Wuhan Coronavirus – in the House of Commons at 11:41 am on 23rd January 2020.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Holocaust Memorial Day.
This debate is taking place on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps throughout Europe, which brought an end to the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children by Nazi Germany. But as we know, it did not bring an end to the scourge of antisemitism. Today, sadly, we see antisemitism on the rise once more in this country and across Europe and the Americas. It is a mark of a civilised society that people of different faiths, different cultures and different traditions can live together in harmony. If we are truly to value Holocaust Memorial Day, we will do it by remembering this lesson: that we must show tolerance and respect for other people in order to live in peace. That is why it is vital that we all rise to the challenge and rid our society of this age-old hatred.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember all those murdered by the Nazis: the 6 million Jews; the thousands of Roma and Sinti; the political prisoners; those with physical disabilities and mental illness; and those persecuted for their sexuality. It is a day when we remember the 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the almost 1 million victims of the Rwandan genocide. It is a day when we remember the 8,000 Muslim men and boys murdered in Srebrenica 25 years ago. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember them all.
The enormity of the numbers can make it seem almost impossible to relate to individual victims. That is made even harder because the names of many holocaust victims have been lost to us. In Nazi Germany, Jewish men and women were forced to change any name believed to be Aryan to Israel for men and Sara for women. Others, in the camps, had their names stripped from them and replaced by a tattooed number. Personal names that had been handed down from father to son and from mother to daughter were lost or replaced.
To mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has launched a social media commemorative project that will generate the name of an individual who was murdered by the Nazis, allowing us to honour those victims by giving them back their name. Today I will be honouring Johannes Degen. He was born in Germany on
Survivors are at the heart of holocaust commemorations. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to sit before a survivor and listen to them describe their experience can be in no doubt about the terrible truth of what happened. Sadly, to this day there are still people who insist that the holocaust never happened.
The Minister is absolutely right that as these wonderful survivors come to the end of their lives, we need to have a record of their testimony. The exhibition at the Huddersfield holocaust memorial centre, which was opened by Lord Pickles, is a wonderful resource. We have those recordings, and children and other people can learn and remember.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for putting that on record, and I completely agree with what he said. Survivors are the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts, and the testimonies that we hear are a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history.
I wish to take the time to share a little of the story of Auschwitz survivor Lily Eberts. In 1944, when she was just 14 years old, the Nazis deported her and her family from her Hungarian home town to Auschwitz. She was with her mother, brother and three sisters. On their arrival, they were split up, either directed left or right. Lily’s mother, brother and sister were told to go right and they were taken to the gas chambers and crematorium. Lily and her two sisters were directed the other way. They never saw the others again. The only possession that Lily was able to keep with her on her journey was her gold pendant, given to her by her mother, which, remarkably, survived the camp with her, hidden in the heel of her shoe.
Seventy five years have passed since liberation. Lily is now a proud great grandmother. She still wears the tiny gold pendant and shares its remarkable story with all those who will listen. Any gold arriving in Auschwitz was stolen by the Nazis, so Lily believes that her pendant is unique in that it was the only gold to enter and leave the camp with its rightful owner. Like Lily herself, it survived against the odds.
Many Members of this House and many millions of people from around the world have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and have seen the thousands upon thousands of shoes, of all shapes and sizes, piled on top of one another. Many of those shoes, like Lily’s, hold the memories of those last murdered in Auschwitz. Hidden in the soles of those shoes are notes and photos—the last possessions of men, women and children murdered by the Nazis.
I pay tribute to the eye witnesses for their resilience and their bravery. They are still, even in their 80s and 90s, sharing their testimony in schools across the country with the Holocaust Educational Trust. We are also hugely grateful to the next generation of Holocaust Educational Trust ambassadors—thousands of young people who have heard testimony from survivors and who have visited Auschwitz and returned to share what they have learned. They are doing incredible work, taking on that responsibility and commitment to carry the legacy and stand up to hate today.
Further to that point and, indeed, to the intervention of Mr Sheerman, will the Government play their part in working with schools to bring the life of the work of the trust to every part of our kingdom? It is vital that the next generation understand that the future is, in part, shaped by what we learn from the past.
I absolutely give that commitment, and I thank my right hon. Friend for the opportunity to put it on the record. That is why we should pay particular tribute to the next generation of volunteers who are really taking on that legacy and serious responsibility.
Although Auschwitz is synonymous with the holocaust, few people are aware of the Arolsen archive, the world’s most comprehensive archive on the victims and survivors of Nazi persecution. The collection has information on around 17.5 million people and belongs to UNESCO’s memory of the world. Apart from the paper records, the archive has 3,000 personal possessions belonging to former inmates of concentration camps. Thanks to the #StolenMemory campaign, the archive has returned precious recovered items to family members. Members can imagine the immeasurable value that these items have to their families—they are often the last remaining traces of parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters.
Decades after the Nazis had confiscated a watch from his father, Jean-Pierre Lopez held it in his hands and wound it up again. He reported that it was extraordinary. He said that it seems to still work perfectly even after 74 years. In 1944, the Gestapo had arrested his father, José Lopez, as an anti-fascist and deported him as a forced labourer. He managed only just to survive, ending up with typhus and a body weight of just 40 kg.
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “stand together”. It is a reminder for us to stand together, with each other and with our communities, to remember the holocaust. It is also a reminder that during the holocaust and subsequent genocides, communities themselves were deliberately divided, with individuals persecuted because of their identity, and that, despite the dangers of doing so, some people chose to stand together with those targeted, to challenge the divisive actions of genocidal regimes. We must remember their bravery and sacrifice and be inspired by it. We also must make sure that we stand together to challenge hatred and prejudice wherever we find them today, which is why this Government are so proud of the support that they give to holocaust education remembrance.
The incredible work of the Holocaust Educational Trust is of massive value. Every year, the trust takes thousands of young people to Auschwitz-Birkenau and trains hundreds of teachers across the country. The Government have provided £2.2 million to the trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project and £1.7 million for visits to Bergen-Belsen, the camp liberated by British troops. We also provide £1 million a year to the Holocaust Memorial Day trust to deliver the annual memorial day and thousands of local events across the country. We have been funding the charity Remembering Srebrenica since 2013, including with a further £400,000 this year. The charity uses the funding to raise public awareness of the 1995 genocide, with the aim of creating a diverse movement of people coming together to challenge hatred and intolerance.
Despite that education and the support of successive Governments and people in the United Kingdom, it is a sad fact that antisemitism has spread like a virus far into UK politics in recent years—even into the very building in which we stand. When the Chief Rabbi unprecedendently feels the need to speak about his fears during the general election campaign, when Jewish councillors and Members of Parliament are subjected to such campaigns of hatred that they feel they have no alternative but to stand down, when dangerous conspiracy theories become so widespread on social media that the public start to believe them and write in to our offices with the most offensive lies, we must shake ourselves and remember that this is not normal; this is wrong. I urge all Members to play their part in turning the tide of antisemitism.
The sad truth is that there are people elected to this place in the recent general election who have shared antisemitic conspiracy theories and breached the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti- semitism. It is all very well people apologising, but the real evidence that they have changed is their taking some action over what they have said—owning it and showing that their apologies are more than just words.
First, I thank my hon. Friend for his work as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism. I agree that people should take action. We are proud to support the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which unites experts and 34 member states behind the need for holocaust education, remembrance and research. In 2016, the IHRA created a working definition of antisemitism, which is now internationally accepted. The alliance seeks to ensure that no one can shirk responsibility for their words by playing with semantics, but it will succeed only if organisations sign up to the definition and support it. The IHRA definition is already used in guidance for the police and Crown Prosecution Service, to help them to identify hate crime. I urge public organisations in the UK to sign up to the IHRA definition.
I will finish by saying a few words about the holocaust memorial and learning centre we plan to build in Victoria Tower gardens next to Parliament. We are fortunate that the foundation delivering the memorial is headed up by the right hon. Eric Pickles and the right hon. Ed Balls. By placing the memorial and learning centre next to Parliament, we ensure that it will serve as a permanent reminder that political decisions have far-reaching consequences.
The main purpose of today’s debate is to highlight the importance of people remembering, not forgetting, and of making sure that future generations know what the survivors knew and what the outside world knew and did not stop. May I suggest that today is not the day to go into too much detail of proposals that do not fulfil the specification of September 2015 for a national memorial? We might do better on another day.
I am happy to give way to my right hon. Friend.
I thank my hon. Friend for the powerful and moving speech he is giving and for underlining that on Holocaust Memorial Day and in this debate, we must continue to challenge all forms of hatred, bigotry, division and antisemitism. We must reassure British Jews that they are and always will be a special part of what Britain is all about. In that spirit, does he agree that having a holocaust memorial and learning centre is essential to underline both that commitment to them and our duty to ensure that law and practice can never take us down a dark path like the holocaust?
I thank both my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley and my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire for their interventions. I completely agree that the memorial will stand as a reminder that a central role of democracy is to encourage tolerance for ethnic, religious and racial differences that will foster religious freedom, individual rights and civic responsibility. It will prompt a sincere commitment to mourn and to remember, and absolutely for us to act.
All of us gathered here today are united in our stand for a tolerant and respectful country where everybody from every background is equally valued. I look forward to the debate.
This year we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I thank the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for everything it does to ensure that the whole country remembers the 6 million Jews murdered during the holocaust, as well as the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and in subsequent genocides. My hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, who joins me on the Front Bench, is a trustee of that trust.
I also pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the work that it does to ensure that the UK plays a leading role internationally on holocaust education, remembrance and research. One of its earliest achievements was ensuring that the holocaust was included in the national curriculum for history, and it continues to play an important role, working with teachers, students and policymakers to ensure that we are equipped to speak out against intolerance. Its “Lessons from Auschwitz” programme is not only about taking young people to see with their own eyes the evidence of the lives that were taken at Auschwitz; it is also about ensuring that the human stories of the holocaust are not forgotten.
Finally, I pay tribute to the survivors and the many who lost loved ones. Although it is now 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the physical and mental scars of the horrors that holocaust survivors have had to endure have not necessarily faded with time. It is therefore all the more incredible that so many survivors dedicate their lives to sharing their experiences and educating young people about the horrors of that era, and the need to oppose antisemitism and any form of racial or religious hatred. These survivors—now of a generation who were just young children when they went through some of the most awful experiences that any of us can imagine—have collectively helped to educate millions of schoolchildren against the hatreds that are tragically still too prevalent in society. I want to put on record my gratitude for their work, the benefits of which I am confident will endure for many decades as today’s schoolchildren become the adults of the future.
I highlight the words of one survivor, Mindu Hornick, who was recently awarded an MBE for her holocaust education work. She was just 13 when she was taken with her family from Prague to Auschwitz. After living through tragedy, she made a home here in the UK, in Birmingham, where she married and raised her daughters. In December she said,
“with everything that is going on in the world today—with Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and other unacceptable things that are happening—I think it is important to educate young people… it is very important to educate young people to love each other and to appreciate each other’s faith and beliefs.”
Holocaust Memorial Day is a reminder that we all have a duty to ensure that such an event can never happen again, but also that the hatred that culminated in the genocide did not start with the biggest of crimes. It emerged from a climate of scapegoating and victimisation of minorities—primarily Jews, but also Roma, Sinti and others—which is much closer to the racism that we know still scars our society today. Words never seem able to capture it, so I need to borrow from Primo Levi. As he recalled his time in Auschwitz, he set out why we must always fight the evils of racism, because far from being an aberration totally set apart from the rest of history, the holocaust is most tragically something that could happen again. I share his words with the House:
“it is the duty of everyone to meditate on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that Hitler and Mussolini, when they spoke in public, were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods…And we must remember that their faithful followers, among them the diligent executors of inhuman orders, were not born torturers, were not (with a few exceptions) monsters: they were ordinary men.”
The hon. Lady is making a very eloquent speech. Is she aware that 75 years on, Germany still refuses to pay victims of its atrocities in Poland—Poles and Polish Jews—while hiding behind an agreement that it signed with the illegitimate communist-era Government imposed on Poland by Stalin? Does she agree that the time has come for Germany to make war reparations to Poland and those who suffered at the hands of the brutal German oppressors from ’39 to ’45?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and I hope that it is one of the points that is explored during the debate, but if he will forgive me, I would like to get on with my speech.
As Primo Levi said, monsters do exist in our world, but they are too few to be truly dangerous; more dangerous are those who are willing to follow their evil without asking questions. It is our job in this place to ensure that those questions are asked, and clearly we need to do more.
Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust has suggested that the recent rises in antisemitism are not just about attitudes to Jewish people but are the results of our society weakening as a whole. Extremist movements in the UK and abroad have given confidence to those that previously hid in the shadows. Antisemitism always flourishes when extremism takes hold, and our current times are no different. This is a problem that all British society must confront, and it demands leadership that is prepared to turn its back on inequality and division. Prejudice and hatred of Jewish people has no place whatsoever in society, and every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that it is never allowed to fester again.
I want to raise an issue around social media and the way that it has been exploited by, I am afraid, the hard left in what I would call almost holocaust weaponisation. The hard left are trying to close down any constructive debate that we can have on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are trying to fuel modern antisemitism and trying to silence many Jews in public life. I regularly receive images which, for example, have piles of dead bodies from Nazi death camps, and swastikas alongside Israeli flags. I am likened to SS guards, and I have seen online remarks calling for a final solution to my sort of politics. Does my hon. Friend agree that the internet remains an under-regulated and unchecked medium in which these attitudes can grow? Does she agree that we should be taking action both to regulate better and check better what is allowed on social media?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that incredibly valid and painful point with regard to social media companies. I pay tribute to her work on always challenging antisemitism wherever it raises its head, even when it can be very uncomfortable to do so. She raises topics around the way in which social media companies seem to be given a free rein and how it is so hard to remove these pieces of hate from many platforms. That is worthy of a debate in this House in its own right as a single issue.
Members of the Jewish community are on the receiving end of this hate, but today’s debate is a chance for us to acknowledge that they cannot be left to tackle this problem alone. We need to be vigilant, because the events that led to the holocaust appeared, not as a single grotesque event, but through the normalisation and mainstreaming of hatred, inequality and intolerance.
I am privileged enough to have been in this place so long that, when I arrived, I knew Harold Wilson and Denis Healey. We could not find better champions against antisemitism and the ghastly things that happened during the war. They were true champions. They were great travellers, and they had a network across the world working against these wicked people and those who made apologies for them. I think we can be quite proud of our heritage in the Labour party, and I wish we could restore that reputation now.
Absolutely; I want nothing more.
As Primo Levi said,
“we too are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.”
I regret that I am not able to stay for the duration of today’s important debate, because I have committed to taking part in Holocaust Memorial Day events in my constituency this evening, as I have done for many years. But I will be catching up on the contributions made by all Members in what I know will be a powerful and essential debate.
I want to thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their approach to today’s debate and what they said. I consider it an honour and privilege to take part in this debate every single year. It is sad that we have to continue to have it, but we absolutely must continue to do so. I am delighted to stand here as the newly elected co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism and to continue with what I did before I came here, when I served as a history teacher, which is the necessary education on the holocaust and the hate that drove seemingly developed nations to do what they did. The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “stand together”, and our all-party parliamentary group plans to do exactly that, to ensure that our Parliament is a leader in tackling anti-Jewish racism and hate, as it has been in previous years.
I want to begin by paying tribute to our former colleague, the former Member for Bassetlaw, now Lord Mann, who helped to establish this Parliament’s reputation as a leader in the fight against antisemitism and all forms of hate. He used to go the extra mile in fighting against antisemitism, including the famous incident when he chased Ken Livingstone into a lavatory. As amusing as that incident was for many watching it, antisemitism is no laughing matter. Despite the reputation that John helped to establish for our Parliament, there are, sadly, a few former and current Members of this House who have, on occasion, brought us into disrepute.
Before I say more about that, I want to reflect on the title that John chose to take in the other place: Lord Mann of Holbeck Moor. He picked that because Holbeck Moor was the site in Leeds that Oswald Mosley turned up in, where he was roughly dealt with by the working-class people of Leeds. It has always been working-class people who have been at the centre of the fight against antisemitism. The same happened in my city—when Oswald Mosley came to Hull, it was working-class people who came out and kicked him out of our city and made his experience in our city a short and unpleasant one.
I am sad in one way, but proud in another, that when I knocked on the doors of working-class communities in my area at the election, people referenced the current rise in antisemitism as a concern. We do not have a big Jewish community. I think that I am one of three Jewish constituents. We may be heading for a minyan, but there are certainly not many of us. It was sad but also reassuring to hear people in my area reference the need to do more on this at the recent election. I am very proud of the people in my area for standing as resolutely as they have.
While I am on this subject, I want to pay tribute to Brigg Town Council in my constituency which last year instituted a new holocaust memorial in the town and also to North Lincolnshire Council, which is presently creating a new holocaust memorial in Scunthorpe. As I have said, we do not have a big Jewish community in our region, but we are absolutely steadfast in standing with the Jewish community in this country.
The principle we have set out for the all-party group is that we are going to take on the problems of antisemitism wherever it is found in this country—or indeed in this Chamber, in whichever party it exists. Some of the most successful cases are the quiet successes where we work with Members and candidates to put proper education in place to ensure that colleagues who have erred and said things that are silly, or in some cases offensive, are educated.
To those on my own side I want to say—I am sure that this does not apply to anybody present—that I have no truck with anybody engaging in Soros conspiracy theories, as some regrettably have done, including at the recent election. The Nazis treated Jews as vermin but also alleged that they had a plan for world domination. Sadly, the Soros conspiracy theories we see, which are prevalent on the far-right of politics, are simply an updated version of that disgusting ideology. Using George Soros’s Jewish heritage and puppet-master imagery is antisemitic, and if anyone shares any of these images—if anybody on any side of politics in this Chamber engages in that again—they will most certainly be hearing from me and our group.
My hon. Friend uses the term “Nazis”. The problem with that term is that it is a firewall between the real perpetrators, the Germans. We are now seeing a revisionism as to who was to blame for the start of the second world war; we heard President Putin last week claim that Poland was somehow partly responsible for starting it. It is very important not to use third-term expressions such as “Nazis”, but to say exactly who started this and who is responsible, which is Germany and the German people.
I am not going to get into the debate that has been raging in Poland following what President Putin said. All I will say is that wherever the Germans occupied in world war two, there were very brave people who stood against them, and there were also, sadly, people who facilitated and aided their evil and vicious aims. That is true across every single country of Europe. There were people in this country in the 1930s who, as we know and as I have just referenced, gave succour to fascism and to that hateful ideology.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful speech, which I agree with. He touched on the conspiracy theories around George Soros, and I am glad he did. Will he join me in condemning parts of the Hungarian Government who are pushing this and call on Prime Minister Orbán to not allow this anti-Soros propaganda to continue?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The indulgence of this Soros conspiracy theory—which I have heard from people in my own area, it has to be said—is completely unacceptable wherever it is found. It is racism, it is antisemitism, and it is an updated version of the tropes we saw in the 1930s. There are people who stood at the recent election who engaged in some of those theories. We must take people at their word when they apologise for that, and I would encourage anybody who has been guilty of that to work with us through the all-party group.
While there have been problems on both sides of politics, I do fear, sadly, that on the Labour Benches—some 30 of the party’s candidates at the recent election were accused of antisemitism—there is more work to be done to counter anti-Jewish racism. It is a real pleasure to co-chair the APPG with Catherine McKinnell, who has made it absolutely clear that she will be steadfast in calling out antisemitism and racism on her own Benches and within her own party, and that she will have no truck with those who talk about foreign Governments being inspired by Zionist masters, any kind of relativisation of the holocaust in respect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or, indeed, pathetic antisemitic Beatles singalongs, which we have seen. As I have said previously, it brings shame on this country’s whole body politic that, sadly, this disgusting ideology has been at the heart of British politics and mainstreamed in recent years. When I was the Minister responding to such a debate a couple of years ago, I spoke about the Israelification of antisemitism, which we have seen in recent years.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech and will do fantastic work as co-chair of the all-party group against antisemitism. Does he agree that the whole House must condemn the terrible actions of individuals during the election who put through my door my own election leaflets with swastikas drawn over the part where I mentioned that my gran had escaped from Germany during the war? We must educate people across the United Kingdom, but we must also have particular cognisance of the impact of such issues during election periods and the damage that is done to Jewish communities and others across the United Kingdom.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady—I would say my hon. Friend—who has been incredibly brave in calling out antisemitism herself, as well as the subject of antisemitism. I pay tribute to her work as vice-chair of our APPG and entirely agree with her. There might be an opportunity to address some of this through the online harms Bill, but it is time that we updated our electoral law to ensure that tougher measures are in place. It has been a very long time since there was a full root-and-branch review of this country’s electoral law, and we should absolutely carry that out.
I want to move on from the party political problems by just saying that I agree entirely with the Jewish Labour Movement that it is wholly inappropriate that somebody has been nominated by the Labour party—it was, at least, reported this weekend that they had been nominated—to serve in the House of Lords when they are at the centre of allegations of covering up antisemitism and intervening in antisemitism inquiries within that party. I know that many Labour Members share that view, principally because the Labour party has a proud history of fighting all forms of racism.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his newly acquired position as chair of the APPG and look forward to working with him on it. I share his feelings about the nomination to the House of Lords. Does he agree that we will totally abolish antisemitism from the mainstream of all political parties only if the collective leadership of those parties really shows a zero-tolerance approach in not just their words but their actions?
I cannot disagree with a word that the right hon. Lady says. As she has powerfully outlined in previous debates, she has been on the receiving end of vile antisemitic abuse. This does come from the leadership down. Leadership is needed from all of us, but there should be no doubt about the position of our political leaders.
That is why I agree with the Minister’s comments and urge colleagues to sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition. The APPG sat in Portcullis House for a very long time yesterday to encourage colleagues to sign up. Many still have not done so, but I ask them please to sign up to the IHRA definition, because that is one way in which all of us can demonstrate leadership and show our commitment to zero tolerance of antisemitism.
Of course, antisemitism and antisemitic tropes were the beating heart of Nazism, yet in the past few years there has been a resurgence of holocaust denial, and the holocaust has been distorted and denigrated. Sadly, the context is worsening, particularly online. An American study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that fake news is 70% more likely to be shared on social media than a true story. The Antisemitism Policy Trust and the Community Security Trust have found that the number of searches for “holocaust hoax” on Holocaust Memorial Day is 30% above the average for the rest of the year. If someone types the words “Jew joke” into Google, they will find some of the most shocking and disgusting antisemitic, holocaust-minimising and racist bile they can find. This all occurs in an online space that impacts on our real world, and a particular concern at the moment is seen in the use of gaming, with gamers targeted as a route into antisemitism. That surprised me, but perhaps it does make sense, and we have to do a lot about that.
As the Institute for Jewish Policy Research has shown, the chances are that while only 2.5% of the public may be what we would understand as antisemites, one antisemitic opinion is likely to be held by some 30% of the public. Therefore, the chances of encountering antisemitism in this country are relatively high. That is not to say that 30% of people in this country are antisemitic—of course not—but it is certainly the case that we hear casual things such as, “But of course the Jews do seem to be very wealthy.” The people who say such things would not consider themselves antisemitic, but they will use such a trope. They casually throw it in without, as I say, considering themselves to be antisemitic.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election to his new role on the all-party group. He makes a very important point about education. I have had the privilege, I would say, of going to Auschwitz and Buchenwald and actually seeing the reality. I know the power of taking such an education to a new generation. Will he comment on the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust to see a new generation really appreciating such an education and the power of young ambassadors taking forward a message to ensure that we really do never forget?
The hon. Member talks about people being unaware that what they are saying is offensive and of why it is offensive. Earlier, in Women and Equalities questions, I asked if hon. Members could work together to tackle unconscious racial bias. I absolutely agree with what he is saying—lots of people do not understand that their responses to others arise because of their unconscious bias. Would he be interested in working with a number of us across the House on such unconscious bias, whoever it affects?
Absolutely. I was not in the Chamber for Question Time—I apologise for that—but certainly that is exactly the kind of thing I mean. It links to the point made by my right hon. Friend James Brokenshire about the need for better education in this whole space. Yes, 100%—I would be more than happy to work with the hon. Lady. I would, of course, say to my right hon. Friend—I was coming to this later in my speech, but I shall say it now—that the Holocaust Educational Trust does a fantastic job. No Holocaust Memorial Day debate is complete without a shout-out to Karen Pollock and all of her fantastic team for everything that they do.
