(1 year, 2 months ago)Commons Chamber
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this deeply emotional debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) on her speech—on a personal level, but also in understanding the Jewish people and what they actually went through.
Antisemitism is not new. It has been prevalent in society for centuries, and it is still prevalent with us today. But what makes the holocaust different is that it shows us the ultimate destination of antisemitism, with a systematic attempt to wipe out the Jewish race and anyone of Jewish religion—not just people who were openly Jewish, but anyone with Jewish genealogy somewhere in their DNA. The way in which people’s backgrounds were traced to see whether any relative or any person of their blood was Jewish was systematic, deliberate and intentional.
I was at school with many Jewish children, and no one ever spoke about the holocaust. It was ignored—perhaps to be airbrushed from history forever because it was such a tragedy. The relatives—the fathers and mothers—of many of my friends had actually come from eastern Europe or Germany as refugees, but they never spoke about the holocaust. Whenever one went for dinner on Friday nights, it was never mentioned—I often wondered why. When we were at school, we never got the opportunity to learn about the horrors of the holocaust and what people went through.
I remember my first visit to Yad Vashem. It was not the Yad Vashem that we see now—I have been there many times since—but the first formation of it. This was back in 1992, I think, on my first visit to Jerusalem. It was a much more intimate museum at that time. It commemorated things that had gone on. It had the first recordings of survivors—people who had sadly passed away, but recorded their testimony—and early photographs and other details of what had gone on in Germany and in eastern Europe, in particular, during the holocaust. That made Yad Vashem more intimate, in many ways, than it is now. When I heard the names of the children being recited, it brought home to me how people could systematically murder children—wipe them off the face of the planet—and what a terrible experience it was. I do not mind admitting that I cried. I cried for humanity, and I cried for the people who had lost their lives and their relatives.
When I was elected to this place, the first all-party parliamentary group that I joined was the one on combating antisemitism, because it is right that we in this House stand up against it. I also do not mind admitting that when Holocaust Memorial Day was first mooted—it was when I was the leader of my party’s group on the London Borough of Brent Council—I was concerned that we were going to get into virtue-signalling. I am glad to say that I was wrong. It is right that we educate people, that we commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz and that we bring to bear greater understanding of the horrors that went on.
I, too, have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) alluded to the concern that students see Auschwitz for one day, and it would be better if they could stay for longer. The problem with that is funding and the fact that lengthening the amount of time spent away might reduce the numbers who could go on such visits. The problem that I see with the programme of Auschwitz-Birkenau visits is that students learn about what went on there and think that that was it. We need to remember that there was a network of death camps—forced labour camps—across eastern Europe and Germany, where Jews and others were forced into slave labour and then systematically exterminated.
I have often wondered how a civilised nation such as Germany could get into a position in which it would commit such inhumane acts. How could that possibly happen? When we talk about 6 million Jews being killed, it is a number, and it is hard to personalise that down to individual circumstances. It is difficult to visualise the horror of this attempt to wipe out the Jewish race. We have to remember that this did not just take place in one or two years. This was a deliberate attempt by the Nazis to eliminate the Jewish race.
The roots of this are at the end of the great war, when Germany was subjected to severe reparations. That led to incredible poverty in Germany, which then gave rise to the Nazis, who could say, “It’s the Jews’ fault that you haven’t got any money. Let’s take it out on the Jews. If we take Jews out of their position, we can spread the wealth.” That was a deliberate policy, and it should never be allowed to be repeated. There needs to be a greater understanding and appreciation that, from the early 1930s onwards, this systematic approach led to the Shoah. We all have to remember that.
We must also remember that antisemitism was rife in this country at that time. We should not think that it was only going on elsewhere. The thought process and the demeaning of Jewish people was going on in this country, and that is one reason why few people were allowed to escape from Germany to here. Had they been allowed to do so, many people who unfortunately lost their lives in camps would have survived.
I pay tribute to Karen Pollock and her brilliant team at the Holocaust Educational Trust, who do such wonderful work to educate people—young and old—about the horrors of the holocaust. Not everyone can go to Auschwitz-Birkenau and witness evidence of the terrible crimes that were committed. We talk about the shoes, the spectacles and the clothing at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The memory that I have above all else is walking across the park with the lakes, where there is an eerie stillness. No birds tweet, and there is no sign of wildlife. There is nothing there because those ponds were where the Nazis put the ashes after emptying them from the gas chambers and incinerators. The wildlife know what happened, and so should we.
One aspect of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s work that has become more important is the outreach programme. Last year, more than 600 schools partnered with the trust to enhance educational provision. That is important, because it allows holocaust survivors to give their first-hand testimony and lead workshops so that more and more young people can understand what happened and learn the lessons from it. It is important that we remember the survivors.
I echo the need for a holocaust education centre to be set up alongside this building. People visit this place as the cradle of democracy, and it is right that we have a holocaust education centre alongside our Parliamentary Education Centre so that people visiting London can see a proper record of what happened without having to travel to Jerusalem or other parts of the world. I co-chaired the all-party parliamentary group on holocaust memorial in the last Parliament. I pay tribute to my co-chair, Ian Austin, who called out antisemitism and did so much to ensure that people understood the evils of antisemitism and the need for an education centre.
The testimony of survivors is most important. I want to place on record the details of those who sadly lost their lives last year and this year. Eve Glicksman and Henri Obstfeld both died last year, and Hermann Hirschberger MBE passed away on 1 January. One of the most famous holocaust survivors was Gena Turgel, who lived in Stanmore in my constituency. In many ways, she was a pioneer of holocaust education, as she was going into schools and colleges way before many of the current structures were set up. She was born in Krakow in Poland and had eight brothers and sisters. She was only 16 when her home city was bombed on 1 September 1939.
Here is the part of Gena Turgel’s story that I think is most pertinent. Her family had relatives in Chicago, and they planned to leave for the United States, but they made their decision too late, as the Nazis had already invaded and closed all the entry and exit points, so her family had to move to just outside Krakow. In autumn 1941 she was moved to the ghetto in Krakow, and then moved after some of her family were shot by the SS in the ghetto. She was then forced into a labour camp, and in 1945 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was sent with her mother on the death march from Auschwitz, leaving behind her sister, who they never saw again. They then arrived in a further labour camp, were forced on to trucks, and travelled under terrible conditions to Bergen-Belsen, where they arrived in February 1945. On 15 April 1945, the British Army liberated Bergen-Belsen and among the liberators was Norman Turgel, who became Gena’s husband just six months later. Gena passed away in 2018, but her record is in a book called “I Light a Candle”, so her legacy will live on.
