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Before I call the mover of the motion, I will say the same as I said at the start of the last debate. There is limited time available, and the allocated time for the mover of the motion is approximately 15 minutes. There will then be an immediate limit on Back-Bench speeches of five minutes.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2018.
It is an honour and a pleasure to move the motion, and I thank the hon. Members for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), for Hove (Peter Kyle) and for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) for accompanying me to the Backbench Business Committee to secure this debate. I also thank all the other Members who are in attendance. It is a particular honour to start this year’s debate having responded to last year’s debate as the Minister, and I welcome the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend
When I spoke last year, I talked about my beliefs and religious place at that time. This year, I move the motion as a full member of the Jewish community, but when I responded to the debate last year, I was not quite there yet, although I was on the way. It is therefore a double pleasure to move the motion today.
Holocaust Memorial Day is well known to all of us in the Chamber, and hopefully to the broader country. It is held annually on
Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the date on which allied forces liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau and was established by the Bill introduced by former Member Andrew Dismore following his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1999. The first Holocaust Memorial Day was commemorated on
Last year’s theme was how life goes on, and this year’s theme is the power of words, which is a reminder that the holocaust started not with gas chambers, round ups and cattle trucks but with hate-filled words. That is perhaps of great resonance today, as we consider the continuing blight of anti-Semitism, prejudice and intolerance in our society and, sadly, in our politics. I am proud that as a Government, with strong cross-party support, we adopted the international definition of anti-Semitism, which UK police forces are sadly having to use more than they should.
Holocaust education became a part of the English national curriculum for key stage 3 in 1991 and has remained ever since—I think there is ongoing support for holocaust education to remain in the curriculum. The holocaust is the only historical event that has remained a compulsory part of the national curriculum.
The holocaust is a part of history that is taught across the curriculum—it is taught in English, religious studies and citizenship—and I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in delivering that curriculum across the UK. Although there are no formal requirements for holocaust education in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, it is of course regularly taught.
When I was a history teacher I used to be responsible for teaching the holocaust as part of the curriculum in my school and, as I commented last year from the Dispatch Box, it was always very difficult to deliver, not least because of the content. The enormity of this event is very difficult to convey to young people. It is difficult to explain to young people that within living memory and within the lifetime of people here today—some of whom experienced it, and some of whom may even have participated in it—whole communities were wiped out across Europe. Communities that had been there for centuries and that were integral parts of the history of those European states, and of Europe itself, no longer exist.
One way in which the scale can be seen—I recommend a visit—is at the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum at the Westminster synagogue, where there are 1,564 Torah scrolls that come from communities that no long exist, wiped off the face of Europe by the holocaust. Whatever we try to deliver in schools, powerful though it may be, nothing compares to visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau or one of the other camps, where the industrial scale of this inhumanity can be fully understood. Many Members here, along with many students across the country, have benefited from the programme run through the Holocaust Educational Trust. I encourage Members who have not already done so to take part in the programme if they have the opportunity.
Nothing can compare to the testimony of survivors, and those of us who attended the reception in Speaker’s House a few days ago heard some of those testimonies and saw the sadly dwindling numbers of survivors. As every year passes, fewer and fewer survivors remain. Last year I told the story of Zigi Shipper, and I ended on his comments. After going back to Auschwitz after a very long time, having been convinced by his family, he stood beneath the world-renowned “Arbeit macht frei” sign, and he said that he felt nothing. It meant nothing to him because he had survived. He had built his life and had been victorious over those who had tried to destroy him. That was very powerful testimony.
This year, I want to tell the story of another survivor, Miriam Friedman, whom I had the privilege of meeting here at a Board of Deputies Mitzvah Day. It is important to tell these stories, because they can do more justice to this appalling period of history than anything I can think of to say. Miriam was born in Bratislava in 1934 and she told me she remembered a happy family life in an Orthodox religious family. They had a textile business. Her mother was a housewife and also highly educated. Miriam was one of six children. She attended a Jewish kindergarten in a community where Jews were very much a part of the fabric of that society. She lived an active Jewish life. Of course all that changed with the German invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939, where Slovak fascists copied the anti-Semitic policies of Nazis.
When that war broke out, Miriam and her family were forced to move. They lived in several different apartments and eventually moved town. When the decree came for all Jews to meet at the railway station, a family friend who was part of the Slovak police saved her. This is the story; it was all by chance and circumstance that they were lucky enough to know this particular person. A Jewish doctor proclaimed that the family had typhus and could not go on the train because they were infectious. So they were lucky on that occasion, but a short time later they were not so lucky. A loudspeaker announced that all Jews had to adhere to a curfew and be off the streets by 6 pm. Her father, sadly, was unable to comply with that and they never saw him again.
The remainder of Miriam’s family were eventually saved by two other families who agreed to hide them in a basement in a large block of flats. They were there until the end of the war. She told me the story of a day when the guards had heard a rumour that there were Jews living in that building and had come to search the apartment block. She told me that their lives had depended on the kindness of another neighbour in the block, who knew these particular Germans were coming and managed to get them so drunk that they were convinced they did not need to search this particular area of the building. She said that hiding and hearing that noise, her and her family contemplated suicide at that time. I hate to use the word “lucky”, because this was not a lucky existence, but in some respects she was lucky to have survived, because of circumstance. Sadly, Miriam later found out that the Nazis had murdered her father, brother and sister. She moved to the UK and now lives in London, and has shared her story and her testimony through the Holocaust Educational Trust and others.
Miriam’s story really fits in with this year’s theme of “The Power of Words”. Words really do matter, as we know in this place—I am talking not just about the words of those who spout hate, but the words of those whose job it is to call that hate out. I think we would all agree that silence is no excuse, nor are weasel words or bland statements, when words of intolerance and racism, particularly in the form of anti-Semitism, are ever spoken. Miriam’s story shows plainly what happens when a people are demonised and scapegoated, and when conspiracy theories are left to run.
It is very sad that in Britain in 2017-18 anti-Semitism and racism at all should be a problem, but new figures revealed by the Community Security Trust last July showed that anti-Semitic incidents against the Jewish community in the UK have reached unprecedented levels—the highest levels of hate crime against Jews since records began 33 years ago. Let us just think about that for a moment; we are talking about the highest recorded number of incidents against Jewish people since records began more than three decades ago. That is why I welcome the announcement of £144,000 to help fight anti-Semitism on our campuses, and it is why this day is so important and why this debate in Parliament every year is so important.
In September, a study by the CST and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research found that stronger anti-Israel attitudes are linked to stronger anti-Semitic attitudes among Britons. In last year’s debate, I said from the Dispatch Box that I was becoming increasingly concerned about what I call the Israelification of anti-Semitism. That is not to say that people should not be allowed legitimately to call out the Government or Israel, or any other Government, but criticism of the Israeli Government is being used by some for more sinister purposes. That Israelification needs to be called out.
I have seen Israelification for myself. As I mentioned after the general election in the Westminster Hall debate on abuse and intimidation of candidates, during the campaign, in June last year, I was approached and screamed at for being “Israeli scum” and “Zionist scum”. I reported the individuals to the police, but they were unable to find them. Those same individuals found me again in a shopping centre in Doncaster on the Thursday before Christmas and again subjected me to a torrent of abuse. They ended up questioning why a Jew would want to be ordering food in KFC, and followed me to the exit asking me why I do not tell people that I am Jewish before elections. It started with anti-Israeli sentiment and descended very quickly into some significant anti-Semitic incidents. I must say that South Yorkshire police and Humberside police have been absolutely fantastic. We need to call out that kind of behaviour wherever it happens, which was why I did so from the Dispatch Box last year.
We have to be honest that we have a new threat: the new smear that anti-Semitism is being used as a cover for other things or as part of a witch hunt. I do not wish to step into party politics too much, but it is important that in debates like this we call out campaigns such as Labour Against the Witchhunt, which has called for
“the immediate lifting of all suspensions and expulsions from Labour Party membership which were…connected to the ‘anti-Semitism’ smear campaign.”
This is a minority—the vast majority of Labour party members and people in politics throughout the country have no truck with any of this—but let us remember what some of those suspensions have been for. They have been for people who have claimed that Judaism is not a religion but a crime syndicate; people who have called holocaust education in schools a holocaust indoctrination programme; people who have questioned what good Jews have done; and people who have claimed that the Jews financed the slaved trade and who attacked Holocaust Memorial Day—the very day we are debating and respecting today. We have to guard against those who seek to spread this new smear against anti-Semitism, in the strongest way we can.
The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the power of words, and words really do matter, which is why, regardless of which side of politics we are on, we must all ensure that we and our leaders call out this sort of hatred whenever and wherever it exists. It is a problem not only on the left of politics but on the right. We saw it in Charlottesville, where people on the right marched in Nazi-esque torch-lit parades. It was alleged that some of them were chanting “Jews will not replace us”. So this is a problem on the left and the right and leaders most call it out wherever it happens.
