I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of Holocaust Memorial Day.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for this timely opportunity to debate this important issue on the Floor of the House. I also thank my hon. Friend Stephen Lloyd, the right hon. Members for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) and for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), the hon. Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). All gave their support for this debate, for which I am very grateful. The number of colleagues who put their names to our application for a debate demonstrates the strength of feeling about this issue and a desire to examine proactively what the holocaust means to us as a society today, as well as the strength of personal feeling on this very difficult subject.
There have been Westminster Hall debates every year since 2008 to consider Holocaust memorial day, on
We all know the story of the holocaust—we know about the working conditions, the gas chambers, murder on an industrial scale and the irony of “Arbeit macht frei”—but to know the facts is to know only the outlines, like reading a blueprint rather than walking around a building. The Prime Minister and my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi both commended the fantastic work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, raising awareness in Prime Minister’s questions, and I would like to do the same. It was through the trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project that I was able to visit the camp with schoolchildren from my constituency in 2011. I went knowing what Auschwitz was, but I left understanding what it means. What struck me most about my visit was that the 11 million who are estimated to have died were like all of us in this room. The lists of names, ages, professions and home towns built a picture of lives and told stories of living, breathing people with hopes and fears, just like our own today. I left feeling harrowed, but uplifted by the thoughtful, emotive responses of the pupils I had visited Auschwitz with. What is so effective about such projects is that the children returned to their schools to share their experiences with so many others.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate with others and thank him for giving way. Does he agree that the wonderful work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in getting across the educational aspect of this issue will ensure both that future generations understand the tragedy of the holocaust—what went on, the atrocities—and that it does not happen again, to any community whatever?
It must not happen again, but we are not guaranteed that it cannot happen again. If I am called to speak, I will demonstrate that it has happened again—and it will continue to happen—and we have got to try to stop it.
I joined the hon. Gentleman on that trip to Auschwitz, and I wonder whether he, too, remembers that final walk back up the railway track, and the profound effect that the visit had on those young people. We hope that it will be a lasting effect, and that they will always remember the graphic details of what happened to those people.
I remember that time clearly. I remember being at Manchester airport very early in the morning with those 16 and 17-year-olds. On the way out, those teenagers were full of life, but I remember, too, that harrowing moment right at the end of the visit, and the silence as we were trying to light our candles at No. 4 crematorium. The roof of the crematorium had collapsed, as the Nazis had tried to destroy the evidence of the gas chambers when they were retreating. We were trying to pay our tributes by lighting candles, and I remember the silence as we did so. The students were distinctly quieter on the journey home as they reflected on what we had all witnessed. I will always remember that moment that I shared with the hon. Lady; it was an extremely moving occasion.
I should like to echo the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend Mr Scott in congratulating the Holocaust Educational Trust on the work that it does. I have also been reflecting on the point made by my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart that such atrocities could indeed continue, but we can reduce the chances of that happening if we educate future generations. That is why the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and of others who do similar work, is so important.
The Holocaust Educational Trust is a fantastic organisation, and I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us all of that fact. We cannot speak too often about the trust and the fantastic work that it does. I have three young children, and I have tried to make sure that they are aware of these subjects, although it is not easy to talk to young people about them. The trust does that in a very professional and sympathetic way, however.
I am pleased to be among the MPs who have co-sponsored today’s debate with the hon. Gentleman. The theme of Holocaust memorial day is “Reaching generations”. Does he agree that an important feature of that is the passage of time? The Holocaust Educational Trust does extremely valuable work in schools, but as time passes—the hon. Gentleman mentioned 68 years—it is important to record testimony. As each year passes, there are fewer and fewer living survivors, and if we are to learn the lessons from the holocaust before they fade into the distance, it will be important to record as much testimony as possible so that we can remain as vigilant as possible. Bob Stewart has just issued a warning: as much as we might believe that those atrocities should never happen again, the danger of them happening again has not gone away.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very valid point, and I agree with him. As people grow old and pass on, it is up to us, our children and our children’s children to ensure that their story is always told and never forgotten. When I was a little lad of 10 in my home town, I remember a Cheshire Regiment soldier who had been part of the liberation of Belsen telling me about the camp. I had had no comprehension of such things as a 10-year-old; I had always thought that we had been the plucky Brits who fought the war and beat the Germans. The idea of the holocaust had never occurred to me. I remember him telling me how he had been affected by coming upon Belsen as a 19-year-old British soldier, and how it had affected him for the rest of his life. Hon. Members might remember Jeremy Isaacs’ award-winning series “The World at War”, which came out in the early 1970s. Programmes such as those stay fresh in the mind because they used survivors from the camps and the genocide. It is important that they are still shown on television and on the internet. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East for making that very good point.
I should like to add to the tributes being paid to the Holocaust Educational Trust. Its “Lessons from Auschwitz” project was originally funded through a grant from the Treasury, which allowed the programme to be extended to Northern Ireland on one occasion, in which I took part. Is the hon. Gentleman aware, however, that a subsequent decision was made that the money should come from the Department for Education’s budget? That has resulted in the Holocaust Educational Trust having to busk around for money in order to continue to do work in the devolved territories, and the programme has not been available in Northern Ireland. If there is one place in the UK that could benefit in a particularly poignant way from learning the lessons from Auschwitz about prejudice, it is Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should look again at this matter, and give a UK-wide envelope of funding to the Holocaust Educational Trust?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He raises an important point relating to his constituency. My understanding is that money is available for students from across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to attend Auschwitz. I believe that the Treasury has allocated funds for that exercise.
I have also been privileged to meet survivors and listen to first-hand accounts, but they are harder and harder to find as time takes its toll. As time goes on, it is essential that we work harder than ever to ensure that people remember the Holocaust; we cannot allow it to become a remote and distant memory for future generations.
So why should this debate be taking place here in the Chamber today? Those who fail to learn the lessons of history risk repeating them. The holocaust was not the first genocide; nor, sadly, was it the last. That murder by the state on an industrial scale occurred in what was one of the most modern and, arguably, civilised nations in the world at the time. Anti-Semitism, homophobia and prejudice still exist all across the world. Wherever there is unrest, economic difficulty or social imbalance, it is human nature to search for a group to blame. As the global economy falters, those conditions exist across the world, in Europe and even in Great Britain today.
I have been to Cambodia and Rwanda, and what the hon. Gentleman has been saying is particularly worrying. Having seen those countries, and knowing the history of Europe, I cannot say with certainty that such things will not happen again. Today gives us an important opportunity to express our best hope that they will not, and to alert people to the dangers, but does the hon. Gentleman know of any ways in which we could act in a stronger, more robust, manner to lessen the chances of them happening again?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. It is only 15 years since the genocide in Rwanda, in the mid-1990s, when the whole world stood by and allowed it to happen. He is right to say that we need to remain vigilant in relation to Rwanda and other countries.
I am leaving in the next few minutes to go to Hungary, and I shall be speaking in the Hungarian Parliament tomorrow morning with politicians from five other countries about the statements made by the new party, Jobbik, which called in November for there to be lists of Jews rewritten by the Hungarian state, for purposes to be determined. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that even today there are extremists who would perpetuate race hate, even among politicians in western European countries?
I wholeheartedly agree. The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my speech, because I was about to come to that exact subject. I wish him well in Hungary; I am sure that he will be a fine representative for the whole House.
When we stop remembering our collective history, because we no longer have first-hand accounts from people who were there, or simply because it shows the unpalatable truth about how we can turn on a minority, we risk making the same mistakes. It is inevitable that they will be repeated. Evil men know that. Adolf Hitler knew it. He frequently referred to the Armenian genocide, which took place between 1915 and 1923, during the Turkish Ottoman empire. One million people were murdered and another million were displaced, but the memory of it had all but disappeared by the 1930s. The world had moved on, and the vigilance against similar events had all but disappeared. History, it appeared, could simply wash the blood away. Adolf Hitler knew that when he went to war against Poland and Russia: he thought that if he could win, he could commit mass murder and genocide throughout Europe—he thought he could get away with it.
My application for this debate came to the Backbench Business Committee in the wake of a surprisingly under-reported outburst by the deputy leader of the Hungarian party Jobbik. During a debate in the Chamber of the Hungarian Parliament, he demanded that a list be drawn up of every Jewish Member of Parliament, and Government Members claimed that their very presence posed a national security risk to the country. Such words should bring a chill to any rational person’s heart. The response by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, was impassioned. He said:
“as long as I am standing in this place, no one in Hungary can be hurt or discriminated against because of their faith, conviction or ancestry.”
The hon. Gentleman is making a telling case and raising important points. One critical issue is that we cannot let people believe that, with the ending of the war, all these attitudes suddenly went away. There were pogroms in eastern Europe after the second world war. Education is clearly the key to ensuring that future generations never forget what happened.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The moment we hear about such statements, it is up to us all—in this House and in similar democracies throughout Europe and indeed the world—to highlight them.
This aggravated anti-Semitic sentiment was not an outburst from a political outsider. This nationalist party received 17% of the vote in the 2010 election and holds 47 seats in a 386-seat Parliament. Some polls suggest that as much as 21% of the population would describe themselves as Jobbik sympathisers. It is estimated that some 600,000 Hungarian Jews died during Nazi occupation. We know—we learned when we visited Auschwitz—that 400,000 Jewish men, women and children were murdered there in 1944. Golden Dawn is Europe’s most recently successful far-right party, winning 18 seats.
As I was saying, Golden Dawn is Europe’s most recently successful far-right party, winning 18 seats in the Greek elections last year. It feeds prejudice, using overtly racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric, taking advantage of the crippling economic situation and civil unrest. It is worth taking a moment to consider that conditions there—having to repay a huge economic burden imposed by other European countries—are not dissimilar to those of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s.
What about here in our own backyards? We still live in a world of prejudice and violence, where one in five British Jewish students is a victim of anti-Semitism.
A recent survey by the Union of Jewish Students highlighted that 20% of Jewish students have experienced—and a further 32% witnessed—anti-Semitism in the past academic year. Some academic institutions still allow groups with aggressive stances towards Judaism to take part in debates on campus, providing a platform from which to spread hateful sentiments inciting prejudice and even violence. We have come to expect liberal and considered views from our academic institutions. Students should not just learn but grow, and if these kinds of attitudes are not tackled head on at schools, colleges and universities, we will forfeit the moral compass for the future.
