Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 10:49 am ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence) 10:49, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and my noble friend Lord Dubs. I refer to my interests in the register, not least my roles with the Antisemitism Policy Trust and HOPE not hate.

I will focus on the importance of bearing witness to evil and the onus on us all to make sure that the truth lives on. My family arrived in the UK in the 1880s, fleeing the pogroms of tsarist Russia. My ancestors fled state-sanctioned violence and arrived here in the hope of a better and safer life. Little did they realise that their choice of final destination was to guarantee the survival of my family. As far as we know, not one of those who chose to remain in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus survived the Shoah. For my family, anti-Jewish hatred is not an academic exercise; it is formative to my understanding of my place in the world.

As they have for many noble Lords, the pogroms and the Shoah have shaped not just my existence but my worldview. My family knows only too well where hate can lead and the importance of security and freedom. We also know the value of truth and the danger of misinformation, distortion and propaganda, which is why bearing witness to horror and evil is so important. It is why people’s stories, as horrendous as some of the details are, need to be heard, repeated, shared and remembered, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day but always.

The facts of history are often too easily forgotten. The sheer scale of the Holocaust, and of the genocides that have followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, enables us to remember facts and statistics but can allow us to ignore or forget the impact on people, families and communities. People’s stories and experiences—their pain and survival—touch our hearts and ensure that we remember where hate and division can lead. Personal testimony also allows us to directly counter propaganda, lies and distortion about some of the greatest crimes that the planet has ever seen.

Your Lordships’ House recognised this principle as soon as the first concentration camps were liberated in 1945. Within days of the liberation of Buchenwald, in April 1945 our Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, asked a delegation of parliamentarians from both Houses to travel to the camp to see the horrors at first hand and bear witness on behalf of our Parliament and our country. Two Members of your Lordships’ House attended on our behalf: Earl Stanhope and Lord Addison. Their experiences were published as The Report of a Parliamentary Delegation by the Prime Minister.

I consider myself quite political and generally better informed than most on matters related to the Holocaust, but I did not know of this report or delegation until a few years ago. Just before the pandemic, my noble friend Lady Golding, a fellow resident of north Staffordshire, gave me some of her parliamentary papers that she thought might be of interest. When I started to go through the box, I realised that they were not just her papers but included some of her father’s, who had been the MP for Caerphilly, including during the war. Ness Edwards was one of the 10 members of the delegation to travel to Buchenwald. My noble friend unfortunately cannot be with us today, but I wish to share the words she used when discussing her father and his experiences during a debate in the other place:

“My father was a member of that delegation. His name was Ness Edwards. He was the hon. Member for Caerphilly for 29 years. I remember him telling me about the horrors of what went on in that camp. They are engraved for ever on my mind and heart.

There has been much talk tonight about the passage of time. I was but a child on the day when I opened the door to my father on his return. He stood there, grey and drawn, and said, ‘Do not touch me. I am covered with lice. Everyone in the camps is covered with lice. We have been deloused many times, but I am still covered with lice.’ He could not sleep for many weeks, and he had nightmares for many years … My father spoke to me and to my brothers and sisters about what he had seen in the camp. He told us of the hanging gibbets. Human beings were put on hooks and hung from under their chins until they died. He told us that the people in charge of the camp rather liked tattoos, and they skinned people and used their skins to make lampshades. They discovered that, when people die, their skin is given to shrinking too quickly, so they tried skinning them alive. My father showed me photographs of piles of bodies on carts. Three weeks later, the allies had not had time to remove them all. He showed me photographs of men in thin clothes, photographs of skeletons, and photographs of men with haunted eyes. I will always remember the look in those men’s eyes—the look of utter bewilderment and incomprehension. They had been starved and beaten, yet their spirit was still there”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/12/1989; col. 901.]