Hermann Hirschberger was born in 1926 in Germany. He lived with his mother, father and older brother. He attended a local non-Jewish school; in fact, there were only two Jewish students in his class and school. In 1936, Nazi laws ruled that Jewish children could no longer attend non-Jewish schools—that was part of the programme to eliminate and delegitimise Jewish people.
Those who have not ought to look at Adolf Eichmann’s story. He was appointed in 1932, and in 1933 he started dealing with what was thought of as “the Jewish problem”. The idea was to persecute, isolate, emigrate and then literally exterminate the Jews—it went all that time back.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. It was clear that this was going on for a long time before the second world war broke out.
Hermann and his brother had to walk to and from school, because German culture at that time prevented Jewish people from travelling on trams. Jewish people were not allowed to mix with other people on trams—this was the dehumanisation of Jewish people. Of course, on their way to and from school, Hermann and his brother were often verbally and physically attacked by students from the non-Jewish school. The people they called friends suddenly turned on them because they were Jewish.
Then, at 9 pm on 9 November 1938, across Germany the synagogues were burnt, and businesses and homes and shops were smashed. Windows were smashed and homes and buildings were burnt to the ground. This is known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.
Hermann and his brother had not seen these crimes at first hand, but when they went to school the following morning, many of their teachers had been arrested and they were sent home. Hermann’s mother went to the bank where his father worked to warn him. However, two members of the Gestapo forced their way in and arrested his father at work. His father was then held for two days before being allowed home.
After Kristallnacht, Hermann’s parents realised, as did many others in Germany, that they could no longer stay there safely. They tried to arrange for the family to leave but could not obtain visas for the whole family. However, they managed to arrange for Hermann and his brother to be sent to England on the Kindertransport, meaning that they were making a huge sacrifice—they knew they would probably never see their sons ever again.
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his work on fighting antisemitism, defending against it and ensuring that this curse can never happen again. Has he visited the amazing and incredible holocaust museum, Beth Shalom, in Ollerton in Nottinghamshire? It is absolutely incredible. It recreates the classrooms he has just talked about as well as the carriages of the Kindertransport. If he has not done so, I urge him to visit it.
I have not visited, but I will make it a priority to do so when it is convenient, because I believe that it is something we should go and witness for ourselves.
Hermann and his brother had a long journey to get to the United Kingdom. They were then taken to a refugee hostel in Margate, where they remained for about a year, during which time Hermann had his bar mitzvah. They regularly wrote to their parents and two days before the war broke out, their parents wrote to them to say that they had just received their permits—they were going to be allowed to leave. However, once war had broken out, they were not allowed to leave. They were sent to a camp in the Pyrenees, from which they were still able to write to the brothers, but eventually they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were both murdered.
In this country, Hermann and his brother were separated and sent off to different schools. Hermann was sent to work in Staffordshire while his brother worked in London, but eventually they were reunited. Hermann went on to marry and to live in London. He lived in my constituency, and he regularly spoke in schools about his experiences not only in Germany, but in this country, because we should remember that Jewish people coming as refugees to this country did not always have a happy experience. We should own up to that, and we should also say that we are not unique in offering service now to Jewish people. Sadly, Hermann died on 1 January 2020. I met him on many occasions and had the opportunity to hear of his experiences both in this country and before he arrived.
I want to single out two other people. The first is Angela Ioannou, who is an ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust. She recently attended the Lord Merlyn-Rees annual lecture in Parliament, and has given an account of her views on how we can make sure that holocaust education continues to be rolled out. The other is Dr Alfred Weinberger, who was born 26 April 1900—he shares my birthday, if not my exact birth year. He was deported to the ghetto in 1943, and then on to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was killed.
The reality is that the testimony of survivors and their experiences bring to life the horrors of the holocaust. We must set out our stall to make sure that such things never happen again. Members have mentioned other forms of systematic murder, but I have seen the plight of the Rohingya at first hand. The duty we owe is to ensure that those people who have perpetrated murder are brought to justice and suffer for the war crimes they have committed, and that we help and assist people who are refugees.
I end by saying that the theme of this year is “stand together”, and I that think the whole House stands together united today in remembering the horrors of the holocaust and saying, with one voice, never again.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) noted earlier, it is a privilege to take part in this debate, and it is a very special debate. Before the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) departs, I want to say just how much his speech has contributed to this debate, with the enormous emotion, which we were all moved by, that sat behind the testimony of his own family. It is of course a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), who has committed so much to this issue during his time in the House.
For the beginning of my remarks, I want to pick up where the Minister began, which is by making it clear that this day marks a number of appalling horrors. He mentioned the Khmer Rouge, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester. What I would describe as my first launch into public speaking was on the issue of the Khmer Rouge, when I took part in a United Nations Association speaking competition. As a 17-year-old then, I was trying to understand how on earth 1.7 million people had been killed in Cambodia through the work of the Khmer Rouge. It was quite appalling testimony to a failure of global policy to prevent that from happening.
We heard moving testimony from my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) about her visit to Srebrenica, and of course from my hon. and truly gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I am utterly convinced that had he been in command of those Dutch troops who were charged with the defence of Srebrenica at the time, there would have been a very different outcome. That is the difference in the traditions and the pride that we take in our Army, and the proper latitude that we give our field commanders to deliver on their mission.
The right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) mentioned today’s judgment in the International Court of Justice about the Rohingya, which is another searing issue that is current. Srebrenica of course happened in the context of the massacre in Rwanda just a year before. The fact that the ICJ is considering the Rohingya today should mean that we understand the purpose of today’s debate: it is current. However, the single worst atrocity of the 20th century—and possibly, in scale, of all time—was of course the holocaust visited on the Jews of Europe by the Nazis under the German Government of Adolf Hitler.
This is very personal for me. My father, towards the end of the second world war, commanded a company that defended Field Marshal Montgomery’s army group headquarters. He was one of the young officers sent to go and see what had been found in Bergen-Belsen. He recalled that to explain to the German population, who had averted their gaze from what was happening very close to them, local leaders were invited to go and see what had happened.
