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29 Apr 2009 : Column 289WH—continued

Jane was on leave in Scotland when world war two broke out. She immediately returned to Budapest to help the Jewish children. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, the missionaries were ordered back to the safety of Scotland. Jane disobeyed the order and remained to take care of the children. She said:

Her sister later recalled:

The children came under increasing threat, and Jane protected them to the best of her ability. She was denounced to the Nazi authorities and, when the SS raided the place in early May, she was arrested and thrown in jail on charges of British espionage and helping Jews. Jane and some of the children were later deported to Auschwitz. Those of us who have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau can only imagine the hell on Earth. The secondary pupils who were with me on the visit left thinking deeply about what man has done to man.

Jane Haining supported the children throughout the short time that she was at Auschwitz. In a period of three months, it is recorded that some 1.3 million people were killed, including Jane Haining. She refused to reject her children. She died for her beliefs and was gassed along with a group of Hungarian women on 16 August 1944 at the age of 47. As she was a British
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citizen and passport holder, the Church of Scotland was sent her death certificate, which indicated that she had been arrested on justified suspicion of espionage against Germany and that she had died in hospital on 17 July.

Jane Haining, like a number of other British heroes of the holocaust, was recognised in 1997. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial in Jerusalem, awarded Jane a medal and a place among “the righteous among the nations” for her selfless dedication to the children. She has been remembered in the stained glass windows of Queen’s Park church in Glasgow. At the local church in Dunscore, a dedicated group of local people have erected a cairn and a plaque to her memory.

The time is now right officially to recognise such individuals, who risked everything, including their own lives, to assist others during those dark times. In recent years, the Government have shown support for civilians who have given a commitment during the war years by officially recognising them. The Bevin boys, the land army girls and lumber Jills are perfect examples of that.

At the end of last week, it was reported that Prince Charles was proud of the role that his grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, played during the second world war, when she hid Jews in the Royal palace in Athens. The indications are that Prince Charles will appear in the film, “The Rescuers: Heroes of the Holocaust”, which tells the stories of 12 individuals who helped to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. Individual recognition is needed for the British heroes of the holocaust.

I want to make a further request to my right hon. Friend the Minister—I assure him that I do not have a shopping list. In this place, in the vicinity of the Admission Order Office, there is a plaque on which it is inscribed:

In my contribution—I am drawing to a close now—I said that Jane Haining is remembered locally with a small memorial in her home village and a stained glass window in a church in Glasgow. Other British heroes of the holocaust have been recognised in different ways within their communities. A collective contribution of such brave individuals merits a memorial. I recognise that it is not the Government’s role to provide memorials—even if it were, the job would not fall to the Cabinet Office and my right hon. Friend the Minister. I say to him that this matter of recognition of the British heroes of the holocaust will only be completed when our nation has a memorial. I plead with him to consider further co-operation and assistance with the Holocaust Educational Trust and others to ensure that in some shape and form and in some location a memorial is erected. I thank the Minister in advance for what I hope will be some good news for us today.

2.46 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on securing it. I was equally privileged to co-sponsor early-day motion 1175, out of which this debate has come. I agree with much of what he has said, as I am sure all hon. Members present do.

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We are here to talk about a number of extraordinary individuals and the effect that they have had on all of us today, and will have in future. We are right to look at those individuals in some detail. We have heard already about the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. I want to say a word or two about the constituent through whom I have come to this issue. I am grateful in this, as in many other things, to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has done a great deal to draw attention to these issues.

The trust drew my attention to June Ravenhall. The hon. Gentleman mentioned her and she also appears in the early-day motion. She originally came from Kenilworth and settled in Rugby, thereby neatly encapsulating both parts of my constituency. Her son, Ron, is a councillor in Rugby—not, I fear to say, for the right party, but one cannot have everything.

Ron has been enthusiastic and dedicated in drawing out the memories of his mother. He talks about her, as well he should, with considerable pride. June Ravenhall was a British woman who moved to Holland during the war and sheltered the young Jew, Louis Velleman, who was sought by the Gestapo. Moreover, he had tuberculosis, putting not only June but her three young children at considerable risk. June continued to shelter him even though she knew that any discovery, or knock on the door, would lead both to her death and considerable peril for her young children. She did all that alone because her husband was in a Nazi concentration camp. We can all agree that sustained and remarkable courage of that nature deserves recognition. I share the hope of the hon. Gentleman that that recognition will begin today with whatever the Minister is able to say that the Government can do.

Interestingly, when Ron Ravenhall wrote a book, which was partly about June’s life, he described how Louis Velleman explained how he felt about what June Ravenhall had done for him. I shall quote from the book:

That may not have been exactly the right word to describe what June Ravenhall did, but we would all be mad were we not to take the opportunity presented to us by the lives and acts of such remarkable people to draw what lessons we can.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the lessons. Those people were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I have little doubt that if any of them knew about this debate, they would be amazed and deeply humbled. In my view, that makes them more deserving of any honours we can give them. The lessons we can draw are clear: people may have an ordinary background and they may have unlikely qualifications for heroism, but it lies in the most unlikely places. There were many heroes in that period of our history, but not all wore a uniform. Those people did not wear a uniform and they demonstrated remarkable heroism. They tell us that it is possible, in the face of unimaginable evil, such as we saw in Europe in the 1940s, for relatively ordinary, unexpected heroes to arise and to do remarkable things.