Just a few weeks ago, in my own constituency no less, a teenager was convicted of sending racially aggravated Twitter messages to a Jewish schoolboy. The individual referred to members of the Jewish faith as “creatures” and expressed his support for eugenics. This is a depressing state of affairs and it shows us that a great deal more must be done right here in Britain to look at how our culture finds a breeding ground for these sorts of beliefs.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one problem is an ideology of holocaust denial that, sadly, exists in many countries in the world and that feeds back through the internet and modern communications, distorting the debate and affecting some young people in this country? In that context, will he join me in condemning remarks made by the President of Egypt who denied the holocaust and said that it was a myth created by the Jews and the Americans? Those remarks were made before he became President of Egypt, but it is important for us in this country not to have double standards or pull our punches, but to criticise vehemently and strongly all those who foster holocaust denial internationally—in whatever position in whatever country, whether it be Hungary or in other parts of the world.
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point; I agree with him wholeheartedly. I would distinguish between two camps: there is the more sinister type of denial, as exemplified by the comments of the Egyptian Prime Minister, and there is ignorance. I believe we can do something about ignorance, but we also have to take head on those more sinister politicians who want to deny that the holocaust ever happened.
The holocaust was not created by some faceless state machine, but by people from a society not so far away from our own who committed terrible acts against members of their own communities. It is for us to examine our society, both global and national, to address these vicious twists of human nature before we reach a breaking point like that again. When I visited Auschwitz, what struck me was that its architects were doctors, scientists and engineers. Global industries all have their fingerprints on the creation of Auschwitz and murder on an the industrial scale.
So what do we do now? It would be all too easy to hold a one-sided debate, pat ourselves on the backs for vociferously condemning the actions of the Germans in the 1930s and 1940s. We can all agree that the spectre of anti-Semitism, prejudice and bigotry is morally reprehensible, but that carries the risk of creating an apathetic view of the social mechanics that do not just lead to the holocaust but are set in motion before any genocide.
Having spent several months in Israel in my youth and about eight years here in the British Parliament, I abhor anti-Semitism, racism and “groupism” in all its forms. It seems to me that as democratically elected politicians in a liberal democracy, we have a responsibility to be careful with our own words in identifying groups of people—whether it be on a party political basis or a basis of heritage or some other characteristic. We must be careful with our words so that we do not forge groupism within our society, as it can very quickly turn into something far more insidious.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend who, as always, makes a hugely valued point. The holocaust deniers sometimes try to detract from British bomber command and the terror raids it carried out to bring the war to a close in 1945. I remember speaking to a bomber pilot who said that if there had been a peace treaty in 1945 and if the Germans had come to negotiate for peace, the bombing would have stopped overnight. They did not want to kill women and children; they wanted to bring the second world war to a close. The moment it did close, the bombing was stopped. I do not think for one moment that if there had been a peace treaty, the gassing of Jews in Auschwitz would have stopped; it would have carried on while so-called peace negotiations were going on.
In his illustration, I think my hon. Friend was primarily referring to the bombing of Dresden. It is no coincidence at all that the person most responsible for massively exaggerating the admittedly terrible civilian casualties in Dresden was none other than the same David Irving, who was a principal holocaust denier.
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. The Dresden bombing raid, right at the end of the second world war, was dreadful but the Tokyo fire raid in 1945 was far, far worse. More people were killed in that raid than were killed in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. All bombing of civilians is a terrible thing, but the point I am making is that the Nazis’ “final solution” was hell-bent on ring-fencing a group of people and annihilating them from the face of the earth. The “final solution” was not a decision made on high by a few, but a calculated move riding on a wave of ill will which swept across Europe—a wave which, lest we forget, also encompassed the United Kingdom.
I should like to recognise the good work that is done. The Treasury has allocated £1.8 million for holocaust education funding for the trips to Auschwitz, £250,000 of which is for an education development programme to equip teachers with the skills and resources to address this issue. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has been mentioned several times, and I should also like to mention the Conservative Friends of Israel. I was privileged enough to go on a trip to Yad Vashem, the remarkable tribute to the holocaust.
Beyond first-hand accounts, we need to look at how to communicate and share information effectively. The internet provides a vast sea of information designed to educate and inform. It is a proactive source of opinions, but it also provides an instant platform for uneducated views and malicious misinformation, which my hon.
Friend Mike Gapes alluded to earlier. We must seek to combat holocaust denial and racism wherever we find it.
As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to remain vigilant, to protect the right to live free from prejudice, no matter what creed, colour, faith or ancestry. I urge us all to take the time to look around us, to see where the spectre of prejudice rises. That may be at home, talking to schools, communities and the police. It may be abroad, working with the many all-party parliamentary groups providing us with links across the world and with our counterparts in the EU or in individual states. What we must not do is be passive. This is our future and we must fight for it. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. This House is full of good men, and women; we have to remain vigilant.
As Members will see, a number of people wish to take part in this debate. The wind-ups will start at half-past 4, so please be considerate of others when making your own speeches. I call Fabian Hamilton.
I should like to start by congratulating Graham Evans on having secured this timely and important debate. It is essential that we are reminded why we commemorate Holocaust memorial day this coming weekend.
I want to follow the excellent speech that has just been made with some recollections of my own and, if the House will indulge me—I will be as quick as I can—with some very personal stories that I have never before relayed in my nearly 16 years as a Member of Parliament.
I first visited Auschwitz in 1998. I represent the largest Jewish community in Yorkshire, in the city of Leeds. They live mainly in my Leeds North East constituency, where we have five synagogues and some 8,500 Jewish people remaining from the much larger pre-war community. I was persuaded to go, first, because I am myself Jewish and had never been to a concentration camp, but also because so many of my constituents felt that it was right to go that January day. So, at 2 o’clock in the morning, we set off from Leeds to Manchester—we could not fly at that time from Leeds—and then to Krakow. We chartered a plane and all paid our contribution towards the cost, and 24 hours later, we were back home. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.
As I am sure other Members will relay this afternoon, and as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale so clearly and carefully put it in recounting the story of his visit, one cannot but be affected emotionally, and almost physically, by what one sees in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I thought Birkenau, in many ways, was more moving. Auschwitz has become a museum. It is well-preserved and looked after by the Polish authorities. The guides are professional and they give visitors a very clear story, sometimes, quite naturally, with a Polish bias. But on getting to Birkenau, one can see almost unspoilt—if I can put it that way—the horrors of that camp. There is the railway the hon. Gentleman described, that goes from the beginning—from that wall and that gate—right through to the crematorium and the showers: the gas chambers, which were partially destroyed. There are the huts, originally built for horses, which were imported from Germany and, so I understood from our guide, contained up to 1,000 people who were kept captive there. The facilities there were horrifying. The prisoners were treated probably worse than the horses would have been treated. The Nazis destroyed most of those huts, leaving—as other Members who have visited the camp will recall—a sea of chimneys, all in straight lines, where the boilers and fires were, to give some rudimentary heat in the depths of winter.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend’s moving contribution, but in many ways it reflects other moving contributions that I have heard from schoolchildren who have been on visits organised, very effectively, by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has become an advocate of the importance of learning about the horrors of the holocaust. Is that not a tribute to the work undertaken by the trust, and to its public funding by both Governments? Long may it continue.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Other Members have also mentioned the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was founded by my good friend Lord Janner of Braunstone, a former Member of this House, who has done so much to establish it and ensure that its work continues. It is because of the trust that so many young people have an opportunity to visit the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.
I, too, have been on one of those visits. When students return, they are very keen to share the information that they have gained. Students at a school in my constituency invited a survivor of the Kindertransport to speak to their peers as part of their project. Given that there will come a time when there are no more people left with first-hand experiences, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for us to continue to support the Holocaust Educational Trust so that it can continue its work when those survivors are no longer with us?
I agree wholeheartedly, and in a couple of minutes I shall say something about some of the survivors in my constituency. Sadly, they will not be with us in perhaps 10 or 15 years, and certainly 20 or 30 years. When the children with whom we visited the camps—thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust—are in their 40s and 50s, there will be no survivors left to speak of their first-hand experiences. It is so important for those experiences to be shared down the generations, and for us to continue, enforce and support the work of the trust.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of an extremely moving film called “Shoah”, made by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg went around the world collecting the testimonies of survivors in many different countries. It was a remarkable piece of work that took a very long time. At least the film’s existence means that those people’s voices and faces are still there for future generations.
Let me pay my own tribute to Steven Spielberg for his work in preserving those memories. He is a very famous, world-renowned film director and producer who has done so much himself to ensure that those voices continue down the generations on film and in digital media, and it is absolutely essential that they do.
I did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau again for 12 years, but the Holocaust Educational Trust asked me to go back with a school party just before the 2010 general election. I declined to go on that occasion because I felt that it would be very bad timing from my point of view, politically; not for the children, of course. However, one of my good friends in the House—I hope that he will not mind my mentioning this—is Sir John Stanley, with whom I was serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, and he asked whether he could join any visit that was organised or in which I was involved. I told him that if I was re-elected, I would organise a visit for the two of us and our wives, and that, indeed, happened in October 2010.
The four of us went to Krakow at our own expense, and hired our own guide, a young woman called Kasia. She had been doing the job for about 10 years, and I think that it had burnt her out. Although Polish, she was not Jewish, but just the experience of 10 years of guiding people around had made her into a very nervous person. I believe that she retired from the job subsequently. It can only be done for a limited time because the pain is so great. Even someone with no personal involvement cannot but be absorbed into what happened to those many hundreds of thousands of people who were victims of the Nazi persecution. We had a fascinating time. My wife had never been there before. She is not Jewish, but I am. We saw the photographs at the “reception centre”, which had not been there in 1998, but many hon. Members who have been subsequently will have seen it. We saw the pictures of the families that had been taken from the suitcases and from their belongings, and put on the exhibition boards at the exit to the so-called “reception centre”. My wife looked at them and what she saw were no relatives of mine but people who looked like my relatives—they looked like people from my family’s album—and she broke down in tears. That is a reaction that so many thousands of people, including many of us, will have had.