That is the lesson. This happened in a “civilised” nation. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East gave some of the historic background. It is now in school curriculums. Pupils are taught about the causes and how it ended with this worst ever atrocity. I wholly applaud the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust. I have had the opportunity to use its resources and to go with it, with schoolchildren, to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East suggested that one should be there for more than one day. I have to say that a day was more than enough. It was one of the grimmest experiences of my life. As someone interested in history from a young age, it did not tell me anything new. I can vividly remember, aged 13, the episode of “The World at War” which focused on the holocaust and the camps. I grew up with the books of authors, such as Leon Uris, who made it clear what had happened to the Jewish people of Europe.
I do not think that there is any doubt that this experience has been seared into the German soul. One can see it in its foreign policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), wholly understandably, has a Polish perspective. These events and these days are so important, so that we do not forget and that we try to learn. But we have not learnt. What we need to understand is that too often other conflicts in other parts of the world have their base in hatred. Antisemitism is the virulent hatred that led inexorably to the holocaust, which is why it is so important it is called out. Other hatreds, based on ethnicity, sexuality and other characteristics, continue to exist. We saw that with ISIS, only too recently controlling a very large area of territory in Iraq and Syria, visiting out its version of it what it thought were its values that are so appalling and so anti the very tenets of civilisation. We have to pick up and learn the lessons that we do not pass by on the other side.
There is no monopoly of good in the world. I have in this House pointed out, and will continue to point out, that there is very unlikely to be security for Israel until there is a decent measure of justice for the Palestinians. It is the elision sometimes of these issues that makes things extremely difficult. I have, in the whirl of social media, been called an antisemite, because I have had the temerity to stand up for the Palestinians. It is deeply hurtful—I worked for four years for the first Jewish Secretary of State for Defence and for the second Jewish Foreign Secretary, who is a very close friend of mine—to have that accusation made, simply because I have expectations of the Government of the state of Israel, as an important ally of the United Kingdom and as a font of democratic values in that region, that their policy should be not only in their interests but based on the morality and law that they expect their people should have respect to. We have to continue to find a solution there.
I will finish with the words of Pastor Niemöller:
“First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me.”
It is the duty of this House, and the lesson of today’s debate, that where we see injustice in the world and it is perpetrated on the back of ethnic hatred, we call it out.
I want to talk about my personal experience of genocide—I am afraid that it was up close.
In 1992, I was commanding a British battalion—the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment—in Fallingbostel, Germany. I rang my mother and said, “We are surrounded here by disgusting locations—concentration camps, not just Bergen-Belsen, but others that held British and Polish soldiers.” There was a graveyard opposite my house that 50 babies were buried in after liberation. I said, “It is incredibly disgusting to go to Bergen-Belsen to see these mounds covered in heather with just a little sign that says, ‘Here lie 5,000 bodies.’” My mother said, “I know, Robert.” I said, “What do you mean, you know?” She said, “I was there.” I said, “I can’t believe it—how were you there?” She said, “I went there in 1945.” I said, “You’ve told me you remember the Special Operations Executive”—she was a special agent. She said, “I was with the British Expeditionary Force”. Surprisingly, my battalion—the one I commanded—was one of the battalions that was there when Bergen-Belsen was liberated. My mother said, “I was there.” I said, “You never told me that. You never said to me that you were here—why didn’t you tell me?” She said, “I was ashamed.” I said, “How can you have been ashamed? You were a young woman in your 20s, and you had volunteered to take incredible risks. You were an SOE officer. You knew how to parachute and, dare I say it, kill people.” She said, “I was ashamed,” and I said, “Why?” She said, “Because it happened in my lifetime and I am responsible for what happens in my lifetime.”
I did not understand why my mother would say that until later that year, when I was sent to Bosnia. I took my battalion, the Cheshire Regiment, into Bosnia and became the de facto British commander for the UN in central Bosnia. We saw quite a lot. It was bad— there was quite a lot of killing. On 22 April 1993, in particular, I was with my soldiers in the hills north of the River Lašva, trying to stop the battles—trying to stop Bosnian Muslims fighting against Bosnian Croats—because so many people were being killed. My job was to try to stop that.
I was with the Bosnian Muslim commander. I said, “You’ve got to stop this. This is madness. You’re killing innocents—all sides are. Stop fighting!” He said, “We’re not stopping fighting. In the village of Ahmići, a large number of women and children have been murdered.” I said, “No, not a large number. It cannot be.” He said yes. I said, “If I go there and discover that that is not the truth, and I come back and tell you that, will you stop fighting?” He said yes.
What I was doing that day changed. I came off the mountains in my armoured vehicle; strangely, it was called Juliet—my second-in-command’s was called Romeo, which I resented deeply, but he had named them. That apart, Juliet led the way off the hills, towards Ahmići—I had never been there before. We got attacked a couple of times, and as we approached the place we called the Swiss house, the Bosnian Muslim special forces on it opened up on us. We skirted round that, although we were in armour, so it did not really matter.
I then went into the village of Ahmići. The mosque’s minaret had been blown up—it was lying across the building. I took Lieutenant Alex Watts’s platoon with me, in four armoured vehicles, and we drove all the way through the village. It was a linear village. It was about a mile, and the road was quite small, but we got through with our armour. At the far end, I said to Alex, “One section left, one section right—sweep. Let’s find out what happened here.” The vast majority of the houses had been destroyed, although some had not been—later, people told me they had apparently been marked so that they would not be destroyed, because they belonged to Bosnian Croat families rather than Bosnian Muslim families.
As we went through the village, some of my soldiers shouted, “Colonel Bob! Over here!”—they always called me that; there was a lack of discipline in my battalion. They showed me a man and a boy who were burned. Their clothes were off. The boy’s hand was in a fist. They were in the door of a house. I suppose they had been shot—we were standing on empty cases—and burned.
Round the back of the house was worse. I went into a cellar, as directed by my soldiers, and I could not believe what I saw. When my eyes grew accustomed to the dark, I saw flesh—a head. Then I realised that I was looking at the remains of perhaps two women and some children. I am sorry, but that is what it was like; we are talking about the holocaust, and this is a kind of holocaust. All of them had been burned. The head of one was arched back, and it was burned, but, my God, the eyes were still there. I could not believe what I was seeing. I ran out with the men. Some were sick. The smell was appalling.
