Previous Section Index Home Page

2.15 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): May I first apologise to the Minister, as I have a long-standing doctor’s appointment that will pull me away? I want to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman) that I thought he made an extremely good and thoughtful speech. Unusually, I would like to compliment the Minister on his excellent and well balanced speech.

I was brought up in the aftermath of world war two, as were many others. I was brought up with “Exodus” by Leon Uris—not only the book, but the film with its haunting theme music. When I was brought up, there was no question but that one saw the issue of the holocaust as an integral part of the experience of world war two.

During 1978, I went to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where it is true that the birds do not sing, which is most extraordinary. I was stationed in Germany, surrounded by old work camps, which again brought the issue home to me. Last February, I was lucky enough to be able to go to Auschwitz with the HET.

As a matter of interest, I was once vice-chairman of the all-party genocide group, which was founded by my friend and former colleague, Oona King, after a visit to Rwanda, where, of course, 2 million were killed. I have also been vice-chairman of the all-party Sudan group, and I note that Bashir may be charged with war crimes over what is alleged to be genocide in Darfur. I would welcome that. I say that not because my CV is terribly interesting, but because as a result of my age, I know a lot about the holocaust. I regret to say that as survivors increasingly die off, fewer people do.

I wish to praise and devote the rest of my speech particularly to the work of the HET, which has rightly been much mentioned. I praise the HET not because it took me to Auschwitz—although I am very grateful for that—but because what it does is valuable and absolutely vital. The trips are very moving, particularly for those who do not know much about the history of the 20th century. The education it provides in schools and elsewhere is again vital.

As people will know, the HET was founded by my former parliamentary neighbour, the noble Lord Janner, and Merlyn Rees in 1998. I welcome the Government money given over the past couple of years—about £1.5 million a year, I believe—to assist the programme. That is valuable, although the visits took place long before the Government money arrived. I would like to say to every Member in the House that if they have not visited Auschwitz, they should do so. It is really valuable, and to take children there is hugely moving.

Lembit Öpik: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the outstanding contribution to the memory of the holocaust created by Lord Merlyn-Rees and Lord Janner illustrates how every single one of us has the capacity to make a substantial difference to the opportunities for the public of today and the children of tomorrow to learn the lessons of Auschwitz?

29 Jan 2009 : Column 492

Mr. Robathan: I would indeed agree, which is why we need to inculcate tolerance of others in our society.

Let me touch briefly on holocaust denial. To anyone who has looked at the facts, it is of course absolutely ridiculous, but as the HET says, it is best defeated by education and knowledge. David Irving, whom we have heard about already, went to prison in Austria for some of his ridiculous utterances. Although I have no time for the man, I wonder whether sending such an idiotic figure to prison is the best answer.

We also heard earlier about Richard Williamson—a self-appointed bishop, I think, in a sect of the Roman Catholic Church, to which he has recently been readmitted. I watched him on YouTube shortly before I came here and found out that the gas chambers did not exist! He denies their existence. People like him are best defeated by education, knowledge, fact and ridicule. Frankly, I deprecate him completely. I believe that the holocaust denier who is currently in the highest position is President Ahmadinejad of Iran, and I find that much more worrying than the views of some silly man called Richard Williamson.

Education is important. As survivors die off, there will be fewer people to tell others what happened to them and to move us all. That was brought home to me today by the obituary, in The Daily Telegraph, of a Pole called Alec Maisner, who became an air vice-marshal in the Royal Air Force. He was not Jewish, but he was at Warsaw university in 1939, when Stalin took over Warsaw, and many of his fellow students were Jewish. He spent two years in Stalin’s labour camps in Siberia before coming to Britain and becoming an air vice-marshal.

I mention that not because it represents part of the holocaust that we commemorate—of course, Stalin killed some 25 million people, probably his own people, for almost any reason, but not particularly for racist reasons—but because as people like the air vice-marshal move on, we need to keep the knowledge alive. That is why I say again that I praise the work of the HET and hope that we will indeed learn the lessons of history.

2.21 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): The theme of Holocaust memorial day is “Stand up to hatred”. With that in mind, I want to quote from an article about Carl Schmitt. If anyone is an exemplar of hatred, that man is. He was an anti-Semite; he made it very clear that he was a Nazi; and he was a


That is the sort of pernicious, vicious material that is often peddled today by the British National party. We should be very aware that that is exactly the philosophy that it peddles within our communities.

Some years ago I, like many other Members, was privileged to visit Auchswitz and Birkenau. I say “privileged” because the HET, to which I am very grateful, invited me to take along some young students from Stockton. I echo what others have said today when I tell the House that the visit would have been valuable to me in any event, but in the company of those young students I found it more valuable than I can say.

