Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:14 am ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Ceidwadwyr 11:14, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Austin. I first pay tribute to the Minister for the way she introduced this debate. To the noble Lord, Lord Dubs: I have no adequate words for your heroism. The noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, spoke so bravely and importantly. She will know, as many Members of this House will know, that in Yad Vashem there is an avenue of the righteous. I am sure as a fellow Jew she will concur with me that as for the speeches we have heard so far from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lords, Lord Stevens, Lord Pickles and Lord Austin—they are all members of that avenue of the righteous. I pay tribute to them all. As I have said a number of times, it is on a day like this that we miss the late Lord Sacks, who would have known exactly what to say.

The horrors of the past cast long shadows over our present. Although we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day annually, this year, as has been said, we not only reflect on the enduring scars of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but we mourn and grapple with the anguish caused by Hamas’s barbaric massacre on 7 October, which the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, described. It was an unprecedented anti-Semitic attack marking a dark chapter reminiscent of the Holocaust itself.

The Holocaust stands as an indelible mark on human history, a stark reminder of the depths to which humanity can descend when prejudice, hatred and discrimination go unchallenged. The testimonies of survivors echo through time, urging us to ensure that such atrocities never find a place in our world again. Yet, as we stand today, we find ourselves struggling to comprehend how, once more, the Jewish people are confronted with ominous signs of history repeating itself.

Our commitment to “never again” feels rather fragile and shallow. Our pledge must extend beyond rhetoric; it demands tangible actions. As I stated in this Chamber just last week, a few days after 7 October, I had a phone call from my daughter. She said, “Grandpa, do you love your grandchildren?” I said, “Natasha, what do you mean?” She said, “Should we send them to school?” That is a Jewish state school in Finchley in 2024, and my family are scared to send their children—my grandchildren—to school.

In an era where social media—and unfortunately, in some cases, the mainstream news outlets—are rife with misinformation, education remains a powerful weapon in our arsenal against ignorance and prejudice. By teaching the lessons of history, we empower the next generation to build a world rooted in tolerance, understanding and respect. In preparation for today’s debate, I was shown a short speech delivered by a young pupil from Immanuel College, who spoke at a Holocaust Memorial Day assembly at school. I believe it is instructive and appropriate to share the insights of this young student, Sammy Barnett, who is sitting here with us in the Gallery today with his teacher, Mr Stephen Levey. Sammy’s perspective offers a first-hand account of the transformative power of learning. His experiences illuminate the impact that well-crafted education can have on shaping minds, fostering a future marked by compassion and unity. I will now read some of his words:

“My name is Sammy Barnett and in November, I went on the Immanuel College Year 12 Poland trip. I would like to share some reflections with you. Before the trip I was told that it would be life changing. Being so young, I could not understand how this could be. But it was!

I would like to take you to the second day of the trip when we visited the Treblinka extermination camp. I quickly noticed the differences between an extermination camp as opposed to a concentration camp in that the sole purpose of it was to murder all those who were sent there. Over 850,000 Jewish people were murdered there in a span of only 11 months, yet there were no remnants of the camp, except for—stones. Knowing all of this, I quietly walked around Treblinka reflecting on what had taken place here. I looked at all the stones; each one representing a destroyed community. Each one a village, town or city where there was a Jewish community and where the Jewish people were murdered. It would have been hard enough had each stone represented a person, but that was not the case. Each stone represented whole communities, each one its own universe. In 1943, once it had fulfilled its purpose Treblinka was destroyed by the Nazis to remove the evidence that there was once an extermination camp. I could not come to terms with the fact that the average stay for a person at Treblinka was 42 minutes. And that we were here standing on where hundreds of thousands were murdered, was truly humbling.

Then, at the closing ceremony one of the teachers on the trip (Mr Levey) spoke about a survivor who he knew well—Alec Ward. He told us that Alec had survived the Holocaust but had lost every member of his family. My teacher said that Alec was often asked the question, Do you hate the Nazis for what they did to you? His response was always the same: ‘I implore you not to hate, as if I had hated the Nazis as much as they hated me, I would never have survived’.