I immediately decided we had a duty to explain what had happened. I called a press conference. Then I informed the Ministry of Defence that was I was going to give one, because I suspected it might not be too happy. At the press conference, I explained what we had found. It went viral—all over the place. People tried to stop me. Some Bosnian Croats stopped me, and I remember saying to them, “Get out of my way. I am from the United Nations. That is my authority.”
Later, we found a family. My God. The family were stretched out in front of their house, dead: mum, dad, boy, girl. The little girl was holding a puppy. The bullet that had killed her had probably gone through the puppy beforehand. I really did not know what to do. By the way, we took that family to the local morgue. The next day we went back, and they were back in front of the house, because we had taken them to the wrong morgue. It was a Croat morgue rather than a Muslim morgue. A soldier of mine said to me, “Sir, this is 1993, not 1943. What the hell is happening?”
I used my satellite phone to speak to New York. I spoke to the Security Council, and the Security Council came to visit us. I took them to the site of this massacre. The Venezuelan president of the Security Council was deeply shocked, and some of the members were sick. I said to them, “How are we going to have justice for these people?” Well, I do not know whether it was because of that, but a month later they set up the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, at which I have given evidence in five trials.
I will stop shortly, but I just want to end by saying that we had to dig a mass grave. We—your soldiers—did that. In that mass grave we put more than 100 bodies, mainly women and children, all of them Bosnian Muslims. My wife, as she is now, was the delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross. She came to witness what we were doing, because the Red Cross had to know what was going on. She said, “You cannot bury people in body bags.” I did not know that. So, led by her, my soldiers emptied the bodies out of the bags into the ground.
This Holocaust Memorial Day is terribly important. We are going to speak about this, and every year we will remember this. It is going to happen again. We have got to try and stop it, but genocide has continued and will continue, and it is our duty to try and stop it as much as we can.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak after that passionate speech.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, as I have more Jewish constituents than anyone else in the Chamber today, apart from, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). Unfortunately he is not able to speak because he is a Whip, but I am sure he will be thrilled that I am, no doubt, speaking on his behalf as well.
If, as a Member of Parliament for any faith group, I either promote or defend a cause or an issue, many critics will say, “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you, because your constituents would expect you to do so.” For many of my constituents—and, by default, for me as well—the holocaust is something very personal. I have constituents who were in places such as Bergen-Belsen, one of whom I have spoken about previously in the Chamber, of whom I am indeed very fond, and whom I visit regularly. I should take this opportunity to wish mazel tov to Manfred Goldberg and Kurt Marx, who both received the British Empire Medal for services to holocaust education in the new year’s honours list. We are very proud of them.
Just like the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), I take the opportunity at this time of year to do two things. First, I always like to read a memoir or factual account of the holocaust, and I am pleased to be reading “If this is a man” by Primo Levi right now. The second thing I like to do—again, like the hon. Member for West Ham—is to consider Holocaust Memorial Day from a different perspective, and for the past few months I have been thinking about concentration camps on British soil.
Any Member who has read Nikolaus Wachsmann’s brilliant book “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” will know how the concentration camps came about. The KL refers to the German word “Konzentrationslager”. In Germany in 1933, many of the first people arrested by the Nazis were detained in a variety of locations, including police stations, stables, schools and even industrial buildings—certainly none of the locations we have in our public consciousness. Those people were held in “protective custody” for their own safety, and most of them were released at a later stage. During that time, the law was used to defend many of them. Their relatives went to the courts to say that their treatment was not as it should be, and under the law they did have some protections, but of course that did not last. We know that, as the second world war continued, the rules certainly changed.
The Konzentrationslager of Dachau in 1933 was very different from the Konzentrationslager of Auschwitz in 1944. Initially, Dachau targeted political opponents of the Nazis, such as German communists, socialists, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and persons accused of asocial or socially deviant behaviour. By contrast, Auschwitz was a sprawling death camp containing European Jewry, Gypsies and others. As Primo Levi wrote:
“Trains heavily laden with human beings went in each day, and all that came out was the ashes of their bodies, their hair, the gold of their teeth.”
Representation of these camps in films and popular culture depicts Auschwitz-Birkenau as the pinnacle of the death camps, but Treblinka was close behind it in the number of people who were murdered, alongside other camps such as Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor. All those camps were devoted to killing. They were death camps, and anyone who went through their gates would not come out again. In 1967, the West German Ministry of Justice drew up a list of 1,200 camps that it said were sub-camps of the main ones. The Jewish Virtual Library has come up with the even greater figure of 15,000 camps that it says were effectively Konzentrationslager.
To many of us, the representation of the camps through their names suggests a distant location and an otherness that is foreign and certainly not part of the British collective consciousness, but that is not the case. Last summer I was fortunate enough to sail to the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be inhabited by the Nazis during the second world war, and I visited Alderney. In January 1942, the Nazis built four camps in Alderney. There were two work camps, Lager Helgoland and Lager Borkum, and two concentration camps, Lager Sylt and Lager Norderney. Lager Norderney contained Russian and Polish prisoners of war, and the Lager Sylt camp held Jewish slave labourers. There are 397 graves in Alderney, out of a total population of about 6,000. On their return to Alderney, the islanders had little or no knowledge of the crimes that had taken place, because when they were finally allowed to return in December 1945, the majority of the senior German officers had left and no one really knew what had happened.
Interestingly, in research being conducted by Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls at Staffordshire University, she has described the estimate of the number of victims as “very conservative”, given the difficulty of identifying prisoners in war records. The whole issue of post-holocaust archaeology is very much a contested area, and indeed very painful for many people who had direct experience of the holocaust. The professor has said that her research on the island has come up against great “hostility”, including from the Alderney Government, who she said had refused a permit for her to excavate some of the sites, forcing her to rely, in the research that she undertook, on “non-invasive” methods of analysis, such as drone filming.
I have to tread carefully as I say this, but there is also some reluctance on the part of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom to give permission for the excavation of Jewish burial sites. This is a very delicate area, and I know that the great Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who is my constituent, has been involved in this issue. Rabbinic law dictates that the grave sites of Jewish people should not be disturbed. I have a great deal of sympathy with that point of view, but I do have a belief that unmarked graves, mass graves and locations of bodies hidden by their murderers are not proper graves in themselves, and I believe that it is appropriate for the identification of bodies to be undertaken, because people do need a proper resting place. I do not believe that the locations that I have described are proper graves; and as Elie Wiesel wrote,
“to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
So I certainly will continue with the conversations that I have had with others about the delicate, sensitive process of identifying locations of bodies, and also the persons in those graves.