I do hope that the Government will continue to enable the HET funding to be used in a way that allows the trust to take students, teachers, local journalists and even the local MP on its visits. While I had visited concentration camps in Germany before, I had never visited the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz until I went on a HET visit. Doing so is an incredibly powerful thing, and I would encourage colleagues to try to undertake a visit. Every colleague who has been on one knows the power of it. The sad reality, of course, is that we cannot take every school student on such visits.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to fund as many young people as possible to visit the western front and the battlefields of world wars one and two, as well as Auschwitz and Birkenau? I visited the battlefields as a young teenager in my second year at high school, and it left an indelible mark on me—I went to the grave of my grandmother’s uncle, who died there. When I left university, I visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. I know the importance of being able to see the magnitude and understand the impact so that our young leaders of the future will make sure that mistakes made back then are never made again.
Again, I could not disagree with a word that the hon. Lady says. Visits are important, but it is not always possible to take every student, as I have said. One of the lessons I enjoyed teaching, which I found to be one of the most powerful about the battlefields—we could not take every child—was to make my students put their own name or a family name into the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. They would very often find somebody, and we would then do a piece of creative writing on what that person’s experience must have been like. Visits to the battlefields and, of course, to Auschwitz are very important.
One of the real challenges of teaching the holocaust is that, because of the scale of the horror and the outrage, it is often very difficult for young people to understand the machinery and the scale of what actually happened. However, a visit reinforces something that it is much more difficult to get across in the classroom. We have to continue holocaust education, and we have to continue to fund the Holocaust Educational Trust properly.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about young people’s understanding of the totality of the suffering and darkness that they witness when they go on these visits. Does he agree that a lot of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s work is in follow-up activities to help young people to make sense of their visit and really internalise the lessons they have learned?
Absolutely. Again, I could not disagree—this is a wonderful debate in which we all do agree, and it really does show Parliament at its best.
There is also the young ambassadors programme because, sadly, young people who perhaps cannot visit Auschwitz are losing the ability to hear from a survivor. Every year, sadly, fewer and fewer survivors are available to speak to young people. The ambassadors programme for those who cannot visit, with young people going back and advocating to their compatriots in school, is really important. The Holocaust Educational Trust’s work on that is absolutely spot-on.
My hon. Friend will absolutely know about this and has played an important role, so I give way to her.
Throughout the year, holocaust survivors share their testimony with students across the country. As survivors grow older, as we have heard, the next generation becomes really important witnesses. That is why I am so pleased that pupils at the Phoenix Collegiate in West Bromwich East heard just last summer from Mala Tribich. The George Salter Academy, Q3 and Phoenix have all taken part in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s “Lessons from Auschwitz” project.
I would like to add a message of congratulations to Mindu Hornick MBE, who was recognised in the Queen’s new year honours this year for her services to holocaust education. Mindu, just like so many other survivors, is a true hero to all of us who are fighting antisemitism. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Mindu, and does he agree that marking Holocaust Memorial Day is more important than ever to help us in our fight against antisemitism, which is still on the rise?
I absolutely agree, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work in the important area of holocaust education. Of course, I am sure the whole House will want warmly to congratulate her constituent—as I believe she is; perhaps she is not—who was awarded the MBE in the recent honours list. We would all 100% agree with that.
As I have said, this is important for young people, not least because they are a group that is most vulnerable to some of the hate that exists online. Yes, we have a huge challenge in this country, but we are also making progress—we should never underestimate that. Nearly 400 Members of this place have now signed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism. It is still available to sign, so I ask those who have not signed to do so. We want every Member to sign. We cannot fight antisemitism until we fully understand what it is and how it manifests itself. I am proud that this Government—our Government—were one of the first in the world to adopt the definition. I commend a number of football clubs, such as Chelsea and West Ham, that have done the same. They are starting to take this definition into civic life, using it as a tool for understanding what antisemitism is, and promoting a positive culture of tolerance and mutual respect.
I think the Minister referenced the fact that putting our names to something is very easy—we can all do it. We all do it often in this place: we turn up to things and get our picture taken with whichever good cause, and it ends up in the local newspaper. That is absolutely part of the life of a Member of Parliament. However, issues such as this are not just about signing bits of paper, or indeed signing the very important remembrance book this week, but about action. That is why I invite colleagues to take part in, and to support the work of, the all-party group.
The all-party group has some interesting visits and trips planned in the coming year, and such things can be really powerful. I have referred previously to our trip to Brussels to look at antisemitism in Belgium. It was really sad. We were sitting with a group of young Belgian Jewish students, and when I asked them, “How many of you would be prepared to wear your kippah out and about in Brussels?”, they laughed at me, because the question was so ridiculous. Because of the rise of antisemitism across the continent of Europe—particularly, it has to be said, in some of what we would imagine to be the most liberal, progressive cities in Europe—they felt afraid and frightened to show even any sign of their Jewish heritage or culture in public. Similarly, there was a really powerful trip to Amsterdam. When we asked students how many of them saw a future for themselves in Europe, the number of hands that went up was very depressing.
We have important cross-party work to do in this Chamber to tackle all forms of intolerance, but particularly antisemitism. I encourage colleagues to come along and support the all-party group’s work so that we can remove this stain which, as I said, has sadly been mainstreamed in this country and in our politics in recent years. We all need to own that; it does not exist solely on one side of the House.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate today on behalf of my party, and to have the opportunity to stop and reflect, as we all must do. The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “stand together”. Those of us in this House who have been a part of these debates in the past are particularly aware of why that is so important. I think hon. Members also agree that we owe a debt of gratitude to Karen Pollock and her team at the Holocaust Educational Trust for their excellent work, which influences so many people and does so much to increase awareness and an understanding of why we need to stand together.
I am very fortunate to represent East Renfrewshire, which is home to the majority of the Jewish population in Scotland. We, as an area and as a country, are so much the better for the rich diversity of communities like mine. Our Scotland is, and must be, a Scotland for people of all faiths and none—a home for all of us. The theme of the debate today has to be a stark reminder to us all that we must all challenge antisemitism wherever we see it—standing together, standing up against hate and speaking out.
That made me reflect on some of the people I know in my own community who are known and admired for the immense work they have done on holocaust education to ensure the next generations, those coming after them, understand exactly what happened and what can happen when we do not stand together against hate. I was fortunate to meet Ingrid and Henry Wuga when they visited a local school to talk to the young folk about their experiences of the holocaust. They are amazing—I am sure the House will join me in congratulating Ingrid Wuga, who was recently awarded the British Empire Medal—and a huge influence on everyone they come across. These are the voices we need to listen to.
It is so important for our young people in particular to hear that kind of testimony, so that they know what went on. A holocaust does not just suddenly happen: it builds up gradually and bit by bit. Intolerance and hatred become the norm, and they grow. So our language and our actions matter. We need to be very clear about that and about the responsibilities we have in this place. We must stand together. We must influence others to do so and we must call out hatred wherever it exists. It cannot be allowed to grow and fester unchallenged.
The hon. Lady is making a very powerful speech. Does she agree that those who fan the flames of hate and antisemitism, who engage in conspiracy theories and who deny the greatest crime in human history, which was the holocaust, are themselves a disgrace to humanity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will come on to talk about education, which is really important in making sure that people are aware. That is why education and an understanding of history matter so much. It is why projects that allow us to capture the testimony and the voices of survivors are so important, too. I visited the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre at Garnethill a while back, and was struck by the huge value of that facility. I encourage anyone who can to visit and increase their own knowledge and understanding. It is a remarkable place.
I am glad my hon. Friend has been to visit the Jewish Archives Centre in my constituency. I encourage everybody to go and visit. Was she as struck as I was, when looking at some of the personal effects of Jewish people—their passports and their personal belongings—at just how quickly things can change and how quickly hate can rise? There is still so much we have to learn about how to stop and prevent that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. We all need to reflect on that. We have a responsibility to recognise hate when we see it. We have that responsibility to call it out, because things can change very quickly.
That point connects to education, which Andrew Percy also spoke about. Educational visits are very important. Many young Scottish people now visit Auschwitz, including the group accompanied by Nicola Sturgeon, our First Minister. Such visits are vital in making sure that there is no doubt, no denial, and no loss of the focus on what happened.
There are others, too, working on that and making a great impression on those around them with their focus and their drive to ensure we have a full understanding of the horror of the holocaust and how it came about. The work of impressive young Scottish women like Danielle Bett and Kirsty Robson mean those coming after us will know and will remember.
When I was in this place in a previous parliamentary Session, I was very fortunate to visit Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Centre. I will never forget that and I am sure that nobody who visits ever does. It was the little things that stood out and affected me profoundly. Seeing the photos and the names, the people who were killed were not just numbers—although they amount to more than the entire population of Scotland—but people just like you and me. They were ordinary people torn from their everyday lives into unimaginable horror.
It was the everyday things. I lost my own mum just before I visited Yad Vashem. I was utterly shattered to see on display a pair of glasses that someone had kept, which had belonged to their mum who had died in a concentration camp. She had kept her mum’s old broken glasses with her, and had kept them on her person until the end of her own life, because they were all she had of her. These wee things are the big thing, in a way, because they remind us that this is about all those individual people wiped away by the holocaust. All those people.
It is worth remembering that Holocaust Remembrance Day and Burns night fall just about together. I think Burns could speak for all of us here today when he said:
“Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!”
Burns was very big on solidarity, too:
“Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.”
That is all about standing together. That focus on standing together and standing up for what is right is very important in my local community, and our public representatives of all political colours recognise that.
Today, if this debate had not been taking place, I would have been at the funeral of a woman very focused on standing up for everyone in our local community. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in remembering the life of Liz Carmichael, the wife of former East Renfrewshire provost, Alastair Carmichael, who worked very hard on holocaust memorial during his time in office.
That focus on others was also a guiding light in the life of Jane Haining, who hailed from Dunscore but died in Auschwitz when she refused to allow the pupils that she taught at a school in Budapest to be sent there alone—she insisted on going with them. Her dedication to those children—her commitment to standing together—is a lesson for all of us. When she wrote of her decision to be with the children, she said:
“If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?”
There is an increasing need now for us to recognise that darkness and to live our lives with Jane Haining’s spirit of compassion and solidarity. We need to stand together and be relentless in our commitment to doing so.
I start by picking up where Kirsten Oswald left off: like her, I have been to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, many times over the past few years. It has been a very moving experience, which I shall never forget, no matter how many times I go back. Two things stand out in my memory. The first is the objectivity of the displays—they do not try to dress up the holocaust; they explain it as it is. The second is the timeline there—it illustrates not just what happened when the second world war started, but the timeline before that and the sort of words and feelings that started the whole process that led to the holocaust. The purpose of Yad Vashem is a noble one: to keep alive the memory of what happened and to remember the individuals who died and were murdered in the holocaust. In other words, it links history and memory.
We have also mentioned that this is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I have been to Auschwitz on a number of occasions, too, and its grim state provides a very good reminder of the terrible atrocities that took place there. For me, however, the most important concentration camp that I have been to is outside Lublin, in eastern Poland. Why was it so memorable? Because when I went there on a glorious spring day, there were lots of flowers around in the concentration camp. Those flowers were growing because they were built on the bodies of people who had been cremated and murdered in that concentration camp. It was an irony that we still had the glory and beauty of those flowers against such a terrible atrocity.
I am a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which is responsible for running the event, and we have heard that this year, it has a theme—“stand together”. The trust asked us to identify an individual that we could mention during the debate, but I am not going to do that. Instead, I am going to put on this yarmulke in order to remember the 6 million Jews who were killed during the second world war. It is important that we do that, but it is important, too, that we recognise that other genocides have occurred, apart from the holocaust. There have been genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful statement and I congratulate him on it. Today is the day when the issue of the Rohingya Muslims and whether there is a genocide is being considered by the International Court of Justice. It is sobering thought that that judgment is happening on the day that we are debating the holocaust. Does he agree that lessons are not always learnt? I hope that the ICJ comes to a sensible judgment and that that influences what happens in Myanmar and the treatment of the Rohingya Muslims.
I completely agree. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust uses the definition that genocides are those that have been declared by the United Nations, so the quicker that that moves on—so we can see what happened there—and the judgment is made, the sooner we can include Burma in the list of places where genocides have occurred.
In addition to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it is also the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia, and we should remember that as we go through Holocaust Memorial Day. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust sets out to bring together thousands of people across the UK, who participate in different programmes, many of which are originated by communities and schools. They all participate in remembering, and tens of thousands of activities take place during the day. It also organises the UK ceremony that takes place next week, to which I hope a number of Members here have been invited, because it is a great thing to do. Sadly, I will be away at the Council of Europe, where I expect we will have our memorial to those who were killed in the concentration camp near Strasbourg, which we went to see last year.