These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind and even more so when we visited Majdanek concentration camp the following day. Majdanek is 5 kilometres from the centre of the Polish city of Lublin and upon arrival we all noticed the stark contrast between Majdanek and Treblinka. In Treblinka, nothing was there, only the echoes of what had been. But in Majdanek you felt as if it were still almost functioning, as the gas chamber and crematorium are still standing. Whilst there, sitting parallel to the gas chambers, my legs began to shake, my eyes began to swell up and I reflected on the words of Alec Ward. Whilst sadness was a prevalent emotion, I felt extreme hatred towards all those who perpetrated the crimes in their attempt to wipe out all of the Jewish people. I was feeling this nearly 80 years later and I was perplexed how a man who experienced it all (and survived) didn’t feel any of the hatred that I did.

I left the chambers crying and we were given time for contemplation. The teacher who had spoken about Alec (Mr Levey) saw me crying and came over. I told him that I thought that I was not old enough to experience what I had seen these past few days. I could not understand how all of this had occurred and I was unable to deal with my emotions. He told me that ‘nobody is ever old enough to understand. It is impossible to wrap our heads around what happened here 80 years ago and with all that is going on in Israel, we have to try and understand it as best as we can so as to ensure it is not repeated.’ I then started to realise why a visit like this to Poland was life changing and the importance of retelling the stories so that history does not repeat itself”.

He went on:

“I was in Israel for the festival of succot and I was trapped for a few days unable to leave. The 7th of October is a day I will simply never forget as long as I live; everything was just so different. Hearing the sirens (and for those who have heard it before know) it’s one of the scariest and most gutwrenching noises you will experience. Your heart almost feels like it’s down to your stomach and you feel sick; as if there is a hole there. The noise of the rockets exploding overhead as they are knocked out of the sky by the Iron Dome sent shivers down my spine. It’s something I wish nobody would have to experience. It was with this background that only a few weeks later I landed in Warsaw with my Immanuel College teachers and friends.

So how do I feel now? After being in Poland and seeing the depths to which humanity sank and hearing about the barbarism of Hamas, at times my faith has wavered, and I find myself asking how could a benevolent God allow such atrocities to happen? But then, when I really think about it, we, the Jewish people have gone through tragic times and yet we are still here today. When we look back at the history of the Jewish people, in every generation we have been oppressed or persecuted, but we have not just survived, we have flourished. In times like this I believe, there is nothing more important than turning to God … speaking and praying to Him.

It is my personal prayer to God, that during this fighting, there will soon be an end to this conflict, with a secure and lasting peace in the state of Israel. I hope you can all join me in praying for this outcome”.

Sammy’s testimony and eloquence serve as a poignant expression of the transformative power of education and the importance of remembering and of educating our youth. As we reflect on the horrors of the Holocaust and the recent attack, we are faced with the stark reality that the echoes of hatred and intolerance persist.

Alec Ward, whom Sammy mentioned, was a very much-loved member of my community. Sammy was right: he showered everyone with love and spoke to us all regularly about his experience. He was born on 1 March 1927, in Lublin, and passed away in 2018; he was a special man. His essence was summed up after his death by Karen Pollock, the chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust. She said:

“Alec Ward was a wonderful man. He dedicated his life to ensuring the world remembered what happened during the Holocaust, reliving his most painful memories to ensure that the horrors of the past would not be forgotten. He had a warmth and kindness that shone through, even when talking about the darkest of times”.

For Stephen Levey and I, and the rest of our community in Borehamwood, the special tune he used to sing at festivals in the synagogue—the tune from his shtetl from when he was a child—is still with us to this day and will remain with us for ever.

Today, we are united in commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and honouring the resilience of those who endured. Let us heed Sammy’s call for action. Education, as is exemplified by his journey, remains the most potent weapon against ignorance and prejudice. It is incumbent on us to impart the lessons of history and to cultivate a world rooted in tolerance, understanding and respect for human dignity—something that seems lost and foreign right now. May Sammy’s prayer for a secure and lasting peace in the whole of the Middle East and throughout the world resonate with us all. In the face of adversity, let our commitment to “never again” extend beyond rhetoric to tangible actions that promote a future free from the shadows of hatred and discrimination.