Just a few months after that visit with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I was asked by the BBC in Leeds to make a documentary. This is important, as it involved the HET and two young people, a young Muslim boy of 17 from Bradford and a young Jewish girl of 17 from Leeds. I was the adviser on the programme, and the BBC producer and interviewer was Liz Green, who runs a daily show on BBC Radio Leeds. This very unusual radio documentary was called “Moon and Star”, after the symbols of the two faiths. What was most fascinating was the reaction of those two young people, who could not believe what they were seeing. Their reactions were almost identical, even though the Jewish girl knew the history perhaps better than the Muslim boy. It was very hard to stop the tears towards the end of that documentary, when we were standing outside the remains of the crematorium and the gas chamber. We came back, and the programme was then edited, broadcast and syndicated. I believe it is available in all schools today, and I was proud to have been involved in it.
To take up the point made by my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, I would like to mention two holocaust survivors. I will then try to finish my remarks in order to let others contribute. The first is a gentleman called Arek Hersh, who at the age of 11 was taken off the streets of Lodz in Poland and to a number of different concentration camps. I met him first in my constituency and subsequently at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale has mentioned. A room there was being dedicated to Arek Hersh, who survived five years in concentration camps. Hon. Members who have visited Yad Vashem will recall the recreation of the main square of the ghetto in Lodz. The most moving moment came when Arek, who had been lifted from that square, was standing in the reproduction of the square. I saw a man, by this time in his late 70s, in tears because he felt he was back there, aged 11—it was very moving.
Of course, as the guide said, when children, young people and adults were taken to the concentration camps they had a number tattooed on their wrist—many hon. Members will have seen these. Arek rolled up his sleeve and there was a number. His friend Yitzak, who lives in Jerusalem and who had been there with him, rolled up his sleeve to show the next, consecutive number. The two boys had shared a bunk together for five years until they were liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945. Arek Hersh now goes around Leeds, Yorkshire and the country telling his story—he is one of those survivors. He is now in his early 80s and he is still very lucid. If any hon. Member wishes to get in touch with him, I will give them his number, because he is one of those last survivors who is still able to articulate his experiences very clearly, in his beautiful Yorkshire-Polish accent.
The other person I wish to mention is Iby Knill, who is very interesting. I invited her here, with Mr Speaker’s permission, to talk to Members about two years ago. Unfortunately not many Members attended, so perhaps we did not publicise the talk well enough. She wrote a book called “The woman without a number” because she had not been tattooed. She is Jewish and was originally from Bratislava, although she escaped over the border into Hungary. She was captured as a political prisoner, and her experience is remarkable to listen to. She was in Auschwitz—she was in that camp in Birkenau—and she met some of the most evil representatives of the Nazi regime every single day. She volunteered for a slave labour factory because that was the way to prevent herself being starved to death. She was quite a fit young woman and she was a nurse. She got together with other young women who were in the medical profession and they all survived because they kept together as a group. She said, “If you allowed yourself to be picked off one by one, that was the route to an early death. But if you kept together and kept some solidarity, you generally kept alive—if you were very, very lucky.” She was lucky; she went there fairly late.
Finally, I want to mention members of my family, as I said earlier. I have never relayed this story in public before, although I have told one or two close friends about it. In 1985, my late father, who died 25 years ago next week, rang me up and said, “Fabian, I’d like you to come to Salonica with me this weekend.” I said, “Why, dad?” and he said, “I have just discovered that my aunt, who I thought had died in Belsen during the war, survived.” That was 1985, 40 years after the war. He was 63 and had last seen that part of the family when he was 14 in 1936.
We took the next flight to Salonica, which is where most of his family came from, and were met at the airport by a tall, elegant 93-year-old called Ida Uziel. Uziell is my family’s name, and Hamilton was given to my father during the war when he volunteered for the Special Operations Executive. Ida was very elegant and had survived Belsen with her daughter, Bella, and her granddaughter, who was three at the time. They were all there in the flat in Salonica to greet us and told us first hand their account of their lives in Belsen. It was staggering to hear. What was all the more moving was that they had lost all their original photographs and family mementoes, but my father had duplicates that he had brought along together with the family tree. We sat in Ida’s flat and looked through the different family relationships as we heard this first-hand account of life in Belsen—I had never heard such an account before and I was 30 years old at the time. We heard of the liberation by the Russians, their recapture by the Germans and their re-liberation by the Russians.
One story they told us was that they were, of course, starving. They were lucky as they had gone to the camp late, which was why they survived. A lot of people who were liberated at the time immediately ate whatever food they could—of course, that is the first thing anyone would do—but the family were lucky because they were with a doctor, who told them not to eat any dairy products as their bodies would not be able to absorb the fats and it would be very damaging, if not fatal. Sadly and ironically, people died from eating fats that their bodies could not absorb after years of starvation. I am glad to say that the Uziel family did not, as they took the advice of the doctor and ate bread, light food, vegetables and fruits and gradually allowed their bodies to readjust to the nutrition they had been denied for so long. I shall never forget that time. I am sad to say that Ida probably is no longer with us—she would be in her 100s if she was.
Just four months ago, I went to Paris to see relatives. I had recently met a cousin who I did not know existed until the July before last, when she contacted me. She did not know that she was half-Jewish—her father was Jewish but had never mentioned his background. He had survived the war by ducking and diving, weaving and dodging. I should explain that that part of my family had come from Switzerland to live in Paris in the 1930s. My grandmother lived in Paris throughout the war, but luckily she had a Portuguese passport and was spared persecution. Her brothers were not so lucky; one was killed, but the other two survived and so did her nephew, the father of the woman who contacted me last year.
That man, my father’s first cousin, is still alive and is now 88 years old. My second cousin, his daughter, told me that he had finally managed to obtain the death certificate of our mutual great-grandparents. I did not even know their names before, but they were called Raina and Isaac Sevilla. I have plenty of photographs of them in my parents’ albums. They had come to Paris from Switzerland and taken French citizenship. When the Nazis invaded Paris, and Paris fell, they were asked to register. My grandmother told me that the Nazis were very polite and said, “Please wear this yellow star. We just need to know who you are; we will not harm you in any way.” That was a lie, of course.
One dark night in early 1941, there was a knock on the door and Raina and Isaac Sevilla were arrested and taken to Drancy, the notorious clearing house for the concentration camps. They were taken away, never to be seen again, and we did not know what had happened to them until my cousin Peggy found a death certificate issued in Auschwitz concentration camp, which means that we know that that is where they perished. It was one of the most truly moving moments in my life, and I am now 57 years old.
As a result of the experience of my family, and countless thousands of Jewish families in this country, and all over Europe and the world, I take a passionate interest in more recent genocides—I know that other Members want to talk about them—especially the Kurdish Anfal. Last week, I was fortunate enough to chair part of a conference on the Anfal in Westminster’s Methodist central hall, and in February last year, together with many other hon. Members, I visited Kurdistan’s Administration in northern Iraq. There is huge similarity between what has happened to the Kurdish people in recent years, and what happened in the war to the Jewish people. We have to make sure that we do all we can to prevent that ever happening again. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance; we must always be vigilant.
I thank my hon. Friend Graham Evans for securing the debate and, importantly, for ensuring that it was held in the main Chamber. It is important that a topic as significant as the holocaust be debated here, and not in an anteroom to the Commons.
Today, when attention spans are seemingly getting ever shorter, and our media seem to report items fleetingly, it is important that we stop and remember events such as the holocaust and subsequent genocides. I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, of which I am a trustee, and to the Holocaust Educational Trust for all the work it does in ensuring that at least once a year we pause, reflect, remember and hopefully learn the lessons of history.
I represent one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse constituencies in the country. Most people do not think of Finchley and Golders Green as particularly diverse—it is often thought of as nice, quiet suburbia—but 25% of my electorate is Jewish, 8% Hindu, and 7% Muslim. The borough of Barnet, of which my constituency is part, has the largest percentage of Christians of any London borough, and one of the highest percentages in the country.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day—“communities together: build a bridge”—resonates, because my constituency and Barnet are blessed with good community relations, but those good relations between faiths and various ethnic groups do not come easily. They take work, not just once a year, but day in, day out. That work is aimed at ensuring that we understand each other’s point of view, as well as our points of difference. Too often, ignorance allows division to fester and breeds contempt, and contempt means that people may all too easily become willing to turn a blind eye when others are singled out and denigrated.
Holocaust memorial day is always an emotional experience for me. As my constituency has a large Jewish population, I have met many residents who survived the holocaust, either having escaped on the Kindertransport or having otherwise fled Nazi persecution. I know of residents who have survived the death camps or lost family in them. I was especially pleased to see that one of my constituents, Freda Wineman, met the Prime Minister this week when he signed the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of remembrance. The personal testimony of survivors is crucial to ensuring that we do not forget.
I mentioned that Holocaust memorial day is emotional, but that is perhaps not for the reason people might expect. I visited Yad Vashem on a trip to Israel, and found that visit emotionally draining, so when I was invited to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, I fully expected the experience to be equally emotional. I give credit and thanks to the Government and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for providing £2.1 million in funding for the maintenance and restoration of Birkenau, to ensure that it does not crumble into history.
When I visited Birkenau, the emotion I felt was not sadness but anger and rage. That took me by surprise. Murder and mayhem are all around us, and often the deaths that we hear of and see are the result of arguments or passion. Newspapers, television and cinema have numbed us to the violence, the killing and the bloodshed, but the reason I was angry is that it struck me that Auschwitz-Birkenau was cold, clinical and utterly efficient. Members may think this an odd comment: in some ways we lampoon the Germans for their efficiency, but on that day I thanked God for German efficiency, because they kept impeccable records. People may try to deny that the holocaust happened, but German efficiency was so good that we can point to the records of how many carriages came in, hour by hour, how many people were on the transports, and even the number of carrots used in the stews that barely fed the inmates.
Will the hon. Gentleman add to that list of efficient record-keeping the staggering fact that each person who was killed had a death certificate issued, as did my relative?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. When people were being killed on an industrial scale, the fact that the murderers took pains to issue death certificates is perverse and astounding, but it means that we have the evidence to point out to holocaust deniers and to say, “This cannot have been made up. Here is the evidence.”
Even during the last days of the war, when one might think that the Germans would be maintaining their resources on the fronts, they did not. They diverted resources from the fronts to maintain the killing machine, to ensure that the final solution was not impaired. That also fuelled my rage.
One of the things that particularly angered me was that Auschwitz-Birkenau murdered 1.3 million people— 1.3 million—yet we are told that no one noticed. So when the train drivers pulled back out of Auschwitz-Birkenau with empty carriages, no one noticed that they went in full and came out empty. When the local traders delivered food and supplies to the guards, did they not notice the people standing around in the freezing cold in the striped uniforms? We are told that no one noticed. That made me angry. No one noticed the thousands who went in but did not come out.
