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I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the need for recognition of those British citizens who became heroes of the holocaust. I want to put on the record my thanks—and I am sure those of many people in the UK including right hon. and hon. Members of the House and Members of the other place—for all the excellent work done by the Holocaust Educational Trust under the leadership of its chief executive, Karen Pollock. Without its support and guidance, I might not be holding this debate today.
With colleagues' permission, I want to say a little about that fine organisation before I move on to the substance of the debate. The Holocaust Educational Trust was founded in 1988 by Lord Janner of Braunstone and the late Lord Merlyn-Rees. It was developed by MPs and peers as a result of significant renewed interest and the need for knowledge about the holocaust during the parliamentary proceedings of the War Crimes Act 1991. The trust aims to raise awareness and understanding about the holocaust and its relevance today in schools and with the wider public. It is vital that the holocaust has a permanent place in our nation's collective memory.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this fantastic debate on a crucial subject. Does he share my profound concern that e-mails, which are attached to horrific PowerPoint presentations, are circulating that suggest that the Government have banned the teaching of the holocaust in schools? Will he join me in urging anyone who receives such an e-mail to bin it straight away?
My hon. Friend is right to make that point. There is no place for some of the things that we will look at in this afternoon's debate.
One of the Holocaust Educational Trust's first achievements was to ensure that the holocaust was included in the national curriculum in 1991. It successfully campaigned to have the assets of holocaust victims and survivors released and returned to their rightful owners. Having played a crucial role in the establishment and development of Holocaust memorial day in the UK, the HET continues to play a key role in the delivery of that day.
The trust carries out significant work in schools and higher education institutions, providing teacher training workshops and lectures as well as teaching aids and resource materials. Some of its activities include the outreach programme, which is a central part of the work that allows students and teachers the opportunity to hear first-hand survivor testimony.
Think Equal is a programme that has been devised specifically for schools in areas of racial tension. It enables the trust's educators to work with staff in schools, deliver teacher training and devise workshops for students that focus on the dangers of racism and discrimination and the contemporary lessons to be drawn from the holocaust.
On that point, does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that not only the victims of the holocaust but the British heroes of the holocaust and their memory are insulted every day that the BNP raises its head in our towns, villages and communities to spread insidious lies about the effects and realities of the holocaust?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is no doubt that denial of what has happened is very dangerous. A number of weeks ago, the Holocaust Educational Trust held an event in this Palace to look at issues surrounding the current financial difficulties that we all face. Comparisons were made between the current time, and what happened in Europe—Germany in particular—in the late '20s and early '30s. It is important to recognise that history is here, and we should learn its lessons. The point made that evening was that what happened then will not necessarily happen again, but there are lessons to be learned and we must all be careful about that.
The Think Equal programme is delivered in certain London boroughs, and it is anticipated that it will be taken into schools across the country. The Holocaust Educational Trust's Lessons from Auschwitz project for post-16 students and teachers is now in its 10th year. It has taken more than 5,000 students and teachers from across the UK to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Many MPs and other guests have also taken part in those visits, and all of us who have had the opportunity to engage in that project fully recognise its value and the contribution that it makes to the education of young people in our constituencies. In November 2005, many of us were delighted when the Treasury announced funding of £1.5 million for the Lessons from Auschwitz project.
There are recollections and eyewitness accounts from people who remember the holocaust. The Holocaust Educational Trust has produced a BAFTA award-winning DVD-ROM in conjunction with the USC Shoah Foundation Institute. The groundbreaking, interactive teaching resource integrates testimony from 18 eyewitnesses of the holocaust, including Jewish, Roma, Sinti and Jehovah's Witness survivors, as well as that of political prisoners and testimony from survivors of the eugenics programme. Teacher training is delivered to trainee teachers at universities and institutions of higher education and to practising teachers as part of their continuing professional development. An annual teacher training course is also held at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which is open to both trainee and practising teachers from across the country.
I will now talk about why we are here today. I applied for this debate at the beginning of last week, and yesterday the Prime Minister took the opportunity to visit Auschwitz. Indications appear to suggest that my right hon. Friend the Minister might have something positive to reveal to us today; we wait in anticipation.
We all recognise that the holocaust is one of the darkest episodes in human history, which saw the systematic persecution and murder of approximately 6 million Jews. Other victims included Roma and Sinti Gypsies, the disabled, gay people, trade unionists, the clergy and political opponents of the Nazi regime. Every year in this country we mark Holocaust memorial day, thanks in no small part to my hon. Friend Mr. Dismore. At that time, we pause and remember the souls of those who lost their lives—they are remembered with dignity and with a commitment to fight prejudice wherever it is found.
Like so many of the dark times in history, there are often heroes who come to the fore. All too often, what go untold are the extraordinary acts of bravery and selflessness of those who, at great risk to themselves, saved people from certain death. They are people such as June Ravenhall and Major Frank Foley, who were both mentioned in early-day motion 1175, which now has over 130 signatories. They are Ida and Louise Cook from Wandsworth, and Sofka Skipworth who assisted in smuggling the names of Jewish prisoners in a French internment camp to the British authorities and also helped to smuggle out a newborn Jewish baby in a Red Cross box.
Colleagues may wish to refer to some of those individuals, but I want to talk about Jane Haining, who was born in 1897 in the village of Dunscore, a few miles from the town of Dumfries. Jane's mother passed away when Jane was only five years old, and Jane grew up to be both determined and capable. For a number of years, she worked in a factory in Paisley. After attending a meeting in Glasgow about the Jewish Mission, she became intrigued about the work. In 1932, she got the call to work at a Church of Scotland mission to the Jews in Budapest.