Finally, the words of Sir Nicholas Winton, who rescued almost 700 children from Nazi-occupied Europe, should be taken to heart when we think back to the holocaust:
“Don’t be content in your life just to do no wrong, be prepared every day to try and do some good.”
I rise, of course, to support the motion on Holocaust Memorial Day and to tell the House how proud I am to represent one of the largest Jewish communities in the United Kingdom, who have done so much over so many years—indeed, almost centuries—to enhance our city, benefit its people, and to work above and beyond just their community. There are about 8,500 Jewish people in Leeds, almost all of whom live in north-east Leeds.
In 2014, I did one of my charity bike rides—many Members may remember that I do one every year to raise funds for a good cause—to raise money for Donisthorpe Hall, which is a Jewish elderly persons’ nursing home in the constituency, and very wonderful it is, too. It depends very much on voluntary donations, so the purpose of my ride was to do a kind of Jewish pilgrimage, going from Donisthorpe to Drancy in Paris. Many Members may have heard of Drancy—it was the place from which the French Jews were deported to the concentration camps. Shortly before my epic ride to Paris from Leeds, I learned that my great-grandmother, Reina Sevilla, was deported from the Vél d’Hiv via Drancy to Birkenau concentration camp, where she was murdered in the gas chambers—a direct personal connection to the holocaust.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. My great-grandmother, Rosa Simonson, came to Manchester, originally, having fled an earlier manifestation of antisemitism—the anti-Jewish pogroms in eastern Europe in the 1880s. Most of the Jewish population of the area she came from in what is now Poland perished in the holocaust, and I often think about what happened to her family. Does he agree that the fact that antisemitism can keep emerging again and again makes Holocaust Memorial Day so important, and that we have to be always mindful of that danger?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Every day in this place—I have been here 22 and a half years—we learn of colleagues who have a connection to a Jewish past, and my hon. Friend has just told us about his.
While I was in Paris, I went to Drancy and met the maire adjoint—the deputy mayor—of that small township. We went to the holocaust memorial centre on the housing estate that had become a concentration camp in 1940. While we were there, there were demonstrations in the small town of Sarcelles on the outskirts of Paris—the very town my great-grandmother, Raina Sevilla, came from. The demonstrations were against the Jewish people there. People were calling on the community to burn the synagogue down. This was in 2014, at the very time I was going to commemorate the death of my great-grandmother in the holocaust.
In 1985, I received a surprise phone call from my father, who sadly passed away in 1988. He was doing some research into his family history, and had discovered something quite extraordinary: his family, who he assumed had been murdered in the holocaust—while he was at school here in England and then volunteering for the British Army—had actually survived their incarceration in Bergen-Belsen.
My grandfather was born in Salonica—Thessaloniki in modern Greece. It is important to know that the Nazis invaded Salonica somewhat later than many parts of Europe. That meant that many of the Sephardic community of that great city survived, My grandfather’s brother’s wife, Bella Ouziel, not only survived, but, in 1985, was alive and well at the age of 93. My father asked whether I was free at the weekend, and we flew via Athens to Salonica. We met this magnificent old woman of 93, with her painted fingernails, her Jaeger dress and her coiffured hair. We sat down with her in her apartment, and we discussed the war experience.
My father had not seen Bella since 1934, when he was 12. However, he had kept photographs—Bella’s had been destroyed when she had been arrested with her daughter and her granddaughter and taken to Bergen-Belsen. We discussed at great length. Luckily, we had a shared language, French, which was my father’s first language and the language of many of the educated Sephardic Jews of Salonica—indeed, I speak it fluently as well—so we had a very good conversation. We laid out on the coffee table the photographs she thought she would never see again, but which my dad had kept, and which I have had electronically scanned. At the age of 30, for the first time in my life, I heard a first-hand account of life in a concentration camp. That is something I shall never forget, nor should any of us ever forget it.
The Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association was set up in Leeds and covers most of the north of England; indeed, my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman drew attention to its work in establishing the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at the University of Huddersfield. It did that by gaining grants from the national lottery heritage fund, the Pears Foundation and the Association of Jewish Refugees, as well as many personal donations. It set up an exhibition called “Through Our Eyes”, for which it interviewed 20 holocaust survivors over several days, many of whom have since died. The idea is that, once their physical presence has left us, their presence will still be felt through a series of interactive holographic videos. Visitors can go to the centre and actually interview some of the people in those videos—many of whom are not with us anymore—and ask them about their life. What a great tribute to the people who survived, and survived for so many years. What a wonderful thing for our children and grandchildren to have when the physical presence of those individuals is no longer with us.
I have to pay tribute to the wonderful Lilian Black. Her father, Eugene, was a survivor from Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was 16 years old when he was there. He died a few years ago, and I remember him well. Lilian has taken the memory of her father and the experience he had, and she has worked with the HSFA and the survivors to create this fantastic centre. If hon. Members have not been there, they should please go—it is absolutely brilliant, as my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield said.
I also want to pay tribute to the survivors who still live and, indeed, to those who are no longer with us. My constituent Arek Hersh, who lives in the village of Harewood, has a wonderful mix of Polish and Yorkshire when he speaks English—it is a great accent. A room at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem has been named after him. He wrote a wonderful book about his experience, which I recommend. He is 91 now; he was an 11-year-old boy when he was taken off the streets of the Lodz ghetto in Poland. He was then taken to a number of different camps. When I met him at Yad Vashem, he was with his friend Jacob. Jacob and Arek had shared a bunk in every camp they were in from the age of 11 until they were liberated at the age of 16. How they survived is quite a miracle.
The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent and powerful speech. He has referenced Poland on several occasions. I hope he will join me in remembering the millions of Poles who were killed during the holocaust, many of whom, like a member of my family, Jan Kawczynski, were shot by the Germans for hiding their Jewish friends and neighbours. The hon. Gentleman will know that Poland was the only occupied country with the death penalty for helping and protecting Jewish citizens. I would be grateful if he could acknowledge the suffering of the Poles in helping their Jewish friends.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that powerful intervention. I have always believed that the Poles played the most extraordinary role, and paid a high price for it, in the second world war. My heart goes out to all my Polish friends; I have many, and one of my best friends at school was Polish. He could not go back to Poland until after the end of communism, because his parents had fled the communist regime there. The Poles are a wonderful, brave people. They did so much to resist the Nazis and so much to protect their Jewish population—the largest in the whole of Europe before the second world war. My heart goes out to all Poles who played a vital part in protecting their Jewish citizens as well as their own, who suffered so much.
Iby Knill was born in Bratislava. Later, she was smuggled across the border to Hungary, where she spent the first part of the war fighting the oppression of the Nazis, until she was eventually arrested as a communist and taken to Auschwitz No. 2 camp. While she was there, she teamed up with all the other women nurses, doctors and dentists—medically qualified people. She did that because, as she says in her book “The woman without a number”—again, I recommend it to all Members here—if people stayed together in solidarity, it was very hard for the Nazis to pick them off individually. She saw Dr Mengele every single day, but because she went to the camps in 1944, she survived.
Iby married a British Army colonel after the war. After his death, she began to talk about her experiences. She had come to Leeds in the early 1960s, and she taught at universities and worked for the local authority. Now, at the age of 96, my constituent Iby writes, lectures and gives talks. Indeed, eight or nine years ago, she did a talk for Members in Speaker’s House, with the blessing of the former Speaker, John Bercow. Some may remember it; it was a very moving occasion.
Iby has written another book, called “The Woman with Nine Lives”. In her books, she talks about the fact that she never had the tattoo. When people ask her about that, she says, “I do not know why I was not tattooed. Maybe it was because they ran out of ink, or maybe the officer concerned simply had to go to the toilet.” Iby’s first-hand accounts are well worth reading, and it is extraordinary that, at 96, she is still able to go around our schools and educational institutions.
Trude Silman is another survivor. She came from Bratislava during the war, on the Kindertransport. She is 91 now. She is a very close friend of mine and my wife’s: we see her every other week if we possibly can, and I was with her at the weekend. She is a contributor to the exhibition at Huddersfield University, and figures large in it. Eugene Black I have mentioned. John Chillag, who died recently as well, was another holocaust survivor in the city of Leeds. But the person I want to end my contribution by describing is someone who was born on
Heinz was absolutely extraordinary. He was the founding director of the Leeds Jewish Welfare Board and the Leeds Jewish Housing Association, organisations that have done so much for so many Jewish people who have been so underprivileged and have had so many problems in their own lives in the city of Leeds. He made an incredible contribution. He was also a great supporter of Leeds United football club. But the one thing I remember him for—I will finish with this short anecdote—is that in 1998, a year after I was elected to this place to represent my constituency, he gave a talk on the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht. We are talking about a number of anniversaries today, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Heinz was a student of the University of Hamburg. He was born in Munich, but he went to Hamburg to study. One evening, he received a phone call on his landlady’s telephone. “You need to get out of there,” said his mother. “They are going to ransack the synagogues. They are going to arrest and beat the Jewish people of Hamburg. Go to the park, and stay there all night.” It was four o’clock in the afternoon. So Heinz stayed there all night. He saw the fires. He saw Jews being arrested, being beaten, being brutally attacked. He saw the Torah scrolls being removed from the synagogues and burnt in the streets. He saw the destruction of Jewish businesses. He told us this from his first-hand experience. It is the kind of thing that you never forget hearing.
After the night of destruction and horror was over, Heinz managed to get through to his mother, and his mother said, “Go and see our family doctor. He has retired from Munich, and he now lives in Hamburg with his daughter. Go to his flat. This is the address.” So he turned up, at six or seven in the morning. He walked through the front door to find the old man sitting on the sofa in his full Wehrmacht uniform from the first world war. If you had been a serving officer in the German army, you were allowed, above a certain rank, to keep your uniform, and there was the old doctor with his pointed helmet with the spike on it, and his Iron Cross First Class.
The Gestapo had broken down the door—they did not knock on the doors, they broke the doors down—to arrest this filthy Jew, and they had found a man with an Iron Cross, in an army uniform, with the rank of major. They did not know what to do. As Heinz said at the time, “Zey didn’t have ze mobile phones.” They could not ring headquarters to get instructions, so they left. The doctor gathered his belongings in shock, with his daughter and with Heinz, and they took the train out of Hamburg. This was in 1938. They went to Denmark, they crossed the sea to England, and they came to Leeds. The doctor lived until the 1960s. I do not know what became of the daughter.
That is a story that I wanted to share with the House because it is a story that Heinz told us from his first-hand experience. Here was one of the last living witnesses of the horrors of the holocaust, someone who himself made a recording, and—I am very proud to hear this—at his funeral on 5 or
So it is with that tribute to Heinz Skyte that I finish my remarks. I thank Members for all the contributions that are being made today, and I thank them for indulging me in talking about my own family’s history.
It is a pleasure to call Brendan Clarke-Smith to make his maiden speech.
It is an honour for me to be here in the House making my maiden speech as the new Member of Parliament for Bassetlaw, and to follow such a powerful and emotional speech from Fabian Hamilton.
It has been a long and winding road to my becoming an MP. When I started nursery school, my teacher told my mother, “Brendan is a little bit different. I can’t decide whether he is going to end up in Parliament or in prison!” Of course, I now know that it is perfectly possible to achieve both.
My parents grew up in two of the poorest areas of Nottingham, and I was raised on what was once the largest council estate in Europe. We pursued the dream of owning our own home, and I was the first member of my family to go to university. It is this sense of aspiration that has shaped my beliefs, and still does. I am delighted to be joined by so many new friends on these Benches who share those aspirations, along with a Government who are now committed to driving forward a blue-collar Conservative agenda.
My first few weeks as an MP have been challenging. Finding my way around the building and remembering how to address people properly have been difficult. However, that was nothing compared to the challenge of explaining to my wife why a national newspaper had referred to me as the “biggest swinger in town”.
Like this modern-day House, my constituency of Bassetlaw is brilliantly diverse. We are fortunate to have some beautiful countryside, and we are, in many ways, a rural constituency. At the same time, we boast a proud mining heritage in places such as Worksop—the gateway to the Dukeries—in the west, and Harworth and Bircotes in the north. On the other side of the A1 we have the market town of Retford, and the constituency also boasts numerous village communities. Many areas recently suffered from flooding, and I am committed to ensuring that we tackle that, as well as rejuvenating our high streets and supporting our local NHS services.
