Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:37 pm on 26th January 2023.

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Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North 2:37 pm, 26th January 2023

It is an honour to rise today to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, both personally as a proud Jewish parliamentarian, and on behalf of my constituents in Warrington North, many of whom have made Warrington their home after fleeing the horrors of the holocaust and subsequent post-war genocides in Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia and Bosnia, which we also commemorate today.

This Shabbat, Jews in synagogues around the world will be reading Parashat Bo, a Torah portion described by the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks of blessed memory, as

“among the most revolutionary in the entire history of ideas” and

“one of the most counterintuitive passages in all of religious literature.”

In the passage—Exodus 10 to 13:16—Moses is addressing the Israelites before their release from Egypt. But his address is not about the freedom they will soon see, or the society they will have to build, but—repeatedly—about education and the duty of parents to educate their children about what they experienced in Egypt. The passage reads:

“Vayomer Moshe el-ha’am zachor et-hayom hazeh asher yetzatem mi Mitzrayim”.

That is:

“And Moses said to the nation: Remember this day, when you went out from Egypt”.

What does “zachor”—to remember—mean? The Jewish concept of remembering is not passive, but active. We tell the Exodus story to our children. We re-experience it and understand it through the elaborate rituals of the Pesach Seder. We reflect on it in our recitation of the central daily prayer, the Shema, in the laying of tefillin—a physical ritual with which to commemorate liberation from Egypt daily—and in the mezuzah, which we hammer to our doorframes. To truly remember is to act. That is as true for the story of the Exodus as it is for the genocides that we come together to commemorate today.

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “ordinary people”. We reflect on the fact that its victims were ordinary people, each with their own inherent human dignity, loves, hopes, fears and aspirations—not nameless, faceless statistics, which our inability to fully comprehend the enormity of these atrocities can reduce them to. We reflect that those who committed these genocides were ordinary people, that this capacity for evil is indeed in all of us, and it is a choice, just as courage is a choice. And we reflect on the indifference of ordinary people who stood by while it happened, which was necessary for that kind of industrial-scale murder and the mechanics of genocide to be sustained. There are, of course, stories of bravery, with the kind of heroics that we see commemorated at Yad Vashem by the “righteous among the nations”, but what makes these people extraordinary is the very fact that the vast majority of people—the ordinary people—did not care enough to stop genocide taking place.

However, to reflect on the holocaust, and on the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and Cambodia, is not in and of itself true remembrance. This week I had the honour of sharing a platform with the holocaust survivor Joan Salter MBE, who has been turning reflection into action through her advocacy for contemporary refugees and her work with Freedom from Torture. We cannot commend historical actions such as the Kindertransport in debates like this and not condemn the inflammatory and hateful rhetoric used in this place and in the media about those fleeing persecution today, or about the LGBT+ and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

I was also honoured, in my capacity as an ambassador for the charity Remembering Srebrenica, to sit with members of the Movement of Mothers of Srebrenica and Žepa Enclaves. As they spoke to me about the trauma of their sons, brothers and fathers murdered in the Bosnian genocide, they also told me about their fight for justice. Many of the bodies have still never been recovered. One mother told me that she felt “lucky”, as they had found one bone of their youngest son to bury. Many of the mothers do not even have that, as mass burial pits were excavated and moved to evade detection, which prolonged the agony of those left behind. One mother spoke at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to plead for clemency for the soldier who she knew had murdered her family, for he had recently had a son and she did not want another child growing up without a father.

We cannot remember without justice, and a full and true accounting of all the decisions before, during and after a genocide, to learn, to change, and to ensure that “never again” is not an empty maxim, but a series of actions to which we can all commit ourselves. We know of cases—such as that of the “butcher of Slomin”, Stanislaw Chrzanowski—in which war criminals have evaded justice because of active collusion by the British police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the security services, who protected them and allowed them to live among the rest of us as “ordinary people”. It is time for an inquiry: the Board of Deputies of British Jews has called for one, but the Government have so far ignored its call. How can we have confidence that these things will not happen in future—perhaps with Russian war criminals—if we cannot account for how and why they happened before?

This is why education, and the education of children in particular, is so very important—from Moses and the Israelites in Parashat Bo to our contemporary society. The holocaust is rapidly fading from living memory, and so too, one day, will the genocides that followed it. The testimony of survivors, which the sterling work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust allows so many to access and experience, is an important part of our collective memory, but the survivors cannot be expected to bear this responsibility themselves and to bear this burden alone. While Elie Wiesel was right when he said that if the holocaust was forgotten

“the dead will be killed a second time”,

we remember not for the sake of the past, but for the sake of the future.

The message from today, and from this week’s sedra from Exodus, must be this: through education we can aspire towards liberation, solidarity and community, and build empathy and understanding as we march together with all people on the path out of Egypt and refuse to go back. We observe, we remember, and, inspired by our histories and our faiths, ordinary people across all our communities will act. It is in education that a good society is won or lost.