Holocaust Memorial Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:30 pm on 26th January 2023.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 4:30 pm, 26th January 2023

It is an honour to speak for the Opposition in this important debate. Tomorrow, we will mark Holocaust Memorial Day and the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, when the full magnitude of the crimes committed by the Nazi regime were revealed to the world.

Holocaust Memorial Day commemorates the 6 million Jews murdered during the holocaust, alongside the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution and during more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. It is our intergenerational duty to tell future generations the truth about man’s inhumanity to man, so that we can fight to prevent it from being repeated.

I congratulate Sajid Javid on securing the debate and on his excellent leadership of it. I was particularly struck by his call for us, as policy makers, not just to reflect—as we have done in this excellent debate—but to do, by acting in the space of misinformation, fake news and the rising hate that we see in our communities. I hope he has seen during the debate, as I certainly have, that we have met his call to shine a light on the hatred we see today. There has been an extraordinary number of tremendous contributions. I will try to cover them all, but I will call on two in particular that illuminated the debate: the speech by my right hon. Friend Dame Margaret Hodge and that of Bob Stewart.

As we have heard, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “ordinary people”, and there could not have been a more powerful or poignant introduction to such a debate than that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking, who exhorted us to keep those stories alive so that we can fight hate today. That must be right, and that idea subsequently coursed through the debate.

The right hon. Member for Beckenham commanded the UN forces in Bosnia and, of course, played a leading role in Northern Ireland, so I stop and listen whenever he talks about human rights. I have bugged him personally to ask him different questions about his service. When he spoke today, it felt as if time stopped. It was a harrowing story—one that would be too much to ask anybody to retell or rethink, never mind speak about publicly—but it enriched the debate beyond imagination. We are so grateful that he was able and willing to do that.

On the theme of ordinary people, the other defining feature of the debate has been the extraordinary contributions that colleagues brought to life. I will name all the Members and their constituencies, because it is important to do so. The right hon. Members for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) and for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers); my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra); and the hon. Members for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) and for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards) all mentioned stories connected to them, to their communities or to people who they have seen during their work as parliamentarians.

What I took from that is the extraordinary spread across all the nations and regions that make up our wonderful country. Those people came to our country from extraordinary suffering, enriched in their own ways, and kept those stories alive. As the hon. Member for West Bromwich East said, as they start to pass on, that is now our duty. My hon. Friend Steve McCabe talked in the same vein about the Kindertransport, and about Eve Leadbeater, who came to Nottingham as a two-year-old on the Kindertransport. She spent her life in Nottingham as an educationalist improving opportunities for all our children there. She was a loved part of our community. She passed away last March.

I associate myself with the remarks from my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson, and the hon. Members for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and for Worcester (Mr Walker), about the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust. I hope that they have seen today’s debate as an appropriate tribute for the work that they will do not just tomorrow, but on all the other days of the year.

I make special reference to my hon. Friend Andrew Western and congratulate him on an excellent maiden speech. I have known him for a long time, not just because of our shared football and cricket preferences, but because he has been a brilliant council leader and someone I have admired for a long time. I cannot wait to see the impact that he makes in this place.

I will make a few points of my own. The numbers can overwhelm you: 6 million Jewish people murdered, more than a quarter of a million disabled people murdered, up to half a million Romani murdered, more than 1.5 million people in Cambodia murdered, and 1 million people in Rwanda murdered. As Jim Shannon said, those are overwhelming numbers, but each number is a real person: a mother, a father, a son or a daughter. They were people who loved and were loved. They would have been people who would have become their nation’s Picasso or Byron; young people who did not yet know that they loved science but who would have made discoveries that would have transformed humanity; political leaders who would have fought for hope and inclusion; and people who would have started businesses that would have enriched the lives of thousands. All those lives and all that potential was taken away in the name of hate. The hon. Member for Meriden made that point well. It is our most profound responsibility that we remember them and that we honour their memory by each generation telling their story to the next.

