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1.31 pm

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Although I am not Jewish, my family’s history was changed for ever by the momentous and destructive events that engulfed the continent of Europe 65 years ago. The imperative for my parents to flee Estonia under threat of persecution and probable death is the reason I am here. The United Kingdom’s generosity and compassion at the time saved my family, and for that I, like so many others, am for ever in this country’s debt.

It is my family’s history, and my strong sense of association with humanity as a common community, that made me agree to agree to work with the Holocaust Educational Trust to promote the issues that Holocaust memorial day exists to commemorate. I pay particular tribute to Karen Pollock, head of the trust, who—ceaselessly, courageously and with extraordinary poise and elegance—has raised its effectiveness to the level that we see today. We all owe her a great debt of gratitude.

I want to say a little about the Lessons from Auschwitz project, which enables sixth-form students to make one-day visits to the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It gives them a unique insight into the catastrophe that can result when anti-Semitism and other prejudice spiral out of control. Most participants return not just with a deeper understanding of the past, but with a real sense of mission to ensure that such events are never allowed to happen again.

Last year the Government provided £1.5 million to support that flagship project. It was hard fought for, but the HET is immeasurably grateful for the Government’s
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generous contribution, which has enabled it to expand the project dramatically and take it nationwide. The aim is to make it available to sixth-formers at every secondary school and further education college in the United Kingdom. I hope that this year representatives of all six secondary schools in my constituency will be able to act as ambassadors, and will report their findings to their schools.

One of the primary aims of the visits is to enhance participants’ sense of civic responsibility and encourage them to be active in standing up to all forms of racism and discrimination, not just anti-Semitism. It is mandatory for them to share their experiences and disseminate the lessons that they have learned in their schools and communities on their return. Many of the students who went last year chose to make it a Holocaust memorial day commemorative event, and as a result there has been a considerable increase in the number of young people participating on the day.

All Members of Parliament are invited to join students from their constituencies on the visits and become involved in their follow-up activities, and I encourage all Members to take advantage of that opportunity. Their involvement helps to inspire young people to become more politically aware and active, as well as underlining the importance of lessons that we, as parliamentarians, are duty bound to promote.

Simon Hughes: I took part in a memorial event at the Soviet war memorial in Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, just over the bridge. One of the benefits of such events is that people come from all sorts of backgrounds. We saw not only diplomats from the Russian and other former Soviet embassies, but holocaust survivors and young people of, probably, 30 nationalities. They were able to meet and to realise that we are all part of the same human race, with the same rights and the same dignity.

Lembit Öpik: My hon. Friend is right. Such events serve to remind us that the holocaust is not the only example of mass murder committed by the human race since 1945. Millions have died in circumstances comparable to what happened during world war two.

Auschwitz is a lesson in what went wrong in the past because human beings allowed it to occur. We should remember that those things went wrong in a highly educated, civilised, first-world country, which was not so different from the United Kingdom before it descended into the barbarism that is commemorated on Holocaust memorial day. Although we should recognise that other events have taken place around the world, the holocaust in Germany stands ignominiously as the worst of them all. I hope that all of us, including our colleagues who are not present today, will agree that the only thing that we really must regard as intolerable is intolerance itself. That, in my judgment, is the strongest insurance: the best way in which to make certain that human history’s darkest hour is never repeated.

1.36 pm

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I welcome the debate. I shall try to be brief, as others wish to speak.

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Earlier in the Session I tabled early-day motion 648 to commemorate Holocaust memorial day. I thank all 169 Members in all parts of the House who showed their support by signing it.

This year’s Holocaust memorial day theme was “Imagine, remember, reflect and react”. On Sunday I attended a local memorial service in Brigg, organised by Brigg town council. The council has an annual ceremony and a permanent memorial in the Angel courtyard, in the council buildings in the market place. This year’s event was led by our first-class mayor Mike Doherty and his wife Pat, and was organised by our excellent town clerk, Jeanette Woollard. The ceremony was short, moving and effective, involving people of all ages and different religions. It was an honour and a privilege to participate in it. Along with the mayor and eight schoolchildren, I placed 10 stones around the permanent memorial to commemorate the 10 million people who died at the hands of the Nazis.