I am conscious, Madam Deputy Speaker, of your clear instruction at the start of the debate that the mover of the motion should not take more than 15 minutes, so I shall bring my remarks to a close. We have a problem with anti-Semitism in this country at the moment, and we know it, which is why Holocaust Memorial Day is so important. Nevertheless, we should never forget that in many ways we are lucky that the lives of most Jewish people in this country are safe, and they can take part in their daily activities as full members of the community. When I was vice-chair of the all-party group against anti-Semitism, we saw a very different experience just across the channel when we attended a school in Brussels that was guarded by a Belgian military tank and armed guards. I asked the young people there whether they would ever go out wearing their kippah, and they said no.
There was recently a very sad story from France that did not get a great deal of coverage here, but I think it demonstrates why, more than ever, Holocaust Memorial Day is important. It is the story of a French Jewish teenage girl who was violently assaulted in a heinous anti-Semitic attack. She was wearing a Jewish school uniform when she was set upon in a Paris suburb and slashed across the face. She was left bleeding, shocked and very, very injured. This is one of a number of incidents that have happened. I ask Members to think: this was a 15-year-old girl who was slashed across the face for no other reason than that she happened to be Jewish.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, for raising such an important issue and for speaking so powerfully about this issue. Does the case that he has just highlighted not make the role of the Community Security Trust even more important this year and in the years to come, and should we not be throwing our weight behind it, and urging everyone else to do so too?
The hon. Lady knows an awful lot about anti-Semitism, and I could not agree more with what she said about the role of the CST.
I will end there on that example. We have heard Miriam’s story and the story of a 15-year-old girl, living now, here in modern Europe, who was slashed across the face for no other reason than that she was Jewish. That surely, surely proves to everybody why the Holocaust is such an important element of our curriculum and why this day, and remembering it and having this debate every year, is so important to ensure that this sort of intolerance is consigned to where it should be: the dustbin of history.
I congratulate Andrew Percy on securing this important debate and on his powerful and inspiring speech. I, too, was privileged to attend Tuesday’s reception in the Speaker’s apartments to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, which was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.
To be in the presence of Holocaust survivors, and to speak to such remarkable people and hear their testimonies, is deeply moving. It must intensify our determination to challenge anti-Semitism, which was described by the late Robert Wistrich as “the longest hatred”. Now, more than 70 years later, the scourge of anti-Semitism still stains our society. Anti-Semitism is not confined to one strand of politics—it is on the right and on the left. It is shocking that anti-Semitism stains the Labour party, too. Much speedier and stronger action must be taken by the party itself to challenge this unacceptable phenomenon. The claims of some members that allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour party should be dismissed as “slurs against the leadership” are appalling and should be met with the contempt that they deserve.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the Community Security Trust, which so accurately monitors anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic discourse. Its latest report shows a shocking 30% recorded rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK for the first six months of 2017, with 767 such incidents reported.
The rise of anti-Semitic hate crime on our streets, meeting little or no challenge from the authorities, is a matter of growing concern. For example, it was reported that, on
“burned in a Jewish sacrifice.”
“a new depth of grotesque anti-Semitic racism.”
“Khaybar Khaybar, iya Yahud, Jaish Mohammed, sa Yahud”.
Translated, that means, “Remember Khaybar, the army of Mohammed is returning.” This refers to the battle of Khaybar in 628, where Jews were massacred and expelled from the town in what is now Saudi Arabia. Swastikas were also displayed at that demonstration. The event was organised by groups including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Stop the War Coalition and the friends of al-Quds. No action has been taken against this anti-Semitic hate speech on our streets. Why?
Holocaust Memorial Day is a time for reflection. In the UK, it began in this place when Andrew Dismore, the then Member of Parliament for Hendon, received cross-party backing for his private Member’s Bill. That resulted in the first UK Holocaust Memorial Day in January 2001.
I thank the hon. Lady for allowing me to intervene. May I just say that, for me, Holocaust Memorial Day also includes other genocides such as the one I witnessed in Bosnia, where I buried 104 women and children in a mass grave, the Rohingya, and also Cambodia. I think all of us in this Chamber would recognise that the scourge of holocaust still remains with us.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I draw his attention to the official statement about what Holocaust Memorial Day constitutes. It states very clearly that in addition to recognising the holocaust, it recognises other atrocities that have taken place since that time, including in Darfur and Cambodia. That has always been written into the official remit of Holocaust Memorial Day.
Further to that intervention, may I also say to the hon. Lady that at this time we ought to be celebrating and commemorating the Christians who gave up their lives to save Jewish families during the second world war? The brother of my grandfather, Jan Kawczynski, hid Jewish families on his estate. When the Germans found out, they shot his daughter and his wife, and then him. I think that this is a very important time to remember those Christians who sacrificed their lives to protect Jewish neighbours.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. Indeed, the people he named and others who contributed similar actions are recognised under a special category of the “righteous gentiles”. They are recognised in the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem and also recognised in special British honours. They therefore have a very special place in our history and our minds.
Today we must reflect on the horrors of the past and the disturbing trends of the present. Together, as we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day 2018, we must ensure that action is taken to tackle the longest hatred.
It is an honour to take part in the debate on such a serious subject. Later this month, I shall be attending the annual commemoration for Holocaust Memorial Day hosted by Barnet Council in the quadrangle of Middlesex University, as I have been doing for many years now. This is a really important occasion for us in Barnet because we take huge pride in being a diverse, inclusive borough, made up of people from many different faiths, cultures and ethnicities. We are also immensely proud to be the home of one of the largest Jewish populations between New York and Tel Aviv.
The Jewish community plays a hugely valuable role in the borough of Barnet—in business, in public services, in schools, in civic life and in so many other ways. We are incredibly lucky in north London to be a place where many Jewish people have chosen to make their home. They are a community who have profoundly enriched our culture and quality of life, and I was very much aware of that in my years growing up in St John’s Wood. So for me, one of the reasons why I find the stories of those who perished during the holocaust to be so distressing is because it feels very close to home—so disturbing; so personal—to know that this horror was inflicted on the parents, grandparents and wider family of people who are such a core part of my network of friends, family and colleagues, without whom I would find life to be pretty bleak. Of course, I also have the privilege of representing a number of constituents who are holocaust survivors. I pay particular tribute to Mala Tribich for all that she does with the Holocaust Educational Trust to educate the new generation about what happened.
In my view, the holocaust was the single greatest act of evil in human history. I know that historians debate that. The numbers dying at the hands of Stalin were as great, and atrocities such as the holodomor in Ukraine were certainly acts of the most unspeakable cruelty, but the attempt by the Nazi regime to wipe out an entire ethnic group and harness 20th-century technology to deliver murder on an industrial scale seems to me to be without parallel in terms of the sheer stomach-turning depravity and evil of what occurred.
Last February, I had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem on a trip hosted by Conservative Friends of Israel. It was my second chance to see that exhibition. I would encourage every hon. Member in the Chamber to visit if they have the opportunity. Towards the very end of a truly emotionally draining experience, as the account of those terrible events unfolds before you, you reach the exhibit on the righteous among nations—the people who risked their lives to save Jewish people from the terrible fate that so many of them suffered at the hands of the Nazis. They include people such as Oscar and Emilie Schindler, whose story was captured so powerfully in Stephen Spielberg’s film; Nicholas Winton, who helped nearly 700 children to escape from persecution in what was then Czechoslovakia and never sought any recognition for his efforts; the people in Denmark who smuggled their Jewish population to safety in Sweden; and the population of Albania who defied the orders of the Nazis and refused to hand over lists of Jewish Albanians, and gave sanctuary to Jews fleeing Germany. The remarkable assistance given by Albania was grounded in a concept called besa—a code of honour which literally means “to keep the promise”. One who acts according to besa is someone who keeps their word—someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family.
While we are considering the most extreme example of the evil of which humanity is capable, this dark period of history has another side to it. In relation to certain individuals, it demonstrates great acts of courage and compassion. One of the many reasons why we should never, ever forget the events we are reflecting on today is to ensure that if the threat of this kind of atrocity were ever to return to this continent, we would not be found wanting—we would be among those brave enough to speak out, and do everything we could to prevent it happening again. Today, once again, we all commit to oppose anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms and wherever it occurs.
It is an honour to follow Theresa Villiers. We have visited the synagogue in Southgate together. I know how strongly she feels about these matters, as I think everybody does now.
Holocaust Memorial Day marks the darkest hour in human history. We remember and mourn the 6 million Jews murdered, as well as the Roma, disabled, and LGBT victims of Nazi atrocities. We have a moral responsibility to listen to the stories of holocaust survivors. They speak not only for themselves but for those who did not survive to tell their story.
