, and a large humanitarian crisis is ongoing due to a lack of food. While it is essential that we recall the holocaust and that significant events take place, we must also learn the lessons and seek to apply them when we identify genocides that are potentially under way, such as in South Sudan. In addition to officially recognising the holocaust, I hope that the Government will take action on the situation in South Sudan.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for enabling this extremely important debate to happen in the House and across the country. I declare an interest in that I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group against anti-Semitism.
Holocaust Memorial Day is vital. We must learn from the past and educate for the future. There can be no excuses for anti-Semitism or any other form of racism or prejudice. I congratulate the Holocaust Educational Trust and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance for their invaluable work supporting holocaust education, remembrance and research, which is recognised both nationally and internationally. The Home Affairs Committee recently produced a comprehensive report on anti-Semitism in the UK, and I urge the Minister and all parties to take appropriate cognisance of it.
Genocide does not happen out of the blue. There is a gradual process of victimisation, discrimination, hatred, words, actions, maligning, inferences and looking the other way. That leads to psychological distancing, and then to dehumanisation. That is the path to genocide.
I will never forget reading the diary of Anne Frank when I was at school and later visiting the site of her home in Amsterdam, where she and her family hid for two years before being discovered and arrested in 1944. I recall reading of her childhood pain that she could not go outside, of the lack of food and of her abject fear for herself and for her family, and then visiting and seeing those cramped conditions and wondering how my own family could have coped if placed in such danger and despair. Children could not make a sound and could not go to the bathroom until evening, and they lost their formal education and friends. It was impossible to go outside for fear of being shot. Such a burden on their young brains.
Education and remembrance are so important because, out of tragedy and suffering, Anne Frank, a 14-year-old girl, wrote some of the most inspiring words that I have ever read. The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “How can life go on?” Anne Frank wrote that she kept to her ideals
“because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
“Whoever is happy will make others happy too.”
Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates, and it is important to pay tribute to all survivors and to never forget those who were lost and those who experienced such traumatic circumstances. Anne Frank wrote:
“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it happening again.”
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), who is not in his seat, for the tone he set at the beginning of this afternoon’s debate with such great sensitivity and, indeed, insight.
This year marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps set up by the Nazis to prosecute the holocaust. The tragedy of the holocaust affected so many, directly and indirectly. From the millions of victims, their families and communities to the forces who liberated them in 1944 and 1945, the ripple effect of this tragedy casts its shadow far and wide. The physical and emotional trauma was shared by victims and those who witnessed it. Even today, the scars have not healed.
The holocaust raises deep and profound questions for all of us today, which is why the theme of this year’s commemoration, mentioned by so many Members, “How can life go on?” is so important today and every day. In the face of such fundamental evil, it is human to feel a sense of hopelessness, but the theme challenges that. Even in the face of unspeakable evil, we are not hopeless.
The commemoration, and today’s important debate, give us all an opportunity to reflect, and it helps us to find ways of coming to terms with the unthinkable. If we are to live beyond the tragedy of the holocaust and not just survive, we must resolve today to ensure that reconciliation and rebuilding take place wherever in the world they are needed. We must continue to learn from these experiences and remember them, taking care that our response to contemporary genocide in Srebrenica, Rwanda and Cambodia is guided by the need to ensure that those who make it through the darkness can eventually emerge into the light.
Most of all, if we are to guarantee that life goes on, we should try not to counteract hate with more hate of our own. This week I listened to the words of that great American civil rights campaigner John Lewis, who spoke so movingly on how we must instead meet hate with love:
“The way of love is the better way.”
He went on to invoke Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who said:
“Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Holocaust Memorial Day takes place at a time when we should seek to learn the lessons of the past. We must understand that genocide is often the evil culmination of a gradual process that begins with unchecked discrimination, racism and hatred. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory in November and the Brexit vote in June, we have witnessed deeply worrying increases in intolerance across western democracies. We must be vigilant and continue to provide positive leadership if we are to effectively address the root causes of hate in our communities and beyond.