So for me, Holocaust Memorial Day is not just something that is evoked through films such as “Schindler’s List”; it is something that is very personal and pertinent to many of my constituents. I shall conclude with the words of Primo Levi, in his fantastic book, in which he says:
“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”
I would like to address colleagues, not as the MP for Shrewsbury, but as the only Polish-born British Member of this Parliament. A lot of the killings during the second world war took place in the country of my birth. Of course, we could not go back to Poland after we had left, because of communism, and the martial law that General Jaruzelski imposed to suppress the Solidarity movement.
When we finally managed to get back to Poland and I could see my beloved grandfather, he never spoke to me, when I was a child, about what he went through, and the terrible devastation that the Germans brought about in Poland, and in Warsaw, the city of my birth. Subsequently, though, I found out that his brother, Jan Kawczynski, hid eight Jewish families on his estate. We have already heard what would happen to a Pole if they took the risk of helping a Jewish friend or neighbour. He was coming back to his estate one day, and a friend said to him: “Don’t go back—your property has been surrounded by the Germans. Just flee: escape and save yourself.” He said to his friend, “I have to go back; my wife and daughter are there.”
First, the Germans made him take off his officer’s boots. Then they made him dig a grave. Then they made him watch as they shot his 12-year-old daughter. Then they shot his wife. Then they shot him. And his only crime was hiding his Jewish friends and neighbours.
I related that story, for the first time after 30 years, to a friend of mine who is called Jonny Daniels, who runs a wonderful organisation called From the Depths, which seeks to bring Poles and Jews together. He investigated the story, and subsequently I went to an awards ceremony at Warsaw zoo with the Polish Prime Minister, Mr Morawiecki, and others, to be presented with an award on behalf of Jan Kawczynski for the sacrifices that he made.
It was so counter-intuitive: that is the thing. Anybody in this Chamber who is a parent, like me, will know that we are programmed instinctively, in our DNA, to protect our children. And yet what did these people do? They knew that if they protected Jews it would not be just they who were shot; they would have to watch their children being shot before they themselves were killed.
I say all these things because I am so upset about the second world war revisionism that is now taking place. As the people who took part and survived the second world war die, the next generation know so little about what happened during the second world war.
Last week President Putin accused Poland of being somehow jointly responsible for starting the second world war, and Members can imagine how aggressively confrontational that is for any Polish person. As we all know, it was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, entered into by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, that led to the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the subsequent butchery.
The first thing that happened to me today is that my partner handed me an article from The Independent—I have to say I never read that left-wing rag—by Rivkah Brown, whose Twitter account shows her wearing a “Vote Labour” sign on her hat. The article was headlined, “Poland is in denial about its role in the Holocaust—it was both victim and perpetrator.” This young lady from The Independent is trying to suggest that Poland is equally to blame and somehow just as much a perpetrator of these atrocities as it was a victim, but in her article she could reference only the famous tragic case of Jedwabne, a small Polish town where it is alleged that the local Polish villagers rounded up 300 Jews, put them in a barn and set the barn alight. It is a very, very tragic, brutal and well-known case that we Poles struggle with, but to compare that one incident to the systematic extermination of 6 million people in Poland through a series of concentration camps is highly distorting of the facts and is deeply regrettable.
I do not have the exact figure to hand, but at least 4 million Poles, if not more, were killed. Of course, it is not just the killing of millions of Poles. As my hon. Friend will know, in 1944, when we had the temerity to try to drive the Germans out of Warsaw, Adolf Hitler insisted on the systematic destruction of Warsaw so that it would be wiped off the face of the earth. Ninety-seven per cent. of Warsaw was destroyed. When I take delegations of British parliamentarians to Poland on all-party group visits, the first place we go to is the Warsaw Uprising Museum so they can see at first hand the complete destruction, the extermination, of an entire city that took place in 1944 in Warsaw.
I have a thick file in my office of my correspondence with the BBC. I write to the BBC year after year with the same letter asking it not to refer, as it always does in its programmes, to “Polish death camps,” and year after year I get the same reply. I tell the BBC that there is no such thing as a Polish death camp. These were concentration camps set up by the Germans and run by the Germans in German-occupied Poland. I just wish the BBC, a taxpayer-funded organisation, would understand the sensitivities of these things, rather than repeatedly referring to Polish death camps.
I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) earlier to ask why he had used the term “Nazi.” Many hon. Members have used the term “Nazi,” and I am very worried about that term. It is almost like a firewall in front of the responsibility of the German nation and the Germans. It is almost as if Nazis are some third party who descended on us temporarily. They were not Nazis—the Nazi party was a political party—most of the people who carried out these brutal attacks in Poland were German soldiers and German Gestapo officers who were not connected with the Nazi party. They were Germans. When I talk about the revisionism that is taking place today, we must remember who the perpetrators of these appalling crimes were.
I was invited to a German-Polish conference at the Polish presidential palace—the Belvedere palace—a few years ago. The Körber Stiftung invited me to a German-Polish conference, and I asked them why the German Government had not given war reparations to Poland. Poland is the only country that has not received any reparations resulting from the second world war, yet it was brutalised the most and had the most people—the highest percentage of citizens—eliminated and destroyed. The German Government always say to me that they will not pay reparations and they hide behind an agreement they signed with a Polish Government in 1952—they signed an agreement with a mafia-type, illegitimate Government imposed on Poland by Stalin. Bolesław Bierut was the communist stooge imposed on Poland by Stalin, who instructed Poland at that time, “You will have nothing to do with those capitalists in Germany. You will sign an agreement. You don’t want any war reparations.”
It is good that we are speaking here in this Chamber, but we need action for the millions of Jews and the millions of Poles who were killed, butchered and persecuted in Poland and never received any compensation from Germany whatsoever. I talk to the Polish Government often about whether or not they are going to implement a tribunal or a prosecution in an international court against Germany. They talk about it from time to time, but very little happens. I want Members to know that I am in discussions with barristers to see whether we can find Polish and Polish-Jewish survivors living here in the United Kingdom and implement a private prosecution against Germany on behalf of Polish and Polish-Jewish survivors who are British citizens.