Earlier this year, I heard one such testimony from Edgar Guest, who spoke to pupils at Oasis Academy, a school in my constituency. Edgar was born in Budapest. In 1941, when Hungary joined the war, he lost his citizenship and was classified as an “alien Jew”. After Germany invaded, many of Edgar’s relatives were deported to Auschwitz and he was sent to the Budapest ghetto. He was marched halfway towards the railway station before being told to turn around and return to the ghetto. There he was forced to sleep in a room of 30, in a ghetto of 70,000 Jews, where he survived by earning an extra cup of soup a day by clearing away the dead bodies in the streets. His story is one small remembrance of the barbarity of the Nazi regime.
Edgar lives in Britain today, and he is still sharing his story at the age of 87. I would like to pay tribute to his courage and strength. The impact he has on school students is something to behold. We must give serious thought to how we carry forward such a message when we no longer have survivors with us to provide such powerful testimony.
The holocaust reminds us of where racism and anti-Semitism can lead. We must remember that the holocaust was the end of a process of state-sponsored racism that began on the streets of Munich and Berlin. The twisted road to Auschwitz began with a political party whose racist rhetoric won an election in a democratic society. There must be no complacency in the fight against anti-Semitism. We must tackle racism at its roots, weeding it out wherever we find it.
I applaud the Government for their adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism. It gives us clarity in this fight, and it is unequivocal in stating that holocaust denial, comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany and allegations of Jewish conspiracies are modern forms of this ancient hatred. I would also like to voice my support for the proscription of far-right fascist groups.
Despite the horrors of the holocaust, anti-Semitism has not disappeared. We have even seen its rise in British society recently, including, I am ashamed to say, in my own party. We must condemn unequivocally and combat relentlessly this despicable trend. We must remember that the fight against racism is also one of education. We must fight for our anti-racist values, and ensure we instil a respect for tolerance, equality and human rights in future generations. I would like to thank Karen Pollock and the Holocaust Educational Trust for their dedication to this task, and in particular for facilitating talks by survivors, such as that of Edgar Guest in Enfield. We must hear the words of survivors, we must remember the holocaust’s victims and we must commit ourselves to the fight against racism and anti-Semitism wherever it rears its ugly head.
It is an honour to follow Joan Ryan, and I commend her for her bravery in speaking on those particular subjects. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Percy on introducing the debate, and my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers on her impassioned speech.
Madam Deputy Speaker, may we place on the record our thanks to Mr Speaker for allowing the Holocaust Educational Trust to host its reception in Speaker’s House on Tuesday? That enabled us to honour the memory of the victims of the holocaust, but also to celebrate the survivors. Most importantly of all, in my view, it allowed us to congratulate the young ambassadors of the Holocaust Educational Trust, who are now spreading the word among young people about the horrors of the holocaust.
When I was at school—I was at school with many Jewish children from the area—no one ever spoke about the holocaust: it was forgotten about. When Kitty Hart-Moxon visited this House, following her 90th birthday, I had the honour of having tea with her, and she described her journey of coming to this country and finding that the Jewish population of this country did not wish to talk about the holocaust. However, she was brave enough to speak out about its horrors and to make sure that young people understood what had happened. It is very hard to grasp the concept of human beings attempting to extinguish other human beings on an industrial scale. The fact that 6 million people were murdered systematically is very hard to grasp, but each individual is an individual case.
Just before she died, my mother told me that she went to Belsen as a Special Operations Executive operative in April 1945. I asked why she had never ever told me that before. She said, “Because I was ashamed.” I said, “Why were you ashamed?” She said, “Because this happened when my generation was living, and I felt ashamed that it happened. We were responsible because we did nothing about it in England.”
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It allows me to join others in congratulating Karen Pollock and her team on their wonderful work. I will never forget my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the young people who started out brightly at the beginning of the day, but who, as the horrors unfolded, became quieter and quieter. We ended the day on those terrible railway lines, with candles, and that place brings home to everyone what can happen if people stand idly by. We knew, and were instructed, about the systematic approach—this was not a few people who were mad or crazy; it was a systematic approach that involved hundreds, if not thousands, of people who co-operated with the attempt to eliminate the Jewish population.
We should also remember that there is not just Auschwitz-Birkenau but a whole series of other camps, and we should ensure that everyone is aware of the various different death camps that were set up by the Nazis to achieve their desperate aims.
On that point, the BBC regularly refers to “Polish death camps”, but there was no such thing. These were concentration camps set up by the Germans in occupied Poland, and it is important to remember that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and we must ensure that people are educated on that point.
I visited the original Yad Vashem museum, and saw at first hand the work that was done. I have also visited the new museum that commemorates all the victims of the holocaust, and describes it in some detail. The individual accounts of those who survived the holocaust, now recorded on film, are desperately important, and we must ensure that holocaust deniers, and individuals in society who seek to justify it in some way, are called out in the right way and with the appropriate testimony.
I will not give way to the hon. Lady because I have given way twice already and I do not want to take up too much time.
I am glad that we will have our own holocaust museum alongside the Palace of Westminster, and I look forward to that being developed so that we can bring young people here to see the importance of that element of society. There are also actions that we can all take. I was proud to sponsor early-day motion 743 for Holocaust Memorial Day, and I believe that 55 right hon. and hon. Members have signed it so far. The Book of Commitment will be available for Members to sign each day next week between 2pm and 4pm close to the Members’ cloakroom, and I commend that to all Members.
We also have the challenge of combating anti-Semitism on university campuses. One current challenge is that many Jewish children go to Jewish schools and are not exposed to anti-Semitism until they get to university. In my view, we are not preparing our young people sufficiently for what they may face, and I am delighted that the Government are taking action to combat anti-Semitism on university campuses by sponsoring visits for sabbatical officers to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to see at first hand what can happen if matters get out of hand.
As we have said, the holocaust started with words and other forms of anti-Semitism, and expanded to what we have seen in the death camps. We must commend all those who speak out against anti-Semitism, from whichever political party. I was proud recently to share a platform with hon. Friends on the Opposition Benches at my local synagogue, Stanmore synagogue, for a question and answer session, during which I commended them for their bravery in standing up and calling out anti-Semitism in their own party. I congratulate them on that, but I am sorry they have to do it. If ever we face such challenges in my party, I know that we will take a very robust approach indeed to combating anti-Semitism.
It is an honour to have participated again in this debate; since my election, I have participated each year in this debate. I trust that we will ensure that nothing like the holocaust ever happens again—certainly not in our lifetimes—on this planet that we all inhabit.
As we know, the Nazis created and peddled myths about Jewish people; they dehumanised them, representing them as an existential threat to ordinary German citizens. Their propaganda was massively and horrifically effective. Hate-filled words enabled their crimes. It is startling how many of the myths they created reflected the Nazis’ own sickening plans and twisted thinking. In March 1942, well after the campaigns of mass murder had begun, Hitler said that the so-called Jewish wire-pullers aimed to
“unite democracy and Bolshevism into…a conspiracy…to annihilate all of Europe”.
They peddled fear: democracy a threat from the west, Bolshevism a threat from the east, and Jewish people threatening Germany and Germans from within. Goebbels said:
“The Jew will not exterminate the peoples of Europe. Rather, he will be the victim of his own attack”.
This web of fiction was channelled into cruel and cynical propaganda, and it enabled the holocaust.
Ensuring that such fantasies would be believed by ordinary people was not easy. In 1937, teachers were instructed to
“plant the knowledge of the true danger of the Jew deep in the hearts of our youth from their childhood”— done using children’s stories. One, “The Poisonous Mushroom”, told children that just as they should not assume they could tell the poisonous mushroom in the forest from the good ones, they could not assume that Jewish people were good and honest just because they seemed that way—truly heart-breaking.
The state-sponsored propaganda also had effect in the Nazis’ puppet states. In Estonia, many of the mass killings of the holocaust were perpetrated by local collaborators, with very little oversight by the Nazi German occupying force. In 1941, Belgian collaborators launched a pogrom in Antwerp, burning synagogues and targeting the chief rabbi. It was among the first of the events of the holocaust in Belgium. The yellow star law had not even been introduced. The wave of unrestrained violence that night was directly and immediately incited by a screening of the Nazi propaganda film, “The Eternal Jew”, one of the most evil works of propaganda ever produced. It shows the squalor and disease Jewish people were forced to live in but claimed it was something they chose. Brutal, dehumanising scenes of Jewish people crammed in the ghetto were interlaced with scenes of rats swarming from a sewer, while the voiceover says that the rats are
“just like the Jews among human beings…a race of parasites”.
The rhetoric has not gone away, in the UK or elsewhere. We have heard about the Nazi white supremacists marching through Charlottesville, their faces uncovered, some sporting machine guns, chanting, “Jews will not replace us”—a direct repetition of the Nazi lie. In an example from another continent, in October, following the debate last year in this place, the Myanmar embassy sent me a dossier, at the heart of which is a list of historical crimes attributed to the Rohingya Muslims as a group. It painted them as an existential threat to the Buddhist people of Rakhine, enemies manipulating the international community into sympathy with them. Where have we heard that before?