29 Jan 2009 : Column 493

There was an ugly reality in the human tragedy that those camps represented, and they clearly had a powerful impact on the students. I hoped that the visit would meet a real need and give them a sense that when humans work together, their solidarity ensures that we can cope with any problem with which we are faced. I believe that the visit did that, but it did a great deal more as well.

The students were mortified as they looked at glass cases full of human hair, shoes and glasses, and read the heartbreaking statements of people who had managed to escape and to survive that hideous period. They told their stories of how, during the bitterest of winters, they were made to take off their shoes and were given a pair of shoes both of which were for the left foot or which did not fit them. The humiliation was absolute. That was the absolute force of what the Nazis were about. Those people were starving; they were emaciated; and children were dying around them. There was a hideous sense of fear, which could be felt through what those people were saying. They were so frightened because, while Auschwitz was dreadful, Birkenau was worse. Many knew that they might have to make that journey knowing that it would be the last journey that they would ever make.

The hideousness of those atrocities was overwhelming. I saw it in the students’ eyes. These were robust, up-for-it students who had been full of beans at 6 am on arrival at the airport that morning, feeling that this was a good visit. However, as soon as Auschwitz hit them, their heads were down and they did not know where to look. They could not believe that humanity had been so degraded. They could not believe that it had produced the hideous glass cases that they had seen and the stories to which they were listening. There was a powerful, overwhelming, eerie silence.

The move from Auschwitz to Birkenau was horrendous—all of it. I wanted to cuddle the students. I wanted to put my arms around them and say, “Together, we can ensure that this will never happen again.” However, that would not have been appropriate. I knew that, like me, they had to face that reality. They had to ask themselves the question, “What would I have done if I had been in Germany or Poland at that time?” I am not a Jewess; they are not Jews. What would we have done? Would we have held the line? Would we have supported those people? Would we have done all that we could to protect them? The question is profound. We all want to believe that we would have supported those people, but I still ask myself this question: would it have been “me and my children first”, or would I have been a decent person and said, “Humanity comes first—all people come first”?

I have to tell the House that that was an awesome visit. Eventually, something very positive came out of it. I went to the school assemblies and heard the youngsters talk. They gave their impression of the day; they read poems; they discussed with their groups what they had faced and what had happened. I had a feeling that the visit had strengthened their need and concern for human solidarity always to be in their lives—their principled position. It is possible to learn from the holocaust, and to learn from the hideousness of the 1930s.

Like many other Members, I was a student, and this was a specialist area of my politics degree course. I knew the numbers, and I knew what the Nazis were
29 Jan 2009 : Column 494
about, but facing it is a different matter. I tried to explain to the students that it is sometimes necessary to understand that fear can be transformed into indifference, causing people to say, “I do not want to know”. The inability to respect differences becomes a way of blocking out the fact that something is happening in one’s own street.

It is important for us all to recognise that a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau is very valuable. It is equally important for us all to understand—as those students clearly understood—that any form of racial superiority is a tool used by some to divide humans. It is not there to produce human respect; it is not there to produce the best in all nations.

Today, we hear the statement to which we all cling and which we must repeat loudly and clearly; we must stand up to hatred. We must say to those who look the other way that if they do not stand up and support decency, there will inevitably be a Rwanda, a Darfur or a Bosnia. One day it might be them and their families who are involved, so standing up is important.

Footballers gave us a tremendous example. Black players were spat at and had things thrown at them while they were playing, but they stood up and said, “Give racism the red card.” The fact that ordinary youngsters, often from impoverished backgrounds in my communities, have leaders who will give them a steer and something to believe in is crucial. We can do something; we do not have to turn away.

We must learn the lessons of the 1930s and say to our children and our communities, “Never again.” I would—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady’s time is up.

2.29 pm

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): It has been a truly excellent debate, particularly the emotional and moving speech by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). I was a co-sponsor of the early-day motion on Holocaust memorial day, which has attracted 176 signatures from Members of all parties. On Tuesday, Holocaust memorial day, I was delighted to welcome the Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks to Lady Margaret school in my constituency for morning assembly. The school, always ranked as one of the country’s best performing comprehensives, did us all extremely proud, led by the headmistress Sally Whyte.

Two girls participated in the HET visit to Auschwitz in November with me, and we heard from both of them. Both Jennifer Gannaway and Lara Hawkins spoke, with short but moving accounts of their day in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Jennifer spoke of how the accumulated possessions of the victims, which are so clearly on display in Auschwitz, left an important impression on her:

Lara described the overall chilling effect of the experience:

Most importantly of all, we heard from a holocaust survivor, Mrs. Mala Tribich. I believe that she is one of only a couple of dozen holocaust survivors in the UK.
29 Jan 2009 : Column 495
The role that people such as Mrs. Tribich are playing and will continue to play in the coming years is a vital one; there is nothing more effective in learning about the holocaust than hearing it related at first hand.