The Scottish National party Government in Scotland have long supported remembrance and the importance of holocaust education, and the Scottish Parliament will also play its part in remembrance. Next Tuesday, Jessica Reid and Callum Docherty, two students from Braes High School in Falkirk, will deliver the Scottish Parliament’s “Time for Reflection”. These school students recently took part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, which has been referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) and which gives two post-16 students from every school and college in Scotland the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. This project is supported by a grant from the Scottish Government. They also set up the Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime, Prejudice and Community Cohesion in 2015 to engage with minority ethnic stakeholders and communities in considering what more can be done to tackle these issues. This group gave a report in September 2016, setting out practical suggestions on how to advance this crucially important agenda.
The holocaust did not begin with the murder of millions; it began with what we now know as hate speech, perpetuated by a small minority and tolerated by the vast majority. We cannot make the same mistakes again. But as John Lewis so eloquently stated this week, we must face this reaction with tolerance, respect and understanding. We can and should be very proud of the diversity of modern Scotland, and the diversity we see across the British Isles, but we should never take that diversity or tolerance for granted. We want our Jewish community to feel safe and welcome, and so we condemn the growing anti-Semitism and the hate seen more recently across Europe and the USA. As we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, it is only through employing this kind of positive approach that we can ensure that life will go on, and that decent humanity continues to prosper in the face of unspeakable, unspeakable evil.
As always, it is good to make a contribution. First, I wish to thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) for setting the scene so well. He had limited time but he did very well, so well done to him. We have heard some powerful speeches from right hon. and hon. Members encapsulating the energy, passion, thoughts, fears and concerns of us all. They have been put very well, in a dignified manner.
I take great pride in the opportunity to speak on this unfortunate and catastrophic event in history. We all know the facts, yet they bear repeating, as others have done through individual stories from their constituents and so on. If we were to read out all the names of those who were so brutally murdered, it would take more than 384 days, reading constantly, day and night, to get through the list—it would take more than a year. That shows the magnitude of the horror that took place. These facts bear repeating to ensure that there is never a repetition of events similar to this. I used to question why I had to learn so many Bible verses in Sunday school—perhaps others did the same—but I was told to learn this one:
“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”.
We are dealing with the same idea here: we will keep remembering to learn the lessons.
Unfortunately, in some parts of the world those lessons have not been learned, so we need to keep repeating them and hope that their importance sinks in. There is a responsibility on every elected Member in this Chamber to learn the lesson well and ensure that we do not stand like former Members in this House, wringing our hands yet saying nothing. Today has been a day when we have said much, and it has all been very well put over. I am known for getting up and speaking out on behalf of those who are being abused and persecuted—that is my job and it is the job of other Members in this House, too—and I make no apologies for that. I work hard for my constituents to provide a quality of life and support when needed. I also work on behalf of those who cannot ask me to help although the facts of their lives demand that I do what I can to help. It is a responsibility that we all have in this House and that we all must take very seriously. We all have a responsibility in preventing genocide and mass killings throughout different parts of the world, including our own country.
An important lesson we have to learn from the holocaust relates to the continuation of an ideology of hatred within different communities. I am very passionate about tackling the ongoing genocide faced by Christians in the middle east. I am chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief—that is about the religious belief of Christians and those of other faiths, and those with no faith. The genocide in the middle east contributes to the mistreatment of vulnerable minorities. Evidence of that includes mass murder, forced deportations, the destruction of Christian institutions such as churches and monasteries, and forced conversions to different religions.
My interest in this matter extends to the Kindertransport children. We all know the story of the children who were smuggled out of Germany, some of whom ended up at what is now McGill’s farm outside Millisle in my constituency. That gave them a chance, which is very important.
The history of this period of time astounds me. Following the outbreak of world war two, there was a drastic change in attitudes towards the Jews. After plans for their mass relocation to the island of Madagascar were disrupted, the Jews were forced into blocked-off sections of towns called ghettos, and used for slave labour, which often resulted in death because they were deprived of food and water and overworked. Right hon. and hon. Members have told personal stories about those very things.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are immensely lucky that there are brave individuals—including my constituent, Mala Tribich—who survived the horrific experiences he is talking about and are prepared to speak out about the horror they experienced? If we hear at first hand what happened, we can learn the lessons so that we can all work to make sure that nothing like that ever happens again.
The right hon. Lady succinctly makes a point that everyone who has spoken today believes. We have to remember those people and what they have been through.