The language of extermination has power because the ground has been prepared. Nazis used teachers, newspapers, newsreels and the radio to do that; today, sowers of hate are equipped with the internet and social media. The propaganda of hate builds suspicion and prejudice until ordinary people believe a complete and utter lie. The history of the holocaust teaches us that if this kind of propaganda is allowed to breed and infect communities and even states, the lie—the evil myth—that those people create can be turned into murder on an industrial scale, the reality of a genocide, the holocaust: 6 million innocent men, women and children brutally and horrifically murdered.
East Renfrewshire is home to Scotland’s largest Jewish population. As their MP and as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on British Jews, I take my responsibility to that community very seriously.
Many Jewish people came to East Renfrewshire to flee the Nazis from the early 1930s onwards, and several holocaust survivors made the area their home, including the much-missed Ernest Levy. Although the number of survivors still with us falls, their stories ring around classrooms to ensure that our children are aware of what can happen when hate is left uncontrolled. We must never forget. The power of survivors’ words has been recorded in interviews that anyone can access via the Gathering the Voices website, of which the words of my constituents Henry and Ingrid Wuga form part.
Sadly, when we think of the holocaust, it can become simply a number—the number of those killed by the Nazi party: 6 million Jews. However, we must resist the temptation to reduce the barbarity of the holocaust to just a number of deaths. The magnitude of these crimes is often lost in a number that we simply cannot comprehend. That is why the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” remains so important. I pay tribute to Karen Pollock, whose impact on the next generation’s understanding of the holocaust and anti-Semitism should not be underrated. On a personal level, it has been a true joy to speak and work with her since my election. Karen and her team are defenders of the truth.
Pupils from Williamwood High School, St Ninian’s and myriad other schools in East Renfrewshire have benefited from seeing the reality of what man can do. Next Thursday, I will be attending a holocaust memorial event at Barrhead High School organised by sixth-year pupil Kirsty Robson. Kirsty became one of HET’s holocaust ambassadors after visiting Auschwitz with the trust in 2016, and her event will feature two holocaust survivors, who will discuss their experiences in front of staff and pupils, enabling them to see the contemporary relevance of the holocaust. Young people such as Kirsty are remarkable and vital in ensuring that the memory and lessons of the holocaust live on and are not forgotten when there is no one left to tell their personal story.
Alongside physical structures such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, we have as this year’s theme the power of words—the idea that words can make a difference for both good and evil. We are all aware of Anne Frank’s work and the impact her diaries have had on millions of children, but the power of words is not limited to the smiling young face that appears on the copies of her diaries. In stark contrast to Anne Frank, this theme can apply to Adolf Hitler’s personal lawyer and governor-general of the central government of the occupied Polish territories, Hans Frank. His evil was shown in his words, and the power of words ultimately condemned him. It was his words that enabled Raphael Lemkin to show the systematic action that was taken to wipe the territory clear of Jews and other so-called undesirables. From Lemkin came the very best of words and ideas: the doctrine of genocide—an idea and a word that has fundamentally changed our world order since 1945.
History has shown that words dictate action, and we must continue to challenge the language and views not just of our opponents but our friends, because when we normalise hatred, it leads to a sense that terrible horrors are part of the normal.
One morning, Hans Frank gave a speech at the University in Lviv. He announced the killing of 100,000 individuals. In the afternoon, he went and played a game of chess with his deputy’s wife, and he lost. He played a second game of chess, and he lost. What agitated him was not the immense mass killing in his name, but his failure against a woman in two games of chess.
I will end with the words of Kirsty Robson. I asked her why she felt it was important for her to become an ambassador and to work with the Holocaust Educational Trust to educate her peers. She told me:
“I feel a sense of duty to continue sharing the lessons that can be learned from the Holocaust following my visit. The trust does incredible work and I am utterly proud to have been one of the minds that has been shaped by them. I am steadfast in my belief that we must learn from the mistakes and heartaches of our past, take note of the contemporary relevance of such events and ensure that the world we are shaping is one of acceptance and kindness, free of persecution and prejudice.”
I join others in congratulating Andrew Percy on securing this important debate. As he reminded us, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is the power of words. Like him, I will speak about what I think are the most powerful words in this context: the testimony of the survivors of the holocaust.
Like others, I have experienced hearing survivors speaking, in particular to children at schools they have come to speak at in my constituency in Liverpool and to those who have gone on the visit to Auschwitz arranged through the Holocaust Educational Trust, and also in the work I did between 2005 and 2010 at the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in Laxton, Nottinghamshire. Nothing can compare to the impact that the words of survivors have in shaping the mind and educating children about the horrors of what happened during the holocaust.
Holocaust Memorial Day has a vital twin importance: remembering the Nazi holocaust—so appallingly denied by some—but also dedicating ourselves to challenging modern-day anti-Semitism, racism, genocide and other mass atrocities. Rudi Oppenheimer was 11 years old and living outside Amsterdam when the Nazis invaded. He and members of his family ended up in Bergen-Belsen, but he survived, as did his brother and sister. His testimony of his experience of the holocaust has educated children around the world. When he was asked in a school why he thinks his testimony is so important, his answer was:
“Because we haven’t learned the lessons yet at all”.
All of us have heard the voices of Tutsi from Rwanda, Muslims from Bosnia and young Yazidi women. These are just three examples; tragically, I could cite many, many others. On Monday, I hosted an event in Speaker’s House organised by War Child focusing on mental health and psychosocial support for children in conflict areas. We heard incredibly powerful first-hand testimony from two fantastic young refugees: Enana, who is originally from Syria, and Oscar, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their testimony about what their countries have been through, and what they personally have been through as refugees from conflict situations, was very powerful and reminds us why Holocaust Memorial Day has such huge contemporary relevance.
In Liverpool, Holocaust Memorial Day is marked annually. Tonight, the University of Liverpool Jewish Society is hosting an event with holocaust survivor Joanna Millan. Next week, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool will open the Fathers House holocaust exhibition in Liverpool town hall. On memorial day itself, the Mayor of Liverpool will join faith leaders in a special service at the town hall to pay tribute to all those who lost their lives in the holocaust and genocides around the world.
Let me finish with another quotation from Rudi Oppenheimer, because this was the theme for last year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, about which the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole spoke: “Nobody should stand by”. Nobody should stand by when we see anti-Semitism or any form of persecution or bullying. As my hon. Friend Lyn Brown rightly reminded us, we should not stand by when we see the awful persecution of the Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar/Burma. We should not stand by when we see the appalling humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And we should not stand by when we see rape used as a weapon of war, as it is in so many places, including against the Rohingya and in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. Let us, on a cross-party basis, use the opportunity of today’s debate and Holocaust Memorial Day next week to say once again that we will not stand by. We will listen to the voices of the survivors—be they from the holocaust, be they from Syria, be they Yazidi women, or be they from the situations in Myanmar or Yemen—and that we will work together as colleagues to stop all forms of oppression and challenge all forms of racism and persecution wherever they rear their ugly head.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrew Percy on securing the debate.
I remember attending the first Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration in Hendon back in 2001. It was held in a marquee in Hendon Park, on a site that has become a memorial garden. I think that that is a fitting tribute to the millions of people who were killed in the Shoah, particularly as so many relatives and friends of those who were murdered have made their homes in my constituency. I was delighted to see in the new year honours list three names of constituents who had had direct experience of the Nazi atrocities, and I think it appropriate to place on the record their names and experiences.
Harry Olmer was awarded an OBE. He is a Mill Hill resident who was born in Sosnowiec, near the German border in south-west Poland. In the spring of 1940 his family were sent to another small village, as life in his home town was becoming very difficult. In 1942 Jewish residents were expelled from their homes, and after a selection, Harry found himself in Plasnow concentration camp, near Krakow, then a munitions factory. He was then moved to Buchenwald, and then to another munitions factory in Schlieben. As the war came to an end, he found himself in Theresienstadt concentration camp, whence he was finally liberated by the Red Army on
A Hendon resident, Bernd Koschland, was awarded an OBE for services to holocaust education. I have known Bernd for many years, and he is well known to many people who attend the holocaust memorial service in Hendon each year. He came to the United Kingdom with the Kindertransport in 1939, after his father was deported to Dachau on Kristallnacht. On his father’s release, Bernd’s parents made the difficult, but sensible, decision to send him to England on the Kindertransport. In March 1939 he made the journey to England, and was later joined by his sister. In addition to his holocaust education work, Bernd was the chairman of the Barnet Multi-Faith Forum for 14 years, and I had the pleasure of working alongside him.
I want to mention the name of one other person, my Edgware constituent Lieutenant Colonel Mordaunt Cohen, who is the most senior Jewish officer who served in the British Army during the second world war and who received an MBE for his services to second world war education. Mordaunt joined the British Army after hearing about the horrors of Nazi Germany from children who had arrived on the Kindertransport. He fought in Burma from 1942 to 1945, which was in itself a horrific experience. After the war, he became chairman of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. He celebrated his 100th birthday last year, and it was a huge pleasure and privilege for me to visit him in his home on that occasion.