Next to the camp is the Polish town that bears the name Oswiecim, or Auschwitz. Before the war that had a population of about 12,000, of whom 58% were Jewish. The Jewish and non-Jewish population lived side by side harmoniously—Jewish bakers, synagogues, a whole range of shops which showed that there was a vibrant Jewish community living harmoniously alongside the non-Jewish population. The local council, much like my own council in Barnet, had Jewish and non-Jewish councillors working together for the good of the town, yet shortly after the war started, there were no Jews left in Oswiecim, not one, and we are asked to believe that no one noticed.
Words struggle to describe the horror of mass extermination, but words also cannot describe my anger at how people can simply turn a blind eye to the disappeared. Given that I have such a large Jewish population in my constituency, I asked myself whether I would have noticed if I got up one morning, walked down my road in Finchley and saw every other house suddenly empty—not just one or two, but every other house; one in two houses. Would I not have noticed? If the same happened in the local areas of Golders Green and Hampstead Garden Suburb, and every other house was empty, would someone not have noticed? Wouldn’t you have noticed? I believe people did notice, but they chose not to.
I believe fervently that we can bring communities together so that they see the person, not the religion or the colour. If we can achieve that and the theme of building bridges and bringing communities together, so that people see beyond the label, the seeds of division are harder to sow.
Many of us know from our constituency surgeries that when we sit down with people from a variety of faiths and backgrounds we find that they all have the same problems; they are concerned about jobs, education, crime and the future. Their backgrounds are irrelevant. They simply want to get on with their lives and live peacefully. For me, building bridges and bringing communities together is crucial. I spend a lot of my time on interfaith work, because I believe that if we can get beyond labels and get people to see that more unites us than divides us, we will reduce the risk of further genocides of the sort we have seen. Once again, I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate.
I congratulate Graham Evans on securing the debate and on the passionate and knowledgeable way in which he spoke. The reason we are having this debate today is that we are approaching Holocaust memorial day, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but people might not realise that it is a relatively recent commemoration, and indeed one that was decided by this Parliament. It originated with a private Member’s Bill introduced by Andrew Dismore, who at the time was Member of Parliament for Hendon. The Bill was enthusiastically supported by the whole House and led to the creation of Holocaust memorial day, a day on which the whole community focuses not just on what happened in the holocaust and ensuring that people know about it, but on learning the lessons of what happened. Both are extremely important.
On Monday evening I attended a reception in the House organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, of which I am a council member. The trust was set up by two parliamentarians—Lord Greville Janner, who was a Member of this House and is now an active Member of the other place, and the late Merlyn Rees—because they wanted to ensure that the knowledge of the holocaust was known to new generations and that its lessons were learned by everybody. At Monday evening’s reception, I heard my right hon. Friend David Miliband and The Times journalist Daniel Finkelstein talk about their families’ recollections and experiences in the holocaust. There was also information, in a very striking film, about the memories of holocaust survivors. They all told their powerful stories, in much the same way as we heard the powerful story today from my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton. The strongest message that came from those stories was that it was incumbent on future generations to ensure that people do not forget what happened and that they learn the lessons.
I would like to draw hon. Members’ attention to the story of one particular survivor, Ben Helfgott, a very remarkable man. He spends most of his time talking to young people and others and working in the wider community to create good community relations and ensure that people know about the depravity of what happened in the past. He found what I think is an excellent way of communicating his life story and what happened. He was the guest on a very memorable episode of “Desert Island Discs” in which he told with great pathos—at times it was almost unbearable to hear—the story of what happened to him as a young lad and to his family. It was a compelling broadcast. I understand that Kirsty Young, in the middle of interviewing him, had to stop the recording to recover her composure. I commend that broadcast because I think that it tells, in a way that is very different from what we usually hear, what happened and the intensity, pathos and horror of Ben’s experiences. The important thing about Ben’s life is that he spends his time not just talking about what was bad and evil but working for good, and with a positive attitude to the whole of humankind. That is what inspires him.
I want to talk about what is happening now and what the lessons of what happened should be.
In reference to the Holocaust Educational Trust, will the hon. Lady allow me to put on record my complete endorsement of the words of Mark Durkan? He drew attention to the fact that we have a gap in relation to the Lessons from Auschwitz programme, which does not apply in Northern Ireland. We need to work with the Holocaust Educational Trust to make that programme happen in Northern Ireland. I spoke to Members about this yesterday. I am sure that the hon. Lady agrees that the programme is very important, particularly in Northern Ireland, and that it should be available for people right across the United Kingdom.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments.
Reference has been made to what is happening in other countries in Europe, with the rise of the blatantly anti-Semitic Jobbik party in Hungary and the Golden Dawn party in Greece, which should give us growing cause for concern. In this country, yes, the situation is different, but there are still things that we should all be concerned about. The Jewish community in this country is a proud community of proud British citizens working hard as members of this society. However, there is unease. I commend the work of the Community Security Trust, which works within the Jewish community and, indeed, the wider community to identify anti-Semitism and prejudice against any other groups. In the first six months of last year alone it recorded 299 anti-Semitic incidents—a lot of incidents and a cause for concern. The trust does not only work with the Jewish community; it is now working with the Muslim community to show them the methods it uses, to ensure that anti-Semitic incidents and deplorable Islamophobic incidents will be recorded in a way that is seen as absolutely reliable by the police, who are then able to act. I commend the Community Security Trust for the work that it does. It is a remarkable institution doing excellent work for the whole community.
There is also the issue of rhetoric—the kind of anti-Semitism that its perpetrators often do not recognise they are carrying out. I say to people who, in arguments about any topic, refer to Jewish power, alleged Jewish influence or Jewish conspiracies, or use images such as Jews as snakes, that they should realise that they are reflecting anti-Semitic rhetoric. They should think about what they say, because when Jewish people hear those terms a little shudder is felt within most of us as we recognise that those are the words and images of the blatant anti-Semitism that was used in such a horrendous way by the Nazis. Some people do this through ignorance and simply do not understand what they are doing; others, I suspect, are not so ignorant. I say to those people: be careful of the words you use and the images you invoke.
I have tried to indicate the role that Members of this House and this House itself have played in trying to address problems of anti-Semitism and to ensure that the holocaust and its lessons are remembered. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend John Mann, who has done excellent work with his all-party group on anti-Semitism. I should also like to recognise the excellent work done by the former Member for Rotherham, Denis MacShane, who has worked unceasingly and tirelessly to expose anti-Semitism in this country and across the whole of Europe. His work should be recognised. Indeed, we are still using the information that he has provided.
We are here today, with the approval of the Backbench Business Committee, to mark this year’s Holocaust memorial day. Many events will take place this week and next week in London and across the country. Those events will involve all communities, not just the Jewish community, because the purpose of Holocaust memorial day is to ensure that the whole community continues to learn about the holocaust and its lessons. We must continue to work together to expose evil and to do right for the future. I hope that this House and its individual Members will continue to play their part in securing that.
Order. Seven Members wish to get in. If they speak for about eight minutes each, everybody will get a fair share of time and the winding-up speeches can start at 4.30 pm.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Graham Evans on securing this very important debate.
It is a great privilege to contribute to this important debate and I am delighted that it has become a permanent fixture in our parliamentary calendar. I hope that it will become a permanent fixture in the Chamber from now on. I think that we can all agree that continuing to reflect on the events of the holocaust, while also paying our respects to those who were murdered and to those families whose lives have been indelibly tarnished as a result, is a process that will never lose its significance. In so many ways, the holocaust stands alone in its sheer horror as a direct warning of the dangers of intolerance and prejudice when coupled with unchecked political power. Numerous events since have, of course, demonstrated that there are still lessons that we can learn today by reflecting on what took place under the murderous Nazi regime.
Marking Holocaust memorial day with a debate in this place should also serve as a reminder of the role that this country played, not just in finally freeing the world from fascist oppression, but in offering sanctuary to close to 90,000 refugees, including thousands of unaccompanied Jewish children and teenagers, fleeing Nazi persecution at a time when we were battling to ensure our own very existence. Offering assistance where it is genuinely needed, and can be given, is surely a guiding principle for any civilized nation and we can be rightly proud of our history in that regard.
I will mark Holocaust memorial day in my constituency tomorrow along with other elected representatives and am mindful of the opportunity it gives us to ensure that our country’s political process remains the beacon of equality and openness that it undoubtedly is. The lingering but persistent racial and anti-Semitic threats at the fringes of our political system should never be far from our minds, and that is something that the all-party inquiry on electoral conduct, of which I am a vice-chairman, is looking at. Maintaining best practice in electoral conduct by preventing racist and anti-Semitic campaigning and literature is a crucial aspect of the fight against intolerance. We in this country could doubtless be doing more to learn from other countries in order to ensure that that is done properly. We will be looking at that in the meetings of this important inquiry.
Holocaust memorial day is also an opportunity to focus on the struggle around the world to maintain freedom of conscience and religion. Vital work is being undertaken by the new all-party group on international religious freedom, led by Baroness Berridge, and on which I am proud to serve as the secretary. We thought that we would start by taking a long, fresh look at article 18 of the universal declaration of human rights, which, as I am sure many present will know, is the key cornerstone that underpins everyone’s right to follow the religion of their choice, to change their religion by choice or, indeed, to have no religion by choice. It is essential to uphold the right to think and believe freely, because without that freedom there would be no free speech.
It is extraordinary, however, how many countries across the world—some actual signatories to the universal declaration of human rights—fail to uphold article 18, either intentionally or because it proves too difficult. We will look at how article 18 still applies in the 21st century and how better we can ensure that it is properly implemented.
Of course, as many Members have said, good education is critical if we are to ensure that the holocaust remains part of our nation’s collective consciousness. I am delighted that the Government are funding the Holocaust Education Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, which will improve awareness of issues facing the country’s Jewish community. The Government have also taken welcome measures such as making it a requirement for police forces to record anti-Semitic attacks. It is a great sadness that such attacks appear to be on the increase again.
However, we must also be vigilant on behalf of all communities. My local Muslim community was deeply upset when the mosque in Acton suffered an arson attack. I was able to help by contacting the local council to ask for security equipment, which was installed very quickly. Luckily, no great damage was done, but the senseless hostility, somewhere out there on the streets, that had led to the attack still caused considerable distress and concern.
