Thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day

Today I attended the national event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. On the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz the gathering at Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre heard readings and testimonies from survivors of the holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe.  I  met Mrs Aaronson, who survived the evacuation of the Lodz ghetto by being forced to clear up the area by the SS.  She was sixteen and had lived in the ghetto for four years.  Now she visits schools for the Holocaust Education Trust, telling her story to today’s teenagers.

We also heard from survivors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Among the other speakers was Ed Miliband, who spoke movingly of the local people who saved his father’s family in Belgium and his mother in Poland.  The theme of  the 2014 commemoration is “journeys” and each contribution was followed by someone carrying a traditional leather suitcase onto the stage.  I was reminded of the pile of discarded suitcases I saw on my visit to Auschwitz 21 years ago.

I walked over to the conference centre with Dr Azmi, the Chairman of the Remembering Srebrenica project. The Department of Communities and Local Government has funded the project to enable visits to Bosnia, the scene of the most atrocious massacres in Europe since 1945.  We also fund the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and I sit on its advisory board.  Parliament also marks Holocaust Memorial Day each year and I gave the speech on behalf of the government.  Here is what I said:

“I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for leading us in this debate. Many of his remarks had a profound effect on me. To summarise, he said that although the holocaust is in many ways a story of hopelessness and humiliation, it also provides many examples of courage, stoicism and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—she is my hon. Friend—in saying that it has been a privilege to listen to all the speeches that have been made in this debate. That is not always our experience in this Chamber, but everyone has listened intently to every word that has been said today. I have been moved by many of the remarks that colleagues have made. We have shared our different experiences, the ways in which we have encountered the holocaust and how we have responded individually. Perhaps more importantly, we have resolved to act together.

The British mainland escaped the horrors of Nazi occupation. Although some European Jews were able to flee here, most notably through the Kindertransport, for most of us the holocaust is not a family experience. I note that it is for some Members who have spoken. For most of us, our witness and understanding has come through history, literature and perhaps film.

My first knowledge of the holocaust was as a 13-year-old watching the TV series “Holocaust” in the late 1970s. That spurred me to read the only book about the holocaust that I could find at the time, which was “Scourge of the Swastika” by Lord Russell of Liverpool, who was involved in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. I have never forgotten the table of categorisation in that book for the Nazis’ targets for imprisonment and murder. We are all familiar with the yellow star and the armband, but less often mentioned are the colours and symbols that were used for Gypsies, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the disabled. I was most alarmed by the pink triangle for homosexuals, because at that age I was just coming to terms with what I was.

The first reason to remember the holocaust is to understand that minorities are our friends, our neighbours and our work colleagues. In the twisted minds of those who hold a prejudice, the minority could be ourselves. That is why we should be thankful that we live in a society in which human rights are upheld and in which minorities are our fellow citizens, not outsiders who are confined to legal or physical ghettos.

In recent years, mass knowledge of the holocaust has come through the films with which we are all familiar, but literature and celluloid are no substitutes for real-life experience and testimony. We have all mentioned speeches and visits to museums and monuments. I first went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1992, when frankly it was not usual to do so, during a visit to Poland while inter-railing. I will never forget it. There were very few visitors at that time, and when we followed the line to Birkenau, I climbed the gatehouse tower and looked at the scale of the camp. To those who have not yet been there I say that that is the memory that will live with them; the scale and the industrialisation of mass murder. I was there entirely on my own—no one else—visiting on a hot summer’s day in 1992, and it gave me my own time of quiet contemplation. It is not a visit I have ever wanted to repeat, but like the shadow Minister, I think it is perhaps something I should now do.

I have since been to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House, and I have also seen the pink triangle memorial in that city—the only known monument to gay people who were murdered by the Nazis. In 2012, I went to Yad Vashem with the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and I was familiar with many of the historical displays there. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire said that he was profoundly affected by the children’s memorial, and no one could not be. What most affected me was the hall of names, where one looks up at a cone of photographs—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs of people who were wiped out by the Nazis, reflected in a dark pit below. I really could not hold it together on that occasion.

The holocaust is a unique event and must be remembered and understood, particularly by young people for whom it is an historical event that took place long before they were born. It is right for the Government to support that, and many hon. Members have mentioned that they work with the Holocaust Education Trust, led by Karen Pollock. It facilitates school visits to Auschwitz, as well as talks in schools, such as those that took place in my constituency, to give young people a vivid account and an unforgettable memory. Of course the most powerful testimony comes from holocaust survivors, such as Auschwitz survivor Freddie Knoller, who is still speaking in schools at the age of 92.

Last Monday I joined several other people now in the Chamber—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) mentioned this—at the Holocaust Educational Trust annual Merlyn Rees memorial lecture, to listen to Thomas Harding tell the fascinating story of his Uncle Hanns and the arrest of the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss. Thomas Harding discussed how people can turn from being loving fathers to murderous monsters. We are all familiar with the phrase from that time and the excuse that was often used about following orders, but he said that that was perhaps better described as people surrendering their capacity to think to others.

In more recent massacres and genocides we have seen how easy it can still be for people in advanced societies to slip from civilised values into thoughtless barbarity, whether in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, or the current horrific scenes in Syria, where reporters are using the holocaust as a context in which to explain a tragedy unfolding before our eyes. People can still all too easily be led into acts of cruelty and murder.

That is why it is right that this Government—as did the previous Government—support the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, led by Olivia Marks-Woldman. Its annual act of remembrance on 27 January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, will be marked around the country on Monday. This year’s theme is journeys, and those of us who have seen at Auschwitz the pile of leather suitcases will certainly appreciate the resonance. Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Prime Minister has set up the Holocaust Commission, chaired by Mick Davis, president of the Jewish Leadership Council. That is because real-life memories are fading as people who remember the holocaust or who were told stories by their parents die. The work of the commission will be to consider how we can keep that testimony live and real, and ensure that those of the next generation comprehend the history, and also learn how to shape their future.

Next year will also be the 20th anniversary of another horrific episode in the history of Europe: the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. I was particularly struck by the two interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who served with NATO in Bosnia. Last year, my Department supported Ummah Help’s Remembering Srebrenica project. We will continue that support in the next year.

History is not just a moment in time studied for curiosity or even for leisure; it also gives us lessons we should learn. Not learning those lessons is a warning about the future. I will end my remarks by quoting a survivor of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, who went on to win the Nobel peace prize:

“To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”


If you want to read all twelve speeches (and they were all excellent) you can do so here

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