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Thoughts on Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27, 2014

Today I attended the national event to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.  On the 69th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz the gathering at Westminster’s Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre heard readings and testimonies from survivors of the holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe.  I  met Mrs Aaronson, who survived the evacuation of the Lodz ghetto by being forced to clear up the area by the SS.  She was sixteen and had lived in the ghetto for four years.  Now she visits schools for the Holocaust Education Trust, telling her story to today’s teenagers.

We also heard from survivors of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Among the other speakers was Ed Miliband, who spoke movingly of the local people who saved his father’s family in Belgium and his mother in Poland.  The theme of  the 2014 commemoration is “journeys” and each contribution was followed by someone carrying a traditional leather suitcase onto the stage.  I was reminded of the pile of discarded suitcases I saw on my visit to Auschwitz 21 years ago.

I walked over to the conference centre with Dr Azmi, the Chairman of the Remembering Srebrenica project. The Department of Communities and Local Government has funded the project to enable visits to Bosnia, the scene of the most atrocious massacres in Europe since 1945.  We also fund the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and I sit on its advisory board.  Parliament also marks Holocaust Memorial Day each year and I gave the speech on behalf of the government.  Here is what I said:

“I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for leading us in this debate. Many of his remarks had a profound effect on me. To summarise, he said that although the holocaust is in many ways a story of hopelessness and humiliation, it also provides many examples of courage, stoicism and, ultimately, the triumph of the human spirit.

I echo my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown)—she is my hon. Friend—in saying that it has been a privilege to listen to all the speeches that have been made in this debate. That is not always our experience in this Chamber, but everyone has listened intently to every word that has been said today. I have been moved by many of the remarks that colleagues have made. We have shared our different experiences, the ways in which we have encountered the holocaust and how we have responded individually. Perhaps more importantly, we have resolved to act together.

The British mainland escaped the horrors of Nazi occupation. Although some European Jews were able to flee here, most notably through the Kindertransport, for most of us the holocaust is not a family experience. I note that it is for some Members who have spoken. For most of us, our witness and understanding has come through history, literature and perhaps film.

My first knowledge of the holocaust was as a 13-year-old watching the TV series “Holocaust” in the late 1970s. That spurred me to read the only book about the holocaust that I could find at the time, which was “Scourge of the Swastika” by Lord Russell of Liverpool, who was involved in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals. I have never forgotten the table of categorisation in that book for the Nazis’ targets for imprisonment and murder. We are all familiar with the yellow star and the armband, but less often mentioned are the colours and symbols that were used for Gypsies, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the disabled. I was most alarmed by the pink triangle for homosexuals, because at that age I was just coming to terms with what I was.

The first reason to remember the holocaust is to understand that minorities are our friends, our neighbours and our work colleagues. In the twisted minds of those who hold a prejudice, the minority could be ourselves. That is why we should be thankful that we live in a society in which human rights are upheld and in which minorities are our fellow citizens, not outsiders who are confined to legal or physical ghettos.

In recent years, mass knowledge of the holocaust has come through the films with which we are all familiar, but literature and celluloid are no substitutes for real-life experience and testimony. We have all mentioned speeches and visits to museums and monuments. I first went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1992, when frankly it was not usual to do so, during a visit to Poland while inter-railing. I will never forget it. There were very few visitors at that time, and when we followed the line to Birkenau, I climbed the gatehouse tower and looked at the scale of the camp. To those who have not yet been there I say that that is the memory that will live with them; the scale and the industrialisation of mass murder. I was there entirely on my own—no one else—visiting on a hot summer’s day in 1992, and it gave me my own time of quiet contemplation. It is not a visit I have ever wanted to repeat, but like the shadow Minister, I think it is perhaps something I should now do.

I have since been to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank House, and I have also seen the pink triangle memorial in that city—the only known monument to gay people who were murdered by the Nazis. In 2012, I went to Yad Vashem with the Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel, and I was familiar with many of the historical displays there. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire said that he was profoundly affected by the children’s memorial, and no one could not be. What most affected me was the hall of names, where one looks up at a cone of photographs—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs of people who were wiped out by the Nazis, reflected in a dark pit below. I really could not hold it together on that occasion.