It will soon be the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s setting sail for the United States and the establishment of the Plymouth Colony. Many of those passengers originated from my constituency. After two long months, they reached the New World. That is a commute that many of my constituents will be able to relate to if they have been using Northern Rail recently.
The legacy of the Mayflower is widespread, be it the Thanksgiving tradition or the estimated up to 35 million individuals living today who are said to be direct descendants of its passengers. They set off in search of the right to practise their beliefs without persecution. In Bassetlaw, anniversary celebrations are already under way, and in 2020 the Bassetlaw Museum in Retford will be joining more than 100 other museums across the UK, the US and the Netherlands in those celebrations, as well as Illuminate 2020 events throughout the year. Post Brexit, I look forward to even greater co-operation with our friends in the United States. Why is this relevant? Because the story of the Mayflower is one of religious freedom and tolerance.
Let me, at this point, echo the remarks of my hon. Friend and neighbour Andrew Percy and thank my predecessor, Baron Mann of Holbeck Moor, for his service to the constituency over the last 18 years. I congratulate him on his elevation to the other place. Let me also praise his efforts in combating the scourge of antisemitism. I look forward to his work as the Government’s new antisemitism tsar.
Before my parliamentary career began, I was a schoolteacher. Over the years, I have made many visits to the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in the neighbouring constituency of Newark. A few years ago, I took a group of my pupils to Poland to visit the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. That was a haunting experience that I will remember for the rest of my life, as will my former pupils.
The camp serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of extremism and intolerance. Monday will mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation. All the more poignant was a discussion I had with a friend and fellow teacher there who told me of her childhood experiences in fleeing the atrocities in Bosnia. The year 2020 will also mark the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Srebrenica. To hear the testimonies of those affected by such tragedies, especially those that have happened in my own lifetime, puts life and the importance of hope over hate into perspective.
I have spoken about difference quite a lot today: the diversity of my own background and of those in this Chamber; the diversity of my constituency; and the diversity of beliefs and values. I want to finish by echoing what the former MP for Batley and Spen said in her maiden speech: despite our differences, we share far more in common than we realise. Together we have the opportunity to ensure that we not only remember the past but create a better present and a brighter future for all. I shall end with a quote from William Bradford, one of those Mayflower passengers:
“Just as one small candle may light a thousand, so the light here kindled hath shone unto many.”
I congratulate Brendan Clarke-Smith on his excellent maiden speech. Given that I was thoroughly entertained throughout and gripped by what he was saying, I am sure he will have a long, prosperous and useful career in this Chamber.
I want to thank and pay tribute to Olivia Marks-Woldman, the inspirational Karen Pollock and all the wonderful people at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust for their tireless work. Among the many things that they do is ensure that, every January, we have pertinent themes and rich resources from which to draw when we stand up to contribute to this poignant, far-reaching and important debate. I really try to contribute something different every year, because I think that that is important. I am very grateful to them. Often, because of the shortness of these debates, we do not get enough time to praise them as we should, so I find myself in the bizarre situation of thanking the Government for making time available today for us to have a proper and fulsome debate.
Today, the theme is “standing together”. We spend months in my office talking about what we are going to talk about in this debate, because it is an annual event and we always buy an extra book or two. One of the things we talked about was the different forms that resistance to the Nazis took. In previous debates in the House, I have spoken about the incredible bravery of Jewish people in the most extraordinary and terrible circumstances, and the extraordinary strength that they displayed when they must truly have felt that there was no hope left. That strength was epitomised in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The Bielski partisans also showed that strength, as did the Sobibor uprising. The strength and courage in evidence there were simply staggering.
Today, because of this theme, I want to share stories of some of the people who stood with the Jewish community despite the grave personal danger to themselves. As we have heard, after the German occupation of Poland in 1939, the Nazis pursued a policy of segregation. The Jews of Warsaw were relocated to a ghetto, and at the outset 138,000 Jews were forcibly transported there, and 113,000 non-Jewish Poles were also forced from their homes. Society was split in two. People were forbidden to bring their possessions into the ghetto, and they were thrust into immediate destitution. Conditions inside the ghetto quickly deteriorated. Eight or 10 people were living in just one room, and the German Administration severely limited food supplies. Jews found trying to escape were murdered. Within the first two years, 92,000 had died of starvation, of disease and of cold; that was 20% of the people imprisoned in the ghetto.
It cannot be denied that some were looking on in satisfaction, gloating that their Jewish neighbours were being forced from their homes and forced apart from them, but thousands of people stood against this awful racism. They shared their food and their shelter, but that had a cost too. As we have heard, a new law in Poland decreed a death sentence for all those who
“knowingly give shelter to such Jews or help them in any way”.
Helpfully, examples were given, just in case anybody was in any doubt. Those examples included taking a Jewish family in for the night or offering a lift in a vehicle. Any of these led to execution.
The hon. Lady rightly acknowledges that Poles were killed for helping their Jewish friends and neighbours, but it was worse than that. In the case of my family, it wasn’t just that you were shot by the Germans; first, you had to watch as your children were shot. They made you watch as they killed your wife and children, then they shot you. Your crime was helping your Jewish friends and neighbours.
The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right.
I know I will not be the only person in this Chamber to own a copy of Martin Gilbert’s tremendous yet totally horrific book, “The Righteous”, which documents many stories of brave people who defied that law and similar laws, not just in Poland but across occupied Europe. I do not have personal stories that I can recount, but I would like to use the debate to put on record stories of heroic people, and today I want to talk about two Polish families who stood together with the Jewish people in the Warsaw ghetto.
First, I want to talk about Jan and Antonina Zabinski. Jan was the director of the Warsaw zoo, which was emptied of animals because of the air raids. When deportations to Treblinka began in 1942, Jan and Antonina decided that they had to help. They secretly provided shelter to 20 Jewish people in their two-storey home, and Jan sheltered hundreds more using the only other shelter he had available—the empty animal cages. Jan was employed by Warsaw city council, and he used that privilege to gain access to the ghetto. He used the pretext of looking after small trees and the public gardens inside the ghetto to aid his Jewish friends, and he tried to help them in any way he could.
One of those that Jan helped was Rachel Auerbach. Rachel secretly compiled records of everything that happened in the ghetto. This was an invaluable record of daily life under Nazi persecution, and she entrusted Jan with her precious manuscripts. He buried them inside the zoo grounds in glass jars. When the war was over, Rachel was able to retrieve her book and publish it, and it provides us all with a precious, dreadful insight into her first-hand testimony of the holocaust, as well as her memories of pre-war Jewish cultural life. Unsurprisingly, Jan was a member of the underground resistance, and he was eventually discovered. He was arrested and deported to Germany, but even after that, when Antonina was alone and even more aware of the terrible risks, she continued to provide shelter. The courage of Jan and Antonina was recognised at Yad Vashem as members of the righteous among nations.
Another of those recognised at Yad Vashem—one of the very first—was Dr Felix Kanabus. Felix was a young Polish surgeon, a socialist. He was disgusted, as were so many, by the sight of his fellow Poles aiding the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews, because he had many Jewish friends and he had spoken out publicly against antisemitism. So, when the crackdown began, many of his friends reached out to him for help, and he used his skill as a surgeon to help where he could.
Felix helped several Jews to avoid persecution by performing operations to reverse their circumcisions. In other cases, he provided medical certificates stating that a circumcision had been performed as a medical necessity—anything he could do to throw the Nazis off and stop their attention from falling on those that he could help. Felix protected a colleague and their family when they were summoned to the ghetto, by disguising them as servants, and he and his wife Irena worked with their networks to find safe apartments for many others. Like Jan and Antonina, Felix and Irena risked their lives, and those of their families, to resist the holocaust.
These are truly moving stories; but they are absolutely nothing compared with the scale of the violence—the 6 million Jewish victims and the millions of others who were subjected to systematic disfranchisement, dispossession, detention and murder. These stories of Jan and Antonina, Felix and Irena tell us something about what it means to stand together; because each and every one of us has a role in standing up to hatred, discrimination, persecution and genocide, whatever form it takes. One person’s actions will never be enough, but it is infinitely important to act, rather than do nothing.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a German theologian that I absolutely love; I love the idea of religionless Christianity. He was an anti- Nazi dissident, and he said:
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of the victim beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Bonhoeffer was a Christian pastor and a pacifist, but when he saw what was happening all around him in Germany society, he understood what he had to do. He saved many Jewish lives. This German pastor—this man of God—became involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, and as a result he was arrested and taken to Buchenwald where, just one month before the Germans surrendered, he was hanged. I can recommend “Letters and Papers from Prison”, which talks about his ministry in Buchenwald and is a remarkable testimony.
Sadly, the reason it is so important to remember these histories is that the poison of racism has not gone away. It is really frightening to see how it rears its ugly head again and again, right around the world; whether it is the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, who have been put into re-education camps in Xinjiang; the treatment of Indian Muslims in Assam and throughout India—many of whom are being stripped of their citizenship and being attacked; or the attacks on refugees by the President of the United States, who employs the rhetoric of the terrible so-called “great replacement theory”.
In the spirit of today’s debate, let us reflect on what standing together actually means. I believe it is more than just a passive virtue; I think it is an active obligation, and I believe that every single one of us can learn more, and do more, to stand together against hatred wherever and whenever it emerges.
It is a pleasure to follow Ms Brown, who spoke very well. It has been a privilege to be in the Chamber to hear so many powerful and moving speeches, especially the contribution by Fabian Hamilton, who spoke about family connections and friendships. All Members on both sides of the House will have found it very enriching to hear that.
It is a privilege to be called to make a short contribution to this important debate. This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day debate is perhaps the most important yet as we not only mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the other death camps, but recognise that, with each passing year, the living memory of those horrific events among those in our society leaves us. Over the past 12 months, since the previous such debate, here in Britain we have said goodbye to holocaust survivors Rudi Oppenheimer, Harry Bibring, Fred Austin, Judith Kerr, Hermann Hirschberger, Leslie Brent, Edward Guest and Rabbi Harry Jacobi—all remarkable men and women who refused to allow the pain and trauma of the events that they lived through as younger people to define their lives as holocaust survivors. Instead, they chose to spread light—they chose to be a shining light in our society, spreading the light of forgiveness, tolerance and love, and spreading that light as educators as well.
As we have heard, many of the survivors, including many still with us today in our society, have devoted enormous amounts of time to teaching young people about the past, and about the challenge of antisemitism and hatred in our own society. Much of that work, as we have heard, has been done through the Holocaust Educational Trust. I, too, wish to place on the record my admiration and support for its work. I, too, have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau with students on a trip organised by the HET, and seen the powerful learning effect of such visits. Discussing with the young people afterwards what that visit meant to them really demonstrated to me how effective those visits are, and how important it is for us, as a Government, to continue to provide financial and practical support to the HET.
In 2019 we also said goodbye to Ron Jones. Ron Jones was not Jewish, but he did survive Auschwitz; he was known as the goalkeeper of Auschwitz. He was a Welshman from south Wales who found himself incarcerated in a section of the camp that was reserved for British and other servicemen, so the conditions that he experienced at Auschwitz were different. He played a lot of football there, and that is where he earned his nickname. We said goodbye to him last year. He was Britain’s oldest poppy-seller—102 years old. But what he lived through he never forgot; what he witnessed in Auschwitz remained with him forever. He, too, carried that with him into society and did what he could to spread knowledge and understanding about those horrific, dark events.
My hon. Friend mentions the very important visits to Auschwitz by young British schoolchildren. Sometimes they are just taken to the camp for the day and flown straight back to the United Kingdom the same day, and I have heard from some pupils that they get—obviously—a very negative perspective of Poland, because all they see is the concentration camp. I very much hope that as this programme is developed, children will be allowed to stay a little bit longer and see cities such as Krakow so that they find out what Poland is really like and their camp visit does not represent their only experience of the country.
My hon. Friend makes his important point well—it is now on record.
I only learned about Ron Jones, the goalkeeper of Auschwitz, last week, when I attended the holocaust memorial event run by Chelsea football club at Stamford Bridge. Ron Jones is one of three individuals depicted on a huge new mural that stands outside the ground that has been painted by the Israeli-resident street artist, Solomon Souza. The other two figures depicted in the mural are Jewish footballers from central and eastern Europe who did perish at Auschwitz.