The escalation of violence did not stop until the end of the war in 1945. As the Nazis established themselves in power, they built on the idea of an Aryan race that planned to eliminate any individual who was classified as genetically inferior. Such people were alienated from society, with all their social, civil and political rights removed. Nowadays, that seems highly discriminatory, as we live in a different generation and a different time with regard to race. The Nazis intensified their scheme from forced labour to unjustified murder, while the destruction of war covered up the fact that thousands of individuals were losing their lives because of the strong leadership in Nazi Germany at that time. It sounds so far-fetched that it could only be a film—if only that was the case. Members have referred to some of the films that correctly recreated the events that took place at that time.
All that happened during my mother’s lifetime; it should not happen again in the lifetime of my grandchildren. I often consider what I would have done had I been a German citizen and seen my Jewish neighbours shipped off. Would I have stood up? We like to think that we would. Had the opportunity been there, I certainly hope that we would. Martin Niemöller wrote a very good poem that most Members present probably know. It is very clear:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
That is very good poem that illustrates the issue very clearly.
When we discussed this debate in my office, a secretary said that she had been to Auschwitz and that everyone should go. Other Members have said in clear terms that they have been there and been changed. I believe that we must be changed. We should face this harrowing lesson and determine that in our personal lives and in this place we do all we can to prevent anything that even resembles what happened in the holocaust from taking place again. I was not able to stand with my Jewish brethren at that time, but I stand with them now as we solemnly vow never to forget the holocaust and to make sure that it never happens again.
It is an honour to follow that excellent speech by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). It is a real honour to be a co-sponsor of this debate and to be able to sum up for my party on such an important issue.
I thank the Holocaust Educational Trust for the help, briefings and advice it has given to all Members, and for the excellent work that it does all year. I commend everyone who has made such excellent and thought-provoking contributions to the debate. I was particularly struck by the comments by the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) about the importance of language, which were particularly well made. Like him, I think it is hugely important that we do not ever normalise the language of hate but always challenge it loudly. We must also challenge those who would shamefully deny something so eloquently spoken about by the right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles).
My right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) spoke about man’s inhumanity to man and the importance of learning the lessons from the distant past. I know that many people in my local area will be focused on what is said here today. I hope that the same is true for people around the UK and beyond, because it is vital. I agree with the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) that now more than at many other times in our life, we must be steadfast in our desire to make sure that everyone understands exactly what happened and that the lessons of this terrible stain on history are learned and understood as widely as possible. There is no place for anti-Semitism here or anywhere else. Where it exists, it is our responsibility to challenge it vigorously and to challenge discrimination in all its forms.
The holocaust saw more Jewish men, women and children perish in ghettos, mass-shootings and extermination camps than the entire population of Scotland. As the hon. Member for Hove said, it was an almost unbelievable scale of deliberate terror against ordinary people simply because of their identity as Jews. As time passes and memories fade, we must not lose our focus on this or on making sure that it cannot happen again. The right hon. Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) was entirely right in stressing the importance of testimony and education. There is no doubt about the impact on hon. Members who have visited the camps.
I am very fortunate to represent the majority of Scotland’s Jewish community. I live in a vibrant diverse place, where people from all religions, backgrounds and cultures live together harmoniously. That ability to live together and to appreciate the richness of our diversity and what it brings to society is hugely important. It was important, too, to the late Rev. Ernest Levy, who was Cantor of Giffnock and Newlands synagogue in my constituency. Rev. Levy, who died in 2009, survived seven Nazi concentration camps, having been taken from his home in Budapest to Auschwitz at the age of 19. Although it was understandably very hard for him to speak about his terrible experiences, he did just that, making it his mission to speak to young people in particular to make sure that they understood the terrors that people had faced, and the extraordinary level of cruelty inflicted on the Jewish community and others who incurred the wrath of the Nazis.
The things that Rev. Levy experienced are beyond our comprehension in many ways. He called them dehumanising and horrifying. He described how his family were forced to flee their home in Bratislava in 1938, after being persecuted by fascists. When we all go home tonight, feeling secure in our place in the world, let us reflect on that, because the Levy family was no different from the rest of us. They just found themselves in the eye of a hellish storm, simply because they were Jewish. That storm followed them, and he and his family were captured. He was sent to Auschwitz, which he described as a world of evilness beyond description. He experienced his brothers being compelled to dig their own graves, and he described the terrible stench that tore at his lungs.