The holocaust is a unique event and must be remembered and understood, particularly by young people for whom it is an historical event that took place long before they were born. It is right for the Government to support that, and many hon. Members have mentioned that they work with the Holocaust Education Trust, led by Karen Pollock. It facilitates school visits to Auschwitz, as well as talks in schools, such as those that took place in my constituency, to give young people a vivid account and an unforgettable memory. Of course the most powerful testimony comes from holocaust survivors, such as Auschwitz survivor Freddie Knoller, who is still speaking in schools at the age of 92.

Last Monday I joined several other people now in the Chamber—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) mentioned this—at the Holocaust Educational Trust annual Merlyn Rees memorial lecture, to listen to Thomas Harding tell the fascinating story of his Uncle Hanns and the arrest of the Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss. Thomas Harding discussed how people can turn from being loving fathers to murderous monsters. We are all familiar with the phrase from that time and the excuse that was often used about following orders, but he said that that was perhaps better described as people surrendering their capacity to think to others.

In more recent massacres and genocides we have seen how easy it can still be for people in advanced societies to slip from civilised values into thoughtless barbarity, whether in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, or the current horrific scenes in Syria, where reporters are using the holocaust as a context in which to explain a tragedy unfolding before our eyes. People can still all too easily be led into acts of cruelty and murder.

That is why it is right that this Government—as did the previous Government—support the work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, led by Olivia Marks-Woldman. Its annual act of remembrance on 27 January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, will be marked around the country on Monday. This year’s theme is journeys, and those of us who have seen at Auschwitz the pile of leather suitcases will certainly appreciate the resonance. Next year will be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Prime Minister has set up the Holocaust Commission, chaired by Mick Davis, president of the Jewish Leadership Council. That is because real-life memories are fading as people who remember the holocaust or who were told stories by their parents die. The work of the commission will be to consider how we can keep that testimony live and real, and ensure that those of the next generation comprehend the history, and also learn how to shape their future.

Next year will also be the 20th anniversary of another horrific episode in the history of Europe: the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. I was particularly struck by the two interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who served with NATO in Bosnia. Last year, my Department supported Ummah Help’s Remembering Srebrenica project. We will continue that support in the next year.

History is not just a moment in time studied for curiosity or even for leisure; it also gives us lessons we should learn. Not learning those lessons is a warning about the future. I will end my remarks by quoting a survivor of Buchenwald and Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, who went on to win the Nobel peace prize:

“To forget a holocaust is to kill twice.”


If you want to read all twelve speeches (and they were all excellent) you can do so here


4 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Chappell permalink
    January 29, 2014 9:28 pm

    Is this an attempt to justify your Syria intervention stance (Syria is not an Assad genocide, but like Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya before a Western, Zionist, Saudi Wahabi grab for assets, hegemony and Islamic religious supremacy ) or just that it explains your brainwashing!?

    I suggest some reading from world class jazz saxophonist and author of ‘The Wandering Who’ Gilad Atzmon, born in Israel but who saw through such a racist elitist Zionist regime due to his love of black jazz music

    and Professor Norman Finklestein, whose mother survived the concentration camps, but hates the exploitation of Jewish suffering in his definition The Holocaust Industry – the ultimate cover given to the creation of Israel.

    No one should belittle any human suffering, but there is a primacy that the holocaust is being used as a political weapon to stop any condemnation of Israel in it’s genocide/ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. That the Israel lobby like AIPAC in the USA and CRIF in France have constantly lobbied for attacks against Iran and Syria, sovereign nations, and are still pushing for military action against Iran’s nuclear power ambitions, although Israel is a known holder of around 200 nuclear weapons is a hypocrisy lost on most politicians. That Tony Blair was funded in his bid for Labour leadership by the likes of Lord Levy should not also be lost, especially as Levy’s son was working for the Israeli defence ministry – a bought politician that still bows his head to Zionism.

    When Zionist are controlling the Western governments, allowing no criticism and promoting new wars it can only be another disaster in the waiting for Jews and humanity together.

  2. John Adler permalink
    February 4, 2014 11:03 pm

    A very sensitive and thoughtful series of reflections on the Holocaust, written from acvery persoanl point of view, which is often much more effective than high-minded generalisations.

  3. February 5, 2014 12:26 am

    Thanks John.