Jane was very popular with the 400 or so children at the school, who came from a mix of Christian and Jewish backgrounds. Many of them were orphans from poverty-stricken or broken homes. Others attended the school because of the quality of the education. It was apparent that Jane loved both her work and the children. In one letter, Jane wrote:
"We have one new little six year old, an orphan without a mother or father. She is such a pathetic wee soul to look at and I fear that the poor lamb has not been in too good surroundings before she came to us...She certainly does look as though she needs heaps and heaps of love."
Jane was on leave in Scotland when world war two broke out. She immediately returned to Budapest to help the Jewish children. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, the missionaries were ordered back to the safety of Scotland. Jane disobeyed the order and remained to take care of the children. She said:
"If these children need me in the days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in the days of darkness?"
Her sister later recalled:
"It was no surprise that she refused to come back. She would never have had a moment's happiness if she had come home and left the children."
The children came under increasing threat, and Jane protected them to the best of her ability. She was denounced to the Nazi authorities and, when the SS raided the place in early May, she was arrested and thrown in jail on charges of British espionage and helping Jews. Jane and some of the children were later deported to Auschwitz. Those of us who have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau can only imagine the hell on Earth. The secondary pupils who were with me on the visit left thinking deeply about what man has done to man.
Jane Haining supported the children throughout the short time that she was at Auschwitz. In a period of three months, it is recorded that some 1.3 million people were killed, including Jane Haining. She refused to reject her children. She died for her beliefs and was gassed along with a group of Hungarian women on
Jane Haining, like a number of other British heroes of the holocaust, was recognised in 1997. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial in Jerusalem, awarded Jane a medal and a place among "the righteous among the nations" for her selfless dedication to the children. She has been remembered in the stained glass windows of Queen's Park church in Glasgow. At the local church in Dunscore, a dedicated group of local people have erected a cairn and a plaque to her memory.
The time is now right officially to recognise such individuals, who risked everything, including their own lives, to assist others during those dark times. In recent years, the Government have shown support for civilians who have given a commitment during the war years by officially recognising them. The Bevin boys, the land army girls and lumber Jills are perfect examples of that.
At the end of last week, it was reported that Prince Charles was proud of the role that his grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, played during the second world war, when she hid Jews in the Royal palace in Athens. The indications are that Prince Charles will appear in the film, "The Rescuers: Heroes of the Holocaust", which tells the stories of 12 individuals who helped to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Individual recognition is needed for the British heroes of the holocaust.
I want to make a further request to my right hon. Friend the Minister—I assure him that I do not have a shopping list. In this place, in the vicinity of the Admission Order Office, there is a plaque on which it is inscribed:
"In deep gratitude to the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom for saving the lives of 10,000 Jewish and other children who fled to this country from Nazi persecution on the Kindertransport. 1938-1939."
In my contribution—I am drawing to a close now—I said that Jane Haining is remembered locally with a small memorial in her home village and a stained glass window in a church in Glasgow. Other British heroes of the holocaust have been recognised in different ways within their communities. A collective contribution of such brave individuals merits a memorial. I recognise that it is not the Government's role to provide memorials—even if it were, the job would not fall to the Cabinet Office and my right hon. Friend the Minister. I say to him that this matter of recognition of the British heroes of the holocaust will only be completed when our nation has a memorial. I plead with him to consider further co-operation and assistance with the Holocaust Educational Trust and others to ensure that in some shape and form and in some location a memorial is erected. I thank the Minister in advance for what I hope will be some good news for us today.
It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, and I congratulate Mr. Brown on securing it. I was equally privileged to co-sponsor early-day motion 1175, out of which this debate has come. I agree with much of what he has said, as I am sure all hon. Members present do.
We are here to talk about a number of extraordinary individuals and the effect that they have had on all of us today, and will have in future. We are right to look at those individuals in some detail. We have heard already about the hon. Gentleman's constituent. I want to say a word or two about the constituent through whom I have come to this issue. I am grateful in this, as in many other things, to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has done a great deal to draw attention to these issues.
The trust drew my attention to June Ravenhall. The hon. Gentleman mentioned her and she also appears in the early-day motion. She originally came from Kenilworth and settled in Rugby, thereby neatly encapsulating both parts of my constituency. Her son, Ron, is a councillor in Rugby—not, I fear to say, for the right party, but one cannot have everything.
Ron has been enthusiastic and dedicated in drawing out the memories of his mother. He talks about her, as well he should, with considerable pride. June Ravenhall was a British woman who moved to Holland during the war and sheltered the young Jew, Louis Velleman, who was sought by the Gestapo. Moreover, he had tuberculosis, putting not only June but her three young children at considerable risk. June continued to shelter him even though she knew that any discovery, or knock on the door, would lead both to her death and considerable peril for her young children. She did all that alone because her husband was in a Nazi concentration camp. We can all agree that sustained and remarkable courage of that nature deserves recognition. I share the hope of the hon. Gentleman that that recognition will begin today with whatever the Minister is able to say that the Government can do.
Interestingly, when Ron Ravenhall wrote a book, which was partly about June's life, he described how Louis Velleman explained how he felt about what June Ravenhall had done for him. I shall quote from the book:
"Louis Velleman, the young Jew she saved, was asked by a Press reporter, some 44 years after the event, how brave he thought June was. Although a famous journalist himself, fluent in at least two languages, Louis could find no word to describe the extent of her sustained bravery. 'The English are not brave, - they are mad.', was his eventual reply."