I thought that this would be a good moment to place on record my admiration for what Chelsea has done in the field of combating antisemitism. I confess that I am a little bit of a cynic when it comes to premiership football, given the vast amounts of money sloshing about in the game, and the eyewatering transfer fees and TV revenues, but having followed what Chelsea has done in combating antisemitism over the past two years, the leadership that it has shown on this issue and the way in which the club has approached its work, I am very impressed indeed. I think there is an integrity about that work, which demonstrates real leadership in the field of sport.
Recognising that premiership football is probably one of the main cultural leaders in our society and has enormous influence, I think that what the club is doing is incredibly important. It launched its “Say No To Antisemitism” campaign two years ago with a powerful foreword, written by Roman Abramovich, the owner of the club, in its programme notes for a match against Bournemouth. He wrote:
Those are remarkable words to read in a match programme on a mid-week evening or a Saturday afternoon. That work, and the work that Chelsea are doing with the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Jewish Museum, the Community Security Trust, Kick It Out, the World Jewish Congress and the Anne Frank house, is worthy of putting on record and deserves a lot of support.
At the event I attended at Stamford Bridge last week, we heard from the club captain, other players, including the English defender Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and the club chairman, Bruce Buck. They all spoke with genuine interest, knowledge and integrity. We also heard from the England women’s player, Anita Asante, who spoke powerfully about this subject, which she linked to her visit to Israel last summer with the Chelsea women’s team.
Israel has not been mentioned a lot in this debate. When we discuss antisemitism, or when it is discussed in our society, people often skirt around the issue of Israel. I recognise that there are distinctions, and I put on record that I am the parliamentary chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel, but when we call out antisemitism in our society today it is important to recognise that the mask—the face—worn by antisemitism in 2020 is often a blatant hatred of Israel. People dress up their core antisemitism with a hatred of Israel, thinking it somehow makes their antisemitism more acceptable.
That was precisely why, when I responded to such a debate a few years ago, I referenced the Israelification of antisemitism. That is why it is so important that we sign up to the IHRA definition. We have a big problem with antisemitism on the campuses of our universities in this country, so will my right hon. Friend condemn universities like Warwick, whose vice-chancellor is refusing to sign up to the IHRA definition that addresses the Israelification of antisemitism?
I support my hon. Friend’s suggestion. He has done fantastic work on this, and it is valid for him to call out those universities that still refuse to sign up to the IHRA definition.
Antisemitism in this country often has a face of Israel-hatred. I have a problem when people talk about fighting antisemitism, and being against antisemitism, while indulging in far-right or far-left conspiracy theories and tropes of Jewish stereotypes, even though they try to untangle those remarks.
I follow some of the commentaries and debates online and, as CFI chairman in the Commons, I receive a lot of emails about my position on Israel and my defence of the state of Israel. I challenge those people on some of the language they use. Dame Margaret Hodge mentioned how “Nazi” is repeatedly used as an insult. People know exactly what they are doing when they describe Israelis as Nazis, and it stems from the core of antisemitism that underlies a lot of this.
I am a proud defender of the state of Israel—that makes me a Zionist—and I believe in a Jewish homeland. We recognise that the state of Israel was founded in the ruins and the aftermath of the dark events we are remembering today—there is a direct link. A Jewish homeland, the state of Israel, is the last defence against antisemitism. It is the right of Jews to live in a country where they can walk around without fear of being who they are, and where they can fully own their identity and live in a Jewish state.
I hope that this has been a helpful contribution. Friendship and support for the state of Israel are part of our fight against antisemitism in the United Kingdom in 2020. We can be critical friends—we are not asked to be cheerleaders for any particular Israeli Government—but we stand in defence of a Jewish homeland, the state of Israel.
It is a pleasure to follow Stephen Crabb, whom I thank for his balanced contribution. Like him and many other Members, I am unashamedly a friend of Israel. I believe in it biblically, but I also believe in it politically and socially.
I am pleased to be speaking today. I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their significant contributions, which have been made with real sincerity and depth of interest.
Along with other hon. Members, I attended a holocaust event in the House just last week. I met a holocaust survivor there who was sent as a child to a farm on the Drumfad Road in Millisle in my Strangford constituency—she was one of the Kinder children. Many such stories have been told in this House, and it is always good to be reminded of them. She came from Czechoslovakia and is fortunate to be alive, and hers is a true story of what happened to her and how she was saved from death in the German camps.
When she told me about her experience, it had a personal impact. It is so sad that we are losing more and more people with personal stories, and there is a real fear that this will become just another page in a history book, as opposed to an horrific event that exemplifies the fact that evil triumphs when good people do nothing.
It is great to see streaming services such as Netflix providing documentaries like “The Devil Next Door”, showing the testimony of concentration camp victims, which is important in reaching new generations. I commend Fabian Hamilton because no one in this House was not moved by his personal contribution—not that anybody else’s contribution was not moving. There was silence in the House, which encapsulated how we all felt at that moment, as we heard the true story of his family, for which I thank him.
We must continue to ensure that the truth is told and that the ink does not fade on factual cases. We must make sure that history is not rewritten, as is the case with some of Northern Ireland’s troubles. The horrors faced in the holocaust are as important to this generation as they were in 1950.
My hon. Friend will know that some 41,000 schoolchildren from across the United Kingdom have availed themselves of the informative “Lessons from Auschwitz” programme, which in the past three years has been extended to Northern Ireland, where hundreds of schoolchildren have been able to get involved. Does he agree it is essential that the new Northern Ireland Executive continue the programme so that future generations can learn about Auschwitz and about combating racism, hatred and antisemitism?
I agree with my hon. Friend. With a reinvigorated and restored Northern Ireland Assembly, hopefully we can continue to see the benefit of such programmes right across Northern Ireland. Such programmes provide an understanding that men can be unbelievably and despicably evil. We can never forget that beneath a polished smile and a well-presented press release can be the heart of prejudice and hatred.
My son Luke and his friends went to Auschwitz last year on a weekend away. I was rather surprised—not that they should want to go there, but that, as young 24 and 25-year-olds, they felt they needed to do so. They came back with some incredible stories. The Royal British Legion of Ballywalter in my constituency also went, and grown men came back and unashamedly told me that they shed tears for what they had witnessed.
As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of those remaining in Auschwitz, I feel sickened and saddened by the images that are conjured. It is important that future generations understand this and feel as we do. The UN Secretary-General said after the “75 Years after Auschwitz” exhibit was unveiled:
“Understanding our history connects us to the essential human values of truth, respect, justice and compassion.”
We should be pleased to be involved in all those things.
Although it is right that we mark the horrors of the holocaust, we should not and cannot pretend that all is well in the world, because quite clearly it is not. Srebrenica, the Rohingya Muslim group in Burma and Rwanda are all examples of man’s inhumanity and brutality to man. This tells us that there are still evil people about who are intent on doing similar things.
The evil events we remember today started more than eight decades ago, but antisemitism is not called the “oldest hatred” for no reason, and neither has it been eradicated. Our Jewish brothers and sisters—we are all clearly referring to them as such, because we are in the Chamber today because although we may not be Jewish, we look upon them as our Jewish brothers and sisters—have been persecuted for millennia. Even in 2020, Britain, Europe and the world have witnessed rising levels of this sickness in society. We are reminded daily that antisemitism is alive and destructive not only across the world, but here in the United Kingdom. In this place, there have been accusations of antisemitism being brushed under the carpet, as opposed to being confronted and dealt with. Let us be clear: antisemitism was at the heart of the Nazi plan. If we, as political leaders in the constituencies we represent, are not brave enough to recognise and call out the cause and effect of the oldest hatred, we will not find a solution. Sadly, that is why I say that far too often in this place, far too many Members have stoked the flames of hatred by unfairly attacking Israel, the world’s only Jewish state.
Like the right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire, I stand here to support Israel and to be its friend, just as I did in a previous job in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have spoken in every one of these debates since I have been in the House. We also have to recall the Gaza border debate that took place in this House on
Hansard still contains the vitriol used that day, and we have to learn that careless words can cost lives and breed hatred, so there is an important responsibility on all of us. We are entitled to criticise when criticism is merited. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said that we can be a critical friend—so we can—but that is verbal criticism given in a decent way to bring about change. We should all be constructive, but we are not entitled to hold Israel to a different set of standards from those that we hold other nations to, including our own. There must also be opportunity to record an apology when we get something wrong.
Antisemitism is bred in many places, with the middle east being one of them. It is in our media—on TV and radio—every day. Antisemitism is a powder keg and inevitably, without peace, there will be many more times over the course of this Parliament when we will debate the issues. Let us not fall into the trap of encouraging division and hatred, and let us commit over this parliamentary term to listen to both sides of the debate. As the chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I feel it is so important that we speak up for those of a Christian faith, those of other faiths and those of no faith. I know that all Members subscribe to that same commitment. I believe that in this House we have a duty, on Holocaust Memorial Day, to do just that. We must pledge to listen to organisations such as the Israel-Britain Alliance, which sends briefings to MPs every month that offer a sober, honest and realistic assessment of the challenges faced by tiny Israel. Let us in this House commit to offer a commentary that takes the gun and the bullet, as well as assertions, institutional racism and bigotry, out of the dialogue. How better to remember the price paid by ignoring the signs and signals of antisemitism and to set a better example for people to follow so that there is never a repetition in this generation and in any other to come?
It is a pleasure to call Scott Benton to make his maiden speech. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and colleagues. It is an absolute pleasure to be able to give my maiden speech in this debate and to follow the excellent contributions of my hon. Friend Andrew Percy, Fabian Hamilton and my right hon. Friend Stephen Crabb, to name but a few. May I also congratulate my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith on a fantastic maiden speech?
To use the first line from the well-known poem, “The Lion and Albert”:
“There’s a famous seaside place called Blackpool”.
If Members are unaware of the poem, I should say that it does not end well at all for Albert and his parents. They visit the zoo and Albert ends up being eaten by a ferocious lion named Wallace. Despite the rather unfortunate end to the poem, I can assure Members that Blackpool is a fantastic place to visit. I would like to take this opportunity to thank its residents for putting their trust in me to serve as their Member of Parliament: I will not let them down. I also thank my parents, who are in the Gallery this afternoon, for their support in getting me here and my hon. Friend Craig Whittaker for his fantastic and wise counsel and guidance over the past 10 years.
Before I talk more about the town, I would like to mention my predecessor, Gordon Marsden, who served Blackpool South well for 22 years and was ever courteous when our paths crossed. That turned out to be more often than I expected during the election campaign, because I inadvertently moved in next door to him! Gordon held a number of shadow ministerial portfolios, but, as a former teacher myself, I give particular recognition to his contribution as shadow Minister for higher education. He also chaired the all-party group on veterans, a cause close to my heart and one that I will support during my time in this House.
I am lucky to represent Blackpool, a town steeped in history and with far too much heritage to fit in this speech. It is famous for the confectionary Blackpool rock, and I welcomed my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister during the election campaign to assist in making a special “Back Boris” version of the rock. We were grateful to be offered a job should all have gone wrong on
Stepping back from the seafront slightly, Blackpool is also home to the Winter Gardens. Some of my hon. Friends will remember this as the rightful home of the Conservative party conference. I hope to see it return one day, particularly as the multi-million pound investment in a new conference centre facility will provide us with outstanding facilities that are second to none. After several rollercoaster years in politics, it would be remiss of me not to mention our very own theme park, the Pleasure Beach. More than 5 million people a year flock to be thrilled on its many rollercoasters—it has more than any other park in the UK and it has won many more awards than other theme parks. It has been owned and run by the same family since its opening, and they continue to invest in and develop the park, an approach typical of our strong enterprise culture in Blackpool.
The thousands of hotels, shops and pubs that are the economic backbone of my constituency are built on the values of hard work and self-reliance. Those values are epitomised by Chris Higgitt, the owner of an arcade who works 16 hours a day, seven days a week during the eight-month holiday season. He prides himself on working hard for his family so that he does not have to rely on the Government for support. With such values, it probably is not a surprise that Chris shares my admiration for one of our greatest ever Prime Ministers, Baroness Thatcher. Our mission as a Government has to be to support businesses like Chris’s and to ensure that innovation, talent and effort are always rewarded.
The people of Blackpool are proud of our great country, our history and traditions and our monarchy. They share my desire for ours to be a truly independent country once again. Many of my constituents voted to leave the EU, not just because of the fantastic opportunities that that presents but because they were unhappy with the status quo. People in Blackpool and towns across the north feel left behind by the pace of economic and social change in recent decades. As a Government, our challenge must now be to address this through investment in our ageing northern infrastructure and to create an environment in which enterprise can flourish.