  4. Mike Chappell permalink
    February 14, 2014 3:44 pm

    MPs under the Zionist Holocaust Religion oppression via Veterans Today Regs Mike:-

    Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 | Posted by Stuart Littlewood
    Holocaust Hullabaloo: Another MP Intimidated

    Or, how to make enemies of people who aren’t
    by Stuart Littlewood

    The head of the Holocaust Educational Trust, Karen Pollock, has once again succeeded in wringing an apology from a British MP for remarks about what happened to Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe and what is happening now to Palestinians in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank.

    During the same parliamentary debate in which Sir Gerald Kaufman gave Israel a severe rollicking (see Gaza crisis: “We must impose sanctions on Israel,” says British MP) Yasmin Qureshi, MP for Bolton South East, told the House that the suffering in Gaza was intolerable. Let readers judge whether there’s anything to apologise for in what she said:

    “The situation has been going on for nine years. Everyone, from all parties — this is not a party political issue — and every one of our Foreign Secretaries have said, ‘Yes, we think this is wrong, and we all believe in the two-state solution. Yes, we are friends of Israel, and we have told Israel that it should not be doing this.’ But guess what? Nothing has happened….

    “What has struck me in all this is that the state of Israel was founded because of what happened to the millions and millions of Jews who suffered genocide. Their properties, homes and land — everything — were taken away, and they were deprived of rights. Of course, many millions perished. It is quite strange that some of the people who are running the state of Israel seem to be quite complacent and happy to allow the same to happen in Gaza.

    “The issue is not just about Gaza; let us think about the West Bank and Jerusalem as well. Many Palestinians are being turfed out of their homes in Jerusalem. The Israelis are the occupying power in the West Bank, where they have got rid of Palestinian homes and replaced them with hundreds of thousands of settlements, recognised by the United Nations as illegal…. The policy pursued by the state of Israel is not helping to lead to a two-state solution. All it is doing is making Palestinians even more depressed and anxious. They think, ‘What hope is there for us?’, and they rightly ask, ‘What is the international community doing about this?’ Let us face it: if what is happening to Gaza, done by Israel, were happening to any other nation, the whole world would be up in arms, and rightly so.”

    (from Hansard )

    Fair comment? Not according to Ms Pollock. The MP was immediately accused of making “offensive and inappropriate comparisons” about the Middle East, as reported in The Guardian . “We expect our politicians to speak responsibly and sensitively about the past and about events today,” said Pollock. “These lazy and deliberate distortions have no place in British politics. Whilst current events in the Middle East understandably stir emotions, it is astonishing to think that anyone could visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, learn about the industrial nature of the Nazis’ murderous regime, even walk through a gas chamber – and then make these offensive and inappropriate comparisons.”

    Readers will point out that some events in occupied Palestine not only “stir emotions”, as Ms Pollock downplays it, they are plain war crimes.

    In the Jewish Chronicle Labour Friends of Israel director Jennifer Gerber strongly condemned the comparisons between the Holocaust and the situation in Gaza. “In her remarks, she [Qureshi] directly links Israeli policies towards the Palestinian people to the Nazis’ efforts to exterminate world Jewry. This is both deeply offensive to the memory of the Holocaust and its millions of victims, but also wilfully ignorant of the actual situation in Gaza. We would ask Ms Qureshi to apologise for her remarks, and to cease using such upsetting and offensive comparisons.”

    Ms Qureshi replied that she had not intended to draw a direct parallel and felt “personally hurt” that anyone could think so – especially as she had visited one of the most notorious death camps. “The debate was about the plight of the Palestinian people and in no way did I mean to equate events in Gaza with the Holocaust. I apologise for any offence caused.” She does not seem to have withdrawn the remark, however.

    Ordinary people won’t be told what to think or say

    A year ago Liberal Democrat MP David Ward was in hot water for his “use of language” in condemning the Jewish state’s atrocities against the Palestinians while the horrors of their own suffering at the hands of the Nazis were still fresh in their memory. He wrote on his website a few days before Holocaust Memorial Day: “Having visited Auschwitz twice — once with my family and once with local schools — I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”

    The sky promptly fell on him. Karen Pollock and Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews launched a vicious attack with Pollock claiming that Ward “deliberately abused the memory of the Holocaust” and his remarks were “sickening” and had no place in British politics.