We can probably never fully understand what happened, but we absolutely must try. I can easily empathise with how Rev. Levy must have felt when he tried to return to normality after he was released, by then from Belsen. He was very grateful to be alive, but, at the same time, he was beset by a loss of trust in people, in God, and in prayers. Who would be any different? It is testimony to his great strength of character that he did find that trust again, and that he dedicated his life to helping others. His belief in the light of humanity is a lesson to us all in the strength of the human spirit, and in the need to stand up and never let racism gain credence in society.
That is the sentiment that led me to make a trip this year that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was very fortunate to be part of my party’s first official delegation to Israel and Palestine. The first place we visited was Yad Vashem, the memorial to those who died in the holocaust, which is a quite remarkable place. The impact that it had on me was immense, and it must be the same for anyone who visits. The stories of all those people were laid out so plainly. They were just ordinary people—like you and me, the man down the road, or the woman in the office. All of them were murdered so cruelly because they were different. The way that the Nazis targeted people and created hostility to those groups who did not fit into their idea of society was particularly frightening, because I could see only too well why we need always to be ready to stand up against those who foster hate.
Yad Vashem was a peaceful and thought-provoking place, for all the awful story it tells. It is a place that honours the dead and makes sure that we remember each one of them, individually, as a human being—a person to be valued and acknowledged. That focus on each person as a human—one of us—cannot be emphasised enough. In everything I saw, I was struck by its very personal nature. There were individual possessions—some red shoes, a comb, and a pair of broken glasses, painstakingly laid out in a display case. They had belonged to someone’s mum and they were all that was left when the Nazis murdered her. These glasses had been cherished for decades by a daughter who had hidden them during her time in a concentration camp, after her mother had been taken away. She had simply nothing else to remember her by, and she felt her mum was closer to her through these cherished old glasses.
In the garden of remembrance there commemorating the righteous among nations—those people from around the world who stood fast against the Nazis and protected their Jewish friends and neighbours, paying with their lives—I saw the memorial to Jane Haining, whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) mentioned, the only Scottish victim of the concentration camps. Jane’s selfless devotion to the children she looked after as a matron saw her sent to Auschwitz, where she died. The Church of Scotland, her employer, had repeatedly ordered her home, but she refused to leave the children and was sent to her death.
The heritage centre to be opened in her hometown of Dunscore will be a particularly important place where people can learn what she stood for as a beacon of hope against hate, which is so important now, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) described. We could all do with thinking about Jane Haining and how she was not prepared to leave behind those who would be persecuted simply for being different.
That is a theme that the young people in my constituency demonstrate brilliantly at their holocaust memorial events every year. Their parents must be extremely proud of their children showing such maturity and insight and sharing the lessons we must all learn from the holocaust. These children, from my fantastically diverse community, represent the best of us. They are children from all religions and none, some with disabilities and some without, from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, girls and boys. Just like the children who were sent to their deaths.
Our children often show us the way forward, and a number of Members have described that movingly today. That is why we cannot take it for granted that this cannot happen again. We must all commit to speaking out whenever we see anti-Semitism, racism or hate, and when we hear things we know are not right. We must never be afraid to call these things out for what they are, loudly and clearly. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) described all too clearly what can happen if we stand back and do not act.
I close with the words and sentiments of Jane Haining, who stood so fast against hatred and paid so dearly for her principles and compassion. She said:
“If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?”
The tales this afternoon have been extremely moving and that strengthens why these lessons should never be forgotten. The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is, “How can life go on?” It is intended to promote consideration of the aftermath of the holocaust and subsequent genocides. As has been eloquently observed many times in this place and elsewhere, the industrial mass murder of millions did not begin with state-sponsored violence and the intimidation of Jews in Germany. It did not begin with the construction of camps. It began with the view that someone’s racial background marked them out as inferior. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said in this debate last year,
“we should never avert our eyes from the most uncomfortable truth of all—that its perpetrators were not unique. They were ordinary men and women carrying out acts of extraordinary evil”—[Official Report, 21 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 1635.]
while others stood by.
Society can only progress when such a fact is recognised and the memory of those awful times must be shared with future generations. We must teach our future generations that they must stand up to hate, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and any other injustice. As the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) eloquently put it, we have a solemn duty to remember the victims and to educate young people about the horrors unleashed on continental Europe through hate less than a century ago.