That may not have been exactly the right word to describe what June Ravenhall did, but we would all be mad were we not to take the opportunity presented to us by the lives and acts of such remarkable people to draw what lessons we can.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the lessons. Those people were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I have little doubt that if any of them knew about this debate, they would be amazed and deeply humbled. In my view, that makes them more deserving of any honours we can give them. The lessons we can draw are clear: people may have an ordinary background and they may have unlikely qualifications for heroism, but it lies in the most unlikely places. There were many heroes in that period of our history, but not all wore a uniform. Those people did not wear a uniform and they demonstrated remarkable heroism. They tell us that it is possible, in the face of unimaginable evil, such as we saw in Europe in the 1940s, for relatively ordinary, unexpected heroes to arise and to do remarkable things.
As hon. Members have said, it is right that we recognise that the threat has not gone away. Nazism and anti-Semitism are not dead, nor is hatred of the kind we have been talking about. Sometimes it sleeps, but we must always be prepared for it to reawaken, even within our own communities. June Ravenhall and others who have been mentioned show us that, even if people do not feel that they are cut out for heroism, they can show by their actions that they can stand up against almost impossible threats and demonstrate what individuals can do. That is a lesson that we could learn well in today's society.
We can say, "We can do it too" only if we know of the existence of those people and what they did. It is striking how little is known about them. Perhaps all hon. Members are struck by how little they knew about such people before they were drawn to their attention. It is important that our fellow countrymen and countrywomen know about them and what they did, so that they can believe that even in the face of overwhelming evil, they can play a part and stand up against it. That is why I am proud to support the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman. I am hopeful that the Minister will be able to tell us that it will be taken up, for the benefit of people today and people in future years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Brown on securing this debate. I should like to talk about a man for whom I have a great deal of admiration. He has already been mentioned. His name is Frank Foley, but some refer to him as the "British Schindler".
Frank was remarkable. We in Stourbridge like to think of him as a son of Stourbridge—he retired there—but he was born in Somerset. He has been a source of great pride and inspiration. When I was a teacher, I used to talk about Frank Foley and his deeds. It is an inspiration when we hear about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, particularly to young people. I used to walk children down the street where he lived—we do not even have a plaque there, but there is one in the local park—and they saw that he lived in an ordinary house in an ordinary street in an ordinary town called Stourbridge. That is a powerful image for young people.
Frank was born in Somerset in 1884. He was recruited as a spy, and following stints in France and Cologne, he was posted to Berlin, where he worked as a passport control officer. Of course, that was a cover for his main duties as head of the British Secret Intelligence Service station. During the '20s and '30s, he successfully recruited agents and acquired key details of German military research and development, but it is primarily through his work as a passport control officer that he earned the nickname of the "British Schindler". He saved tens of thousands of lives by providing papers to allow Jewish people to escape from Nazi Germany. He would bend the rules when he was stamping passports and visas to allow Jews to escape legally to Britain and Palestine. However, he went further, even going into internment camps to get Jews out, sheltering people in his own home and helping them to get forged passports.
Frank also used his hiding place to brief foreign journalists. That was particularly important, because it meant that more information came out about the increasing persecution of Jews in the Third Reich. He worked very long hours—from 7 o'clock in the morning to 10 o'clock at night without a break on most days—and personally handled as many applications as he could to keep the operation tight. He gave comfort and advice to those who were waiting for their applications to be processed. Even after the passport office closed in '39, he continued to help Jews to escape. In the first week of the war, the US embassy was using youth certificates that he had signed to send hundreds of Jewish children to Scandinavia, or to Palestine via Italy.
Frank's actions were carried out at great personal danger. He had no diplomatic immunity and he could have been arrested at any time. He received no financial rewards for his actions. He risked his life every day simply because he believed it was the right and moral thing to do. After the war, he was involved in hunting ex-SS members and ran a network of double agents called the double cross system. At the 1961 trial of Nazi colonel Adolf Eichmann, who is sometimes referred to as the architect of the holocaust, Foley was described as the "Scarlet Pimpernel" for the way in which he risked his own life to save others—he was very difficult to pin down.
In '49, Frank retired to Stourbridge, where he remained until his death. His bravery has been recognised in various ways but, unfortunately, not until after his death. Furthermore, many of the thousands of Jews who were helped to safety by forged visas that he supplied do not know his name—when they arrived in Palestine with visas that they knew they ought not to have, it is hardly surprising that they kept their heads down. It is only in recent years that the true extent of his bravery and the huge number of people that he rescued has begun to come to light.
In October 1999, Frank was given the status of righteous among the nations. Closer to home, we in Stourbridge have recognised him with a remembrance plaque in Mary Stevens park. A statue of him has been erected in Highbridge, where he was born—it was paid for by volunteer fundraisers—and there is a plaque that pays tribute to him at the British embassy in Berlin.
I have started an annual Frank Foley lecture in my constituency with my colleague, the Minister for the West Midlands, which brings people together to remember Mr. Foley and to hear talks from experts. This year, we welcomed Michael Smith, who has written a book about him and who has carried out much of the original research into his life. We also heard from Zigi Shipper, who is a holocaust survivor. He spoke movingly about his experience. The lecture is an important way to commemorate locally those who died in the holocaust and to let more people know about the stories of incredible people such as Frank Foley. The most gratifying thing was that many young people were there, some of whom had benefited from Government funding for the Holocaust Educational Trust's excellent programme of visits to Auschwitz. I, too, have been privileged to make that trip.