A young Polish girl from Oxford University came to see me because she wanted to do a research programme in my office—an internship—and I asked whether she would help me write a paper on why Poland today should ask for war reparations. This young lady, who was 25 and desperate to work in the House of Commons, said, “No, I won’t do it.” I said, “Why won’t you help me with this?” Her reply was, “No, I am not doing it. I have a German boyfriend, who would be upset if I did it, and it is ancient history. It is gone, forget it.” My generation is the last generation who will do anything about this, because we sat on the laps of our beloved grandparents, and we heard about what happened to them. When we are gone, that is it, it is finished; no subsequent generation will want to stir this thing up again. But what message does this send to the hundreds of thousands of people of Polish and Polish-Jewish origin still living in this country who are now British citizens? What message is sent to them by saying, “No, this is too complicated, it is too long ago. We are not interested in the fact that the Germans did not pay war compensation to you. We are going to move on.” No, as long as I am a Member of Parliament, I will continue my fight and struggle to make sure that the Germans account for the brutality that they implemented against Poland.
I congratulate the new Members, whose speeches were really impressive, and I especially thank two Labour Members who spoke incredibly effectively, the hon. Members for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) and for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). All of us will be grateful for the contribution that has been made by each Member, but those in particular were very special.
A year ago, I was at the new cemetery at Bushey for the interment of the remains of six people whose body parts or bones had been found in the Imperial War Museum—they were given as part of a gift. I represented my constituency and my own family. I am not Jewish, but my grandfather’s grandmother was. A year ago, I thought that 45 of his extended family had died at Auschwitz; we now believe that the figure is 62. More than 40 died at Sobibor. There were eight other camps around Europe where others of the 122 that we know of so far perished. Two of them perished at Bergen-Belsen, which is where Anne Frank died.
My father’s cousin George Woodwark was one of the 100 medical students who went out to Belsen in May 1945. Once they arrived at the camp, after liberation, the number of deaths dropped from 500 a day to 100. Within weeks, people were able to say that not a single person had died in one of the huts. That kind of attention to detail is going to be needed for those about whom my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has spoken. By the way, I agree with that we should always try to remember to say that it was German camps in Poland, not Polish camps. I understand that sensitivity.
At the Imperial War Museum, where 900,000 people a year go to the holocaust galleries—the same number as go to Yad Vashem—they have the records of many of those medical students, as well as of the photographers and journalists who went in in April 1945. The details are there. Someone said that black-and-white photographs cannot convey the smell. In March 1945, some 20,000 people died at Belsen. They were not directly killed; they just died. There were 40,000 people left at liberation, of whom 18,000 died. The conditions in which those people were held are just completely unbelievable.
The camp commander, Josef Kramer, started looking after concentration camps in 1934. It was not in 1939 and not in 1941, when the extermination order came, but in 1934.
I referred earlier to Adolf Eichmann, who got the job of looking after the Jews in 1932 or 1933. The Israelis found him in South America—they nearly got Mengele at the same time. To those who want to study this subject, I recommend looking at Eichmann’s story and what he had done.
There are 37 surnames in my extended family who had deaths. When people start to try to deny the holocaust—whether the holocaust of the Jews, similar genocides that have been spoken about, including Srebrenica, Rwanda or Cambodia during our lifetime, or the other hells that people have been put through, including being sent out to camps by the Soviet Union—we have to keep our eyes open and go on being active. We have to try to do all we can, with others, to prevent this kind of thing from happening.
About 15 years ago, Governments’ duty to protect was being established by the United Nations. Since then, we have gone backwards. There are too many leaders or rulers of countries who have lost the understanding that having a reasonably flexible liberal democracy—and, for that matter, a liberal economy—helps to improve people’s conditions and allows leaders to retire or to be defeated without having to hang on to office. Leaders fear being assassinated and fear having the wealth that they have stolen from their country stolen back from them. They ought to learn—this applies to our friends the Chinese, our friends the Russians, some in eastern Europe and people in South America—that if they are going to be a leader of a country, it is better to be in a democracy so that they can retire and take their pension in their own country, rather than trying to hang on for dear life, because they may lose their life and they will certainly lose their wealth, if they lose their power.
As I said to the Minister earlier, this debate should be about the holocaust and the horrors. It should actually be about how this country did not deal with the question of which year would have been the right one to face up to Mr Hitler in a military sense. Would it have been 1932 or 1933, or any of the years up to 1939? Or, if not 1939, would it have been 1940, 1941 or 1942?
Hitler thought that he could do a deal with the British and isolate us from continental Europe. He was quite surprised when Mr Chamberlain would not go along with that.
We have to say that there is never a right time to go to war. Perhaps we got it wrong over Iraq. In my view, we certainly got it wrong over Syria—we just have to count the millions in Syria who have either died or been sent into exile to see that. There was a miscalculation: Labour thought that the Tories—the coalition—had enough votes to get it through, and we thought that Labour would support us. The House of Commons made a surprising decision—I think that it was the wrong one—and people have suffered because of it. We should accept that we were at fault.
We can go back more than 800 years, to the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, or to other times. The way in which Jewish people have been treated over the years—not just by Government, but in society—has been wrong. We should accept that and apologise for it.
The main point of this debate is about holocaust memorial and how we can make sure that we and others can learn more. I have referred to the Government’s proposals for a holocaust memorial and learning centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, which is subject to a call-in, rather surprisingly, before Westminster Council has made a decision.
On another occasion, hopefully in Government time, we should have a debate about how we have got to where we are at the moment. We have an unsatisfactory design for an unsatisfactory proposal that completely fails to meet the specifications of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation that were set out in writing in September 2015. I hope that we find some way of mediating this situation because many of the Jews whom I know think that it is wrong and that they are not being listened to by the foundation or the Government.
I hope that the Government will say—not necessarily in today’s debate, but on another occasion—that they are open to discussions in which they will explain how they put out a document in September 2015 specifying that the centre had to be somewhere in central London between Regent’s Park, Spitalfields and the Imperial War Museum, but they are now saying that the only place that it can be is in an inadequate park close to the House of Lords. However, that is for a different day.
For today, I want to thank the Minister for the way that he introduced the debate and congratulate those who have contributed. By next year, I hope that we will find that progress has been made on getting rid of antisemitism, on keeping a sense of proportion over Israel, and on remembering some of our collective responsibility for allowing the Hitler holocaust to get so far in such a drastic, dramatic, hateful and evil way.