Through the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, children from schools and sixth forms across the country have the opportunity to visit the former concentration camp of Auschwitz. Since 1999, more than 30,000 children have been able to benefit from the trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” programme and become ambassadors for the trust, communicating their experiences to friends and peers. Students from my constituency of Blackburn, in particular from St Bede’s school, have benefited from the opportunity and were very keen to share their experience with other young people in Blackburn.
This month, we will see the exhibition of the 10 finalist concept designs for the national memorial of the holocaust to be constructed in London. We must not allow the generational memory of the holocaust to fade and the establishment of permanent physical memories has a huge role to play in that.
Many people have had the opportunity to listen to the incredible stories of holocaust survivors and those who worked against the Nazis. As the years pass and the number of living holocaust survivors decreases due to the passage of time, sadly there will be fewer and fewer opportunities to hear their incredible stories, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle) already stated. However, thanks to the bravery of individuals during the war and its aftermath—including the young lady who preserved her mother’s glasses, whom the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) spoke about—letters, diaries, documentation and personal belongings are all publicly available. Recordings of survivors remain with us. Museums dedicated to the preservation of their experiences will continue to communicate our shared history with the public. Historians will continue to inspire discourse. We will never forget, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) said.
In some circles, there is a view that young people will become less interested in the subject if it becomes simply history, but that does a tremendous disservice to the empathy of the next generation. As we think about how life can go on after the holocaust and subsequent genocides, the role of the next generation is even more crucial. Through establishing permanent memorials and the continued presence of the holocaust in schools through the national curriculum, and the support of devolved Governments, young people must be given every opportunity to engage with the difficult subject of the holocaust and other atrocities that have happened. Dedicated and conscientious teachers of history can convey the gravity of the holocaust and young people can draw parallels between historical events.
The concerning rise, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), in anti-Semitic incidents in the first half of 2016—an 11% increase on the same period last year—shows that we have more work to do in combating anti-Semitism. We must fight attitudes that cast any group as somehow less than any other and that define any group as unable to be British. Vibrant, accepting communities are possible. We must work to make that the legacy of the holocaust—that the ultimate result of genocide is the rejection of the hatred at its heart—and work to bring groups of young people together to facilitate social contact, to break down social and economic barriers and to emphasise the common threads that run through all young people: a hope for a better life, the desire to learn and the need for opportunities.
How does life carry on? It does so by ensuring that the missing generations—those abrupt endings on family trees—are commemorated and celebrated; by ensuring that communities targeted by fascists are able to live and work freely in Britain and around the world; and by instilling in young people a sense of pride in our country that does not exclude any community.
Nothing can fill the void of family members who were killed, but we can work for a better Britain and a better world where no group is stigmatised or discriminated against, and where prejudice is wholeheartedly rejected. We can be proud of the UK’s role in establishing Holocaust Memorial Day, when we joined 45 other Governments in signing the Stockholm declaration. This year’s theme—“How can life go on?”—underlines the importance of the events arranged by faith groups, schools and community organisations that take place in the days and weeks leading up to the day.
For 20 years, I was honoured to stand on the steps of Blackburn town hall, paying respect and remembering the atrocities of the holocaust with Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of no religion whatever and people of many other religions. It is important that every area in the country recognises what our parents went through in the war and what the Jews went through at the hands of the Nazis. We must never ever forget and it is important that we keep those memories alive. The Holocaust Educational Trust will do just that, raising awareness in the community and the educational profession about the holocaust and lessons that can be drawn from it. It already does exceptional work in training teachers and equipping students to understand the attitudes that led to the unique crime of the holocaust.
The Government’s ongoing funding of educational programmes is essential. Since 2008, the Government have funded the Centre for Holocaust Education at University College London’s Institute for Education, which had benefited more than 7,000 teachers as of March last year. The ongoing funding of the “Lessons from Auschwitz” project benefits so many students and, it appears, hon. Members. Through those students we must confront head-on holocaust denial, distortion and equivocation; the denial of the historical reality; the deliberate effort to minimise the effect and impact of the holocaust; and the drawing of false equivalence between the unique crime of the holocaust and current events.
The establishment of Holocaust Memorial Day and the continuing efforts of the Holocaust Educational Trust are invaluable not only in commemorating the awful crimes and ensuring that the legacy of the holocaust is not forgotten, but in providing an example of bringing communities together and instilling values of tolerance and acceptance in young people.