This time last year, I tabled an early-day motion that called for the current statutes governing the honours system to be changed, to allow a posthumous knighthood to be awarded to Frank Foley and other rescuers of the holocaust. It received 111 signatures, which shows the strength of feeling on the issue and the cross-party support for such a move. The Cabinet Office has a list of criteria for individuals to be considered for honours, particularly civilian honours. I think that Frank Foley fulfils many of them. He carried the respect of his peers, improved the lot of those less able to help themselves and displayed moral courage and vision in making and delivering tough choices time and again.
I appreciate that membership of the Order of Chivalry ceases on death, but it was impossible to recognise Frank Foley's acts while he was alive because he was bound by the Official Secrets Act, which prevented him from telling anyone about his work in Berlin and the tens of thousands of people he saved. To put it simply, very few people knew about his extraordinary bravery until it was too late to thank him. I ask the Minister to make a special exemption in this case and to recognise an incredible man who asked for no reward during his lifetime, but who none the less deserves the highest award that we can bestow on him.
One of the things that I find so amazing about Frank Foley's story is that after his time in Germany, where he accomplished extraordinary things and saved so many lives, he retired to live an ordinary life in an ordinary house in Stourbridge. It goes to show that extraordinary deeds can be accomplished by ordinary people, which is truly inspirational. It is a vital learning experience, particularly for youngsters. I urge the Minister to change the honours system, so that heroes such as Frank Foley can be given the recognition of an honour. It is the least that they deserve.
It is a privilege to follow Lynda Waltho, whom I congratulate on her work to bring to the forefront of public consciousness the heroism, magnanimity and immense humanity of Frank Foley. I have had the pleasure of reading Michael Smith's book, which is, exactly as she has said, a revelation. Some hon. Members may be familiar with the wartime film "Pimpernel Smith", starring the late Leslie Howard, who himself did not survive the war, as a quiet academic who secretly rescues people from the jaws of death. Frank Foley was Pimpernel Smith in reality.
We have taken a very long time to recognise and acknowledge such heroes, who quietly went back into obscurity—that is, those of them who lived not to tell the tale but at least to resume their lives. It is hard to know why we have taken so long to recognise our own heroes. One or two of them were known early on, but not always for what they did in terms of the holocaust. I have in mind Charles Coward, whose story was made into the famous and gripping film "The Password is Courage", a prisoner-of-war drama about how that irrepressible young man caused mayhem to his German captors. However, the part for which we remember him today was considered too grim to be included in the film. When he was put to work at Monowitz, near the Auschwitz extermination centre, he worked surreptitiously to save Jews from the jaws of death and to convey explosives to those who eventually blew up the crematoriums. The story emerged earlier than most—this was hinted at in earlier contributions—because of the Nuremberg trials. Charlie Coward was mentioned at the trials for his heroism in exposing the dastardly extermination programme created by Hitlerism. As a result, a book was written that went into some depth about what he did in Auschwitz, but, as I have said, that was considered too grim for the feature film to do more than talk about; sketches were included to give a rough idea of the conditions in which that hero operated.
It is always heart-warming for me to hear non-Jewish parliamentary colleagues—I come from a Jewish background myself—taking the trouble to initiate a debate of this sort. I sometimes hesitate to get involved, because I feel that in a sense, it means so much more when someone whose family was not affected by the events that we are discussing takes an interest in them. For many years, the Jewish community was perhaps reluctant to draw too much attention to what happened. Sometimes, I think, people felt ashamed that they had not resisted more. But it is pretty well impossible to resist when one is a civilian being rounded up by armed paramilitaries or men in military uniform.
The amazing thing is that there was so much resistance. Of the half-dozen principal extermination centres, there were revolts at three. I have mentioned that the crematoriums at Auschwitz were blown up, but the Sobibor camp and the Treblinka camp, where my family were exterminated, were destroyed completely in uprisings by the inmates. To do such a thing in such desperate conditions is a mark of heroism that also deserves more recognition than it has been given.
When I was a young man, I learned less about Charlie Coward—the Nuremberg trials were before my time—than about Raoul Wallenberg, who everyone taking part in this debate has heard of. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved tens of thousands of Jews in precisely the same way as Frank Foley. He rescued people from the jaws of death, putting himself in mortal danger, and having come through it all against the Nazis, was arrested by the Russians, hauled off to the gulag and never seen again. At that time, I had no idea that any British person, other than on the smaller scale of Sergeant Coward, had done anything of the sort. I pay tribute to Michael Smith for his excellent book, which was instrumental in giving us the pride of knowing that we had our own Raoul Wallenberg in Frank Foley.
I have also been privileged to read profiles of other heroes supplied by the Holocaust Educational Trust. I draw attention to one of the briefer passages in the little dossier sent by the trust. It refers to 10 British prisoners of war—John Buckley, Alan Edwards, Willy Fisher, Bert Hambling, George Hammond, Bill Keeple, Roger Lechford, Tommy Noble, Bill Scruton and Stan Wells—who discovered a young Jewish girl, a teenager called Sara Rigler, who had escaped from a death march outside Danzig. They smuggled her into their prisoner of war camp and hid her in a hayloft. As a result, she survived the war.
The only reason why I know about that story is that a programme featuring Esther Rantzen confronted the young woman, now a bit more mature, with her rescuers. I remember Esther Rantzen asking the rescuers, "But why did you do it? You were in enough trouble already. You were prisoners of war." They said, "We did it because we were British, and this was why we were fighting that war." I do not know about you, Mr. Benton, but whenever I think about such stories, my backbone straightens, my spirits lift and I feel that perhaps it is not such an evil world after all. There is a saying that someone who saves a single life saves the world entire. That is what those British heroes did, and that is why I am so happy that broad hints are being dropped in this debate that something will now be done for them.