Keeping the memory alive is important, hence the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust, which is 20 years old this year. They have championed holocaust education in schools, and it has been on the curriculum since 1991. It has been claimed that it will be diminished or removed from the curriculum, and I have seen—as, I am sure, have many Members—some of the e-mails that were sent as part of a campaign to prevent any such move. Their purpose seemed to be to send an anti-Muslim message, attacking Muslims for being somehow responsible.

Those e-mails, which served as a chilling reminder of how quickly prejudice can spread, ended up in America, in a world so insular that people thought “UK” stood for “University of Kentucky”. Representatives of the university had to issue a press statement making it clear that it was nothing to do with them. Indeed, as far as I can see it was nothing to do with anything at all, but it would be good if the Minister reiterated that holocaust education will remain on the curriculum.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) mentioned the Lessons from Auschwitz project and the £1.5 million grant that the Government provided last year, which has allowed the project to expand so that all schools can participate. I hope the Minister will also confirm that such funding will continue.

Just over a year ago, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the morning, we visited Auschwitz, which was bizarre as it looked like a film set. It is a former barracks, and it was quite smart and well built, and I could imagine a film being made there. It was the afternoon visit to Birkenau that really hit home. Birkenau is on a different scale and it is purpose-built: it is enormous and it is designed to kill efficiently—to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible. It is a chilling experience, and I believe that the memory of Birkenau will live with anybody who visits it.

I remember standing on the platform by the railway track, where there is a large photograph of literally thousands of Jewish people going through the infamous separation, with a doctor holding his arm out to direct those who have to go the way that leads straight to death. There is a large shed in the background of the
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photograph, and after a few moments visitors realise that that shed is still there and that they are standing in exactly the place where those events happened.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is speaking very movingly about his visit, and it is important that people see this terrible place. It is also important to hear from people who actually experienced the holocaust—the survivors. As those survivors are growing older and increasingly frail, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is important to keep alive their testimony through DVDs and other recordings and that every effort should be made to circulate such recordings to future generations?

Mr. Cawsey: I entirely agree. In fact, the Holocaust Educational Trust made a DVD on such recollections and won a BAFTA for it. That is another of its great achievements, and I am sure it will help in future holocaust education.

It takes hours to tour all of Birkenau, and we finished with a memorial service around the ruins of one of the crematoriums. Afterwards, it was dark and we walked along what is probably the most infamous railway track in the world. It is impossible not to be affected. On the coach journey back to the airport, I spoke to some young people, and what they said was revealing. They had done holocaust education at school—in fact, they had done extra holocaust education as they had attended a seminar prior to the visit—but nothing had hit home as much as the visit itself. That is why I hope that the Government will ensure that that is funded in future.

Some people ask me, “Why the holocaust? There have been many other atrocities, both before and since.” Indeed, there have, but the holocaust was so awful and so huge. Two out of three European Jews, and millions from other minority groups, were killed. It happened during a conflict we were involved in, it happened in countries not far away and, in historical terms, it happened not long ago.

I believe that if we are not vigilant it could happen again. That is why we all must follow the theme of this year’s Holocaust memorial day: imagine, remember, reflect, react. If we do, the chances of there being another holocaust will be greatly diminished and the world will be a better place.

1.42 pm

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe) (Con): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate. My grandmother was killed at Auschwitz. I was partly brought up by an aunt who survived it, after having actually been in a gas chamber more than once, and I have an uncle, happily still alive, who survived two other concentration camps. So the holocaust has had a direct and terrible effect on my family.

