Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of Wuhan Coronavirus – in the House of Commons at 2:06 pm on 23rd January 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury), Acting Leader, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Social Justice) 2:06 pm, 23rd January 2020

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:

“Dear Mirele,

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.