It is an honour to follow Dr. Lewis. Those of us who have listened to the last eight minutes of the debate will be glad that he chose to speak and did not decide that it would be inappropriate for him to do so, because it has been a privilege to listen to him. He was characteristically generous in commending all those who are not of his faith and ethnic background for speaking in such a debate and in saying that it is all the more important that we should speak because our families were not affected. I am not here because my family was affected, although my father did serve throughout the war in many of its theatres, and he later died far too young as a consequence. I am here because I have been affected by the events that we are discussing.
That brings me to my second point. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr. Brown for giving us the opportunity to do what we perhaps do not do often enough in these buildings, namely reaching across party lines to celebrate issues that are infused with fundamental goodness, rather than celebrating the divisions between us, which—I say this with respect to all my colleagues—we sometimes exaggerate to make points. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity to do that.
I am also grateful to the Holocaust Educational Trust and its leadership, to whom my hon. Friend has referred. In my first term as a Member of Parliament, they took me on a trip with some schoolchildren to see Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was obviously an important moment in the lives of those young people. I was three times the age of some of them, but I had never experienced such a moment, too. I will never forget walking back along the spur of the railway line towards the camp gates in the gloaming of the evening, as we say in Scotland. The atmosphere and the visibility were such that one could see the stone chimneys of the buildings, but nothing else, and one's sense was that the wooden parts of the buildings, which are long gone, were still there. I distinctly remember thinking just for a moment, as I walked back across the railway line and paced between the sleepers, that that must have been what it was really like when the camp was in full flow and doing all the horrible things that it did.
I also remember being intensely angry. I could not quite work out where my anger was directed, but I realised that it was the railway line, which was so perfect—I realise that it had been preserved. It was a perfect piece of engineering and it seemed to be a manifestation of how a perfectly innocent thing—the construction of a railway line—could have been contorted in an evil way by people who did not do the things that those we are celebrating in this debate did. I cannot remember being so angry with an inanimate object in my life, but I was angry with that railway line. It was an extraordinary moment.
I have never really forgotten that experience, and I welcome every opportunity not only to express those emotions, which one cannot always do in debates, but to make a small contribution on this issue and to do what Jeremy Wright and my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries and Galloway and for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho) suggested—they set exactly the right tone for the debate—when they said that we should remember the people we are talking about in any way that we can.
We should remember those people for two simple reasons. First, we should celebrate people's goodness as much as we can, particularly when it is laced with the manifest courage that the people we are talking about showed in the face of the daunting and potential attacks on them. We should also take every opportunity to give expression to the phrase, "This must never happen again." We should remind ourselves that the dangers that we are talking about can, from very innocuous beginnings, become manifest in the human spirit and in humanity's behaviour. That serves as a lesson to us all that human beings are capable of some awful things.
Unfortunately, however often we tell ourselves that such things must never happen again, there has never been a moment in my life when events like those that we are discussing, although not on the same scale, have not been happening somewhere in the world. That is a reminder that we should be vigilant in our own society and remember the consequences of our not addressing such behaviour in other societies. I thank those who have spoken for putting that very clearly.
I am not in a position to celebrate a constituent or someone who was born in my constituency and I have no family connections to such a person in my constituency. However, I was introduced to an extraordinary group of people when I was the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality—a job that the Minister has also done. On
I was delighted to be invited, and I will never forget that extraordinary afternoon. There was a small group of people, some of whom were survivors and some of whom had no particular experience of the events that we are discussing. However, as a result of the telling and retelling of people's stories and the celebration of what Frank Foley did as a decent man, a spirit was generated among those people that might, if one could bottle it, ensure that, at some point in the future, we no longer need constantly to remind ourselves to be on our guard. It was an enormous privilege to be in the company of those people that afternoon, and I will never forget it.
I had intended to speak about Frank Foley in more detail, but it is entirely appropriate that somebody who can claim a constituency connection to him should have told us his story. We have heard what that extraordinary man did, although he was actually a bit of a shady character, which is just as well, because that was probably how he managed to do what he did while moving around the internment camps and elsewhere. He was a typical British shady character in that he looked like what he was—a civil servant. However, he was a shady character, and thank God for that.
Given the job that he did in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Frank Foley did not enjoy the same diplomatic immunity or support as Mr. Wallenberg. He did everything at his own personal risk. He was in Germany for some years, but I cannot imagine how he managed to process the number of people that he did or to get them out of the country without it being obvious to others, including those who were watching him. He must have courted considerable personal danger.
Then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge has said, he retired in typical British style into relative obscurity, living out the rest of his life in a small bungalow somewhere, probably never talking about what he did, never suggesting to anybody that they should remember who he was and never saying, "Guess what I did." He just got on with things, as if that was what was expected of him. In a way, that is the true definition of heroism.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and those who have persuaded the Government to follow the route of the veterans badge. We have rightly recognised those who made a contribution, such as the Bevin boys, the timber Jills and the land girls. I am not suggesting what should be done in this case, but we have been given an opportunity to say again that we value in a special way the extraordinary group of people who are the subject of the debate, because of what they say about the goodness that is in all of us. We thank them for what they did, not only for the sake of the people whom they rescued but for giving us an example, so that our generation may make at least some contribution to making the world a better place.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make the first of the three concluding speeches to this important debate. Normally when I speak from this position in the Chamber, I am contributing to a discussion on the Budget or the economy. Those are necessarily partisan debates, and rightly so, because it is important that Parliament scrutinises those essential contemporary matters. However—this point has been made by other hon. Members—it is also extremely valuable to have opportunities to come together and celebrate achievements of our fellow countrymen and women through the years, and to talk about what binds us together and our common interests. This debate has been distinguished in that regard.
