Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:20 pm on 26th January 2023.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 4:20 pm, 26th January 2023

Before I begin my speech, I wish to thank Sajid Javid for the way he opened the debate, which set the scene for a day of powerful speeches, including the exceptionally good maiden speech from Andrew Western.

It has not been comfortable listening to the speeches today. Hearing these other contributions has probably been challenging for all of us, but we do need to hear these things. We need to know and to remember exactly what happened. I am grateful to be able to stand here again today representing the SNP in this debate. I am grateful, too, for the support provided by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust, and to MPs for the work they do throughout the year, making sure that the lessons of the past remain at the forefront of our minds. That is ever more important as the years pass.

This year’s theme of ordinary people should give us all pause for thought. We can all visualise these ordinary people—ordinary people living ordinary lives in ordinary places, until their world turned and suddenly they were snatched away and thrust into unimaginable horror. However, that did not happen overnight, and we have heard that very clearly today. These things creep up. There is a growing intolerance and a deliberate othering of groups until the tide has set. The uncomfortable truth that we need to confront is that these ordinary people were not only the victims of the holocaust; they were also the bystanders—the people who watched what was happening—and the people who carried out and facilitated these murderous acts of genocide.

Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi said:

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”

That is what we need to guard most against, as that intolerance creeps forward. We need to be frank about that. There is a growing tide of intolerance, a growing enthusiasm for conspiracy and a growing denial.

We have heard today about the other genocides, which we must recognise and must remember. We also need to remember the plight of the Uyghur Muslims, who are so horrifically treated in China, and the Daesh genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq.

I was fortunate to be at an excellent local event on Monday evening. I am privileged to live in a constituency where the majority of the Jewish population in Scotland lives, and our vibrant, diverse community in East Renfrewshire is far the better for it.

During a holocaust memorial event hosted by East Renfrewshire Council in Calderwood Lodge—the only Jewish school in Scotland, based on a joint campus with St Clare’s Primary School, which means it is part of the only Jewish-Catholic joint campus in Europe—in that exceptional place, we heard from some exceptional young people, including the host, Kirsty Robson, who has worked very hard on holocaust remembrance since she was herself a pupil at Barrhead High not so long ago. We heard from current Barrhead High pupils, including Sol Duncan and Lily MacPherson. They are involved in the Lessons from Auschwitz project. We also heard from Samantha McKeown from Mearns Castle High School, who has been working with the Anne Frank Trust. All those young people were articulate, thoughtful and very clear about why we need to learn from the past.

We also heard from Gillian Field, one of the daughters of Henry and the late Ingrid Wuga, East Renfrewshire residents who have lived lives very far from ordinary. After both arriving, separately, on the Kindertransport, they later fell in love and married, and they dedicated their retirement to talking to young people about their experience. The testimony of Henry and Ingrid Wuga has shaped many young lives all over Scotland, and their daughters Hilary and Gillian are now continuing that work, making sure that their testimony and lived memory are still spoken.

Clearly, neither the Wugas nor their daughters could by any estimation be described as ordinary, but the extraordinary efforts they make to share the reality of the holocaust really matter, and matter more and more with every year that passes. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to tell the tale of what happened for someone who went through the holocaust. It is hard for us sometimes even to listen to those tales, but it is important that we make the effort to do so.

In my local area, this week is work experience week for S4 pupils. I am very fortunate to have had Charlie Henry-Newall, an S4 pupil at Williamwood High School, on placement with my team this week. Charlie was at that event with me and has also been my researcher for this debate; I place on record my sincere thanks to him for the insight and care with which he has performed that task. I also thank another young person who was at the event, a former St Ninian’s High School pupil, Holly Edgar, who every year of her own volition writes an excellent blog post about holocaust remembrance for my website.

I would like to dwell on what I heard from someone else there that evening. Rabbi Moshe Rubin, the Senior Rabbi of Scotland, talked about a visit he had made to Auschwitz and the photographs he saw there—so many photographs, he told us, of ordinary people whose lives had been wiped out simply because of their identity. It was utterly devastating for us in the audience to hear from him that he looked at those photos wondering whether any of them were members of his family, who he knew had been murdered there, but then realised that he would just never know.

I visited Yad Vashem a number of years ago and saw pictures there of many victims of the holocaust; it was striking and stark, even with no family connection. It was actually quite difficult to look at the photographs, because there were so many of them, and they looked just like me and you and all the people we know. There were lovely little faces, young children with chubby cheeks whose lives had been snuffed out; young adults who should have had their lives in front of them; older people who had no chance whatsoever of surviving the horrors to come. The act of acknowledging and remembering the individual people, alongside recognising the incomprehensible number of lives lost, is really important. As well as the number, we must remember the individual.

I thought about that recently when a good friend of mine shared photos she had taken on a street in Holland during a visit. It showed brass cobbles called Stolpersteine, which means stumbling blocks, placed near entrances to paths. They are memorials to the people who lived there and were killed by the Nazis. This type of memorial is attributed to Gunter Demnig, who cited the Talmud saying that,

“a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”.

The names of the people remembered in my friend’s photograph are Kaatje Engelander, Machiel de Brave, Leentje de Brave-Italiaander, Abraham van Leeuwen, Esther Eva van Leeuwen-van Lier, Joseph Jules van Lier and Heintje van Lier-Buitenkant. They all deserve to be remembered.

I make no apology for concluding my speech by speaking once again this year about the life of the only Scot to be remembered as righteous among the nations. I was delighted to hear David Mundell speak so eloquently about Church of Scotland missionary Jane Haining. We could all do with listening to more contributions about Jane Haining and reflecting on the way she lived her life. Jane was a school matron in Budapest, as we have heard, and she refused to leave her charges, even though she had been repeatedly encouraged to do so. She knew the risks of her decision to stay there, but she stayed none the less. She said:

“If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?”

Jane Haining died at Auschwitz. She was a brave and principled woman; an ordinary woman who displayed extraordinary love and courage at the very worst of times. She deserves to be remembered, just as all those who were so cruelly murdered simply because of their identity must be remembered with love and as individuals. That is how we best halt creeping intolerance and hatred, and prevent it from happening again.