It is an honour to contribute to this powerful debate. It is essential that we take time for reflection. As I wrote in the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of commitment this week, education and remembrance are the only cures for hatred and bigotry. I echo the pledge that others have made today to fight racism and prejudice wherever they are found. I stand in solidarity with Members on both sides of the House in that commitment.
It has been a privilege to hear 20 poignant and emotional speeches today from hon. Members of all parties, none more so than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). I am sure that his personal and family story touched not only me, but everyone in the Chamber.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), who is no longer in the Chamber, on his message that we have to do more to tackle the problems and the causes of antisemitism. He also spoke about the need for proper education. I thank him for his work as co-chair of the all-party group against antisemitism. I thank the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) for telling us in his maiden speech about his haunting experience of visiting the concentration camps, the importance of hope over hate, and his visions of a better present and a brighter future.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) for her extraordinary bravery in supporting the Jewish community and those who have stood alongside it. She spoke about the heroic people who have brought inspiration to those challenging prejudice today.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) on his maiden speech and look forward to working with him on veterans’ support. He spoke passionately about the need to visit Blackpool. I must admit that my sister had her hen do there, but I will not say any more, because I do not want it recorded in Hansard.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) spoke, as always, with passion, and related other stories that I believe resonate today. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) spoke about the industrial scale of the holocaust. I thank her for her contribution and what she said about the pride of our country in the diversity we enjoy today. We cannot allow communities to be pitted against each other.
Having listened to today’s debate, and looking back on my visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, one thing resonates above all else: the immeasurable tragedy of the holocaust has darkened lives on an infinite scale. That is why the salience of Holocaust Memorial Day and the continued commemoration must never be underestimated. The murder of 6 million Jews—the same number as the population of Rio de Janeiro—at the hands of their fellow citizens will always evoke shock and terror, but we all have a responsibility to ensure that the story is passed on to future generations. Why is it important that we reflect and remember? Because society is not yet free of the facets that led to this catastrophic loss of life. Still antisemitism plagues our society. Still British Jewish people in the country they call their own are subjected to persecution and racist attacks. One case recorded is one case too many.
Antisemitism must be drummed out with an iron fist and met with fierce opposition. In 2020, the need for reflection could not be greater. Last year, in my constituency of Portsmouth, South, we hosted D-Day 75 —a commemoration of those who kick-started the operation to liberate Europe and subsequently the concentration camps across the continent. Next week, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of some concentration camps, and on 10 May we will celebrate VE day to mark the allied victory over the Nazis. To truly pay tribute to all those who sacrificed so much to overcome fascism in Europe, we must all act to ensure that such abuses never take place again. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of us all.
The importance of reflection and remembrance transcends that of commemoration. Reflection and remembrance are the tools we must use to prevent further atrocities. The holocaust was not the last genocide; therefore we still have more work to do. The loss of human life at the hands of others from Cambodia to Bosnia, and from Darfur to Rwanda, is testament to the fact that we must all do more to educate people about the perils of prejudice. Now more than ever, the harrowing story of 6 million Jews and members of other communities and faiths, including Roma, gay, black and disabled people, being murdered must be told. We must learn from the events of yesterday if we are to forge a tomorrow that is free from terror.
Education, remembrance and co-operation—these are the tools we will use to combat humanitarian catastrophes. When considering those three principles, it is imperative that we pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, whose relentless dedication to ensuring that the UK pays a leading role internationally in holocaust education, remembrance and research is commendable. They truly are ambassadors for change, and I join others in expressing admiration for the “Lessons of Auschwitz” programme, which helps to transcribe the terrors of the holocaust into the pages of history and ensures that the pain and suffering will never be forgotten.
On racism and prejudice, we must educate to eradicate, especially when hate crime in this country is at an all-time high. With around 300 police-reported incidents taking place each day and nearly 80% of cases not resulting in further action being taken, it is up to all of us to change the society to which we owe so much for the better.
If we are serious about making progress, we must be sincere in our endeavours for justice. First, we must look inwardly, applying scrutiny to ourselves. I have the honour of representing a city with one of the oldest Jewish communities in Britain, having been established in 1746. I have a responsibility to my friends in that community to lead from the front, which is why the Labour party must take on board and implement all recommendations brought forward by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The only test that matters is that the Jewish people have faith and trust in the Labour party’s ability to investigate cases of antisemitism. Anything else falls short and is a failure; anything else is shameful.
As we approach the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the closure of the theatre of war where the holocaust took place, the number of survivors grows smaller. I would therefore like to pay tribute to a remarkable woman who died in July 2019, Eva Kor. She was a Romanian-born Auschwitz survivor who relentlessly campaigned for holocaust awareness, founding the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Indiana. Among her immeasurable feats of human strength, she testified in the 2015 trial of a former SS officer, the so-called “bookkeeper of Auschwitz”, who was accused on 300,000 counts of being an accessory to the murder of Hungarian Jews. If ever inspiration is needed, that takes only a short glance at the achievements and resilience of Eva Kor. I conclude with a quote from her:
“Let there be no more wars…no more gas chambers, no more bombs, no more hatred, no more killing, no more Auschwitzes.”
We all have more work to do to honour Eva’s memory.
I thank everyone for taking part in this important debate. It has been an honour to sum up for the Opposition.
It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to open and close the debate today. I am hugely grateful to hon. Members from across the House for an emotional, thought-provoking and insightful debate, with a number of incredible contributions.
I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) and for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) on their excellent maiden speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South spoke about his constituency, and about the importance of supporting business, hard work and the community he represents. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw rightly thanked his predecessor for his contribution in this area, and told us about the work he did when he was a teacher to raise awareness of the issues we are discussing today. They will both be excellent Members of Parliament for their constituencies.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for all the work that he has done, and for his contribution today. He told us about the work that he has done with local authorities and what they have done to support the Jewish community. I also thank him for his commitment to call people out in this House when they fall short; that is absolutely right.
I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) for his contribution. The letter that he read out—from a mother to her daughter, Mirele—was one of the most emotional passages that I have heard in the House since becoming a Member of Parliament. It was quite incredible to hear.
I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for their passionate and informed contributions; the debate has been quite incredible. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) for recounting his story about the atrocities that he saw in Bosnia. The debate is richer for it.
Lastly, I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) for sharing what was possibly the best speech that I have heard in this House, and certainly the most emotional. I have never heard the Chamber as silent and attentive as it was when he recounted the incredible story of what Heinz Skyte and his family went through. I thank him for sharing that.