When we leave the EU, we will emerge into a world that is crying out for leadership, and our country is uniquely placed to provide that. We must work with our allies to promote free trade and our shared values of democracy, freedom and liberty around the world. Few relationships are more important in supporting us to achieve that aim than our strong bond with the state of Israel. We can rightly be proud of the UK’s role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. It is more important than ever that we reassert our commitment to Israel’s security, its right to defend itself and its right to exist. The relationship between our nations is built not only on trade, research collaboration and security, but on our shared values. Indeed, it is Israel’s commitment to freedom, religious tolerance and equality that distinguishes it from its neighbours and that its enemies in the middle east want to eradicate from the region.
Sadly, that is not the only thing that Israel’s enemies want to eradicate. Terrorist organisations such as Hamas and Hezbollah continue to peddle antisemitic propaganda, and in many ways it is Israel’s Jewish identity that makes it so vulnerable. But it is not just groups in the middle east, or indeed those who deny Israel’s right to exist, who hold such vile views. Antisemitic incidents are on the rise across western Europe and here in the UK. It is appalling that an antisemitic element has crept back into our politics. Antisemitism should have no place in politics, nor in the world. I know that all hon. Members in the Chamber will join me in taking a stand against it.
It is in that context that we are having this debate about Holocaust Memorial Day. Education is a vital tool in the fight against antisemitism, and it is imperative that the lessons of the holocaust are not forgotten. The new national holocaust memorial and learning centre is welcome and will both act as a lasting tribute to the victims and help to challenge antisemitism. It is vital that we take a lead and use our role as hon. Members, not just in this House but in all our communities, to tackle this prejudice and to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
I am honoured to have sat next to my hon. Friend Fabian Hamilton and witnessed his speech. His testimony was mesmerising and truly humbling. I deeply congratulate him on it.
It is a privilege for me to be able to take the opportunity each year to remember and pay my respects to those who were lost. That is particularly true this year, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia. As those who experienced these atrocities reduce in numbers, it is more important than ever that we continue to observe this day and talk about their stories and experiences, and to honour those who lost their lives, so that generations to come never forget the horrors that occurred and the sacrifices that were made.
The holocaust has always been of great interest to me personally, and many moons ago it was the subject of my dissertation. Over Christmas, I read “The Tattooist of Auschwitz”, the true story of Lale Sokolov, who described the horrors that he witnessed while living in the camps. As I have said many times before, I am continually shocked and saddened whenever I read or hear the many, many experiences of the horrors faced in the genocide.
I note that this year’s theme is “stand together”, set by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which I must thank for its amazing work around Holocaust Memorial Day each year. The fact that nearly 8,000 activities take place throughout the UK every year around
The “stand together” theme highlights how isolating a group in society allows such horrors to occur. The creation of societal divisions, the fractioning of relationships, workplaces and schools, and the destruction of an individual’s rights all make it easier to oppress a group and divide them from mainstream society. However, there are many examples—importantly shared by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust—of people uniting in the face of such hatred to protect the persecuted from genocide. Those examples include the story of Sir Nicholas Winton.
Members will be aware that I have worked on children’s rights for a long time and the issue is incredibly important to me. When I hear of the devastation that was inflicted on children during the holocaust, it truly breaks my heart. The murder of innocent young people is something that I cannot comprehend. To know that around 1.5 million children died in the holocaust—it is just too big a number to comprehend. But we can never forget.
When I read stories of how individuals, families and groups stood together to protect children, it truly amazes me to hear of the steps they took to save the innocent and vulnerable. They were people like Sir Nicholas Winton, the stockbroker from London who worked to secure foster families who would provide homes to Jewish children, whom he would transport from Prague to Britain in 1939. The children travelled on trains through the heart of dangerous Nazi territory, then through Holland and on to London. Sir Nicholas Winton’s co-ordination of those trips and his work to find families for the refugee children led to the protection of 669 children from the horrors and atrocities of the holocaust. Winton’s incredible, brave work demonstrates how standing together alongside one’s fellow man in the face of such evil can truly save lives.
By keeping alive the memory of acts of defiance and bravery during the holocaust, we shine a light on the exceptional examples of individuals standing together in the face of evil. It is important that we remember them on this day, as well as the many, many victims of the holocaust and the families who lost people in the camps, to remind us how important it is that we unite against hatred. For the sake of those who were taken too early—those who could not defend themselves against the evil they were up against—we must continue to tell their stories and honour their sacrifice. Holocaust Memorial Day gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect; to remember those who were lost; to pay tribute to those who risked their own safety to help; and to ensure that we will never forget the innocent victims of this dreadful and evil crime.
It is a great pleasure to follow Carolyn Harris, who made a powerful speech. In particular, she made us focus on the children— the rights of children and their plight, which was deeply upsetting to us all. It is also a great pleasure to follow most people who have spoken in this debate. It is one of my favourite debates to take part in, because the speeches are so poignant, so meaningful and so personal, and it really does show this House at its best.
It is also a pleasure to follow the excellent maiden speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) and for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). Living just down the road in Liverpool, I, too, have fond memories of the annual pilgrimage to the Blackpool illuminations.
It is a great honour to take part in this debate and to take this opportunity to remember the actions of the brave people who saved the lives of Jewish people during the holocaust and also to ensure that those human stories are not forgotten. That is why it is so important that we are all here to remember the human cost, the human bravery and the human stories.
I would like to take the opportunity to tell one of those stories. It is about a young boy. The story is set in Belgium in 1943: a young boy clutches to his mother and sister on a train, terrified of what awaits them at the end of the tracks. This small family, who were joined by 1,631 others that day, were being transported to Auschwitz. Unlike the many trains that came before them, and the many that followed, this particular train did not reach its destination without incident—some people escaped. The brave actions of three resistance fighters stopped the train, giving 223 people a chance of escape. When the small boy’s mother saw what was happening, she took her chance and pushed him off the train while it was still moving. He, along with 108 of the 223 people who did manage to escape, escaped with his life. That was the last time that the 11-year-old boy saw his mother and his sister, who, like the majority on the train, made it to the end of the line where the gas chambers awaited them.
The boy, Simon Gronowski, survived the war and I have had the honour of getting to know him over the past couple of years. Last year, many hon. and right hon. Friends joined me in Speaker’s House where we hosted a performance of the opera “Push”, which tells his remarkable story. Sitting next to Simon for the performance was one of those memories that will live with me for ever. Seeing his story brought to life—the opera has now been shown many times—was truly remarkable. What was remarkable about his story actually came at the end: he went back to Belgium, found the neighbour who had shopped his family to the police, and forgave him. He was asked for forgiveness and he forgave him.
The darkest hours in human history have been fuelled by a false narrative of difference, ignoring the fact that, as the former Member Jo Cox said in this Chamber, we have much more in common. It is clearly wrong to ignore the fact that we are all human. It undermines our society and has brought the greatest shame on humanity throughout our collective history. Holocaust Memorial Day asks us to look at the horrors of our past and to remember and learn. This year’s theme is “stand together”, emphasising the point that, standing shoulder to shoulder, humanity has done, and will do, exceptional things: we have wiped out diseases, ended wars and connected the world from east to west.
I am proud to say that Chichester is standing with people across the world. A group of local volunteers have organised several special events to mark this year’s memorial day. Before I continue, I wish to thank Councillors Clare Apel and Martyn Bell, Trevor James, Ralph Apel, Jill Hoskins, Cynara Davis, Jonathan Golden, Andrew Smith and Mark Schwarz for all their hard work in Chichester to ensure that Holocaust Memorial Day is marked, and marked with distinction.
This year, there are two special performances of “Push” being held on Monday at Chichester Festival Theatre—so, we have gone from Speaker’s House to one of the main theatres in the country. I am told that the performances are completely sold out. Another showing has also been organised for
Having been so involved with the production last year, I know how powerful the story is, bringing to life the reality of an unimaginable situation. This story is perhaps even more relevant this year as we mark 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz on
Holocaust Memorial Day also gives us the opportunity to learn about genocide more widely, as a number of Members have mentioned. We explore how regimes have fractured societies and marginalised certain groups, and we all know that that still goes on today. I will be learning more about that when I attend Chichester’s New Park cinema on Sunday for a showing of the film “Enemies of the People”, which tells the story of one of the most brutal and genocidal regimes that the world has ever known—the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. The film interviews some of the perpetrators whose murderous socialist regime invented the killing fields. The film tries to get behind the reasoning of the genocide, which killed 25% of the Cambodian population. The director, Rob Lemkin, will be attending the performance in Chichester to host a question and answer session afterwards, and we thank him for that.
Given that we know from our history the horror that hate and discrimination bring, a resurgence of antisemitism in the UK today seems unthinkable. Yet sadly, it seems to be rearing its ugly head across our society, and we have heard several examples of that in today’s debate. The rise of virulent antisemitism on social media platforms is truly appalling, and I want to take this opportunity to praise the brave members of our Jewish community who have taken a stand against it—people such as Rachel Riley, Tracey Ann Oberman and Stephen Pollard—all of whom deserve our respect and support for taking on people who hide behind anonymity and perpetrate hate. I wish to add my voice to theirs and to all those who call for love over hate, and I assure Members that the people of Chichester stand together with them.
It is a great pleasure to follow Gillian Keegan, who told us the story of her constituent and the film made about him. I hope the Chichester festival brings that message to many other people.
The contributions in this debate have been truly impressive. It feels odd to single out any one Member, but the speech of Fabian Hamilton deserves singling out not just for his stories about his family, but for the dignified way in which he told them. I will never forget the image that he painted of Heinz’s doctor sitting there in his first world war Wehrmacht uniform with the Iron Cross, giving the Nazi Waffen-SS the impossible task of how to deal with him.
I am delighted that the House is standing together today on this Holocaust Memorial Day. I want to share with colleagues the lessons that I learned on a trip to Auschwitz, which was organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was a truly moving day—I went with some young pupils from a school in my constituency. I had been to Auschwitz before—I had been to Dachau and Yad Vashem—but I had never received the insight of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I learned two things. One was about telling the individual stories, and I want to tell an individual story today in the words of someone who was murdered in the camps. It is a story of how her hopes for her child were snuffed out. I also want to talk about the academic studies that have been done on how we learn the lessons, and what the lessons to be learned are.
Let me start with the individual story first. When people go round Yad Vashem, they see the candles and they see and hear the names. That does speak powerfully, but among the material from the Holocaust Educational Trust was a pamphlet with a letter from a lady to her daughter, and that daughter, Miriam Bas Leiba, published it many years later. I want to read from that letter, because it is a testimony from those days, from the people who were experiencing the holocaust. In the letter to her two-year-old daughter, a mother wrote:
I can’t believe I have one night to fill a lifetime of love into this letter.
Tomorrow morning…I am giving you up. I am taking you, Mirele, to the back entrance of dear, brave Herman’s grocery store and the child rescuers will be waiting there for you and the thirty-two other children under the age of three. They’ll inject you with a sedative so you won’t cry and then they’ll slip you off in the predawn with you—my life, my love—out of this barbaric country to safety.
By the way, Mr Deputy Speaker, these are just extracts. I will not detain the House by reading the full letter.
“Mirele, do you see why I have to give you up? He said no belongings, but I will beg, I will plead that this letter be allowed to go, sewn into your undershirt. And then, I will pray to God that the letter stays with you until you are old enough to read it. You must know why you are alone, without parents. Not because they didn’t love you…but because they did.
It’s eerie to think that by the time you read this, I will probably be dead. That’s what Herman says is going on…But I won’t have lived in vain, Mirele, if I know that I have brought you into the world and you will live and survive and grow big and strong and you will be happy. You can be happy, Mirele, because we loved you.
What makes a difference in the lives of adults, it seems, is if they have secure childhoods. Secure, with lots of love and acceptance and needs fulfilled and predictable routine and the like. You’ve had that up to this minute…but then you won’t. Who knows who will end up taking care of you? Some family who will take you in for the money Herman will pay them? They will surely be kinder to their own than to you.
Here is where the pain mixes with rage! I rage at the animals who are making it possible for you to cry and I won’t be there to comfort you.
But you will have this letter, and this letter will make you feel secure, if God answers my prayers. You have us, Mirele, even though you can’t see us, we’re with you. We’re watching you and praying for you…
Mirele, you’ll wonder what your first two years were like. You’ll wish you could remember. Let me remember for you right now, tenderly, on this piece of paper.