To all three constituents, I say “Mazel tov, and thank you for all that you have achieved throughout your lives, particularly here in the United Kingdom.”
Last year I spoke about a constituent of mine called Renee Salt. Since then I have visited Renee on several occasions to talk about certain things and to eat much of her cake, which she bakes at home. During one of our discussions we spoke about another Hendon constituent, who died in 2008 and whom I had known. That was the Rev. Leslie Hardman. His link with Renee was that she was a captive in Bergen-Belsen, and he was one of the first British Army chaplains who liberated the camp. In his book “The Survivors”, he described how his Colonel told him to go to the camp because
“you’ll find a lot of your people.”
Leslie also wrote that one of his first acts was to officiate over the mass burial of 5,000 bodies, a scene that he described as “bodies interlocked, coagulated, disintegrated”.
I have a lot more to say, but time will not allow me to do so. Let me leave the House with a quotation from someone relatively unknown, Salmen Gradowski. On
“May the world at least behold a drop, a fraction of this tragic world in which we lived.”
We can consider those words from the perspective of history, but knowing that they were found after liberation in a flask buried in the grounds of the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematorium makes them more powerful. I think that they illustrate this year’s theme of Holocaust Memorial Day, the power of words.
I thank Andrew Percy for sponsoring the debate. It is a pleasure for me to co-sponsor it. This is the fifth or sixth time I have co-sponsored a debate on this important day. When I was first a Member of Parliament I was proud to do so, and now that I am back in the House, I am even more delighted.
Let me also congratulate the indomitable Karen Pollock, who is in the public Gallery and whom I have known for many years. Without her, I do not believe that this day, and the impact and reach that it has across the country, would be as strong. She really does deserve an enormous amount of credit.
The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is the power of words. I was reminded of that when I read some words only earlier this morning from Anne Frank, that remarkable young girl who wrote so beautifully in Amsterdam all those years ago. She wrote:
“When I write I can shake off all my cares;
my sorrow disappears;
my spirits are revived.”
That is such a powerful set of words for such a dreadful time by a remarkable young woman.
That comment and the power of words brings me to my own constituent. Eastbourne does not have a large Jewish community; in fact, it is fairly minuscule—probably only 40 or 50. Like everyone else in the Chamber and many across the country, however, I am here because we know that what happened was so wicked—as was what has happened so many times since in the different genocides from Rwanda to Cambodia and the rest—that if we do not emphasise and talk about this day, there is the constant danger that it will happen again. Indeed, it is depressing that when I last spoke on this day in the House the Yazidis were perfectly safe in Iraq and Syria. Two years later they have almost been destroyed as a people. I therefore profoundly believe that the commemoration and remembrance on this day must never stop.
I have an extraordinary constituent in the small Jewish community in Eastbourne called Dorit Oliver-Wolff. She is a survivor, and she recently wrote an autobiography called “From Yellow Star to Pop Star.” She was born in Yugoslavia. When the Nazis invaded, she and her mother moved to Budapest when she was only five or six years old, and they somehow survived through the four or five years of the war from hand to mouth, travelling from place to place, creating new identities. It was when she was in Budapest that she first realised she was Jewish: she was only five years old and a woman spat at her in the street and called her “A stinking Jew”. Can anyone imagine anything more utterly incomprehensible than that to a five-year-old?
Dorit survived and flourished, and moved to Eastbourne 10 or 15 years ago. She is a remarkable woman. I highlight her story because in many ways she emphasises one fundamental strength irrespective of the wickedness of Governments and people: the unfailing goodness and strength of individuals. That was true in the war when so many individuals saved so many Jewish people from Poland to Bulgaria to Albania. They are the reason why I profoundly believe this day is worth remembering and will continually improve human nature.
I rise very briefly to congratulate the ambassador programme and particularly one of my constituents who is part of it. Although we are talking about the power of words, it is often the person delivering those words who makes them more powerful, so it was fantastic to attend the event at Speaker’s House where we heard testimony from survivors, including a 94-year-old lady who said she would pass on the baton to the young ambassadors in that room, and rightly so at 94; it is about time somebody else took that strain.
Joe Collins is a constituent of mine. He first came to my attention because he is an active Conservative campaigner, but, more importantly, Joe is all the things that I am not: he got a very good set of A-level results and is going to York university, and he is young, bright, and charismatic. If he is giving the message to young people, they are much more likely to listen.
Joe attended the lessons from Auschwitz programme and has subsequently become one of the young ambassadors. He has arranged events at his school, he is arranging a marathon, and he fundraises all sorts of things to publicise this work. He brought Susi Bechhofer to Walsall Academy to speak to the students there. Her story is an interesting one. She was brought over on the Kindertransport when she was three years old to live in Cardiff. My understanding is that the people who acted as foster parents were supposed to undertake not to convert, or attempt to convert, the people they were fostering. Unfortunately, in this case, the foster father was a Baptist reverend and he had the children baptised, changed their names and brought them up as Baptists.
Susi became Grace Mann, and it was not until she was at school, preparing to take an English literature exam, that she discovered that that was not her original name. She was queueing up in alphabetical order with other children in the M section when the teacher came over to her and said, “You are in the wrong place. You should be with the Bs.” She had a vague recollection of being Susi Bechhofer, and spent the rest of the exam thinking about her new identity.
As Susi discovered more about her original identity, she decided that, having been raised as a Baptist, she would stick with the religion that she had grown up with, but that she would find out more about her other one. Part of the point of her story is that it is not just those who were killed or who suffered torture in the camps who were the victims of this dreadful abuse. Let us remember that 6 million people—two thirds of the European Jewish population at that time—were wiped out, but the ramifications went far wider. The ripples went on. I am grateful to Joe and to the ambassadors programme, and I am grateful that Susi took the time to visit Walsall Academy in my constituency and continues to share the message with young people.
I congratulate Andrew Percy on bringing this matter to the House and speaking so well. I know that many Members will have appreciated the way in which he introduced the debate. I want to concentrate my comments on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz project and how that has impacted on Northern Ireland. The project was delivered in Northern Ireland in March 2017 following the receipt of a grant of £160,000 from the Departments of Education and for Communities in Northern Ireland. This was the first time such a project had been delivered in Northern Ireland since 2008. I pay tribute to Karen Pollock for her lobbying work to ensure that every component part of the United Kingdom has access to the project.
We talk about the power of words, but actions also matter. For the past 10 years, various Departments and politicians in Northern Ireland had been saying that the issue of Auschwitz mattered, but when the time came for them to put their hand in their pocket and put departmental money on the table to make the project happen, it became clear that their words were simply lip service. I want to pay tribute to the two Ministers from the devolved Assembly whose actions made a difference: Mr Peter Weir from the Department of Education; and Mr Paul Givan from the Department for Communities. They came together and ensured that money was put on the table to allow the project to take place in Northern Ireland. Other Departments, and the other Ministers who previously held those posts, will hope that they can come up to the same mark in the future, if the devolved Assembly continues in place.
Through the project, 166 students from 76 schools across Northern Ireland, as well as 27 teachers, were able to take part in a unique educational experience laid on by the Holocaust Educational Trust. The four-part course was open to two students from every school and college in Northern Ireland, and incorporated a one-day visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. On the visit, students first visited the town where the Nazi concentration and death camps were located and where, before the war, 58% of the population was Jewish. Students then visited Auschwitz to see the former camp’s barracks and crematoriums, and to witness the piles of belongings that were seized by the Nazis. Finally they spent time at the main killing centre in Birkenau, where the day concluded with candle lighting and a period of reflection to remember the 6 million Jews murdered in the holocaust and the other victims of Nazi persecution.
We say that the term “the power of words” is important, but when we get the chance to speak to those students, we realise that the power of silence is really incredible, as they could not form words due to the tears coursing down their cheeks as they wondered what could have been, after seeing at first hand man’s hatred of man and how we must strive to ensure that such a thing never happens again. I congratulate all those who have taken part in this debate, and I hope that the power of words and actions will speak volumes for us all.
I thank Andrew Percy for bringing the debate to the House. I also thank hon. Members for their contributions so far today. As we have heard, the theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the power of words, and it is important to remember the context in which Nazism arose after the treaty of Versailles and the 1929 crash. A murderous regime was able to take hold of Germany during terrible economic conditions, and it then drove its ideology through Europe and tried to undertake the genocide of my people—the Jewish people.
Last autumn, I met Martin Kapel, who lives in Headingley in my constituency, at a Woodcraft Folk event. He was talking to boys and girls who were the same age as him when he was expelled from Germany by the Nazis. My boys, who are also Woodcraft Folkers, were the age he was when he was taken from his family. The realisation hit me hard when I saw my own boys with Martin and I had to think of him enduring the grim reality of the loss of his family.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that holocaust survivors such as Solly Irving are remembered, with their stories living on after they pass, so that we do not repeat the mistakes that have been made and instead create a better world for everyone?
That is one of the most important lessons of Holocaust Memorial Day and of our memories of the holocaust.