I have, of course, visited Auschwitz. One of the most chilling exhibits—of the many, many chilling exhibits—is the map that was prepared for the 1943 Wannsee conference. It depicts the countries of Europe, and beside each country is the number of Jews whom the Nazis expected to take and kill. The map includes England, and there is a number attached to it.
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I am glad that this debate is being held because, as all Members have said, we must never forget, and I echo the tributes that have been paid to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for their excellent work. We must also never forget that Jews were not the only group who were devastated by this unprecedented and unique horror.

I do not propose to attempt to describe the horrors that occurred on our continent just over 60 years ago; they are well documented. I want to make a different point. The holocaust saw the deepest degradation of the human spirit that we have ever witnessed, but it also gave rise to some outstanding acts of heroism both by Jews, such as those that occurred in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and by non-Jews. Many of those acts have been researched and recognised by the Yad Vashem UK Foundation, which also does much to keep memories of the holocaust alive, and I would like to cite just one example.

On the eve of the German occupation of Warsaw, the director of the Warsaw zoo was a man called Dr. Zabinski. The Germans appointed him superintendent of the city’s public parks as well. Availing himself of the opportunity to visit the Warsaw ghetto, ostensibly to inspect the state of the flora within the ghetto walls, Dr. Zabinski maintained contact with pre-war Jewish colleagues and friends and helped them escape to, and find shelter on, the so-called “Aryan” side of the city. Many cages in the zoo had been emptied of animals during the September 1939 air assault on Warsaw, and Dr. Zabinski decided to use them as hiding places for fleeing Jews. Over the course of three years, hundreds of Jews found temporary shelter in those abandoned animal cells, located on the western bank of the River Vistula, until they were able to relocate to permanent places of refuge elsewhere. In addition, close to a dozen Jews were sheltered in Dr. Zabinski’s two-storey private home in the zoo’s grounds. In this extraordinarily dangerous undertaking, he was assisted by his wife, Antonina, a recognised author, and their young son, Ryszard, who nourished, and looked after the needs of, the many distraught Jews in their care.

At first, Dr. Zabinski paid from his own funds to subsidise the maintenance costs, and later money was received through the Jewish Committee. He was an active member of the Polish underground army, and he took part in the Warsaw uprising of August and September 1944. When it was suppressed, he was taken as a prisoner to Germany, but his wife continued his work, looking after the needs of some of the Jews left behind in the ruins of the city.

I believe that that is a truly extraordinary story, and it illustrates, as do so many other stories, that while the holocaust saw the human spirit sink to depths of degradation previously unplumbed, it also saw the human spirit soar to extraordinary heights of heroism and self-sacrifice.

Perhaps—this point might be a little more controversial—there is a lesson here for us Members. We are legislators. We make laws that seek to frame, to regulate and to modify the conduct of our fellow citizens, but the extremes of human conduct—for bad and for good—that we saw during the holocaust, and that we continue to see on a smaller scale today, are in many ways beyond our reach, and the ability we have to influence them by passing laws is limited.

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I am nearing the end of the period during which I have had the enormous privilege of serving in this House, and as I reflect on the lessons we legislators in particular can learn from the events of six decades ago I believe that a sense of humility should come very high on the list. It is not an easy lesson to learn—I certainly cannot claim to be one of its best pupils—but we should all do our best to take it to heart.

1.49 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): It is a privilege to follow such a moving speech from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). Ten years ago, as a new Member of Parliament, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau with the Holocaust Educational Trust. I pay tribute to Rabbi Barry Marcus, who was a stalwart of that visit and has been one ever since. As all hon. Members have mentioned, it was a moving experience. We all bring back our own memories. The trigger, for me, was seeing a great mound of shoes. None of the shoes had laces—that was what brought home to me the industrial nature of the holocaust; some poor slave labourers had had to go round taking all the laces out.