It is a real privilege and honour to respond to a debate from this Dispatch Box for the first time since becoming a Minister, not least because this was such a consensual debate and because I was a secondary school history teacher in Yorkshire before I was elected to this place, so I used to deliver holocaust education to young people. It is also a privilege for me because of my own journey within Judaism, which has become so important to me over the past couple of years.
I am grateful for the contributions that have been made across the House, which have been thoughtful, insightful and, in many cases, moving. I thank the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing the debate.
Many of us know the Holocaust Memorial Day events in our constituencies well, and we take part in them. I pay tribute to the ones organised in my constituency; it does not have a big Jewish population—as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) pointed out, that is the case in many seats—but the community wants to mark the day and to remember the horrors of the holocaust. So I pay particular tribute to Brigg Town Council for its work in organising the event in Brigg on the same basis as happens in many other constituencies.
As so many colleagues have said today, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is, “How can life go on?” It is a powerful and thought-provoking question, and I wish I was back in the classroom so that I could pose it to the young people I used to have the privilege of teaching. We have heard many moving testimonies today from people who prove that life actually can go on. I want to reiterate their names—I have tried to make notes as we have gone on—because it is important to repeat that people came to this country after the holocaust, and their lives did go on. We have heard of Renee Salt, Kitty Hart-Moxon, Arek Hersh, Gena Turgel, Ben Helfgott, Mala Tribich, Ernest Simon, Eve Gill, Reverend Levy, and Alicia Goldschlag and her husband, Adam.
I have heard some of their testimonies myself, and I want to pay particular tribute to Zigi Shipper BEM, who survived the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz-Birkenau, another camp near Danzig and a death march. He came to the UK in 1947. He is now married, and he has children and grandchildren. With the Holocaust Educational Trust, many Members will have seen the film produced by the trust and one of his grandchildren, which was shown in the House of Commons not so long ago. He proves what can be achieved as life goes on, and we should thank him and all the survivors who came to this country who have kept the memory of all those who perished alive in the work they do going into schools and communities to speak about the horrors that took place.
We heard a lot today about the “Antiques Roadshow”, which was aired at the weekend. I got a text from my mum saying, “You must watch this,” so I went on iPlayer. It was truly moving, as she said, and so many colleagues have made reference to that today. It was very moving to see those items—often the only connection people have to people in their families and in their lives who were so brutally murdered in the holocaust—and to see just how important they were to them.
That programme showed us what a story of survival this is. Despite the horrors of the past, and despite their unimaginable experiences, survivors have gone on to become Nobel laureates and to make a contribution in this country and internationally in the worlds of science, medicine, politics and so many others. There are also people who just came here and got on with their ordinary lives, building, out of that horror, a family and a future for themselves. They overcame terrible odds, and that is why this year’s theme is all the more poignant: it is very personal, and it can resonate with all of us.
All of us in here will have experienced the loss of a loved one and wondered how we would cope—how would life go on? Let us imagine someone’s feeling of loss when it involves generations of their family; that is unimaginable to so many of us. Great-grandparents, grandparents, children, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters—all lost. And beyond all that very personal loss, there is the loss of their very way of life, their home and the community they grew up in—a place that has gone and that will never be again. That is so difficult for so many of us to imagine.
We can all look at the black and white photos of loved ones in albums; we look at them from time to time, and we remember. I just imagine looking at those same pictures and realising—as we saw with some of the photographs on the “Antiques Roadshow” last week—that everybody in them apart from you had perished in a death camp or in more recent conflicts, such as the killing fields of Cambodia, in Rwanda or in Srebrenica.
However, such photographs, and some of those we saw on the programme last week, also invoke strength and renewal, and they encourage new lives and new memories. That is why Holocaust Memorial Day is not only about commemorating past genocides and honouring those who died, but about standing with those who survive and about the new lives they have built. It is also, as many Members on both sides of the House have said, about standing up against intolerance and hatred, whatever form it may take. Today, for most of us, standing up against intolerance does not involve the same risks as it did for those who stood up against the Nazis or Pol Pot. Hassan Ngeze was a journalist sentenced to 35 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for spreading anti-Tutsi propaganda that led to the slaughter of 1 million Rwandans. We all know very well the crimes against humanity committed by Radovan Karadžic. For us, standing up against intolerance does not involve imprisonment, staring down the barrel of a gun, or thinking that somebody is going to come and round you and your family up in the night, but it does require us to speak out and to stand firm, because we all know, as many colleagues have said, that evil flourishes when good people stand idly by.