Many people’s only real insight into what the camps or the ghettos were like is through film. I have watched many of these films, including “Jakob the Liar”, “Schindler’s List” and “Sophie’s Choice”, but the most poignant for me is “Life Is Beautiful”, directed by the Italian comedian Roberto Benigni. The first half of the film is a romantic comedy about how Benigni’s character, a Jewish bookkeeper, falls in love with and marries an Italian woman in the 1930s. They then have a son, and Benigni’s character and his son get sent to a concentration camp. To protect his son, he pretends that the camp is a game and that the prize is winning a tank. I am unsure whether my children are quite ready to watch the film, but I would use it to introduce to them what the horror of the holocaust means, because it is the most human and poignant telling of the holocaust that I have seen.
The holocaust has deeply affected my family. My parents were born in 1946, and I remember sitting in my great-aunt’s kitchen in Tel Aviv as a young child, seeing the numbers tattooed on her arm and asking my father, “Why?” She was in the camps. She did not have her own children or grandchildren. I had no aunts or uncles or cousins to play with, because the Nazis experimented on her and she could not have children. This hollow shell cast a dark spectre over my family—all the relatives I never met or who never survived, and the children they never had.
That is my living memory of what happened, and it is seared into me when I make my own political judgments or when I make decisions about the genocide happening now to the Rohingya or the Yazidis, or elsewhere around the world. It also happens when I think about decisions more locally. We sit in a place of tolerance and pluralism. We call those on the other side of the House “hon. Members”, and they are our opponents, not our enemies. We should be grateful for our democracy and for how this place operates. We need that same political culture everywhere: in our parties, on the streets, in our schools, and in our workplaces.
Every day, I try to work with that memory of my family and the dark spectre of the holocaust. I try to take that into all my experiences and all my dealings with people. I try to be tolerant towards them, but when intolerance comes and they have a message of hate, I try to face it down and stand up to it by saying, “I do not accept what you have to say. You are wrong.” I first try to educate, but then I try to use the power of the state, and the power we have to ensure that those people do not come forward. We sit beneath the plaque to Jo Cox and remember that she was struck down by these same people on the far right. It is our duty here in this place, and the duty of everyone in this country, to stand up for tolerance and pluralism, and to act against intolerance and extremism.
I thank Andrew Percy for securing this debate and congratulate everyone who has taken part on their powerful and moving speeches. It is an honour to take part in this debate in remembrance of an event that, in its own way, challenges the power of words adequately to express the horror and sorrow of the holocaust.
Three years ago I visited the Yad Vashem memorial in Israel. As I was taken around that remarkable monument, the experience was at times emotional, as well as inspiring and thought-provoking throughout. It is a dark, oppressive space—a tunnel in a hillside—and as we travelled through it, guided as we were by a holocaust survivor, the personal testimonies we heard and the things we saw represented to me one of the bleakest periods in modern history—indeed, human history.
When our tour focused on the concentration camps, my mind was flooded with thoughts of the survivors I have been privileged to meet as we heard the testimonies of the suffering. I also thought about the young people I know who have visited what remains of the concentration camps across Europe, and about their reactions.
My daughter, who was born more than half a century after the war ended, visited because she felt she had to but, unlike other places of historical importance she has visited, it is something she rarely talks about. Like many, we took her as a child to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam, and she was fascinated. When we came home she fell in love with the words of that youngster who lived her life hidden because it was the only life she was allowed. Hers were informative, moving words.
When my daughter has visited other memorials she has talked about them, but not when she came home from visiting Theresienstadt, which represented something more. She faced up to the fact that it was all real; that this was where so many stories, like that of the little girl living in a loft whose powerful words she had fallen in love with, had ended; and that if that horror were ever to return, many of the people she loved would meet the same fate. Perhaps it was a similar feeling that moved Andrew Dismore on his visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and we should thank that visit for enabling us to dedicate a day to holocaust remembrance, but how do we adequately remember an event when its sheer horror challenges everything we want to believe about humanity and ourselves? How?
Perhaps Yad Vashem points the way. It is a tunnel in a hillside through which visitors proceed. In near darkness, they hear and see the emotionally numbing truth and heartbreak of the holocaust, but then, like all tunnels, the light at the end begins to grow until they emerge into the sunlight—it is a completely apt and quite deliberate metaphor.
In remembering the holocaust, we should take that metaphor to our hearts and remember that, unlike the many millions who hid in darkness or died in the bleakest of circumstances, and unlike the many victims of war and genocide in the past and in the current day—like those in Srebrenica and the Rohingya—we live in the sunlight. We should cherish that, and we should think of them every day that we enjoy it.
It is an honour to speak in this debate, and to follow Christine Jardine and my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, who spoke so movingly. I do not think anybody in this House can fail to have been moved by his personal testimony, so I thank him for that. I also thank Andrew Percy for securing this debate and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I also thank the Holocaust Educational Trust for the work it does in ensuring that as many people as possible, from every background in the UK, are aware of the holocaust and particularly of its contemporary relevance.
The HET has shared some amazing pieces of writing from survivors and victims, which really show the theme of this year, “The Power of Words”. One poem that particularly struck me was written by a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Avram Schaufeld. He wrote:
“Do not ask
How did you survive?
Because this is a question that causes me pain and brings back memories…
I know that you mean well and are sympathetic and would like me to talk to your youth group or your son who is writing a paper on the Holocaust and I could help him with this subject which is part of his exams
You add with a smile, that no amount of reading is the same as talking to a survivor
From your eager expression I can guess what you expect me to tell him
About our bravery and how our faith in God helped us to survive…
I lie and say that I am too busy that I have other commitments and quickly take my leave and turn away so that you cannot see the hurt in my eyes
Do not ask me why”.
Avram Schaufeld was the only member of his family to survive the holocaust. His poem addresses the theme of words from a rather different perspective and articulates his understandable reluctance to talk about the horrors of his past. But each year there are fewer and fewer survivors of the holocaust, and we must be grateful to all those who have gifted us their memories and testimonies—their words live on.
In my constituency of Heywood and Middleton, we will be gathering together on the evening of Monday
In conclusion, we must never forget the lessons from this horrific part of recent history. Only today we heard in this Chamber about a report on the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh and Burma, and we must redouble our efforts to end this humanitarian crisis, which has been described by the UN as a “textbook” case of “ethnic cleansing”. We must all remember the lessons of the holocaust and never forget that evil triumphs when good men and women do nothing.
First, I congratulate Andrew Percy on bringing this debate to the Floor of this House. As is well known, I am a strong supporter of Israel, as others are. I believe in the nation of Israel and support it. Today, I stand, as others have, in solidarity with those from all over Europe who were culled like the lowest of animals due to their belief and because a regime could not tolerate the ideal of freedom of religious belief for anyone.
I congratulate the right hon. and hon. Members who have given fantastic speeches and made a terrific contribution to today’s debate. I have spoken every year in this Chamber on this topic and as long as God spares me, I will always take the time to remember and mourn the holocaust.
I recently watched a snippet of a programme, one that many people are probably aware of as it has been making the rounds on Facebook. It showed when Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued 669 children from Nazi death camps, was honoured and was in a room with many of the children he had saved—they were now adults with their own children. Those who have seen the programme will know what I am going to say. Those people were alive because of the sacrifices and decisions that Nicholas Winton took. It was hard not to be moved by the 104-year-old Nicholas Winton giving an interview and making a life-changing statement when he was asked what made him think that he could save lives. His answer was simple:
“I work on the motto that if something is not impossible, there must be a way of doing it”.
It was simple for him, but he did a great thing.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for speaking about Nicholas Winton. Last year, we celebrated, and in fact made a film about, the children who survived and were brought to Stoke-on-Trent because of Nicholas Winton. Those children had no connection at all to our city, but have gone on to be huge ambassadors for it and for our country. That should be applauded at every opportunity.
I thank the hon. Lady for her pertinent, honest and personal words. I am fortunate that in my constituency we have Kindertransport children, who were saved by those who took the time to bring them across. There is a farm in Millisle known as McGill’s farm, which is where the young children who came over during the second world war stayed. Some of them stayed and never went home: they came from Germany to Millisle in my constituency, where there were people who loved them and looked after them.
I long to see a generation of Nicholas Wintons reaching out from the UK again, making a difference to the world and leaving a legacy of hard work and moral character for later generations. As I watched that short snippet, it was hard not to get emotional because the next generation of children, including my own granddaughters, will not get to see these kinds of stories at first hand. Others have referred to how important it is that we record these stories and have this event every year so that we can commemorate the holocaust, remember those who were murdered and think of those who survived. It is also important to remember that many of those who survived are now no longer here.