Like everyone else, I was moved. On the plane home I asked myself what I could do, as an individual, to ensure that the holocaust never happens again. In those days, there was no Holocaust memorial day. The idea of one had been floating around, but nobody had done much to bring it about. I thought I would make it my big campaign in Parliament to achieve that, so I introduced a ten-minute Bill, raised the matter with the then Prime Minister and enlisted his support. I am pleased to say that that ultimately led to the first Holocaust memorial day in January 2001. I am pleased about the great consensus in the country as a whole that it was a good idea, but I must point out that it was controversial at the time. Indeed, I was described in the Daily Mail as a “holocaust bore” because of my efforts to bring it about.

Mr. MacShane: Good old Daily Mail.

Mr. Dismore: Quentin Letts in fact.

There was much debate and argument about the holocaust day both within and outside the Jewish community. I was going around advocating the cause in synagogues and debating it with Jewish people. I spoke before the Board of Deputies of British Jews, where there was even one vote against; one can never get unanimity in the Board of Deputies. Ultimately, there was great support for my proposal, because the purpose of a Holocaust memorial day, as I, and I believe everybody else, envisaged it by the time that the debate had finished, was that it was different from Yom Ha-Shoah, when Jewish people remember their own loss. The purpose of the Holocaust memorial day was to engage the wider community in the debates, arguments and discussions that the Jewish people had had among themselves for a long time, to try to spread the word about what had happened and to ensure that as a result it never happened again. Of course, it is not only Holocaust memorial day itself that arose from this process. Holocaust memorial day is a focus for events
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and activities throughout the year in schools, communities and, in particular, among young people. I am pleased about the support that the Government have given for that.

My next visit to Auschwitz was made with my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for the 60th anniversary commemorations of the liberation. The Duke of York, the Lord Chancellor and Lord Janner, who is a huge advocate for the cause, were also present. If anything brought home to me the experience, it was that occasion. It was not just the fact that so many people were gathered, or that so many survivors were still able to return, but the intense, freezing cold. We were wrapped up in I do not know how many layers, with big boots and hats on—the works—and chilled to the marrow, yet they were the conditions that the people who were liberated from Auschwitz had been able to survive in those thin striped prison uniforms.

We must remember the scale of the holocaust, its unique evil and the deaths of millions. As has been said, it was not only Jews who were killed, but political prisoners, gays, Roma and the disabled. In remembering them by the millions, we forget that each was a real person. That is why I also pay tribute to the efforts of Yad Vashem.

Last week, I was pleased to host the launch in Parliament of the “Guardian of the Memory” scheme. Yad Vashem held 3 million names, identifying Jewish victims, half of whom were children. Under the scheme, each will be remembered by a living person, whose commitment is to light a candle once a year on their behalf and to wear the Yad Vashem emblem while doing so. I asked Yad Vashem whether it could identify victims by occupation, and it went out of its way to do so. We identified 12 Members of Parliament—people like us here today—who had been killed in the holocaust. I asked 12 Members of Parliament, on a cross-party basis, to adopt their memory for the future. I think it is a wonderful scheme, and it has cross-party support.

My pledge is to commemorate the memory of Yitzkhak Sciaky, a Greek Member of Parliament who was killed in Auschwitz in 1942. Those who know me well, know that I have a Greek connection. Mr. Speaker has given me permission to tell the House that he, too, is participating by remembering the memory of Shaklina Shapiro, a metalworker from Poland. Mr. Speaker was keen to have somebody more akin to his trade union roots. The Foreign Secretary is participating, as is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who has adopted the memory of Sabina Shpilrein, a psychoanalyst whose rather colourful history was cut short in 1942. The Prime Minister has also expressed his support, and I urge other hon. Members to participate too. I am pleased that the Muslim Council of Britain has ended its boycott, and I hope that many more Muslim people will join the Holocaust Educational Trust on visits.

Some unfinished issues arise too, such as the Armenians’ campaign for recognition. Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed by the Ottomans in 1915. When Hitler invaded Poland, he said:

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