Holocaust Memorial Day has been a National Day of Commemoration for 22 years. We use the occasion to strengthen our collective memory of the Holocaust, to ensure that lessons learned are passed on. And to intensify efforts to bring safety and justice to those suffering persecution today.
This year’s theme, ‘ordinary people’, supports our purpose. Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust. Ordinary people were victims, but they were also perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses. Ordinary people allowed this to happen. But some ordinary people also became extraordinary during the war. They acted in brave, dangerous and extraordinary ways to save Jews from the fate of extermination.
Roza Robota, imprisoned in Auschwitz in 1942. She helped smuggle explosives to members of the Jewish underground in the camp. When they blew up Crematorium 111 in ‘44 Roza was identified, horrifically tortured and then hanged on 6th January 1945. Roza was 23 years old.
And Captain Frank Foley, a British spy in Germany. After Kristallnacht, he risked his life, obtaining papers, forged passports and visas to help Jews escape. He visited concentration camps with batches of visas to get Jewish prisoners released. He hid Jews in his home in Berlin. He made it possible for an estimated 10,000 Jews to get out of Germany.
These stories and the testimony of every survivor support our understanding and educate us all. It is why, Mr Speaker, I have spoken of my own family’s experiences. My grandfather, who escaped to Britain from Vienna; my grandmother murdered by the Nazis; my uncle gassed at Auschwitz; my sister’s husband who survived through the Kindertransport. I want to keep their stories alive for my family and, through occasions like today, for others – so that we never forget.
My family were just ordinary people. As I prepared for today, I thought about my mother, whose own mother was murdered. My mother died when I was 10, my oldest sister 17. She never, ever talked about our grandmother’s murder. Maybe it was too brutal and distressing. Maybe it was the culture of the time that when people died you were expected to put your feelings in a box and close the door on your loss. Maybe she felt guilty because she survived. Maybe she felt anxious to become accepted in Britain and feared she might stir antisemitism by making her Jewish mother’s death a part of our lives. My mother’s silence was not uncommon. Many survivors felt they could never share their experiences. So we have no idea how this brutal death affected her. The only clue is that, when my younger sister was born in 1947, she was named Marianne, after my grandmother.
My aunt survived the war in the Ardèche, protected by local people. My memories of her in the 1950s were of her waiting for her beloved husband to return. She convinced herself and us he was still alive. Only when we were clearing her flat in Paris did we find papers with his Auschwitz number and confirmation that he had been gassed and killed there. She’d known for years but had never stopped hoping. She never admitted to his being a victim of the Holocaust.
And my father never said much. We coped with our refugee status by working hard at becoming British. Eating cucumber sandwiches and dried fruitcake became more important than recounting the past. But I think we lost something by their silence. Understanding the experience of ordinary people during the Holocaust can be a powerful way to combat rising hatred today. Despite my parents’ silence, my refugee Jewish identity has always been there, equipping me to fight the racist BNP, helping me to fight antisemitism in my own party.
Nine days before she was killed, my grandmother wrote to her son, my uncle. She said: “I am sceptical that we shall ever meet again. Who knows when I can even write to you again.” And then twice she said: “Don’t forget me completely.” Ensuring she is never, ever forgotten is why I am here today and why I champion the brilliant work of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
We know how vital remembering the lives of ordinary people in our history is to understanding and fighting hatred and racism today. Whether it’s in our attempts to help the Uyghurs and the Rohingya Muslims. Whether it’s acting to support the Ukrainians where documented incidents involving potential war crimes, vicious attacks on civilians and the shocking death of children horrify us all. Whether it’s in the condemnation from us all when a member of this House compared the vaccine roll-out with the Holocaust as equivalent crimes against humanity.
The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust recently found 5% of UK adults do not believe the Holocaust took place. And one in 12 believes its scale has been exaggerated. That shocking finding should make us all redouble our efforts to keep the Holocaust history alive. That is why today matters. We, ordinary people, are using our voice today to remember and remind other people of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
I close with the eloquent words of one of my political heroes – Martin Luther King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” With the clothes on his back, this ordinary man changed the world using just his words. An ordinary person achieved extraordinary things.
We must learn from his example and never give up hope that we can make a world free of genocide. We just have to work hard, together. For future generations, for those who suffered in the Holocaust. For me, this is for the grandmother I never knew – may she never be forgotten.
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