The sight of an actual lady in that programme thanking Sir Nicholas is something that is now imprinted in my memory, and in the memories of many others. It is sometimes easy to watch a film and see the Hollywood slant. It makes it very real but also slightly deadens us to the emotional fact. Seeing the faces of those who managed to survive the camps but knowing that 6 million did not makes it very real. As that realisation sank in, so did the realisation that now more than ever we must make a concerted effort to teach our children not just the figures—it is not only about the 6 million figure, which is horrific and shocking enough—but that these were lives lost, that an entire nation was slaughtered, that a people were forever wounded, and that this was an atrocity that can never be allowed to happen again. We need to reaffirm our desire never to see that atrocity repeated by ensuring that all schools throughout the nation do not simply pay lip service to the holocaust by teaching numbers, and that children see real-life stories and understand the human cost, as I believe they have. The stories of how humanity sank so low must be clear to ensure that we never sink so low again.
I wish to use again the phrase used by Liz McInnes— just because it is oft repeated, that does not mean it is of any less value. I am a firm believer that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. That belief comes from the holocaust and is emphasised by the poem by Niemöller:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Quite simply, we have to speak out for those who cannot.
It is a true privilege to speak in this debate. I send my compliments to Andrew Percy for securing it and to the Backbench Business Committee for facilitating it. It was a true privilege to listen to my hon. Friend Alex Sobel. In listening to his speech, we were privileged to experience the power of words. That power is hugely important.
I had a marvellously prepared speech, but I am going to cast it to one side. As a primary school teacher, it was a privilege to talk to children and to be there when they discovered new things and new facts. It has been a huge privilege this week to send out to the schools in East Lothian the Holocaust Memorial Day packs provided by the trust.
I wish to share my experience of coming to understand about the holocaust. I had the luck and, again, the privilege of listening to a survivor when I was at school. I remember us all sitting around in the hall when this lovely lady came in. She seemed terribly old and terribly far away, but her opening words were, “I was at school”. Suddenly, she had us all—there may have been 70 of us in the hall—in the palm of her hand. She shared with us an experience that she wished we would never have, and she shared with us an experience that has stayed with me ever since. The word “privilege” gets used a lot, but it was a great privilege to listen to a survivor.
I wish to extend my compliments to the ambassadors as they take over from those who are living now and who have experienced what happened. They will take the experience forward and spread it out.
Social media is a great, great tool in the hands of the right people, but, unfortunately, it is used sometimes for truly horrendous things. I would like to take this opportunity, in thinking of the power of words, to say that we who have the power of words must point out what happened to those people who are still to learn about the holocaust and to those people who are learning empathy through listening and understanding about what happened. We must also hold out against those people who want to misrepresent what happened, those people who have forgotten the important lessons of history and those individuals who just deny what history so clearly tells us. We must not forget. The importance of this day and the importance of this debate rests with us and in doing that.
My hon. Friend Alex Sobel, in his absolutely powerful and moving speech, made reference to films. There is another—Steven Spielberg’s fantastic work “Shoah” in which survivors living at the time all gave their testimony, speaking in their own words for the record. Hopefully, those words will be there for generations to come.
Twenty-one years ago, I introduced a private Member’s Bill on holocaust denial. It was a precursor to a private Member’s Bill on Holocaust Memorial Day promoted by my former hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, who came in in 1997. We did not get the Bill on denial, but we did get the Bill on memorial. I received an incredible amount of anti-Semitic abuse. For two years after, I received specially printed Christmas cards with the most vile images. The assumption was that I was Jewish. Actually, I am not; I grew up in Ilford and the mum of one of my best friends at school always thought that I was Jewish because I was always round there, but I am not.
Interestingly, after the election in 1997, I decided that I was going to do more about these issues. Then a group was established locally which campaigned against me because I supported a two-state position in the middle east. The group, which called itself the Association of Ilford Muslims—I do not have the time now, but I refer Members to my Westminster Hall debate that I held in June 2001—put out leaflets saying that I was no friend of the Muslims, I was a true friend of Israel, and I represented Tel Aviv South, not Ilford South. Subsequently, the Muslim Political Action Committee UK was set up. It has peddled on the internet and through social media anti-Semitic material, which it dresses up as anti-Zionism. It has targeted people in election campaigns, including in Rochdale, Oldham, Birmingham, Blackburn, in my constituency and elsewhere to try to get rid of people it regards as pro-Zionist MPs—mainly Labour MPs, but Conservatives as well. That has been the power of their message. It is insidious, and it is in our politics.
I am very pleased to say that next Friday in Ilford we are going to have all communities, as we always do—Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Jews—
Valentines Park in Ilford, at the holocaust memorial garden, which was established on the initiative of the former council leader—still a Conservative councillor—Alan Weinberg. We will have our annual service there, and there will be young people from many different schools, including, as in recent years, young people from a Muslim school—the Al-Noor school. We have many different people from different faiths speaking, because that is Ilford today. A century ago, Ilford had a very large Jewish community, but now we have all the different faiths, and they come together.
It is important to recognise that the poison that was put out against me all those years ago did not succeed. I am still here. More importantly, the community has rejected extremists of that kind, but they are still there. They are out on Twitter. They are out on Facebook.
I absolutely agree. I had not been to Auschwitz before 2013, when I went with a group of young people from schools in the south of England—there were not people from my constituency on the day that I was available. Every year, young people from many of my local schools go there, and those young people come back and talk about their experience, and spread the message in our community.
In our modern, pluralistic, democratic society, we must never forget the events of the holocaust. We must also remember the more recent genocides in Rwanda and Cambodia and what happened to the Yazidis. As the Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Development Committee pointed out in their recent reports, we also need to highlight the plight of the Rohingya today. We must stand together as a community and fight these evils.
It is an honour to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this time and Andrew Percy for securing the debate. It is also an honour and a privilege to follow all the brilliant speeches we have heard today, especially that of Alex Sobel.
I join others in paying tribute to Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, and its “Lessons from Auschwitz” project, which since 1999 has enabled over 30,000 students and teachers to see at first hand the horror and brutality and
“to clearly highlight what can happen if prejudice and racism become acceptable.”
The theme of this year’s memorial day is the power of words, to remind us that
“The Holocaust did not start in the gas chambers but with hate filled words.”
Those words did not suddenly spring into being at the inaugural Nuremberg rally or from the venomous pages of “Mein Kampf”. It must be acknowledged that words and discrimination directed against Jewish people have been around for centuries, if not millennia, across the entire European continent and beyond, affecting all sections of society, all religions and all forms of state. Indeed, George Orwell noted in his essay on anti-Semitism:
“There has been a perceptible antisemitic strain in English literature from Chaucer onwards, and without even getting up from this table to consult a book I can think of passages which if written now would be stigmatised as antisemitism, in the works of Shakespeare, Smollett, Thackeray, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley and various others.”
While there can be no doubt that it is the Nazi leaders and those who carried out their orders who bear sole responsibility for the holocaust, their actions and beliefs were made easier to implement and for to others to subscribe to as a result of the norms and values that had been constructed over a long period of time, and eventually found fertile ground in 1920s Germany, in the toxic world of the Nazi party and those who carried out the work on their behalf. In the words of Wes Streeting, who delivered an excellent speech during the debate in 2016,
“we should never avert our eyes from the most uncomfortable truth of all—that its perpetrators were not unique. They were ordinary men and women carrying out acts of extraordinary evil”—[Official Report,
Vol. 604, c. 1635.]
The actions that the Nazis carried out may be beyond comprehension, but we can never be complacent or try to pretend that such actions took place in a vacuum and had no precedent. As the Jewish Italian writer and chemist Primo Levi, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, put it: “We cannot understand” fascism,
“but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard...because what happened can happen again... For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”
When Barack Obama visited Yad Vashem in 2008, a few months before the presidential election, his note in the guestbook read:
“At a time of great peril and promise, war and strife, we are blessed to have such a powerful reminder of man's potential for great evil, but also our capacity to rise up from tragedy and remake our world. Let our children come here, and know this history, so that they can add their voices to proclaim ‘never again.’ And may we remember those who perished, not only as victims, but also as individuals who hoped and loved and dreamed like us, and who have become symbols of the human spirit.”
Former President Obama chose his words carefully, as must we all in politics around the world, so as not to allow this extremism to permeate again.
We must acknowledge the sad reality that a few decades hence there will be no one left who is able to offer a first-hand account of their experience of the holocaust. That is why the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust is so important—for example, in organising the event in Speaker’s House on Tuesday, or the football match between MPs and family members of survivors that took place last week. In that match, MPs, including me, played against—and lost to—Darren and Robert Richman, grandsons of Zigi Shipper, who when he was just 14 was taken from the Łódź ghetto to Auschwitz. Many who travelled with Zigi were murdered within an hour of arriving. He survived Auschwitz and was liberated by the British Army after a death march to Neustadt.
Also playing was Justin Spiro, the grandson of Harry Spiro. Like Zigi, Harry was just a boy when he was forced to work in a glass factory in the Piotrków ghetto. In 1942, the Nazis announced that all those working in the factory should attend work and everyone else should stay in their homes. Harry’s family and 22,000 other people in the ghetto were taken to Treblinka extermination camp, where they were murdered. Harry was eventually liberated by the Soviets and came to Britain as part of the group of youngsters who were later known as “The Boys”. I wish I could say more about some of the other survivors’ stories that were shared with us at the football match.