In the context of the Holocaust, we are also required to bear witness—we hear that all the time. We must not trivialise the Holocaust. We have to recognise the peculiarly unique evil of the Holocaust, and that is why we must bear witness to it. There are many ways that I personally, and colleagues here, have done that; it can take many different forms. A lot of colleagues have mentioned Yad Vashem in Jerusalem—a place I have visited a number of times. I think that anybody who has been to Yad Vashem will be very touched by how it is put together in telling the story of the development of hate and the horrors of what happened. The most powerful thing, which really touched me, was that on leaving, having seen all that horror, one goes slightly up an incline to a balcony that overlooks what must be the most peaceful scene in Jerusalem of trees and quiet below. When I looked at that, I thought that it symbolised the hope of people who survived the Holocaust, and how sad it was that people who were murdered in the Holocaust will never know the peace and tranquillity of a new life that it represents.
Closer to home here in London, at the synagogue I am proud to attend—Westminster synagogue—there are 1,564 Czech scrolls, of which there are many around the world being used in prayer in synagogues. They are housed at the synagogue in the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum, which is well worth a visit. Each of those scrolls represents a community that does not exist any more—hundreds of years of Jewish history in eastern Europe were wiped out.
Many of us have mentioned how we have borne witness at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Like many others, I took the opportunity to visit with the Holocaust Educational Trust, and with 200 post-16 students from across Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire. I had never been there before, despite teaching and delivering education on the holocaust in schools. I had visited Dachau—another evil place—but had never taken the opportunity to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau to pay respect to those who were murdered by the Nazis and more fully to understand the scale of that killing operation.
I found the experience incredibly moving, but the place I found most moving was the Jewish cemetery in the nearby local town, where the Nazis took the headstones from the cemetery and used them on roads and pavements. Many of the headstones were recovered and are looked after by the Jewish community from Krakow, but they are not looked after by the Jewish community in that town because that community does not exist any more. The saddest thing about the cemetery is the burial of the single Jew who, almost in an act of defiance, went back and lived in the town following the end of the war.
Perhaps what I found most difficult about visiting Auschwitz was the time of year that I went, because it was a beautiful, warm spring day. Colleagues have referred to being there in the depths of winter at minus 5° or minus 10°, but for me, going there on a spring day, it was very difficult to understand how such horror could have taken place in that setting with the trees and woodland around; it simply defied belief. As many colleagues have said, we hear and read the stories and poems, and see for ourselves the true horror of what took place there.
As I have said, I used to deliver holocaust education to young people in Hull. I agree with Members from across the House that we must ensure that holocaust education remains in place across all these islands. I used to find with the young people I taught that the problem was not denial, fortunately, but disbelief. As I showed them the photographs and the footage of the holocaust, the young people were silent and some of them were moved to tears at having to believe that this had actually happened, and that human beings could be so cruel.
One piece of film that I used to use was a scene from “Schindler’s List”. There is always a debate about using Hollywood movies in holocaust education, but the scene in that film showing the liquidation of the ghetto is so powerful that I used to use it, and young people were stunned into silence at the thought that that could have happened. That is why visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau help to ensure that the holocaust is never forgotten, and it is why we should all do everything we can to ensure that holocaust education is at the heart of the curriculum, in this country and across the world.
I thank all the holocaust organisations that are involved. They have been mentioned a lot today, but I am going to refer to them again. I particularly thank Karen Pollock, the CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust. She and her team are an inspiration for us all. I sat down with Karen and young people in Auschwitz-Birkenau on my visit, and in Tel Aviv in Israel. The work of the trust is absolutely fantastic. I pay tribute to the trust for campaigning to ensure that the holocaust is part of the national curriculum and particularly for advocating that the subject be taught at the later stages of key stage 3, when young people are emotionally developed enough to understand the full horror of it all; I know that that is important to the trust.
I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and its CEO Olivia Marks-Woldman. Along with her team, she delivered a most successful Holocaust Memorial Day last year.
