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Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of Wuhan Coronavirus – in the House of Commons at 1:59 pm on 23rd January 2020.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan Conservative, Chichester 1:59 pm, 23rd January 2020

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 15 February by the Sussex Snowdrop Trust charity, which will take place at Westbourne House School, a local prep school, and all the children are very excited about it.

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 27 January 1945.

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.