As hon. Members have said, it is right that we recognise that the threat has not gone away. Nazism and anti-Semitism are not dead, nor is hatred of the kind we have been
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talking about. Sometimes it sleeps, but we must always be prepared for it to reawaken, even within our own communities. June Ravenhall and others who have been mentioned show us that, even if people do not feel that they are cut out for heroism, they can show by their actions that they can stand up against almost impossible threats and demonstrate what individuals can do. That is a lesson that we could learn well in today’s society.

We can say, “We can do it too” only if we know of the existence of those people and what they did. It is striking how little is known about them. Perhaps all hon. Members are struck by how little they knew about such people before they were drawn to their attention. It is important that our fellow countrymen and countrywomen know about them and what they did, so that they can believe that even in the face of overwhelming evil, they can play a part and stand up against it. That is why I am proud to support the suggestion of the hon. Gentleman. I am hopeful that the Minister will be able to tell us that it will be taken up, for the benefit of people today and people in future years.

2.53 pm

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown) on securing this debate. I should like to talk about a man for whom I have a great deal of admiration. He has already been mentioned. His name is Frank Foley, but some refer to him as the “British Schindler”.

Frank was remarkable. We in Stourbridge like to think of him as a son of Stourbridge—he retired there—but he was born in Somerset. He has been a source of great pride and inspiration. When I was a teacher, I used to talk about Frank Foley and his deeds. It is an inspiration when we hear about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, particularly to young people. I used to walk children down the street where he lived—we do not even have a plaque there, but there is one in the local park—and they saw that he lived in an ordinary house in an ordinary street in an ordinary town called Stourbridge. That is a powerful image for young people.

Frank was born in Somerset in 1884. He was recruited as a spy, and following stints in France and Cologne, he was posted to Berlin, where he worked as a passport control officer. Of course, that was a cover for his main duties as head of the British Secret Intelligence Service station. During the ’20s and ’30s, he successfully recruited agents and acquired key details of German military research and development, but it is primarily through his work as a passport control officer that he earned the nickname of the “British Schindler”. He saved tens of thousands of lives by providing papers to allow Jewish people to escape from Nazi Germany. He would bend the rules when he was stamping passports and visas to allow Jews to escape legally to Britain and Palestine. However, he went further, even going into internment camps to get Jews out, sheltering people in his own home and helping them to get forged passports.

Frank also used his hiding place to brief foreign journalists. That was particularly important, because it meant that more information came out about the increasing persecution of Jews in the Third Reich. He worked very long hours—from 7 o’clock in the morning to 10 o’clock at night without a break on most days—and personally
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handled as many applications as he could to keep the operation tight. He gave comfort and advice to those who were waiting for their applications to be processed. Even after the passport office closed in ’39, he continued to help Jews to escape. In the first week of the war, the US embassy was using youth certificates that he had signed to send hundreds of Jewish children to Scandinavia, or to Palestine via Italy.

Frank’s actions were carried out at great personal danger. He had no diplomatic immunity and he could have been arrested at any time. He received no financial rewards for his actions. He risked his life every day simply because he believed it was the right and moral thing to do. After the war, he was involved in hunting ex-SS members and ran a network of double agents called the double cross system. At the 1961 trial of Nazi colonel Adolf Eichmann, who is sometimes referred to as the architect of the holocaust, Foley was described as the “Scarlet Pimpernel” for the way in which he risked his own life to save others—he was very difficult to pin down.

In ’49, Frank retired to Stourbridge, where he remained until his death. His bravery has been recognised in various ways but, unfortunately, not until after his death. Furthermore, many of the thousands of Jews who were helped to safety by forged visas that he supplied do not know his name—when they arrived in Palestine with visas that they knew they ought not to have, it is hardly surprising that they kept their heads down. It is only in recent years that the true extent of his bravery and the huge number of people that he rescued has begun to come to light.

In October 1999, Frank was given the status of righteous among the nations. Closer to home, we in Stourbridge have recognised him with a remembrance plaque in Mary Stevens park. A statue of him has been erected in Highbridge, where he was born—it was paid for by volunteer fundraisers—and there is a plaque that pays tribute to him at the British embassy in Berlin.

I have started an annual Frank Foley lecture in my constituency with my colleague, the Minister for the West Midlands, which brings people together to remember Mr. Foley and to hear talks from experts. This year, we welcomed Michael Smith, who has written a book about him and who has carried out much of the original research into his life. We also heard from Zigi Shipper, who is a holocaust survivor. He spoke movingly about his experience. The lecture is an important way to commemorate locally those who died in the holocaust and to let more people know about the stories of incredible people such as Frank Foley. The most gratifying thing was that many young people were there, some of whom had benefited from Government funding for the Holocaust Educational Trust’s excellent programme of visits to Auschwitz. I, too, have been privileged to make that trip.