Today’s young must be taught about the past so that they do not repeat it, and they must not be allowed to grow up unaware of the horrors that previous generations were forced to witness. History must therefore always have an important place in our education system, and not just lessons about the second world war—it must go further back, too. History shows that persecution of particular groups and religions spread through this country in waves on many occasions, and that the inclination to persecute people because they seem different is never entirely stamped out. It can easily resurface under different guises in different places and in different ways. Better education teaches us to be more aware of it and ready to stamp it out before it takes hold. That is the most important thing that we can still do for those who suffered in the holocaust. By keeping the memory alive, we honour those who died and can hope to safeguard generations still to come.
I finish by acknowledging that my own learning is far from complete in this regard. I have not been to see Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp for myself yet. It is a gap in my education that I intend to remedy.
I commanded a British battalion that lived beside Belsen. In fact, just to correct the record, it was my battalion, or parts of it, that liberated Belsen in 1945. When I was living beside Belsen in 1991-92, I was shocked when I visited the camp, because there are just rectangular mounds, about 100 metres square, and there is just a little sign in the heather that says, “Here lie 4,000 bodies”. Four thousand individuals.
I never thought for a moment that I would see something that would be akin to the holocaust, but a few months later I was ordered to take the first British battalion into Bosnia. At the end of October 1992, I watched with my soldiers 10,000 people trying to escape from the genocide that was occurring at a place called Jajce. They went past my camp. I told the soldiers to start counting, and I told them to stop counting at 10,000. I did not see death then. It was not long in coming.
It was particularly awful when the Bosnian Croats, the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Serbs went against one another. It was described by the United Nations as genocide, and I think one could actually call it a holocaust. On
I went there, right the way through the village. It was a linear village about a mile long, and at the far end I deployed my soldiers on either side of the road in an extended line. I said, “Go through the village. Find out if anyone has been killed.” Every house was destroyed. I cannot remember now whether there were crosses on the doors or not, but there was a differentiation between houses. Some were Croat and some were Muslim. The Croat houses survived.
We found bodies—what was left of them. I found one whole family in the cellar: a mother, another woman, three or four babies burned to death, a father, and on the stairs outside, probably a teenage boy. We found what remained of them because they had hopefully been shot—I say hopefully because otherwise they had been burned before they died. It was horrendous. We buried 104 people in a mass grave: women and children, men. About 400 people were murdered in that appalling massacre.
It went on and a few days later I went to a place called Putis, which smelled really bad. There were some bloated pigs, and I then found the remains of what must have been men, although all I found were some boots with stumps of legs sticking out of them. Those men had not only been shot against the wall, they had been burned as well. It got worse. Back in Ahmici, which is where the massacre occurred, I picked up what I thought to be a black ball in the ruins and dropped it. To my horror, it was the head of a child. I have never forgiven myself for that.
A girl was brought to my house. Her name was Melissa Mekis and she told me what genocide is, and how fearful she was. We talk here about six million Jews being killed: three million men, two million women, one million babies or children. What we fail to get over is the sheer terror that must have gone through every single person that has faced the holocaust or such situations—the sheer terror of a mother with her baby beside her, going into the gas chamber; the sheer terror of Melissa Mekis.
This is what happened. Melissa Mekis was woken up at about five o’clock in the morning by her mother and father and told to dress quickly. She went downstairs and was told to go outside with her mother and father. Then she was made to lie on the ground with her brother, mother and father. In her words—my soldiers were bathing her and we were listening to the story—there was then a great deal of noise, and her mother, father and brother did not get up. She was put into a concentration camp, or a camp, and my present wife, Claire, who was then a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, found her. Claire Podbielski brought her to my house and said, “You have room in this house; you can look after a child.” I said, “You must be joking; I am meant to be the commander of the United Nations forces.” She said, “Can I remind you of what you are meant to be doing? You are meant to be saving lives.” I agreed and so my soldiers looked after Melissa Mekis. They put a little cot between their two beds. Two days later, she did not want to leave them.
In my intervention earlier, I said that genocide continues—that the holocaust continues. It does. I also said we will never guarantee it will not happen again. It has happened again. We have instances of it happening again in recent times. By talking about the holocaust and illustrating those instances, we will hopefully reduce the chance of them happening again. God help mankind. It must not happen again.
It is a great honour and a privilege to follow my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart, who made an emotional contribution about his time in Bosnia, which I will refer to in my speech. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) and for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) and other right hon. and hon. Members who helped to secure today’s debate.
On the first day, we visited Oswiecim in Poland, the town where the Auschwitz staff camp and concentration camps were located. As my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green reminded us, before the war 58% of the population of Oswiecim was Jewish. We then visited Auschwitz 1 to see the former camp’s barracks and crematoria, and the piles of belongings seized by the Nazis. Finally, we spent time at the main killing centre of Birkenau, where the day concluded with candle lighting and a period of reflection to remember the 6 million Jews and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Roma, Sinti, gay, disabled and black people, and other victims of the Nazis killed during the holocaust. It was my first visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau and was all the more poignant in that it came just days before I joined members of the Royal British Legion in Nelson in my constituency to launch the annual poppy appeal.
Before being elected as an MP, I had the opportunity to visit Dachau concentration camp near Munich, which was the Nazi’s first. The one thing that strikes those who visit Auschwitz-Birkenau—it is the one thing most people comment on—is the sheer scale of the place. It was killing on an industrial scale, and not just of Jews, but of anyone who fell short of the Nazi ideal.
The holocaust may have been 60 years ago, but it is important that we continue to teach the lessons of it to the younger generations in order to fight bigotry and hatred today. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and others who have paid tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust and its fantastic work in the country. It is important to remember, as my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham reminded us so graphically, that man’s inhumanity to man still knows no bounds.
Before being elected as an MP in June 2009, I had the chance to visit Srebrenica—a much more recent example of genocide in Europe—where, in July 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed in just a 48-hour period. The killing spree took place in front of the eyes of the international community and Dutch UN peacekeepers.
I and a group of others helped out with a range of projects while living with local Bosniak Muslim families. We finished off a newly-built house for a war widow who wanted to return to the area she had grown up in. We refurbished an IT suite at the local secondary school, built a football pitch on a hillside and did other tasks, such as helping to chop firewood for an elderly women too frail to do it herself. While we were working there, we spoke to the widows of some of those murdered and to their children and relatives. We heard the survivors’ testimony and their stories remain with me today.
It was an extremely moving experience which has left a lasting impression. Fourteen years after the horrific violence that took the lives of 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica, the work of rebuilding homes, lives and a way of life was still not complete. I am proud of the small contribution I was able to make towards that goal during my time there. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a country still tilting uncertainly between its past and its future, and could slip backwards without sustained international attention. Now more than ever, it is vital that the international community does not forget about conflicts that many see as behind us in areas such as Bosnia. We have to keep supporting the country until it is firmly back on the track to lasting stability.
When people in Pendle say they are anti-war or against military interventions overseas—many do—they often forget the huge cost of us not intervening. It was right that we fought the Nazis in the second world war, not just to protect our own borders but to crush a dangerous ideology that led directly to death camps such as Auschwitz and to the holocaust.
I look forward to seeing how the local students who went with me to Auschwitz-Birkenau will communicate their experiences and relate them to things like the current challenges of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the UK. I hope that this will ensure that the holocaust is never forgotten, and that lessons are truly learnt, disseminated and acted on.
My hon. Friend Graham Evans has done the House a service by bringing this topic to the Chamber.
The Holocaust Educational Trust continues to do society a great service by enabling young people from schools up and down the country to have the experience of visiting Auschwitz extermination camp. I went on one of those visits a few years ago. I was a little bit reluctant to go because I had read rather more than was good for me about the holocaust at rather too young an age. I am glad I went, however, because it helped put to rest any doubts I might have had about the wisdom of taking people when they are so young to see such a terrible place. The way in which the trust prepared the young people for their visit in advance, and then debriefed them afterwards so that they could share their experience, ensured that the process was educational and probably life-changing, but not psychologically damaging.
What we have heard today has been evidence of the fact that although the scale of the holocaust against the Jews has not been reached since, the impulses behind it remain and other massacres have had a similar basis for being carried out and have been carried out. When my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie made a brief intervention earlier and talked about the importance of not defining people and damning them by the groups to which they belong, my mind went back to my days in Dynevor grammar school, Swansea, where I had an inspirational teacher by the name of Mr Graham Davies. He once told the class about a short, silent film—I have never been able to track it down—called “Prejudice”. I have never forgotten the theme of that film. It showed a group of schoolchildren in a playground. All of them were hopping around on their right legs and they seemed to get on very well, but at some point another child came into the playground and he hopped around on his left leg. Gradually, the viewer could see the members of the larger group ganging up against the individual who was different, and eventually they attacked and killed him. The film was simply called “Prejudice”. It had a lesson for me then and it has a lesson for us still today.
I want briefly to tell the story of two little girls who were caught up in the holocaust against the Jews. One was my cousin, Chana Broder, who got in touch with me back in late 2007 as a result of something in the press about my decision to resign my life membership of the Oxford union debating society because of its ill-conceived idea of giving a platform to the holocaust denier David Irving and to the leader of the anti-Semitic British National party. As a result of those two individuals being given that platform, I decided that the Oxford union debating society was not an organisation with which I wished to continue to be associated. My cousin Chana read something about it out in Israel, where she has lived for many years since the war, and got in touch with me to say that she was pleased I had done that. I thought about her story and decided to relate it in a previous Holocaust memorial day debate in this House. It bears relating once again, because that debate took place five years ago, at the beginning of 2008, and a lot of people present today were not in the House of Commons then.
The story is quite simple. It is the story of a small family in a village in eastern Poland called Siemiatycze—which we always anglicise and pronounce “Semiatich”—which was occupied initially not by the Germans but by the Russians, because when world war two broke out, less than a fortnight after the Germans had invaded from the west, the Russians invaded from the east, as hon. Members will be aware, and they carved up Poland between them. The Jews of that part of Poland occupied by the Russians were safe for the time being, but after the German invasion of Russia they were in the front line. I remember my late father telling me that the first time he knew that his family had had it was the only time he heard Siemiatycze mentioned in a radio broadcast, when he heard that invading German forces had reached that place.