That starts with our children. My hon. Friend Charlotte Nichols gave a beautiful exposition of Exodus on that theme. I had the privilege of joining the year 9s of the Nottingham University Samworth Academy in Bilborough as they met holocaust survivor Henri Obstfeld, who talked today’s children through his experiences as a child. It was so powerful to see them engage with this wonderful man, to contrast what they heard from him with their own lives and to think about the world as they see it today. It gave me pause to reflect on my visit with friends to Dachau as an 18-year-old and contrast our freedoms as we travelled around Europe with the names and pictures of boys of a similar age who never had the same chances. The educational work that we see at NUSA Bilborough and across schools is a practical demonstration of what we mean by passing knowledge down the generations. I commend Mr Townsend, the teacher, and the school for taking part in the programme and wish them well for the holocaust studies that they are undertaking over the next few days. We need that in every classroom in every school up and down the land. We also need it to be available to all of us.

I turn to the national holocaust memorial and learning centre, which is a crucial way in which we can appropriately memorialise the holocaust and cascade our knowledge down the generations. The project has been challenging to say the least, but I reiterate the commitment that I made in an urgent question on the matter in July on behalf of the Opposition and the commitment made yesterday and previously by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition. We support the project wholeheartedly. We were encouraged and cheered to hear what the Prime Minister said yesterday during Prime Minister’s questions about imminent legislation for the memorial. That is so welcome. We look forward to supporting that legislation when we see it. I hope that the Minister will say more about when we will see that.

I and hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of others have seen such work done well in this country already. Beth Shalom, the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in north Nottinghamshire, houses the country’s only dedicated holocaust museum. It was born of the Smith brothers—Stephen and my good friend James—who visited Yad Vashem some 30 years ago and identified the need to better understand, discuss and teach issues relating to the holocaust in this country. From that idea and understanding sprung a whole museum and centre with permanent exhibitions, a learning space and beautiful memorial gardens. It is with great joy that I and, I think, colleagues read that funding from the Heritage Fund alongside the Arts Council, the Pears Foundation and many other foundations and individuals will lead to a major redevelopment of that facility so that it can continue to meet the challenges of the current day in telling those stories of the past. I encourage all colleagues to visit and to urge their schools to either visit or engage with its online material. The remarkable Smith brothers also formed the Aegis Trust, which colleagues mentioned, in response to the crisis in Kosovo. They work all around the world to prevent genocide. It is with great pride that I can tell the House that their model in Nottinghamshire was used to develop the Kigali memorial centre, providing a place of remembrance and learning about that genocide. It has been visited by Presidents and Prime Ministers and is an important example of the work that we can do to tell the story as well as of Britain’s place in the world.

When the other place debated the matter last week, it was said that it would be nice to think of this as a debate that we are having in the past tense, with antisemitism consigned to the dustbin of history; with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities facing no prejudice; and disabled people living without hate. But that simply is not the world that we live in. As colleagues have said, the Community Security Trust’s findings were stark, with 786 antisemitic incidents across the UK in just the first half of 2022: the joint fifth highest it had ever recorded. In addition, there was a 22% increase in university-related incidents to a total of 150 in the last two years. I reflect with pain that we have seen that hate in the Labour party, and I restate our commitment to tearing it out by its roots.

We also see that hate crime against disabled people has increased by nearly 45% and that hate crime against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities remains under-tackled and rarely understood in this country. As Fiona Bruce said, we see these risks of genocide around the world, and as she put so powerfully, we must play our role in tackling that in any way we can. When we memorialise the holocaust, we talk about the past, but we feel the echoes in the present day. Tomorrow will be a solemn moment of remembrance, but it should also act as a call to action.

I will finish with my reflection on the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, “ordinary people”. It is a reminder that while those who author murderous regimes are history’s most evil people, their work is reliant on the mass participation of significant numbers of ordinary people—people who participate, people who turn a blind eye, people who share in the propaganda and people who stand by. That is, as Hannah Arendt said, the “banality of evil”, and that is how such evil acts are committed by such seemingly ordinary people. It is important that our children and we as adults learn about this. I think about bystander training, because there are increasing levels of hate in our community. Having that bystander training means that people know what to do for the best. I still believe, as I know colleagues across the House do, in the fundamental goodness of people, especially our British people. They want to do the right thing, so we must support them by giving them the tools and resources to do so.

To conclude, this has been an outstanding debate: one about humanity’s past, but that calls us to action in the future; one about sadness and grief, but also about the inspirational stories of defiance; and one that tells us about the worst in humanity but spurs in us the best.