I pay tribute to Mr. Brown for securing the debate and for his excellent opening speech—to be honest, all the speeches have been of an extremely high standard. It has been informative and moving to hear many of the contributions—especially, as I suspect others agree, that of Dr. Lewis. However, it was also a great privilege to follow the former Secretary of State for Defence, Des Browne, and hear his perspective.
All war is terrible and leads to lasting consequences, and all war gives people opportunities to do exceptional and heroic deeds. However, the holocaust is a unique—in the proper sense of that word—act in the history of mankind. As the right hon. Gentleman has reminded us, atrocities are committed across the world every day, but the scale of the holocaust, and the degree to which it was regimented and organised, make it unique. Most people probably accept that the second world war was the biggest distinguishing event in the history of our country—a moment when we reached a fork in the road and the future of our nation depended on the outcome. We are talking about a unique and central feature of what I argue was the most important act in the history of our country and continent, the second world war. There could not be a matter more worthy of our consideration, or people more worthy of our admiration, than those who are the subject of the debate.
I pay tribute, as others have done, to the Holocaust Educational Trust for its tireless work in raising such matters and for making sure that Members of Parliament give them the consideration they surely deserve, as well as for, as its name suggests, educating Members of Parliament and the public in general about the holocaust, the scale of the tragedy and its lasting consequences. I, too, was given an opportunity by the group to visit Auschwitz, as the Prime Minister, I am pleased to say, did yesterday, and like other hon. Members I went with a group of teenagers from my constituency. It was something that I had always wanted to do, and it was an extremely moving and memorable day—I found it so, and the young people I went with had the same thoughts.
I hope that hon. Members will briefly indulge me as I recall a few features of that day. One thing that struck me as particularly strange—even eerie—was that it was a lovely summer day when we visited Auschwitz. The photographs that one sees of it always show bleak midwinter in Poland. To visit a place where the air is heavy with history and to feel that sense of foreboding, but with the leaves rustling in the wind, the sun shining and the birds singing in the trees, is almost more discomfiting, I imagine, than going there in weather conditions that make it more obviously bleak. The contrast between the sense of freedom and gaiety of such weather and the deeds that took place in the camp made the experience all the more poignant and troubling.
I particularly remember two features. One is the railway track. It is a famous image and we are all familiar with it, but to see it with one's own eyes is memorable. Different people may have different memories, but the other one that particularly stands out in my mind is the huge bank of shoes behind a glass screen. There is something extremely human about shoes—I do not know why that is more the case than with other items of clothing. The fact that each shoe or pair of shoes represented an individual with their own story, life, circumstances and family somehow brought things to life for me more than statistics would, even though the statistics are obviously revealing and deeply upsetting.
For all those reasons I am enthusiastic—I know that hon. Members in all parties share that enthusiasm—for some recognition of the bravery that was so evident from our fellow countrymen and women in those uniquely awful circumstances. Everyone has a proprietorial interest in Major Frank Foley, so perhaps as he was born in Somerset, and as I represent a Somerset constituency, I should touch on his achievements. It is worth noting that the only remaining survivor of first world war trench warfare was also born in Somerset, and lives there. Perhaps we are unfairly rewarded with people who, to make a serious point, did not necessarily hold a status or rank that suggested that they would be at the front of the queue for honours, but who have come to symbolise particularly distinguished service to their country. Their ordinariness is, in a way, what makes them particularly notable people. That is probably true of Mr. Harry Patch, who lives in Somerset and who at 110 years old is one of a handful still surviving who served in the first world war—I understand that he is the only one of them who fought in the trenches. That is true of Major Foley as well; his story has already been recounted by other hon. Members.
I understand that the Government are minded to bring about some recognition, and I admire them for their activism and imagination. The financial cost to us of recognising the contributions of the individuals in question is extremely modest, yet to do so is valuable, partly because it is greatly appreciated by the relatives and surviving associates of the individuals, although they are fairly few. More importantly, perhaps, is the symbolic value. There is, as hon. Members have said, no danger in such recognition; even 64 years since the end of the second world war, there is no downside to reminding us—adults and perhaps even more importantly children who, as they grow up, are further and further removed from the conflict—about two things.
The first reminder is of the capacity of mankind to be evil and the requirement on us all to be vigilant and to try to guard against that evil manifesting itself in appalling ways. That point has also been made with regard to contemporary politics, but it is obviously most relevant with regard to that historical event.
The second, symbolic reminder is the ability, as Jeremy Wright put it, of ordinary people to do extraordinary things, possibly beyond what they regarded themselves as being capable of doing until they were confronted by that challenge, such that they rose to heights that they may not necessarily have ever expected to rise to. So the holocaust is a reminder to us of mankind's ability for greatness, as well as mankind's ability for evil, as I have previously said. Furthermore, these stories are an inspiring example, because they tell everybody that there is capacity within us all to be exceptional, to make history and to do good. It is valuable that we remind ourselves of our ability not only to live on a day-to-day basis and to progress through life, but to leave a mark that can inspire others, because of the sacrifice and risks that we took for a higher purpose than simply our own personal well-being.
For those reasons, a memorial, individual recognition or a combination of the two would be extremely welcome. So, I am delighted—I speak, as every other hon. Member contributing to this debate will speak, in an entirely non-partisan and non-party political way—that we have a senior Cabinet Minister here and that the Government themselves have seen the merit and wisdom in making progress. I greatly look forward to hearing further details from the Minister and also to hearing the contribution from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, Mr. Hurd, to what has been an extremely high-quality, rewarding and enlightening debate, both to participate in and to listen to.
