Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:52 pm on 26th January 2023.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 2:52 pm, 26th January 2023

I always enjoy hearing the stories of Sir Julian Lewis. I do not care how many times I hear them.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, and I thank the Members who applied for it. I particularly thank Sajid Javid for his fine, thoughtful speech, which set the tone for the day.

I also thank my hon. Friend Andrew Western for his cracking maiden speech. He has set a high bar, so I suspect it will be a full House for his next performance. I thoroughly enjoyed his excellent speech.

This debate is part of the wider commemorations for Holocaust Memorial Day, which was established following the visit of my former colleague Andrew Dismore, the former Member for Hendon, to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust in 1999. He introduced a Bill following his visit calling for a day to learn from and remember the holocaust.

I can well remember my first visit to Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust and a group of sixth formers from Baverstock School, in the Druids Heath area of my constituency. It was a cold, bitter February day and a totally chilling experience, as I struggled to answer questions from these young people and keep my own emotions under control. I doubt that I have ever experienced anything quite like it since. So it is right that we have this debate and that we have Holocaust Memorial Day, so that we learn and remember.

The holocaust had a lesser direct impact on this country than on many other places, although we should remember that the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands and that many Jews living there were sent to the death camps. The bravery of Witold Pilecki, a Polish underground resistance leader who volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz and report on what was happening, should leave us in no doubt that the allies did receive reliable intelligence reports on the scale of the horrors. Britain also accepted about 10,000 mostly unaccompanied children through the Kindertransport scheme, which is something those who make light of the plight of unaccompanied refugee children today might do well to remember.

In 1991, at the behest of the Holocaust Educational Trust, the holocaust became part of the English national curriculum. We need to remember these horrific events because still today there are those who would deny and distort the reality of the holocaust. Some seek to minimise the numbers killed and others try to blame the Jews for causing their own genocide. Jewish colleagues of mine, and others in this House, have suffered the most antisemitic abuse and threats, usually only for being Jewish. Of course, too many people fail to understand why Israel remains so important to Jews today. Hundreds of thousands of holocaust survivors left Europe for a new life in the state of Israel, established just three years after Auschwitz was liberated.

Last year, I was privileged to visit Poland with colleagues from across this House on the “march of the living”. It reminded us that for 1,000 years before 1939 Poland was the great heartland of Jewish life, but by the end of the war, it was reduced to having a handful of Jewish people. One of the most powerful memories of that visit was hearing the harrowing testimonies of holocaust survivors. But the march also teaches us that the reality is that despite its grotesque scale, the holocaust failed, and since 1945 Jewish people have survived and thrived in Israel, the region’s only democratic state.

So let us continue to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, to be active and vigilant in the face of antisemitism and to be robust in our challenge of those who would seek to destroy the state of Israel or challenge its right to exist. Finally, may I welcome the cross-party support for the holocaust memorial Bill, paving the way for a new memorial and learning centre so that we will never forget?