Mrs. Tribich brought many of us at the assembly close to tears as she described how, as a small child, she lost her parents and almost all her immediate family. She described arriving at Ravensbrueck and being processed on arrival. She had her clothes removed and her hair shaved. She said:

Mrs Tribich also said something important:

It is that on which I wanted to reflect briefly today; how we and other European countries are dealing with this horrible past.

I have relatives in both Germany and Russia. I also have a huge number of Polish constituents and go to Poland fairly frequently. I wanted to compare how those countries are dealing with their pasts, as regards the holocaust and anti-Semitism. Before I go down that road, I do not want to give any impression of equivalence in the historical experience of those countries. The holocaust was very largely a Nazi German perpetration, the result of the evil mind of Adolf Hitler and the active participation of thousands of Germans and the passive contribution of millions. The Poles and Russians also had millions of victims at the hands of Nazi Germany.

Germany has, in my view, done a pretty good job of dealing with its past. All post-war German Governments have recognised the special responsibility that Germany has towards both the worldwide Jewish community and Israel. Most Germans I know are shocked by modern-day anti-Semitism. German towns and cities do a pretty good job of preserving historic Jewish memory; the refurbished Oranienburger strasse synagogue in Berlin is testimony to that. The Dachau and Sachsenhausen concentration camps are well-preserved and attract a lot of visitors. There are still anti-Semitic incidents in Germany, but they are pretty rare, so I commend the work Germany has done over the past six decades. Poland is another interesting case—itself a tragic victim of Nazi-German crimes—but also with a difficult past in relation to its former Jewish citizens.

As I have said, I visited Auschwitz in November. I have been there before; my previous visit was in February 1991, when Auschwitz was still arranged as it had been in the communist era, which had only just drawn to a close. What was striking about Auschwitz in 1991 was that the Jewish nature of the holocaust had been written out almost entirely. Of course, a lot of Poles were murdered in Auschwitz as well, but the impression given at that time was that there was no specifically Jewish aspect of the holocaust.

I am delighted to be able to say that the arrangement of the camp museum has now been thoroughly changed for the better. Primacy is now given to the Jewish nature
29 Jan 2009 : Column 496
of the holocaust, but space is also given to the thousands of non-Jewish victims—including Poles, Roma and homosexuals—who were targeted by the Nazis out of pure prejudice. There is, for example, a Catholic shrine to a Polish victim beatified by Pope John Paul II. That is an extremely sensitive area and more needs to be done, but may I commend the improvement over the past couple of decades in how Poland has dealt with the tragic history of its former Jewish citizens?

The HET rightly includes during its “Lessons from Auschwitz” trip a visit to the excellent new museum of Jewish life in Oswiecim. At the museum, one gets the impression of how important Jewish life was in towns in Poland before 1939. The same is true of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which shows the importance of Jewish life across central and eastern Europe in the years prior to the holocaust.

Finally, let me say a little about Russia. I do not have enough time to go into the details, but I think Russia needs to do more to combat anti-Semitism. Partly, this is a hangover from Soviet times, when, due to foreign policy reasons, anti-Semitism was disgracefully encouraged on political grounds. I saw that in my work in the late 1980s, when I was active in the Soviet Jewry movement on behalf of refuseniks and the student and academic campaign for Soviet Jewry. Anti-Semitism was very much part of the official ideology of the Soviet Union. Therefore, I think Russia would do very well to learn from some of the historical experience of Germany and Poland since 1945.

I commend the work of the HET. Some 64 years after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, it is a challenging role for it to keep learning from that terrible and unique historical experience. It does its job well, and long may that continue.

2.37 pm

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): I start by following the example of other Members, of all parties, who have contributed to the debate, by paying tribute to the HET—to Karen Pollock, Lord Janner and the entire team. They take the lessons of the 1930s and 1940s out to schools, and that is vital. Without that message, the deniers who would lie to people across the world would have strength. They prevent the deniers that strength, and we should praise and commend them for everything that they do; may they go from strength to strength, and long may they continue to keep the memory alive when the survivors are no longer alive.

I would like to pay tribute to somebody else. We may not agree on many things, but on this issue I would like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), who in 1999 proposed a Bill to introduce a day to learn about, and remember, the holocaust. I say to the hon. Gentleman that we owe him a debt of gratitude; thank you.

Next Section Index Home Page