Of our family—approximately 50 or so people living in that village—only five survived. Three of the five were Chana and her parents—that little family—and all the ones who survived did so only because they were sheltered and protected by Poles, at the risk of their own lives. Chana and her parents used to run a little village store. A family called the Krynskis, who were a very poor Polish farming family, used to come into the store—a convenience store, I suppose we would call it today—in the years before the war. Sometimes my cousins could see that they were rather short of the wherewithal to make the purchases they wanted to make and they would say, “Look, Mr Krynski, Mrs Krynski, take what you need and pay us when you can.” Little did they imagine that that simple act of charity would result in the Krynskis saving their lives when many other doors were closed to them, as they fled from the liquidation of the ghetto that was formed in Siemiatycze, preparatory to the extermination of the Jews. My cousin’s family lived for a year and a half in a bunker under a barn, coming out only late at night when it was safe to do so. The Krynski family gave them the sustenance to survive all that time, until the Russians overran the village of Siemiatycze once again and they were saved. They subsequently went to Canada, and then to Israel.
The sad part of the story is that, when people later tried to persuade Mr Krynski to come to Israel to accept an award for his heroism and that of his family, he decided that it was probably better not to do so, such was the continuing atmosphere of anti-Semitism in Polish society after the war. He felt that it would not be a good thing for him to go back to live there, having been rewarded for saving Jews. I know that Poland has moved a long way from those attitudes today, thank goodness, but that was the situation then.
My second story is of a young girl called Nina Karsov. She is a friend of mine. She and her parents were on a train being taken to an extermination camp. They came from Warsaw. Somehow, they managed to jump from the train. The mother was killed instantly, but the little girl, who was two, lay in the snow for quite some time until her father managed to make his way back to find her. He took her back to Warsaw, where they were separately sheltered, again by gallant Polish families. One day, there was a raid on the quarter of Warsaw in which the father was being hidden. In order not to give away the people who had been sheltering him, he raced across to another building, climbed to the roof and threw himself off so that he could not be forced to disclose the identity of the people who had sheltered him. Nina survived and was brought up by the person she calls her Polish mother. She is today a researcher in the House of Commons, working for me.
Those experiences all sound extraordinary, but they are not. By definition, anybody who fell under the spread of the barbarism of Nazi Germany and survived would have had to go through something like that. Those “ordinary extraordinary” stories affect different people in different ways. I am sure that, subconsciously at least, my knowledge of what happened to my family has motivated me always to take the view that it is folly for peaceful democracies to be weak while vicious dictatorships arm themselves and become strong.
Nina found herself being brought up in post-war Poland under the communists. Despite everything that she had been through, she nevertheless worked closely with dissident intellectuals such as Jacek Kuron. As a result, she was sentenced to three years in jail by the communists for standing out against what communism meant in post-war Poland. I am pleased to say that, as a result of a campaign by Amnesty International, which made her its prisoner of the year in 1968, she was freed after serving two years of her sentence and came to this country.
Those traumas involve large statistics, but they are carried forward through individual stories. The effects of those terrible deeds perpetrated on so many people in that era live on. They have knock-on effects; they affect other people and they affect the way we look at the world. I do not think there is any danger of our forgetting the lessons of those terrible times. Nina’s story is told in a book called “Monuments are Not Loved”. My cousin’s mother wrote a small book as well. It was called “Out of the Depths”, which obviously referred to the bunker under the barn in which they survived for so long in such difficult conditions.
We criticise the ways in which electronic media can be abused, but thank goodness those media can also be used to disseminate the truth. We know the truth about the holocaust; we know that there are lessons to be drawn. We will not all necessarily draw the same lessons, but thanks to debates such as the one we have had today and thanks to the work of such organisations as the Holocaust Educational Trust, people will be able to remember, to draw lessons and to take steps for the future so that we are better prepared should something so terrible ever loom on the horizon again.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to play a small part in raising awareness of the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust, which do a fantastic job of raising awareness and ensuring that lessons are learned about Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides.
Many Members have spoken in moving terms about their personal experiences. My interest in understanding more about genocide arose through visits to Rwanda. Members may be aware that there is a Conservative social action project, known as “Project Umubano”, in which I participated in 2008, 2009 and last year. Up to 2008, my career had involved running a business in my home town and my overseas visits had been limited to family holidays. I left school at a time when we did not do gap years. I had never been to Africa or to a third world country. When I applied to join the project, I knew very little about Rwanda’s history. I had vague memories of pictures on TV at some time during the
’90s, and I watched pictures of a conflict that, to me at that time, was in a distant country with little relevance to my life.
Before my visit in 2008, I started to read up about what had happened in Rwanda throughout 1994. The more I read, the more places I visited while I was there and the more accounts I heard of how the conflict had affected people, the more shocked I became and the more I struggled to understand how the world had stood by and allowed a genocide to happen.
I was particularly interested to hear the accounts of survivors, via the work of an organisation called “SURF”, which is the Survivors Fund. When, a couple of years later, SURF brought a number of survivors to Bilton school in my constituency, I was keen to go along to add my contribution about what I had seen and to hear more accounts from people who had lived through the atrocities, many of whom had seen their neighbours hacked to death. I was interested in ensuring that the message about genocide got across to the next generation.
That was what encouraged me to take up the invitation, about which many Members have spoken, to visit Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust, which I did last year. When the invitation arrived on my desk, I was prompted to accept because I felt by then that I knew more about what had happened in Africa in 1994 than I knew about what had happened on my own continent during the second world war, which had affected so many of my fellow countrymen. Like other Members, I joined a party of students from Rugby high school at Birmingham airport for a flight to Poland. We then made the harrowing visit to the concentration camps.
I was particularly interested in the reactions of the young people I travelled with. In common with my hon. Friend Graham Evans, I found that these usually chatty, vociferous and noisy youngsters became silent over the day, as they took in the magnitude of what they saw around them. We saw the massive number of people who were crammed into tiny buildings, and came to understand something of the arbitrarily imposed punishments. We walked around the sites of the gas chambers—the buildings having been blown up as the Russian army advanced.
My recollection of my feelings on that day is that I was surprised and almost felt guilty that my visit had less impact on me personally than I thought perhaps it might. I wonder whether that was because of the visits I had made to Rwanda and my awareness of the Rwandan genocide, which was much more recent—only some 15 years earlier. I recall visiting the Murambi Genocide Memorial Centre, where I saw the mummified bodies of victims whose Achilles heels had been slashed with machetes so they could not run away. As I finished my visit to Auschwitz, I felt that I could not be shocked any more.
That leads me to an issue that Members have raised this afternoon. As we start to lose the generation of people who were survivors of Auschwitz, the challenge for organisations such as the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is, how we keep those memories alive? It is vital for us, as Members of Parliament, to encourage those organisations to ensure that as many people as possible are made aware of what happened, and that the atrocities I have seen in Rwanda and Auschwitz do not happen again.
I conclude by complimenting my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale on his diligence in arranging this debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this important issue to be debated in the House.
I was struck by the description that my hon. Friend Mark Pawsey gave of perpetrators in Rwanda hacking victims’ Achilles heels to stop them moving. It is such events, seemingly tiny in the giant scale of these shocking atrocities, that make the point powerfully. My hon. Friend Bob Stewart will clearly never forget the experiences he described. Such descriptions paint a real picture of just how “normal” and “ordinary” these dreadful things are, some of which happened within the last 20 years. That is why debates such as this are so important. Otherwise, we can easily forget; in some cases, it was many years ago.
I have been involved in all of these debates since the last general election, and I am very supportive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. To me, one of the strongest reasons for having such debates is not just that they remind us of the dreadful and shocking things that happened then, but that history keeps repeating itself. The work of the trust and other such bodies is very necessary; otherwise, the awful atrocities that still occur would probably happen even more often. We in this august Chamber must each year remind ourselves, and everyone in the UK who follows these debates, of what happened.
Like some of my colleagues, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau a few months after the last election. To me, it seemed that I knew it well, because I had seen it in so many Hollywood films. That sounds bizarre, but that is the reality. Of course, I did not know it at all. As I walked around, the things that really struck home, as a number of Members have mentioned, were the mechanics: the orderliness of the functionaries; the fact that they kept expert notes; the fact that they diverted freight trains full of victims, while at the same time fighting a war to the death with the Soviet Union. It was literally insane.
Last night, as I was preparing for the debate, I was reminded of the great writer Primo Levi, whose work I read when I was a young man. As I am sure all Members know, he was an Italian chemist, a Jew, who had been in Auschwitz and who wrote about his experiences, and his general philosophical approach, a few times after the second world war. I was reading a couple of quotations last night to remind me of the books that had had a seminal impact on me when I was only a teenager.
Because he was such a good writer, Primo Levi was able to describe the organisation that was involved in a way that is so simple and yet so horrific. He wrote:
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.”
That is the point. It appears that there are a certain number of complete monsters who are the dictators, who lead and who do terrible things, but who can do absolutely nothing other than annihilate people around them. They can do nothing on a grand scale without all those functionaries.
The reason I consider that so important is that I cannot accept, will not accept and never have accepted that we are all so pure and that we would do it differently, given that functionaries could behave in such a shocking way—ordinary, normal people like us and the people listening to our debate. Earlier, a Member mentioned the train driver who said that he did not see anything. That is ludicrous. If a driver sets off with 20 full freight cars behind him and leaves with nothing, he will obviously notice that. However, there is something within humanity that just shuts such things off. I do not know what it is, but I do not believe that that could not occur here. I do not believe that there is something that was just so much worse for people over there. The reason I mention that, and the reason the debate is so important to me, is that I believe that the more we in the Chamber can demonstrate the truth of just how ordinary that shocking behaviour was, the harder it will be for society to park it over there and say that it could not happen here.
Rwanda has been mentioned. I was born and brought up in Mombasa, in Kenya, which is a super country no more than a couple of thousand miles from Rwanda. Some dreadful things happened between the Kikuyu and the Luo only about a year a half ago. Members may remember hearing the news of the explosion between them. One thing led to another, one group suddenly turned on the other, and bang! About 1,000 people were shot down. Houses were burnt, women and children were killed. I knew those areas really well, and for all I know, many years ago I may have met or walked past either some of the victims or some of the perpetrators.
The overall ugliness of genocide makes us want to turn away, as indeed we do. Even when I was preparing for the debate last night, I thought, “This is so wearying”. It is such a wearying, exhausting issue, because it is so horrid. Primo Levi also said:
“It is neither easy nor agreeable to dredge this abyss of viciousness, and yet I think it must be done, because what could be perpetrated yesterday could be attempted again tomorrow, could overwhelm us and our children. One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one’s mind: this is a temptation one must resist.”