This time last year, I tabled an early-day motion that called for the current statutes governing the honours system to be changed, to allow a posthumous knighthood to be awarded to Frank Foley and other rescuers of the holocaust. It received 111 signatures, which shows the strength of feeling on the issue and the cross-party support for such a move. The Cabinet Office has a list of criteria for individuals to be considered for honours,
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particularly civilian honours. I think that Frank Foley fulfils many of them. He carried the respect of his peers, improved the lot of those less able to help themselves and displayed moral courage and vision in making and delivering tough choices time and again.

I appreciate that membership of the Order of Chivalry ceases on death, but it was impossible to recognise Frank Foley’s acts while he was alive because he was bound by the Official Secrets Act, which prevented him from telling anyone about his work in Berlin and the tens of thousands of people he saved. To put it simply, very few people knew about his extraordinary bravery until it was too late to thank him. I ask the Minister to make a special exemption in this case and to recognise an incredible man who asked for no reward during his lifetime, but who none the less deserves the highest award that we can bestow on him.

One of the things that I find so amazing about Frank Foley’s story is that after his time in Germany, where he accomplished extraordinary things and saved so many lives, he retired to live an ordinary life in an ordinary house in Stourbridge. It goes to show that extraordinary deeds can be accomplished by ordinary people, which is truly inspirational. It is a vital learning experience, particularly for youngsters. I urge the Minister to change the honours system, so that heroes such as Frank Foley can be given the recognition of an honour. It is the least that they deserve.

3.1 pm

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), whom I congratulate on her work to bring to the forefront of public consciousness the heroism, magnanimity and immense humanity of Frank Foley. I have had the pleasure of reading Michael Smith’s book, which is, exactly as she has said, a revelation. Some hon. Members may be familiar with the wartime film “Pimpernel Smith”, starring the late Leslie Howard, who himself did not survive the war, as a quiet academic who secretly rescues people from the jaws of death. Frank Foley was Pimpernel Smith in reality.

We have taken a very long time to recognise and acknowledge such heroes, who quietly went back into obscurity—that is, those of them who lived not to tell the tale but at least to resume their lives. It is hard to know why we have taken so long to recognise our own heroes. One or two of them were known early on, but not always for what they did in terms of the holocaust. I have in mind Charles Coward, whose story was made into the famous and gripping film “The Password is Courage”, a prisoner-of-war drama about how that irrepressible young man caused mayhem to his German captors. However, the part for which we remember him today was considered too grim to be included in the film. When he was put to work at Monowitz, near the Auschwitz extermination centre, he worked surreptitiously to save Jews from the jaws of death and to convey explosives to those who eventually blew up the crematoriums. The story emerged earlier than most—this was hinted at in earlier contributions—because of the Nuremberg trials. Charlie Coward was mentioned at the trials for his heroism in exposing the dastardly extermination programme created by Hitlerism. As a result, a book was written that went into some depth
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about what he did in Auschwitz, but, as I have said, that was considered too grim for the feature film to do more than talk about; sketches were included to give a rough idea of the conditions in which that hero operated.

It is always heart-warming for me to hear non-Jewish parliamentary colleagues—I come from a Jewish background myself—taking the trouble to initiate a debate of this sort. I sometimes hesitate to get involved, because I feel that in a sense, it means so much more when someone whose family was not affected by the events that we are discussing takes an interest in them. For many years, the Jewish community was perhaps reluctant to draw too much attention to what happened. Sometimes, I think, people felt ashamed that they had not resisted more. But it is pretty well impossible to resist when one is a civilian being rounded up by armed paramilitaries or men in military uniform.

The amazing thing is that there was so much resistance. Of the half-dozen principal extermination centres, there were revolts at three. I have mentioned that the crematoriums at Auschwitz were blown up, but the Sobibor camp and the Treblinka camp, where my family were exterminated, were destroyed completely in uprisings by the inmates. To do such a thing in such desperate conditions is a mark of heroism that also deserves more recognition than it has been given.

When I was a young man, I learned less about Charlie Coward—the Nuremberg trials were before my time—than about Raoul Wallenberg, who everyone taking part in this debate has heard of. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved tens of thousands of Jews in precisely the same way as Frank Foley. He rescued people from the jaws of death, putting himself in mortal danger, and having come through it all against the Nazis, was arrested by the Russians, hauled off to the gulag and never seen again. At that time, I had no idea that any British person, other than on the smaller scale of Sergeant Coward, had done anything of the sort. I pay tribute to Michael Smith for his excellent book, which was instrumental in giving us the pride of knowing that we had our own Raoul Wallenberg in Frank Foley.

I have also been privileged to read profiles of other heroes supplied by the Holocaust Educational Trust. I draw attention to one of the briefer passages in the little dossier sent by the trust. It refers to 10 British prisoners of war—John Buckley, Alan Edwards, Willy Fisher, Bert Hambling, George Hammond, Bill Keeple, Roger Lechford, Tommy Noble, Bill Scruton and Stan Wells—who discovered a young Jewish girl, a teenager called Sara Rigler, who had escaped from a death march outside Danzig. They smuggled her into their prisoner of war camp and hid her in a hayloft. As a result, she survived the war.

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