We have heard today that the past few years have not been easy for British Jews, with antisemitism on the rise across Europe and the United Kingdom. Jewish families who have lived in harmony in their neighbourhoods for generations are coming forward, in some instances telling us that they have feared for their safety. Some have contemplated leaving the country. I think we would all agree that if that happened, we would lose a vital part of what makes Britain great.
We are one of the world’s most successful multi-faith, multi-ethnic democracies. From the arts to business, from politics to culture, it would be a poorer country without the immense contribution of the Jewish community to British society. That is why we must all acknowledge that antisemitism is not just a threat to the Jewish community but to all of us and our country. This debate has highlighted the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day to stopping antisemitism and all forms of hatred.
The UK’s Holocaust Memorial Day was created to remember all the victims of the holocaust and Nazi persecution, to remember those affected by more recent atrocities, and to educate people—we have heard so much about the importance of education—about the continuing dangers of racism and discrimination. It reminds us of the continuing need for vigilance and motivates people, individually and collectively, to ensure that the horrendous crimes, racism and victimisation committed during the holocaust and subsequent periods of genocide are neither forgotten nor repeated.
Every year since 2001, the UK Government have supported and promoted Holocaust Memorial Day. Since 2010, we have given the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust over £7 million. These funds support not only the national event but a huge number of local activities—over 10,000 in 2019, taking place up and down the country. These events ranged from commemorative services to film production, from social media campaigns to crochet flowers being made to represent and remember individual victims of the holocaust.
Each year, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust has a theme. As we have heard, the theme for this year is “stand together”. This theme has explored how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how those tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours and speaking out against oppression. In the years leading up to the holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society, urging “Aryan” Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours. The holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups and each subsequent genocide were enabled by ordinary citizens not standing with their targeted neighbours. For those who might feel powerless when confronted with hatred, it is worth remembering that this is a powerful step we can all take—to stand up for and support those who are the victims of bigotry.
Today, as we participate in this debate, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is joining some of the last survivors of the holocaust and over 40 world leaders at the World Holocaust Forum memorial at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The theme of this year’s forum is “remembering the holocaust and fighting antisemitism”. The message is clear—that we cannot remember the victims of the holocaust without fighting antisemitism today. Earlier this week, the UK, along with other members of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, pledged to victims and survivors of the holocaust that they will never be forgotten and that their legacy will be kept alive.
We have heard many hon. Members speak about their visits to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps across Europe. Sadly, despite the often-quoted words, “Never again”, we continue to hear about violent conflicts across the world and their impacts on civilians. But there are many schemes, with state backing, to help to ensure that people in this country remember the tragedy of the holocaust and learn lessons from it. I know that many Members in the House today have visited Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust. Pupils from three schools in my constituency—Marlwood School, Brimsham Green School and the Castle School—have been there in the past few years.
The Government are supporting the work of the Anne Frank Trust, which challenges prejudice and hatred. Our Department is funding the trust with £467,000 over three years to reach schoolchildren in London and the west midlands. The trust uses Anne Frank’s life and diary to challenge prejudice and reduce hatred, encouraging people to embrace positive attitudes, responsibility and respect for others. Many of the young people have gone on to become ambassadors of the programme and share what they have learned with others. I pay tribute to them today.
In January 2015, the then Prime Minister, with cross- party support across this House, accepted in full the recommendations of the Prime Minister’s holocaust commission. This included the creation of a new memorial. The Government have already recorded and preserved the testimony of British holocaust survivors and liberators to ensure that their witness to Europe’s worst tragedy is never forgotten.
I should have mentioned this in my speech, but Prince Charles is in Israel on his first official visit, for Holocaust Memorial Day. It is a fitting tribute that the royal family should be represented in Israel, since 6 million Jewish people were murdered.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point and agree with him about the importance of that visit.
During the debate, Members have raised concerns about how antisemitism has taken hold in British institutions including universities, local government and our political parties. The UK’s Government was the first in the world to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism, which provides a guide on how antisemitism manifests itself in the 21st century. It is important that public bodies understand the kinds of behaviour that constitute anti- semitism today, and that is why we are calling on all local authorities and public bodies to adopt that definition.
But our institutions need to do more. We plan to bring forward legislation to ban universities and local councils from organising boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment against other countries—a measure that is often used to target Israel and can, in some instances, lead to antisemitic acts. We all have a role to play in rooting out antisemitism where we see it, and the Jewish community can be assured that this Government will stand shoulder to shoulder with them. I know that that message goes out from everybody in the Chamber today.
I would like to echo the many tributes that have been paid today, including to Karen Pollock, the CEO of the Holocaust Educational Trust, who has been a huge support to our Department and to me. Along with her team, she is an inspiration to us all. I would also like to pay tribute to the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and its chief executive, Olivia Marks-Woldman. The trust delivered the most successful Holocaust Memorial Day to date last year, with 10,000 local events across the country.
I would like to mention some of the other holocaust remembrance, education and survivor organisations that enrich the work we do, such as the Holocaust Survivors’ Centre in Hendon; the Wiener Holocaust Library; the Association of Jewish Refugees; the National Holocaust Centre in Newark, which we heard about this afternoon; the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre at Huddersfield University; and University College London’s Centre for Holocaust Education. I would like to pay tribute to the 21 survivors of the holocaust and subsequent genocides who were honoured in the Queen’s new year’s honours list. I also pay tribute to those survivors who shared their testimony but are no longer with us for the work they have done over many decades and wish their families long, fulfilling lives.
This has been a sobering debate. We have heard many troubling, disturbing and upsetting accounts. We have remembered some of the darkest moments of human history and heard about some of the darkest aspects of human nature. I wish to end by focusing not on the dark side of human nature but the light. At the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem is a garden called the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations. It was designed to commemorate non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the holocaust.
At first, a tree was to be planted for every person identified as deserving of recognition, but as time went on, that became impossible for lack of space, and a plaque was put up in the garden instead. As of 1 January 2019, 27,362 people have been commemorated, and new names continue to be added. Some of the names were famous, and some were wealthy, but some were ordinary people living otherwise ordinary lives who demonstrated tremendous courage when the time for moral action came. Let us draw strength from their example and remember that, if the time comes when we are confronted by racism or discrimination, every one of us has the power to stand up against it.