That is one of the reasons that I was so determined to join my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale in seeking the debate. It is exactly the same reason that so many hon. Members have been flagging up today.
Dwight Eisenhower, the allied supreme commander, was, in many ways, an interesting soldier and politician—he was almost an anti-politician. He was known for being very unemotional and dry. When he heard about the camps he did not believe it at first, but after being told, he came to realise that they did exist. He told his aides and his chief of staff that he wanted to visit a camp, and not just to see it for his own eyes. He said:
“The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering…I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things”.
That is why today’s debate is so important and why I, like a number of hon. Members, will be attending a memorial commemoration in my constituency on Sunday—I look forward to it. It is taking place in a local synagogue. Only a small number of Eastbourne people are Jewish, but the synagogue and the group are strong. They, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the many other bodies around the UK and the world that keep commemorating this event and keep reminding us must never stop, and we must always support it. We must never turn away because, as my hon. Friends the Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) said, if we do so, we simply will never have any chance of preventing those dreadful occurrences from repeating themselves again, again and again. Finally, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and the HET. I always consider it a privilege to speak on this dreadful issue.
It is a honour to follow my hon. Friend Stephen Lloyd, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Graham Evans for securing this debate, in which we have heard thought-provoking and thoughtful speeches from a number of hon. Members from across the Chamber.
When I was growing up, we had no education about the holocaust in school. I was fortunate, because I grew up alongside Jewish children, so I could hear at first hand some of the stories about the horrors that their families had gone through before the war, during the war and after the war when they were refugees. That is one of the things that is life-changing for most of us, because when we contemplate that systematic murder of 6 million people just because they were of the Jewish faith, we find that it is almost beyond our consciousness; we cannot imagine how any human being could contemplate doing that. We cannot imagine why a nation would not stop it, but they did not. The fact is that those 6 million people—they were all individuals—lost their lives for no other reason than because the most hateful political regime ever in history sought to exterminate them.
There are some life-changing moments that we all go through. I first visited Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, some 20 years ago, before the current museum, which is much larger, was in operation. I went as a tourist and I spent a full day there. The museum had already started capturing the testimonies of survivors of the holocaust on film; as we have said in this debate, so many of these people are, sadly, no longer with us and it is important to capture the testimonies so that we remember what happened. The museum had started to put the exhibitions together, and people could see the full horror of what happened to the Jews in Germany, not just during the second world war, but from the rise of Nazism in Germany. We could see how it all came about. We need to learn those lessons, because in many ways the rise of the Nazis started at the end of the first world war with the treaty of Versailles, which imposed such terrible conditions on Germany that it set the economic climate that allowed the Nazis to come to power and exert that power in the way that they did.
I represent a part of the country that, according to the most recent census, has the most concentrated Jewish population. As a result, I have had the opportunity to meet survivors, people who came by the Kindertransport and people whose families have related personal experience of what happened in the death camps and concentration camps. Sadly, they often do not even know where their relatives are.
I have now had the opportunity to go to Yad Vashem five times, and every time I learn more about the horrors of the Holocaust. I would recommend anyone going to see it first hand in Jerusalem, because there is no greater education. I have also had the opportunity of going with the Holocaust Educational Trust to Auschwitz-Birkenau and seeing, together with young people, the horrors of that place. Three things stood out for me. First, visitors walk across what is essentially a parkland. It is very peaceful and almost deathly quiet. The birds are not singing and there are the ponds where the Nazis put the ashes of the people they systematically gassed and then burnt. It is a terrible place.
The second thing is the maps, which show the systematic approach of transporting people from all over Europe to put them in a death camp and murder them. It is then that it comes across that it was not just a few evil people who did those things; there was a systematic approach and thousands of people were involved. Thousands of people were guilty of involvement and millions of people turned their backs and ignored the reality of what was going on.
The third thing that brings home the reality is the collection of belongings behind glass in cabinets: boots, shoes, spectacles and other things that were stolen from the people who came to Auschwitz and never left. It is very important to commemorate the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. They both bring to life the cold, hard reality of what happened.
Next week, there will be two great events in my constituency. The Chief Rabbi is coming to Park high school on one of his last public engagements before he retires and one of the students who came to Auschwitz-Birkenau is giving a lecture to other students at Bentley Wood school on Tuesday. Those things are vital. I hope the Minister will comment on the fact that it is vital to continue holocaust education in our schools and ensure that it is part of the curriculum for ever more.
Other Members mentioned the international aspects of rising anti-Semitism. Hungary, Greece and Egypt have been mentioned, but we should remember that every years marches take place in Latvia and Lithuania to commemorate the Waffen-SS, the exterminators who killed 750,000 Jews not in concentration camps but by wiping them out wherever they went. Today, those marches still commemorate those evil people and celebrate what they did. Such activity is on the rise yet again. On the Piers Morgan show on CNN, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, denied the holocaust and said that it never took place. Here is the president of a country who denies the holocaust; we must always be fearful of people who deny the holocaust.
Closer to home, Mrs Ellman mentioned the rise in the number of anti-Semitic attacks. One thing she did not mention was that anti-Semitic attacks in London are up by 48% according to the figures from the Community Security Trust. We must be on our guard at all times.
The work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is vital in ensuring that everyone understands the lessons, so that we never allow such a thing to happen again. Words are sometimes worth repeating, and I would repeat that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Unless we remain eternally vigilant, the Nazis and other people could come back and do it all again.
I congratulate Graham Evans on securing this important debate, the most spellbinding that I have been party to in my short period—two and half years—in the House. We have heard incredibly powerful contributions from Members on both sides of the Chamber. I shall say a few words about each of them in turn, if I may.
My hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton made a moving contribution about his experience, and the experiences of his family and constituents who were holocaust survivors. It must have taken a lot for him to share those experiences, given that they were so close to home.
My hon. Friend Mrs Ellman talked about the importance of communicating what happened and the need for ongoing vigilance. She cited examples of Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, which is, incredibly, still going on today, and the need to continue to guard against it. Angie Bray reminded us of the role that this country played in offering refuge to people fleeing the Nazis, and in defeating the Nazi tyranny that led to the many horrors that we have heard about this afternoon. She stressed the importance of education and ensuring that we, as a nation and a society, continue to remember what happened.
Bob Stewart spoke incredibly powerfully about his time at Belsen, and about seeing the mounds that were mass graves. He spoke about his period in Bosnia, where he saw thousands of victims and witnessed appalling atrocities. I pay tribute to him for sharing his experiences today. He spoke very movingly and powerfully about what he witnessed.
Andrew Stephenson spoke about his experiences visiting concentration camps, and about working with the victims and survivors of the horrors in Srebrenica. Dr Lewis talked about the impact on young people of visiting the scene of Nazi atrocities. He took an important principled stand in resigning his membership of the Oxford Union when it gave the fascist David Irving a platform from which to spread his vile ideology.
Mark Pawsey spoke about the genocide in Rwanda. It is incredible, really, that after the horrors of the holocaust in Nazi Germany, a genocide on such a scale could be repeated in relatively recent times. He talked movingly about speaking to survivors of the genocide in Rwanda.
Stephen Lloyd spoke very thoughtfully and thought-provokingly. He said it was essential for this place to guard against the normalisation of the horrors of genocide, and for us to remember that monsters are few. For atrocities to be perpetrated on the scale that they were, the acquiescence of functionaries is required. He also said it could happen again—it could happen here. It is worth reminding ourselves that Nazi Germany, which has been the focus of much of the debate this afternoon, was a sophisticated western civilisation when the Nazis came to power. Who would have thought that a “sophisticated” nation could perpetrate such horrors? Yet it happened. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Eastbourne for reminding us that it was not due simply to some monsters over there. It can happen anywhere, and we must guard against the normalisation of the horrors of genocide.
Finally, Bob Blackman spoke about how he heard at first hand from his friends in the Jewish community with whom he grew up about their parents’ experiences. He spoke about the incomprehensibility of what happened, and I share his view. To me, to all of us in the Chamber and to any decent-minded person, it is utterly incomprehensible that such horrors could be perpetrated. Again, the hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance of education to ensure that those horrors are not repeated in the future.
I pay tribute to the 294 Members who have signed the Book of Commitment relating to the holocaust. It is an important statement of intent that almost half the Members of the House have signed that.
It is a triumph for democracy that, for the past six years, the House has hosted this debate, and it is a triumph for decency that Holocaust memorial day continues to attract significant interest since it was first launched 12 years ago this Sunday. Perhaps the most famous line of remembrance comes from Laurence Binyon’s poem, “For the Fallen”—“We will remember them.” Those words, captured most famously in the “Ode of Remembrance”, were written in the year that the first world war ended. That was about 25 years before the unspeakable horrors that took place in Nazi Germany, but they remain just as relevant today because today is about remembering the millions who suffered those barbaric deaths—the innocent children who must have followed their parents and grandparents, perhaps naive in their anticipation, but innately sensing that something dreadful was about to happen, and the knowing parents, so many of whom must have endured the unimaginable agony of foreseeing the most horrific fate that awaited them, as first their captors extinguished their hope, then extinguished their dignity and finally extinguished their lives.
But today, and every day since the true scale of the holocaust became apparent, has also been about learning. For if society cannot learn from the wrongs of the past, what hope does it have? That is why I echo the sentiments that we have heard from most Members applauding the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. The work of that organisation is most worthy, not just because of the vitally important issue at its heart, but because of the extraordinary way in which the message is delivered. The strapline on the trust’s logo states: “Reaching Generations”.
Let us think about those words for a moment: “Reaching Generations”. It sounds aspirational, but the incredible thing about this most awful story is that it has reached generations. The contributions from a number of Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East, and the intervention from my hon. Friend Lilian Greenwood, who is not in her place, made that point. Ask virtually any child over the age of, say, 10 and many below that age, and they can most likely tell you more than a little about the holocaust. It remains relevant for our children in the same way as it is relevant for us, for our parents and for their parents before them. Was it the lowest ebb known in world history? Very possibly.
But we must not be complacent. Just because society knows what happened before is no reason to believe that it is not capable of repeating those wrongs in the future. We need look no further than the atrocities in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia for proof of that. The painful truth is that we must keep remembering. We must keep learning, too, because the truth is that the dreadful crimes of the late 1930s and the 1940s were not restricted to Nazi concentration camps. Historical evidence suggests that in some areas there was collaboration, and in others there was just abstention.