I quoted George Orwell’s comment on the history of anti-Semitism in fiction, but literature and art in general can play a more positive role in the world by portraying and expressing the personal experience, emotion and impact of real-world events in a way that is not always fully revealed by statistics alone, regardless of how extreme those events may be. I will finish with a quotation from novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who escaped to America with his Russian Jewish wife in May 1940, just prior to the Wehrmacht’s arrival in Paris, where they had been living at the time, and whose own brother would later perish in a Nazi concentration camp. In one of his novels, written just over a decade later, the central character reflects on his former lover, whose death in the holocaust he has just been reminded of when he is asked by another character if he had heard about her “terrible end”. The central character reflects that he had not thought about her until that moment
“because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.”
It is indeed a privilege to speak in this debate, because I believe it shows the best of this House when we come together in a common cause. I thank Andrew Percy for securing the debate and for his powerful speech, and hon. Members on both sides of the House for their powerful contributions. I am sorry that I do not have the time to pay tribute to all those who have spoken, but I must mention my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, who did indeed demonstrate the power of words, however difficult it must have been for him to share that story. I am so pleased that, with all-party support, this debate is a fixture in the calendar. It is not, however, just a fixture or something we do by rote; it is there to remind us of the horrors of the past and for us to look forward to the future. Sadly, this year, it is needed more than ever.
The power of words in this place is well recognised—sometimes, too many words—so it is an appropriate theme for Holocaust Memorial Day. I thank the Holocaust Educational Trust for all its work and for deciding on this as its theme. I have visited Dachau and I have visited the Washington Holocaust museum, and it is ironic that words could not describe the experience we had going round them. I have never been to a place where there was complete silence as people viewed and experienced everything there. That was particularly the case in Washington, where visitors are given a card with a name on, and when they come out at the end they are told whether they have survived—and, sadly, nearly everyone does not survive the experience. It took a good 10 minutes for us even to speak after that experience.
We are grateful to the survivors because they speak about their experiences and, however hard it is for them to do so, they tell us what it was like for them and their families. They are not just nameless and faceless victims, and they are not just 6 million; they are people with families—they were brothers, sisters, mums, dads. In a time with fewer survivors, we have to ensure that their words and their experiences live on and are communicated to future generations. As Anne Frank wrote, the words in her diary were a way of living on; she did not know that they would be her only way of living on.
We have to remember that words can be a force for good as well as a force for evil. Sadly, on this Holocaust Memorial Day, we are reminded that anti-Semitism and hate speech are no longer just in the past. As a child, I was told, as I am sure many people were told, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, but words do hurt: they are the start of hurting people. They are the start of stereotyping, name calling and vilification, which dehumanises people. Sadly, this is still happening today, possibly facilitated by social media, which allows people to say things anonymously that they would never say to somebody’s face.
I am very sorry that colleagues and others on both sides of the House have suffered some of this vilification. They should report it, and it the duty of all of us to support them if they are suffering from this vilification. It is our duty to call out, and to support others in calling out, anti-Semitism and hate speech wherever it is found. As my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman said, we cannot stand idly by. To stand idly by is to give tacit support to those who hate. Holocaust Memorial Day is not just to look back on a period of history; it is to reflect on how this happened. It is to reflect on how ordinary people were divided against each other and could commit dreadful atrocities on another human being, because words had told them that those others were not human beings, that they were a different race and culture and that that was bad. Such things are not bad: differences should be celebrated, not vilified. It is our duty to show that we can reflect and look forward, and to demonstrate by our actions and our words that we will not stand idly and silently by.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee, and I commend my hon. Friend Andrew Percy for securing this vital debate. I am honoured that this will be my first speech from the Dispatch Box. I thank my hon. Friend for his warm words, and I hope that I am able to offer the House even half of the eloquence with which he spoke this time last year and earlier this afternoon. I agree entirely with Yvonne Fovargue: it has been a privilege to hear hon. Members from across the House make powerful and—especially in the case of Alex Sobel—very personal contributions to this debate.
This year the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is the power of words, and that has been demonstrated perfectly in the Chamber today. Like many others, my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers and my hon. Friends the Members for Hendon (Dr Offord) and for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) shared moving stories from their constituents. As the last of those who survived the holocaust are lost to us, the weight of those words, stories and memories only becomes greater. My young daughters’ generation will not have the privilege of hearing about the horrors of the holocaust from those who lived through it, and the task falls to us, and to the young ambassadors mentioned by my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes, to keep alive the terrible lessons that the holocaust teaches. We must remind a new generation of where the road of prejudice, hatred and dictatorship ultimately leads.
In truth, the words so often associated with the holocaust —“never again”—have too often proved false. Whether in the tragedies of Srebrenica or Rwanda, the violence that stems from prejudice has never truly left us. Sadly, as we heard today, that prejudice is still prevalent. A comprehensive survey by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research concluded that 30% of the UK population hold one or more anti-Semitic attitudes—30%. Anti-Semitic incidents recorded by the Community Security Trust rose by 30% in the first half of last year, to their highest level since the trust began collecting records in 1984.
The truth that the holocaust teaches us is that the fight against anti-Semitism, racism, and religious intolerance never truly ends. Every generation must fight it again, and every generation must choose between a common humanity, which is the shared inheritance of all, and the narrow bigotry that sees some as more human than others.
Does the Minister consider that it would be beneficial to reach out to those young ambassadors and lay on a special reception for them, either at Downing Street or here in Parliament, so that they can be inspired and know that they can go out and advocate with courage, strength, humility and power the words that are necessary to convey this important memory to the next generation? I am talking about people such as Keri Bickerstaff of Bloomfield Collegiate School, and other young women and men who have decided to become ambassadors for this cause.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point which I will consider and take up with the right people in my Department and others.
The holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began in the minds of ordinary people—people who, spurred on by Nazi propaganda, allowed spoken words slowly to erode the value of Jewish lives. The story is always the same. From so-called “class enemies” in Cambodia, to the so-called “cockroaches” in Rwanda, the terrible power of words is all too clear.
Education is crucial to fighting prejudice, and I note that many Members of the House have powerful memories of their visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau. For that we must of course thank Karen Pollock, the CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust, who along with her team is an inspiration to us all. My hon. Friend Bob Blackman correctly highlighted the trust’s new initiative to use the Lessons from Auschwitz programme to challenge anti-Semitism on university campuses, and the Government are proud to support that.
We must also pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and its chief executive officer, Olivia Marks-Woldman, who along with her team delivered the most successful Holocaust Memorial Day to date last year, with almost 8,000 local events. The Government are proud to support and work along these and many other commendable organisations.
It would be remiss of me not to mention a notable absence today, the Prime Minister’s post-Holocaust issues envoy, Sir Eric Pickles, whose passionate speeches those who have attended previous debates will no doubt recall fondly. Sir Eric was the driving force behind the Government’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism, making the UK the first country in the world to formally adopt the definition. As we have heard, the Government are also planning to build a new national Holocaust memorial and learning centre, a project that was kick-started with £50 million of funding.
I would like to end by paying tribute to those survivors honoured in the Queen’s new year’s honours list: men and women of enormous courage who have relived again and again their lives’ most painful memories so that we might all learn from them. It is both a great privilege and a responsibility to call such remarkable people our fellow citizens. Having listened to so many outstanding contributions here today, I believe that we remain a nation worthy of that honour and that we remain a Chamber that through our own words will never forget and will play our part in honouring these heroes’ stories.
I thank the three Front-Bench spokespersons, whose speeches were all excellent in their content, and pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the new Minister on his first outing at the Dispatch Box. He made a much better fist of it than I did last year, and will clearly last longer than I did in the job. I also thank other colleagues who have taken part in this debate.
This has been an incredible debate. It was great to hear the many testimonies of survivors themselves. We heard about Rudi Oppenheimer from Stephen Twigg, and about his constituent Oscar, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and we heard Edgar Guest’s story from Bambos Charalambous, Ernest’s story from my hon. Friend Paul Masterton, and those of other survivors. We heard a lot about the role of young ambassadors, including from Ian Paisley, while my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes mentioned his constituent Joe Collins, who will shortly be attending York University, which I also attended—I hope he makes better career choices than I have made since graduating.
We also heard about the dangers of social media from Lyn Brown and others and about how it was being used to spread hate and anti-Semitism. We heard from Mike Gapes about how you do not need to be Jewish to be on the receiving end of anti-Semitism. My first experience of anti-Semitism came in about 2010, after a trip to Israel. The contributions have been excellent this afternoon. My right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers gave a rallying cry for us all to go out and fight anti-Semitism once again.
I will end where I started. Words are important. Anti-Semitism is a stain on humanity, society and our politics at the moment. We must all match our words with action, and that applies to all of us in this House, including those at the very highest levels of our political parties.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2018.