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Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:48 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Ian Austin Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North 12:48 pm, 24th January 2019

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2019.

In the middle of the night on 14 March 1939, a 10-year-old Jewish boy in a town called Ostrava, in what was then Czechoslovakia, was woken up by a noise in the street outside. Peering out of the window, he saw German soldiers marching into the town square. It was the night that Hitler invaded, and four days later, the boy was put on a train to England by his mum and teenage sisters. He was the only member of his family able to leave, and it was the last time he would see them. They were forced into a ghetto, then sent to Theresienstadt, and then to Treblinka, where they were murdered on 5 October 1942. He escaped to the UK. He grew up to become the youngest grammar school headmaster in the country, and he was honoured with an MBE for his contribution to education and his work for charities. He adopted four children, of whom I am the second, and I suppose that makes the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year—Torn from Home—particularly appropriate, and it is an honour for me to introduce this debate.

Right at the outset, I want to pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the brilliant work its fantastic team do to teach young people about what can happen if hatred and racism become acceptable. Thanks to their hard work and Government grants—launched in 2006 and continued, I am delighted to say, by every Government since—the trust takes two students from every sixth form in the country to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I have seen young students from Dudley go on those trips, come back and campaign in their community against racism.

I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Leader of the House and the Backbench Business Committee for this debate, and I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who supported the application for this debate or who are here to take part in it. I also thank the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for everything everybody is doing this week to commemorate and remember those killed—the 6 million people killed—in history’s greatest crime.

There is a particular group of people to whom I want to pay tribute today: the survivors—men and women like Eva Clarke BEM, whom many of us heard speak here in Parliament on Tuesday about the horrors that her family faced during the holocaust; or Zigi Shipper BEM, who at the age of 89 will travel to Dudley tomorrow to speak to hundreds of local people at our annual holocaust commemoration; or Mala Tribich MBE, Sir Ben Helfgott, Hannah Lewis MBE, Susan Pollack MBE and Eve Kugler—who all spend so much of their time travelling around the country to tell communities like ours where racism and prejudice can lead. I think it is extraordinary that these heroes, many of them now in their late 80s and 90s, use their direct personal experience of these terrible events to help us build stronger communities and a more tolerant, united country. I am sure everybody here will want to salute them and pay tribute to them all.

Listening to those survivors and visiting Auschwitz or other sites of mass murder is a truly life-changing experience. I thought I knew what to expect when I first visited Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust and students from Dudley, but nothing can prepare you for seeing the place for real. I will never forget seeing a mountain of human hair—two and a half tonnes of it—shaved from the heads of inmates to be shipped back to Germany and made into cloth, or the huge piles of shoes, glasses and suitcases.

Last year, I spent a week touring Poland with a brilliant project called March of the Living, along with my right hon. Friend Joan Ryan. We visited the sites of ghettoes and concentration camps, before marching—thousands of us—from Auschwitz to Birkenau, but I will never forget visiting Belzec. It is a tiny site, about as big as two football pitches, where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered. Imagine this: at the peak of the killing in 1942, three or four transport trains arrived every day. In one month, August 1942, 130,000 Jews were murdered in Belzec. Imagine that: 130 000 people slaughtered in a place the size of two football pitches in just one month.

What also brings home the horror of the holocaust is visiting towns and cities where whole communities were wiped out. A few years ago, my dad and I went back to Ostrava. We found the flat that he had lived in and the site of his school and his synagogue. In 1937, 10,000 Jews lived in Ostrava. The town had several synagogues and Jewish schools and businesses. In the single room that serves as its synagogue today, there are seats for 30 people —30 people. In Poland, we went to a place called Nowy Targ, where we found what had been my dad’s uncle’s shop. There is a mass grave of the 500 Jews butchered in a day, including at least one of his cousins. Some 3,000 Jewish people lived there before the war. “How many live here now?” I asked the local historian who was showing us around. She looked at me as if I was mad. She said, “None”—none.

A few weeks before Christmas, we met in Speaker’s House to commemorate the anniversary of the Kinder- transport. We remembered how, when other countries were rounding up their Jews and herding them on to trains to the gas chambers, Britain provided a haven for thousands of refugee children. Think of Britain in the ’30s: the rest of Europe was succumbing to fascism—Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain—but here in Britain, Mosley was rejected. Imagine 1941: France invaded, Europe overrun, America not yet in the war and just one country standing for freedom and democracy, fighting not just for our liberty, but for the freedom of the whole world.

