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Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 24th January 2019.

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Photo of Lyn Brown Lyn Brown Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:22 pm, 24th January 2019

As my hon. Friend Ian Austin said in his terribly moving speech, this year’s theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is Torn from Home. As we all know, homes are much more than physical dwellings; they are everything that sustains us. They are our comfort, our security, our family, our friends, our community and our faith. They are the structure that helps us to live rich and meaningful human lives. Home is part of our identity; it is who we are. That is why being torn from home is so utterly traumatic.

Through the 1930s, everything that makes a place a home was stripped away from Jewish people, in Germany and then throughout Europe. It was a gradual, harrowing experience. In ’33, the Nazi Government began the creeping exclusion of Jewish people from public life. Jewish people were no longer protected by the police or courts, and kosher meat was banned. In ’34, Jews were barred from military service, banned from becoming doctors or lawyers and even prevented from being accountants and actors. In ’35, the infamous Nuremberg laws defined Jewish Germans as non-citizens, depriving them of their rights to vote and stand for public office, and legally condemning relationships between Jewish Germans and their non-Jewish neighbours.

Jewish Germans witnessed the destruction of their home with horror. One of them was John Fink, from Berlin. He said:

“The Nazis knew how to torture us…Every few weeks...other laws came. We had... to a so-called ‘Jewish House
which the Nazis controlled.”

What a terrible demonstration of the difference between a house and a home. The marked-out houses and ghettos were a permanent reminder that John, his family and so many others were now homeless.

The trauma of being torn from home is powerfully illustrated by the story of the St Louis, which sailed on 13 May ’39, carrying 937 passengers towards Cuba. Almost all were Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. They had paid the Cuban authorities for their landing cards, but they were turned away on arrival at Havana. The ship anchored there for a week, and then crawled north past Florida. The passengers came close enough to see the lights, but the USA refused them.

Liane Reif-Lehrer, who was only a child at the time, said to a journalist some 50 years later:

“I think it’s...a symbol of what happened. The German government...were trying to show the world that nobody…wanted us”.

And did they not succeed? The Jews were not just made homeless in Germany; they were portrayed as universally homeless—abandoned by everyone and a threat to the homes of all. Being put in that position must have been terrifying. The passengers on board the St Louis knew what they were going back to in Germany. They knew what it would mean to return, even if they did not yet know the sickening scale of the holocaust.

One passenger, Max Loewe, had already been to a concentration camp, and the trauma had completely damaged his mind. He must have felt as though nobody in this world would help him, and the Nazi threat—the terror he had experienced at first hand—was growing all the time. As the boat lingered near Havana, Max became increasingly terrified, believing that there were SS officers on board searching for him. He cut his wrists and jumped overboard into the water where, in full view of all the other passengers, he writhed and screamed. He ended up in a Cuban hospital, but his wife and daughter were not even allowed to leave the ship. I cannot imagine what state he must have been in. He must have felt as though, with no help coming, the only escape for him would be death.

In the wake of America’s refusal to provide refuge, Britain was one of the four states who agreed to take some of the passengers in, and 288 of them, including Max, came here. However, there was a further tragedy. Of the 620 passengers who went on from here to Belgium, France and the Netherlands, 254 were murdered in the holocaust after those countries were invaded.

When we look at people who are seeking refuge in the United Kingdom today, I hope we will pause and remember. I hope that we will recommit ourselves to helping those who are fleeing in terror, torn from their homes and wanting to build a new home here. I hope we will act on the message “Never again”.