I start by not only congratulating Mr. Brown but thanking him. That is because before this debate I did not know anything about the British heroes of the holocaust and I am embarrassed by that fact. If the Hebrew saying that was quoted by my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis is right and he who saves one life, saves the world entire, where does that place Frank Foley, who is reported to have saved 10,000 lives?
These are extraordinary stories about really extraordinary people; these people are, if you like, giants of our time. I rather share the sentiment that was expressed by my hon. Friend: as I sit back after reading these stories, I feel very proud to be British. Therefore, I would like to thank the hon. Gentleman, quite genuinely, for his contribution.
I also congratulate the Holocaust Educational Trust. It does amazing work in my constituency each year, working with the two synagogues in Northwood and with local schools to bring together local children, often as many as 2,500 on a single day, to do something very important. That is not just about throwing a steady light on one of the darkest chapters in our history, although it has never been more important to keep doing that as the survivors of those events get older and die out. In addition, what always impresses me about that day is the ability of the Holocaust Educational Trust to connect that history with the world around those young people today. I find that enormously impressive. The trust also communicates a sense of opportunity for everyone—each individual—to make a difference. I do not think that there has ever been a more important time to inspire people with that thought, as we worry about civic engagement and the degree to which people are prepared to get involved these days. So I genuinely support the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust in that field.
That inspiring message—the opportunity to make a difference—underpins the importance of the stories that we have heard today, which are genuinely inspirational. Each contributor to the debate today has spoken powerfully about things that have touched them individually. Again, I rather share the sentiment expressed by my hon. Friend. The story that I liked most was about the group of 10 prisoners of war, Tommy Noble and his mates, who spent 10 weeks supporting that young girl. That is because acts of individual heroism are enormously impressive, but when there is a group of people prepared to take the same unflinching and enormous risk for that length of time, that is enormously impressive, too.
I am probably not the only Member who, while reading these stories, was asking himself or herself, "How would I have reacted in this situation?" The answer is that we do not know, because very few of us have been tested to that limit.
Therefore, this has been a journey that leads me to feel strongly that it has been wrong to leave recognition of British heroes of the holocaust until now to the Israeli authorities, including the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Authority, and that it is right now to recognise them through a national memorial of some form. I am delighted to place on record my party's support for the principle of a memorial.
Obviously, the nature of such a memorial needs to be thought through carefully. I think that most Members, particularly Des Browne, the former Secretary of State for Defence, will know that there are sensitivities in relation to using the existing traditional honours system to honour the dead, or to using the existing system of military awards to recognise acts of courage that took place so long ago.
Therefore, a memorial is something that needs to be thought through carefully, I hope on a cross-party basis. However, if the Government are thinking of some form of individual award that sits outside the traditional award system, that is clearly an attractive idea as far as we are concerned and it would be of enormous value to the families of the individuals involved.
I want to close by expressing a personal view. It is not the view of my party; in fact, I do not know whether it is the view of my party, but I am inspired to place it on record as a personal view. I would be disappointed if such an initiative, such an individual award, were introduced and that was the end of it, however valuable that initiative was to the families concerned. That is because I would hope that we could be inspired to do more.
I am attracted to the idea of considering what the Government can do to facilitate a more physical memorial for all heroes, something that is tangible, that people can walk or drive past and that will trigger something in them, reminding them of what my hon. Friend Jeremy Wright put very well, which is the power of ordinary people to rise up and do remarkable things whatever the scale of the threat facing them.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. He knows that my party supports the principle of a memorial and we would very much like to be involved in working out the detail. I just urge him not to be short of ambition.
I want to start by congratulating all right hon. and hon. Members here this afternoon on what has been an extraordinary debate, which has represented what is best about this House.
Before I reply to my hon. Friend Mr. Brown, Mr. Benton, I hope that you will permit me to say a word or two in his praise. Not only has he shown leadership on this subject, but he has shown leadership in a way that has brought it to national attention, including the attention of Ministers, the Government and this House. My hon. Friend has long taken a personal interest in this subject, and we have corresponded on the matter—sometimes not to his satisfaction—during the past weeks and months. He is the co-author of early-day motion 1175, and he has also worked enormously effectively with his local media. Better still, he has helped other hon. Members to work with their local media, so that some of these stories come to the attention of a much wider audience. I hope that he will persist with such work.
I pay my own tribute to the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. The extraordinary work and research that it has done have represented the treasured and sometimes difficult memories of the families involved with enormous dignity. The trust has represented, articulated and celebrated those memories with great effectiveness, and by alighting on the inspirational idea of heroes of the holocaust, it has done an incredible job of telling people in modern Britain about the relevance of remembering such terrible experiences. The staff and trustees of the trust should be very proud of what they have achieved in Parliament this afternoon.
What more can I add to what has been said about the holocaust in the debate? Not very much. The population of Jews in pre-war Europe was 9 million and, during the war, 6 million were systematically murdered, along with many others. The Chief Rabbi once said that the deeper one looks into the holocaust, the more one runs the risk of entering a black hole of despair. Yet the holocaust still has much to teach us today in Britain about not just the depths of depravity to which man can sink, but the way in which society, politics, Governments and civil society can miss the warning signs of prejudice and racism. Unfortunately, those lessons are still enormously relevant to Britain today.