I would also like to mention some of the other holocaust remembrance, education and survivor organisations, as colleagues have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon spoke about the Holocaust Survivors Centre in his constituency. The Anne Frank Trust uses Anne’s diary, and the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) made reference to her visit to Anne Frank’s house. I also want to mention the Wiener Library, the Association of Jewish Refugees and the National Holocaust Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire.
I pay tribute to the businesses that are playing their part in marking Holocaust Memorial Day. I met the Royal Bank of Scotland yesterday, which informed me of the work it is doing through its Jewish society and by encouraging its employees on Holocaust Memorial Day to take time out and reflect.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the work of the Prime Minister’s post-holocaust issues envoy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), who spoke brilliantly, particularly about his recent visit to Treblinka and about holocaust denial. He has not only focused on the restitution of property and art, but has been the driving force behind the Government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism. The definition, although not legally binding, is an important tool to help criminal justice agencies and other public bodies to understand how anti-Semitism manifests itself in the 21st century. It is really important that we recognise the definition—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) mentioned this—because we cannot deny that there has been an increase in anti-Semitism across the country and across Europe.
I used to serve on the all-party group against anti-Semitism. I visited a Jewish school in Brussels, and I was shocked by the fact that outside the school Belgian armed forces were guarding the young people who were inside. I asked those young people, “Would you wear your kippah out and about in Brussels?” They laughed; they would not. In a modern, western European capital that is the home of the European Union and a liberal, open-minded place, Jewish children are not prepared to walk about outside with a kippah on because of the risk of attack and abuse. Of course, sadly, that has happened on campuses here. Swastikas have appeared and meetings organised by Jewish societies have been violently disrupted. That is not acceptable and we cannot be silent about it.
The right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) was right to say that we must all acknowledge Holocaust Memorial Day, regardless of our views on the middle east—whether pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. Unfortunately, there has been an increased Israelification of anti-Semitism, using Israel and Zionism as a proxy for Jews. I have seen that and been on the receiving end of it, particularly on Twitter. There are pictures of the Star of David represented as the Nazi flag—that is unacceptable and a form of anti-Semitism.
At an event in Parliament, it was wonderful to see Laurence Rees, who produced the documentary, “The Nazis: A Warning from History”, so beautifully destroy the arguments of those who argue that Hitler was a Zionist and so on. There has been too much of that. It is ignorant and sinister and we should call it out for what it is: anti-Semitism. That also applies to attending a rally in support or holding a flag of Hamas or Hezbollah.
We should be proud of what we have done in this country to tackle anti-Semitism and our work on the UK holocaust memorial. I want to give the hon. Member for Hove time to sum up, so I will end with a quote from Zigi Shipper, whom I mentioned earlier. It epitomises Holocaust Memorial Day’s theme of how life can go on. Zigi Shipper returned to Poland about a decade ago and said:
“I went to Auschwitz after being nagged by my children.”
He recalled standing under the “Arbeit macht frei” sign at the camp entrance:
“It meant nothing to me. I stood under that sign and said: ‘After all that Hitler tried to do, he didn't succeed, for I am still here!’”
Life can go on, but only if we all take responsibility for reconciliation, rebuilding lives and communities and preventing such events from ever happening again by calling out intolerance wherever it may be.
It is the first occasion in my short time in the Commons that I have agreed with every single word that has been spoken by Members of all parties, and it was a privilege to be here for that. I would like to single out one or two Members.
The right hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) spoke with steely determination to confront holocaust denial wherever they see it, but also helped to educate us about the pathways towards that.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for accompanying me on the metaphorical and literal journey on the pathway and for his contribution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Joan Ryan) powerfully brought to life survivors’ testimony and related that to today’s political challenges.
I thank the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who spoke with tremendous power and provided a forthright analysis of the challenges of disentangling the holocaust from today’s events in the middle east. Some people stumble naively into mixing them and we should confront that when we see it because they are separate issues that need our intellectual inquiry in two separate ways.
I have discovered that the Chamber thrives on difference and often on conflict. I hope that today we have also seen strength through consensus. I hope that that strength does not mean that we agree to walk away benignly, but that the consensus gives us steely determination to ensure that the events of the holocaust and the issues that we have discussed today are driven into the fabric of our communities so that lessons continue to be learned.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2017.
House of Commons Hansard
19 January 2017