You like hot cereal in the morning, with lots of milk and sugar. Except there is no milk and sugar now, none in this whole city. But I will make your cereal anyway and you eat it with big smiles between every bite. Then you become ready for your nap, so I will rock you, after putting the rocker where the sunlight will fall in it…
God! It’s 2am already. Only two more hours with me, my love, my baby, my Mirele. I’m going to hold you now, Mirele for two hours. Your father and I are going to wake you, feed you and tell you over and over how much we love you. You’re barely two years old, but maybe, if God is good, maybe, you’ll remember it. And maybe you’ll keep this letter until you are old enough to read it…
I love you. Your father loves you. May God help us all.”
You can hear in that letter, Mr Deputy Speaker, the pain of a parent thinking about what is going to happen. When I read that letter for the first time, on the plane to Auschwitz, it took me back in a way that nothing else had done. Those Members who, like me, are lucky enough to have children will know that that bond is more special than anything. For the Nazis to take that away from so many parents and to kill so many people will always be the most unforgiveable crime the world has ever witnessed.
On that day, I learned about how we can stop holocausts and genocides of the future. The hon. Member for Chichester spoke about the Cambodian genocide, and we know about the genocides in the former Bosnia, in Darfur and in too many other places. I do not suggest that all genocides are the same. The holocaust stands on its own, not only for its sheer scale but for the political ideology that forced it through in the most appalling machine-like way. But as we look at antisemitism, racism and hatred in society here and in other places, I think it is important to discover lessons we can learn. Academics have studied the holocaust and other genocides and I pay particular tribute to Gregory Stanton, who wrote about the steps that lead to genocide.
The first step is classification of different groups—dividing them into them and us. Symbolisation, with hate symbols for the other. Discrimination—excluding groups, segregating groups, denying them rights. Dehumanisation—denying the humanity of people and equating them with vermin, animals, insects and so on. Organisation, because genocide does not happen because of just a few people; it takes a whole group of people in society, determined to carry it out and working together in militia groups.
The sixth step is polarisation, which we are seeing in social media, as the hon. Lady rightly said; propaganda is being put out now, in Britain today, to polarise society. The seventh step is preparation—the Nazis and others prepared, in cold blood. They did not commit genocide by accident; they prepared in detail. They identified the victims, separated them out and built their killing machines and camps. The eighth step is persecution—expropriation of property, displacement, putting people in ghettos and sending them to the death camps and concentration camps. The ninth step is extermination, when the killing happens and humanity is just gone. The tenth step Gregory Stanton identifies is denial, which we see now—people denying the holocaust, which is utterly shocking.
I have read out those 10 steps to the House today because when I read them and had them explained to me—the way they can operate at different levels, even here in the UK—I realised why we have to step in early. Gregory Stanton did not just try to identify the different stages that linked various genocides together, starting with the holocaust; he said what, at each stage, we have to do to prevent the genocide—to stop step 1 going to step 2, then to step 3 and so on. Governments, Parliaments and civil society need to reflect on the need for early intervention, so that no stage goes unchallenged. When Gregory Stanton was asked what he thought was the best antidote to these appalling crimes and the best way to prevent genocide, he said the answer was popular education—educate everyone as well as we can—and then develop a social and cultural tolerance for diversity. I worry that we are not working hard enough to develop that tolerance. We have to do more.
Let us remember the victims. Let us remember Mirele, her mother and her father. But let us, in remembering them, pledge ourselves to ensuring that we really understand what happened, and to fighting every step of the way so that these things never happen again.
This is a debate in which we all have a duty to speak. It is simply inconceivable, from where we stand now, how in the last century, within 1,000 miles of this House, unspeakable evil worked systematically to destroy an entire people, those who opposed it, the disabled and those who just wanted to love freely. There is something distinctly perverse and pernicious about antisemitism, in particular its manifestation in the creation of conspiracy theories that feed off division and envy. It is supremely disheartening that between January and June last year, the Community Security Trust recorded the highest ever number of antisemitic incidents in a six-month period. None of us can be left in any doubt that we have to do more to combat the malign force of antisemitism.
The terrors of our past must never become the fears of our future. On Remembrance Day we say, “Lest we forget”—not just for the fallen, but for those who were killed in barbarous acts of tyranny. The holocaust memorial and education centre next to Parliament will serve as a stark reminder of our enduring responsibility to prevent such atrocities from happening again.
We must also look to the past for inspiration. This country has a proud history of advocating on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable. In 1938 the then Home Secretary, Samuel Hoare, pledged that
“there will be no Government among all these Governments more sympathetic than the Government of the United Kingdom”—[Official Report,
and said that there would be “no Government more anxious” to solve the plight of the Jewish people.
One year later, during the second world war, a family in Oakham in my constituency of Rutland and Melton took in an eight-year-old evacuee. Upon meeting their guest, they discovered that she had travelled from her home in Berlin to London in 1939 to live with a distant relative as part of the Kindertransport. She was then evacuated to Oakham, as so many others across the country were. The family in Oakham gave that young girl a home, treated her as their own and ensured that she got the education of which she had so far been deprived. Tragically, both her parents were senselessly murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, as no doubt she would have been if the British Government had not reacted in a timely manner to Kristallnacht. That girl now lives in America with her husband, and has three children and four grandchildren—eight lives saved.
We in this House have an intrinsic responsibility to reflect on history to prevent it from repeating itself, and to respond with swift resolve to atrocities. The Kindertransport saved abundant human potential, and it is only when we truly stand together that our society can decidedly flourish. As Elie Wiesel said:
“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
I therefore commend my colleagues on both sides of the House who have so bravely spoken out against antisemitism with such conviction—from small, everyday interactions to those who have courageously stood up to systemic antisemitism on a national level, at great personal and professional cost. But we still see genocide and hatred. The Rohingya, the Yazidis, the Uyghur—these people are being massacred. It is still happening, and I will always be someone in this House who will speak out for these communities, who are too often being forgotten or pushed under the carpet.
We have spoken today about the genocide in Srebrenica—another that people still shamefully refuse to admit took place. A few years ago I had the utter privilege of going Srebrenica. I apologise to the House if my voice fails me at this point. I travelled with members of our armed forces who had served in Srebrenica and in Bosnia. Going back to Bosnia with them for the first time since they served was the privilege of my life, and one of the hardest memories that I will always take with me.
I share my hon. Friend’s recollection of that time. I have not had the privilege of travelling to Bosnia as she has, but I was special adviser to the Defence Secretary and then the Foreign Secretary during that period. The failure of the United Nations and the troops there to prevent that appalling massacre, which undoubtedly amounted to genocide given the thousands of people concerned, is something that must continue to disturb us. It must concentrate our minds on peacekeeping and on the necessity of having the capacity to ensure, when we are engaged in peacekeeping, that as an international community we are not responsible in any way for being party to such events.
I agree. It was a privilege to see the work of the UN.
I led the first troops to go into Srebenica in April 1993. My men were surrounded. About 20 people were killed and a couple of my soldiers were wounded. We established Srebrenica, and as a result of that it was declared a safe zone. I am sorry that this intervention is going on a bit, but I want to put the record straight. I pleaded to keep British soldiers in Srebrenica because I felt that we could protect the people, but we were ordered out and two years later—after we had left—the massacre occurred. I am sure that if we had been present, the massacre of 8,400 men and boys might not have occurred. But let us get the record straight; the people who went in took huge risks and we did not want to leave, because we felt that our duty was to protect people.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which expresses far more eloquently than I ever could the exact sentiment that I share with him.
When I went to Bosnia, I saw the work that the UN is still doing to bring together the remnants of those who were massacred—piecing together small bones to work out who had been buried. Bodies were purposely moved from place to place to make it harder to prove that these people had been murdered. I attended a funeral for those whose bodies had been brought back together, and I met the widows of Srebrenica. I encourage everyone in this House to go to Bosnia in order to experience what it is like there and to learn as much as they can.
There is so much more that we all need to do to eviscerate hatred and division in our communities. We must refuse to see history repeat itself. We each have a duty to change the level of debate at our dinner tables, in the shops, on WhatsApp, on the tube and within our own families. That is how we change things. None of us can stand idly by; we have a duty to do more. It is only by talking to each other, and by creating the understanding and empathy that comes through that dialogue, that we build stronger communities who refuse to accept hatred and division.
Violent extremism feeds on the everyday indifference and hatred that we refuse to challenge—that we hear and dismiss or, worse, laugh away. During my career I have seen what that hatred breeds: the demonisation, violence, torture, rape and murder. No more. We must all say, “Never again”. We must all commit to building empathy and understanding, and to saying no to hatred. That is the commitment that I make today, and that I hope all my colleagues and everyone in the country will make. This country deserves better, the world deserves better and we need to raise our voices because we have the privilege and ability to do so.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important debate, and one that is very close to my heart. As part of this country’s vibrant and diverse Jewish community, I have had the honour of knowing a number of holocaust survivors at first hand—like Marianne, who came to this country on the Kindertransport, and who taught me and so many others in my community Hebrew. I will be forever indebted to her for helping me to access the Torah much more deeply. Our tradition teaches that the Torah is the tree of life to all who hold fast to it, and I thank and cherish Marianne for giving me that opportunity. With the passage of time, as the holocaust fades from living memory, this is something I will never take for granted.
I pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for their work in providing more people, particularly young people, with opportunities to hear powerful first-hand testimony from survivors and to learn about the holocaust. I also pay tribute to the survivors for their bravery and for their generosity in educating others, reliving again and again some of the most traumatic personal experiences that many of us can never even begin to comprehend.
There is something about the sheer scale of the holocaust that makes it so hard to comprehend; it becomes almost an abstraction. Visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau as a teenager, the part that really brought it all home for me was standing in one of the gas chambers and realising how small it was, how many people had been murdered inside it, and in such a relatively short timescale. It began to dawn on me how mechanised the holocaust was. It was a whole system, designed with the goal of murdering Jewish, Roma and Sinti, disabled and LGBT people on an industrial scale. Civilians from across Nazi-occupied Europe and political prisoners were also murdered in great numbers. As someone raised with the belief that humans are inherently good, facing up to the reality of man’s capacity for evil towards his fellow man totally shook my world view.
In the midst of the horror of the holocaust, however, there were some glimmers of hope that should stand as an inspiration to all of us in upholding the diversity of this country, which is its strength, and not being bystanders to evil and to fascist tyranny. I encourage all Members of this House to research the story, for example, of the Sarajevo Haggadah—a priceless artefact and a keystone of Bosnia’s Jewish heritage. The Haggadah escaped the Spanish inquisition and migrated east along with the Jews expelled from Spain, and in 1894 it was obtained by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo, it was saved from destruction by the museum’s chief librarian—a Muslim man named Derviš Korkut, who risked his life to smuggle this priceless, sacred artefact from the museum, giving it to an imam who hid it under the floorboards of a mosque outside Sarajevo, then returning it to the Jewish people after the war. Derviš Korkut is now recognised by the Yad Vashem world holocaust memorial centre as a righteous gentile to whom the Jewish people owe a huge debt.
Holocaust Memorial Day also commemorates the post-war genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur and Bosnia. Four years ago this month, I took part in the Lessons From Srebrenica programme organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica with an inter-faith delegation of 21 women from Greater Manchester. Our trip had a specific focus on the women of the Bosnian genocide, learning about the use of rape as an act of genocide, including in camps set up specifically for this purpose—on European soil, in my lifetime. I met the mothers of the Srebrenica and Žepa enclaves—women like Munira Subašić, who has shown such unimaginable resilience and empathy. I was particularly struck when speaking to her about the trials taking place and her saying that she had pleaded for clemency for a Serb soldier who had been directly involved in the murder of her family because he had recently had a young family and she did not want anyone else to have their families taken away from them like hers was from her. It was a harrowing experience and one that will stay with me forever.
This experience has hardened my resolve to bring all our communities together so that never again can such horrors take place. We cannot allow our communities to be pitted against each other. Our oppressions and our destinies to overcome these are inextricably linked to one another. The Bosnian genocide was within my own lifetime. I am determined that my generation will carry forward the memory of the holocaust and subsequent post-war genocides for the generations that come behind us. As Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, wrote, we now have
“a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive;
to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
We must not allow these atrocities to fade from the public consciousness, nor our commitment to standing against hatred and division to be dulled by time. We must stand firm against fascism and confront it by any means necessary to stop this vile poison from again taking root. If you will forgive my bad Yiddish, mir veln zey iberlebn—we will outlive them.