Yet when I think about my education, I simply do not believe that the holocaust was a focus and feature of it in the way that it could have been. I remember learning and reading about the holocaust in my brief history lessons, but it was not until I took myself off with a rucksack to the middle east at the age of 19 that my education about the holocaust really began. Like many hon. Members, I can still see the images of what I saw at Yad Vashem in my mind this afternoon, and I can still vividly—all too vividly—remember how I felt walking through that avenue, which celebrates the extraordinary courage of many people who did so much to help to rescue Jews during the holocaust.
That is why, during the past 10 or 11 years, it is right that the Government—and we as a country—have done more to remember the holocaust and to bring its relevance into the modern currency of politics and civil society. Hon. Members have mentioned that yesterday the Prime Minister was at Auschwitz where he said that the UK will permanently support the maintenance and retention of the memorial there. This year, the Government have granted more than £750,000 to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which organises a national Holocaust memorial day. The Government have made more than £1.5 million available to the Holocaust Educational Trust to support its work in raising awareness among younger people of the true horrors of the holocaust. One of the most powerful features of this debate is the personal experiences of right hon. and hon. Members, who not only visited Auschwitz, but had the experience of sharing that education with younger constituents.
Why should we go a stage further and honour heroes of the holocaust? The case for that has not been put better than by Dr. Lewis and my hon. Friend. Although the holocaust teaches us about the depths to which man can sink, it also contains some of the best stories of the human spirit. In the midst of such a great crime, a small number of very brave people chose not to stand by, but to act, despite the fact that the consequence for sheltering, aiding or helping Jews to escape was severe.
We have heard the extraordinary story of Jane Haining, who was a missionary working in an orphanage in Hungary and who refused to leave the little Jewish children who were in her care. As a result, she was sent to Auschwitz, where she died. We have also heard about the example of June Ravenhall, who was an English woman living in the Netherlands. She hid a Jewish child for, I think, between two and a half and three years. In much of occupied Europe at that time, there was a short supply of food, fuel, and medicines, and the very act of taking somebody in and sheltering them was difficult not just because of the persecution taking place, but because of having to share scarce resources. June Ravenhall took additional risks because I understand that the Jewish child that she sheltered had tuberculosis.
We could also dwell on the other extraordinary stories that we have heard about from right hon. and hon. Members: for example, the stories of Frank Foley, Albert Bedane, Randolph Churchill, Ida and Louise Cook, Charles Coward, Sofka Skipworth and, of course, Princess Alice of Greece. One of the most extraordinary things about those who survived is that they often returned home to lives and communities from which they received no reward or recognition. Even though their stories are today such an extraordinary source of inspiration to us, many of those people did not consider that they had actually done anything out of the ordinary. Surely, such people should be considered one of the proudest aspects of Britain's war effort during the second world war, and that is why we should be honouring them today.
Another reason for doing so, which was alluded to by Mr. Hurd, is that honouring those people will help us to teach the lessons of the holocaust when, during the next 20 years, it goes from living history to just history. We need to find ways of helping teachers to communicate the sheer power of what those extraordinary people did. Talking about what they did will help teachers to communicate the wider argument and message that we can still distil and learn from the holocaust.
Let me turn directly to the subject of the early-day motion and the debate that my hon. Friend has initiated this afternoon. We have been following this subject with great attention. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and I believe that it is right to recognise the contribution of holocaust heroes. We have had discussions across Government to examine a number of options, and we have concluded that there is a way forward, although I do not think that the precise way that my hon. Friend suggests in his early-day motion is right.
Let me add two points of clarification to explain why. First, if we take the basic principle that an Order of Knighthood relates to a society of people with the sovereign at its head that is bound together by statutes that define people's rights and obligations as well as their relationship to the outside world, we can begin to see how my hon. Friend's suggestion is not precisely the way in which appropriate recognition should be delivered. A dead person can take no place as a member of such a society of the living, and membership of one of the Orders of Chivalry ceases on the death of the appointee. That policy and the associated procedures have been subject to scrutiny several times since what I have outlined was articulated in 1922.
Secondly, it might be helpful if I correct a misapprehension that sometimes creeps into debates on the subject, although I am glad to say that we have not heard it this afternoon. Sometimes the idea of honours and gallantry awards are conflated, but it is important to remember that, as the name implies, gallantry awards recognise individuals who have consciously put their lives at risk for the benefit of others, and that, under current procedures, awards are made within just five years of the event concerned.
Therefore, we need to find a different way to honour the people we have heard so much about this afternoon. I am pleased to announce that the Government agree that it is entirely appropriate that we should have a national recognition of the holocaust heroes. The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and I can announce that the Government will create an award of recognition for the extraordinary acts of courage shown by a number of British citizens during the second world war in helping many Jews and other persecuted groups to escape from the evils of the holocaust.
I want to discuss the precise dimensions of that award further in meetings with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and other interested parties. I hope to meet the families of the heroes we have discussed, debated and heard so much about this afternoon. I hope that we can proceed in a cross-party way, so I would be grateful for the advice and counsel of Opposition Members and greatly privileged if my hon. Friend joined us in those discussions. We have some ideas about what would constitute a fitting award, but we want to hear the views of the families before developing proposals any further. I hope to have the first of those meetings in the next couple of weeks. I hope that all Members will agree that that will mark a clear recognition of those individuals' bravery, courage and self-sacrifice, and celebrate the outstanding contributions that they made for humanity and the finest traditions of this country.
In conclusion, I believe that this has been an extraordinary and, in a way, unique debate. I have not been in this House for long, but in the four and a half years since becoming a Member I have not had the privilege of being involved or associated with so powerful a debate. We have taken a vital step forward in honouring the gifts, guts and sheer goodness of those men and women from whom we draw so much inspiration today.