Ness and the nine other representatives of our Parliament did us a huge service by travelling to bear witness. The final paragraph of their report states:

“In preparing this report, we have endeavoured to write with restraint and objectivity, and to avoid obtruding personal reactions or emotional comments. We would conclude, however, by stating that it is our considered and unanimous opinion, on the evidence available to us, that a policy of steady starvation and inhuman brutality was carried out at Buchenwald for a long period of time; and that such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended. The memory of what we saw and heard at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years”.

In recent months, I have thought often of the parliamentarians who chose to travel to the camps to bear witness, who determined that reading testimony and watching Pathé News was not enough and who decided that they needed to be able personally to share their experiences of hell with our Parliament, the Government and future generations. It was in this spirit that I chose to go to Israel last month with Labour Friends of Israel on a solidarity mission to visit the site of yet another pogrom, to meet the survivors and hostage families, to see for myself the devastation and to be able to bear witness for the next generation.

The history of the Jewish community has been filled with too many chapters of pain and death. We are a very resilient community, but the human cost we have paid for our very existence is far too high. My generation was meant to read about the persecution of Jews in history books. Pogroms, death, torture, systematic killing and anti-Jewish propaganda were for my grandparents’ generation. I was meant to live in an enlightened world where humanity and human rights are protected and cherished. I honestly believed that I would never be speaking about a modern-day pogrom, yet that is what happened on 7 October in southern Israel.

I am still struggling to process everything I saw. I could spend the next hour telling your Lordships’ House about the horrors I saw and the survivors I met. I will not do so, but I want to share one story: the experiences of a young woman I met only weeks ago. In Tel Aviv, the survivors of the massacre at the Nova music festival have claimed a space and filled it with the remnants of the festival. A young woman who had survived the massacre joined us as we saw the burned-out cars, the festival toilets riddled with gun holes and the drinks fridges in which people hid from terrorists. She told us of the horrors that had happened in each part of the festival: of the young disabled girl who was burned alive with her father; of the people killed while hiding in toilets; of the running, the rapes, the shooting and the brutality.

They have recreated the lost property area of the festival. It is reminiscent of visiting Kanada at Auschwitz. Every item left behind in the lost property is now evidence of someone who died and has not been able to return to claim it. On screens throughout the venue, there were recordings of the party taken before the massacre—young people dancing and enjoying themselves before hell was unleashed. The images of their laughter and joy are burned into my memory, because so few of them survived. Nova was a trance music festival. I did not even know what it was, but apparently Israel leads the world in trance music DJs. As we toured the exhibition, we listened to their music. I had to stop when one of the songs was a trance version of the Hatikvah, as I stood in the remnants of a massacre.

Our guide told us not just of her personal trauma on 7 October, and how her life was saved because her boyfriend made them flee five minutes before everyone else, but of what happened to her in the hours and days that followed. She spoke of watching on a video call her best friend running for her life, desperately trying to get away from the terrorists, and the moment of complete horror when she heard a shot and the call ended. She told me about how she struggled to get hold of her friends as the day progressed and her fear of not knowing who was alive and who was dead, as she hid in a house on the edge of the festival not knowing whether the terrorists were going to find them next.

Our guide explained that, in the days that followed, she had to choose which funerals to go to. She had lost 20 friends; her boyfriend had lost 45. There were too many funerals, and she could not attend them all. She could not say goodbye. Her story is one of thousands that happened on 7 October. Already, however, people are trying to downplay the attacks to distort the facts and claim lies and smears. It is our job to make sure people know what really happened.

To finish, I will touch on the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim hate that has followed on our streets since 7 October. Not a day has gone past when members of our community are not scared. I am therefore so grateful to CST and its extensive network of volunteers, who are doing everything they can to try to keep us safe when others are trying to hurt us. There cannot be any room for bad faith actors who want to make political gain by exploiting the fear of those touched by 7 October and the awful war that has followed in Gaza. Together, we must resist the efforts to divide us.

As Holocaust Memorial Day has reminded us this year, our freedoms are all too fragile. There is a responsibility on all of us to do everything we can to protect and cherish them. The work of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust do extraordinary work to remind us where the hate can lead. However, the onus is on us to listen and to act so that this time, “never again” really does mean never again.