    Benjamin said he was outraged and shocked by Ward’s “offensive” comments. He complained: “For an MP to have made such comments on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day is even more distasteful…”

    They demanded the party withdraw the whip. Such was the pressure that wobbly LibDem bosses appointed a team to lay down language rules, determine whether Ward was “salvageable” and then re-educate him.

    After that, in Brighton, the Sussex Friends of Israel turned on MP Caroline Lucas. During a pro-Israel lobby day in Parliament Lucas accused Israel of “blocking humanitarian aid” and “humiliating” the people of Gaza. Simon Cobbs, a founding member of the Sussex Friends of Israel, told The Algemeiner: “The problem we have with Caroline Lucas is that she’s taken a side over and above her own constituency needs.”

    Ms Lucas’s remarks were perfectly valid and there was no way Cobbs could deny it. He should have put his point to the 80 percent of Conservative MPs and MEPs who have signed up with Friends of Israel, an organisation that flies the Israeli flag in the British parliament and promotes Israel’s interests. Such activities are not only “above the needs” but very probably detrimental to the interests of their constituencies.

    Then Colchester MP Sir Bob Russell, speaking during a debate on the national schools curriculum, put a question to Education Secretary Michael Gove about world history lessons, saying: “On the assumption that the 20th century will include the Holocaust, will he give me an assurance that the life of Palestinians since 1948 will be given equal attention?”

    The idea that Israel’s murderous oppression of the Palestinians should be given the same prominence in British schools as the Shoah did not go down well. “These remarks are a shocking piece of Holocaust denigration,” said Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Jeremy Newmark. “There is simply no comparison between the two situations. It is worrying that so soon after the David Ward affair another MP thinks it is acceptable to play fast and loose with the language of the Holocaust in this context.”

    Prickly Ms Pollock also pounced on Russell: “To try to equate the events of the Holocaust – the systematized mass murder of 6 million Jews – with the conflict in the Middle East is simply inaccurate as well as inappropriate.”

    First of all, it isn’t a “conflict”. It’s a brutal occupation and blockade in which millions of innocent civilians have been dispossessed at gunpoint and put to flight, or collectively punished for decades by a military force armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry. As for the atrocities carried out in Nazi-occupied Europe and Israeli-occupied Palestine there is no equivalence in terms of scale. But some similarities are inescapable to those who go and see for themselves. The crucial message of the Holocaust, that such cruelty must never be allowed to happen again, seems lost already.

    Governments may bow to Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism and politicians may be bullied into submission, but civil society won’t stand for it. Ordinary people don’t like to be told what to think or say. They won’t allow honest debate to be shut down. They hold Israel to the same standards expected of all nations. And because Israel won’t respect international law, human rights and other norms, and because its leaders are never held to account for their monstrous crimes, civil society has taken matters into its own hands and turned to measures like BDS.

    True, growing numbers of Jews bravely speak out and condemn Israel. But more need to do so…. because no-one does a better job of abusing the memory of Holocaust victims than the Zionist regime itself, which drove into exile some 700,000 Palestinians in 1947/8 and has had its boot on the necks of those remaining for the 65 years ever since. The advice of Yehoshafat Harkabi, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, is surely ringing in enough ears: “Israelis must be aware that the price of their misconduct is paid not only by them but also Jews throughout the world”.

    Ms Pollock, as a ‘guardian’ of the Holocaust enterprise, has a job to do in promoting the message and defending the memory against detractors. But why make enemies of those who are not? Instead, she might consider taking an educational trip into the occupied Palestinian territories. The Holocaust teacher would benefit from becoming a Nakba student for a few days and learning about the Israelis’ evil Matrix of Control, their theft of Palestinian resources, their strangulation of the Palestinian economy, their frequent air-strikes, the midnight raids of their snatch-squads, the decimation of Gaza’s fishing industry, their imprisonment of children, the obstacles they place in the way of university students and sportsmen and women, their blocking of food, medical and building supplies, the all-round misery and destruction they inflict on everyone, and much, much more.

    Only then would she be in a position to advise MPs on comparisons and how appropriate or inappropriate they are.

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