It is true that Britain did not do enough during the holocaust and could of course have done more, but it was British troops who liberated Bergen-Belsen, rescuing thousands of inmates from certain death. So when people say to me, “What does it mean to be British? What is special or unique about our country?” I say that it is because of who we are as a people and what we are as a country that British people stood up to the Nazis and laid down their lives for freedom. What makes you British is not what you look like, where you were born or how you worship, but the contribution you make and your belief in the timeless British values—values British people have fought and died for—of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance.

No one embodies these values more than Major Frank Foley. He was an MI6 agent at the British embassy in Berlin in the 1930s, working undercover as a passport control officer. He provided papers to let Jewish people escape, forged passports and even sheltered people in his own home. He went into concentration camps to get Jewish people out and enable them to leave the country. Last September, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge visited Stourbridge in Dudley to unveil the statue that we produced of Major Foley. It was a huge honour for the people of Dudley, and a wonderful tribute to a great British hero. I think it was so impressive to see our future monarch taking such a close interest in these events, as we saw with his recent visits to Stutthof and to Yad Vashem.

Frank Foley sheltered people in his own home and, as I said a moment ago, even rescued people from concentration camps, including the father-in-law of the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. However, the really extraordinary thing about Frank Foley is that his courage, decency and determination were matched by his modesty. He retired in complete anonymity—never telling anybody about what he had done, never boasting about his heroism—to a quiet street in Stourbridge, where he lived out his retirement until his death in 1958. When people are singled out or extremists try to divide our communities on the grounds of race or religion, we should remember this great hero’s example and find it within ourselves to stand up for decency, fairness and tolerance.

I was flicking through The Daily Telegraph a couple of years ago when I came across the obituary of Rose Evansky, who had died aged 94. She pioneered modern hairdressing and became one of most famous and influential hairdressers ever. The amazing thing about her, however, is that she had been born in Germany in 1922 and when, in 1938, her Jewish father was imprisoned in Dachau, she managed to escape on the Kindertransport and she arrived in Dudley as a refugee. She was able to escape only because a local family, who were not related to her and had never even met her, heard about her from a refugee committee and put up the £50 guarantee—a lot of money in those days—that had to be paid before she could escape.

A few months later, in 1939, a 14-year-old German refugee called Kurt Flossman arrived at Dudley Grammar School aged just 14. His father had died in 1937, and he made his way across Europe on his own. His classmates—I think this is brilliant—clubbed together to fund his expenses, and local firms paid for his clothes. Stories like this show that Dudley, like the rest of our country, has always worked to help those in need and to build a tolerant community. Over the years Dudley—Britain—has welcomed refugees from around the world, so when our country opens its doors to what we now call unaccompanied minors or to others fleeing persecution, let us remember that this is what Britain has always done: this is who we are and it is what we do.

I grew up learning about the holocaust from my parents and hearing stories about the suffering, the appalling cruelty and the scale of the slaughter, and that left me with a conviction that I have held ever since. It is a conviction that prejudice leads to intolerance, then to victimisation and eventually to persecution. It is a conviction as well that we have a duty, every single one of us, not to stand by, but to make a difference and to fight discrimination, intolerance and bigotry wherever we find it.

One of the reasons I joined the Labour party as a teenager in Dudley 35 years ago was to fight racism. I believe that just as passionately now as I did then, and I am shocked that a party with such a long tradition of fighting racism has caused such offence and distress to the Jewish community. The first thing I did when I became an MP was lead a campaign to drive the British National party, which had a councillor in Dudley, out of the town. Since then I have stood with Muslim constituents who have been targeted by the English Defence League, but that would all be completely meaningless if I ignored antisemitism in my own party. It is easy to oppose racism at events or in meetings where everyone agrees with you. It is easy for those of us in politics to criticise our opponents, but that is completely meaningless if we are not also prepared to criticise when it is more difficult. Labour Members must understand that we will have no right to criticise our opponents on such issues if we do not first get our own house in order.

I wish to finish on a more positive note and say how pleased I am that we will soon have the new national holocaust memorial and learning centre next to Parliament, at the very centre of our democracy and national life. It will enable future generations to remember the victims of the holocaust, and learn the lessons of history through individual stories of survival, bravery and courage. For me, the importance of remembering the holocaust is to remember history’s greatest crime, and to pay our respects to all who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, as well as in more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and the rest. We must remind ourselves that what makes us the people we are, and Britain the country it is, is the unique response to the holocaust and the Nazis. Let us use this debate to rededicate ourselves to the timeless values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance. Let us pledge again to fight prejudice and racism wherever it is found, because that is the best tribute any of us can pay to the memory of those who were killed in history’s greatest crime.