Some people try to excuse the Nazi soldiers who enacted those awful crimes because they were just following orders. They might apply the same logic to the ordinary citizens who simply accepted it as part of their society, or the other nations outside Germany that simply turned a blind eye because a war was on, a point made by Mike Freer. None of them is a valid excuse—an explanation, perhaps, but not an excuse. The moment we start excusing those who contributed to this—arguably the greatest atrocity for which the human race has been responsible—is the moment we lose sight of why we remember.
Even today, global society has not learnt all the lessons it should have learnt from the past. Let us think about three of the groups the Nazis targeted: people targeted because of their ethnicity, because of their disability, and because of their sexuality. Have we solved the problem of discrimination based on ethnicity? Have we ended discrimination based on disability? Have we got rid of discrimination based on sexuality? We have come a long way on all three, but the answer to each is, unfortunately, no.
The great worry is that in some areas discrimination is increasing. A black footballer might now be much less likely to be abused from a football terrace than he was 30 years ago, but incidents of Islamophobia, for example, are on the increase. That is why our job here today is not simply to agree that the monstrous acts that took place in Nazi Germany must never be repeated; we must be vigilant in preventing the circumstances that enable fascist ideology to grow.
There are not many issues that this House agrees on, but reaching consensus on this issue is the easy part. We should not simply pat each other on the back for agreeing on something on which it would be impossible to disagree and then move on to the next business. The hard part is providing the leadership when we go back to our constituencies, our communities, our towns and cities, our friends and neighbours, our colleagues, customers and clients, showing the leadership that proves that society can learn from its mistakes, that it can move on from its troubled past, but that it will always remember.
It is becoming even more important that we remember because the austerity that is currently gripping European nations has given a foothold for fascist extremists to peddle their insidious doctrine. The hon. Member for Harrow East touched on that when he talked about the circumstances that led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany after the treaty of Versailles. We must never make those mistakes again. We must remember to take steps to tackle the circumstances that provide a breeding ground for fascist and Nazi ideology.
Reaching generations is what the Holocaust Educational Trust seeks to do. It is what we should all seek to do. I take my hat off to the many voluntary organisations, community groups and local authorities that are supporting events in their areas to mark Holocaust memorial day. I know that is happening in my home city and constituency of Derby North, and I am sure that the same is true for every Member here today. I urge everyone in the Chamber and beyond to go back to their constituencies, write to those organisations, congratulate them on the work they have done and pledge their support now and for the future. Holocaust memorial day is vital to ensure that we remember and that we learn, and all of us in this place have a vital role to play in supporting that goal.
Let me begin by adding my thanks to my hon. Friend Graham Evans for securing this debate. Like Chris Williamson, I am grateful for and welcome the contributions from Members in all parts of the House, which have been wise, insightful, powerful and moving.
My hon. Friends have raised many important issues. We began with Fabian Hamilton, who set the tone by expressing thanks, gratitude and praise for the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust—a body set up, as he reminded us, by a former Member of this House, Lord Janner. My hon. Friend Mike Freer has, like many others, experienced a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and he, like others, described his experiences there and his feelings of anger and rage.
Mrs Ellman, who is a member of the Holocaust Educational Trust, reminded us about another founder of that body, Lord Merlyn Rees, whose memorial lecture was held on Monday; she referred to the powerful testimony of survivors who were there. She went on, very importantly, to express her concerns, as have others, about the rise of the far right and anti-Semitic organisations in countries such as Greece and Hungary. I take this opportunity to repeat my support for the attempts being made in that regard by John Mann with his forthcoming visit to Hungary.
My hon. Friend Angie Bray reminded us that despite our being a largely tolerant society there is still, sadly, intolerance in our own country that needs to be addressed—a point rightly picked up by the hon. Member for Derby North. My hon. Friend also talked about the situation in other countries and the need to press for greater compliance with article 18 of the UN universal declaration of human rights.
My hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart spoke particularly powerfully of his experience in Bosnia, reminding us, as did others, of genocides that followed the holocaust. His first-hand experience of death and destruction and man’s inhumanity to man in Bosnia is sadly one that I, too, have had, because I was there during the height of the fighting, although not for anything like the same length of time. I will never forget my experiences there, and they influence me in the work that I do today. My hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson also talked about Bosnia and the need, even today, to tackle the evils of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.
My hon. Friend Dr Lewis reminded us that the impulses, as he put it, which led to the holocaust sadly remain and have led to more recent genocides. I was particularly impressed by his reminders, through his own personal contacts, of the amazing stories of courage of people who sought to protect Jews from the Nazis.
My hon. Friend Mark Pawsey spoke of another genocide—that in Rwanda. He also described his experience of visiting the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp with a group of students and the impact that it had on those students. My hon. Friend Stephen Lloyd reminded us that it could happen again.
My hon. Friend Bob Blackman talked of his life-changing experience on a visit, this time to the Yad Vashem museum, and the powerful film footage that he saw of survivors. He asked me a question about holocaust education remaining in our educational provision. It is, as he may know, part of the history curriculum at key stage 3. A major curriculum review is under way, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will listen to his views on the matter.
I know that we all share a strong desire to make sure that the flame of remembrance continues to shine strongly in our society. I was delighted that the 294 Members of Parliament who signed the book of commitment included the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Speaker, and you, Mr Deputy Speaker. As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside reminded us, Holocaust memorial day came about following a Member of Parliament’s visit to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp with the Holocaust Educational Trust. So moved was Andrew Dismore, the former Member for Hendon, that in 1999 he proposed a Bill to introduce a day to learn about and remember the holocaust. Two years later, London hosted the first Holocaust memorial day on
One of the reasons why I first got into politics was that the British National party set up a recruitment meeting in a primary school directly opposite where I lived. The thought that extremism could still catch fire in our civilized society today, just as it did in an earlier civilized German society, was chilling and I resolved there and then to do what I could to make sure that it did not take hold in my community.
I remember visiting Prague during the Soviet era and visiting the Jewish Museum. I was struck by the starkness of the displays. The rooms were small and had just one black and white photograph on each wall. The images were so powerful that the memory has never left me. I have also been to Yad Vashem in Israel, which is a very different museum in terms of scale and impact. The rows of names of those lost in the holocaust are haunting and leave a lasting impression.
The holocaust is a reminder—the most powerful reminder of all—of the need not just to condemn the atrocities of the past, but to do everything we can as MPs, as people who have influence in our communities, to stop prejudice, hate and racism gaining a foothold.
When we think about these appalling crimes—whether they took place during the holocaust or other modern day mass atrocities—we see that the perpetrators of hate had one thing in common: they all sought to dehumanise their victims because of their race, religion and ethnicity. It was their detached hatred that enabled them to carry out unimaginable atrocities, and yet even in those dark times there was a glimmer of hope. There were individuals whose consciences would not allow them to pass by on the other side. They risked their lives to save Jews. Many of them have been honoured by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations” for their actions.
In 2010 our own country awarded 25 British men and women the holocaust hero award in recognition of their selfless courage and humanity in saving Jews and other persecuted groups during the second world war. Since those initial awards, further acts of bravery have come to light and we will honour them in the coming months.
The tireless work of the Holocaust Educational Trust—rightly praised yesterday by the Prime Minister—and in particular its chief executive officer, Karen Pollock, have been key in ensuring that holocaust education is at the forefront of our efforts to ensure that we learn the lessons of the past. Holocaust education matters so much, because it helps to restore the names, memories and identities of those who suffered—not just 6 million Jews, but more than 1 million Cambodians, 1 million who died in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands who died in Darfur and thousands killed in Bosnia. Holocaust education helps remind us that behind the statistics were real people who lived, loved and laughed, who might have contributed untold wonders to our world, and who never dreamed that their days would cruelly be cut short.
Holocaust education is also about remembering those acts of courage and compassion that took place even in the midst of evil. It is about remembering that when we build a bridge between communities—fittingly, the theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day—and when we celebrate what we share, we not only cast out the shadows of hate, but strengthen the bonds of our common humanity.
That is why we continue to support Holocaust memorial day and the work of the CEO of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Olivia Marks-Woldman, and her staff. It is not just because it is about the act of remembrance, but because it is about getting out into our local areas and working hard to foster better relationships. This year I am pleased to hear that more than 1,500 activities will take place across the country to mark the day. I, like many others, will be wearing my badge and getting involved.
The support of the current and previous Governments for Holocaust memorial day is not all about building tolerance between our diverse communities. We have also committed £500,000 to the Wiener library to house the UK’s copy of the International Tracing Service archive, which holds the records of the fate of millions of civilian victims of Nazi Germany. We have committed £2.1 million to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, to be used to fund ongoing restoration work. That will ensure the upkeep of the site for future generations.
As we have heard, we will also provide funds for the continuing “Lessons from Auschwitz” project for sixth-formers and their teachers. We will continue to support the work of the UK’s first envoy for post-holocaust issues, and that of the Anne Frank Trust UK to educate young people to challenge prejudice and discrimination and inspire them to become active and responsible members of their community. We are supporting a third-party reporting facility for anti-Muslim hate crime and an initiative providing support for victims of such crime.
That work is of immense importance. The fact is that we can never be complacent, especially as today we continue to see the growth of anti-Semitism on the continent, the continued scourge of anti-Muslim hatred, and racism rearing its ugly head in football. We can never stand aside when we encounter hatred of any kind, because as Primo Levi once said:
“Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.”
We must always be ready to remind those who say it could never happen in a civilised place like this that the holocaust happened in the cradle of civilisation. It is our duty to ensure that it never happens again.
The debate has shown the House at its best, and on behalf of the hon. Members who supported the motion, I thank each and every Member who has contributed so thoughtfully and compassionately. Some of the speeches drew on personal experience, some on the first-hand accounts that Members have heard and some on recognition of the darkest parts of the human condition.
I have been pleased to listen to the unifying voice of sombre memorial, the celebration of human spirit and the will to survive. I expected no less from hon. Members. I would particularly like to remark on the speech of my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart. His experience reminded me of the old Jewish saying, “If you save one life, it’s as if you’ve saved the entire world”.
Vigilance is the only way in which we can protect future generations, both here in the United Kingdom and across the world. It is our duty to keep this specific event in our not-so-distant past in our memories. Unless we do so, we create a vacuum in which prejudice and bigotry can flourish, which is not a future to which I wish to condemn my children.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of Holocaust Memorial Day.