Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 11:41 am ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 11:41, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, it is an honour and a privilege to participate in this incredibly important debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, for opening it and for the care with which she did so, discussing not only the Holocaust but the present-day situation. I associate myself with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, that we ought to think about making this an annual debate because, as we have heard from right across the Chamber, it is vital that we never forget, yet we have also heard from right across the Chamber how bad we are that we seem to forget and we seem to repeat.

Before I say what I plan to say, I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, as everyone would expect. We all know him in this House and the important contribution he has made to our country, but he also reminds us of the importance of those people who came as refugees as children. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Austin, for his personal memories, and the noble Baroness, Lady Anderson, for reading the words of Ness Edwards, because they were so moving. However many Holocaust memorial books and memoirs I have read, I have never heard some of those points, so that has been incredibly important. Putting it on the record is vital.

I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Polak, for giving us the words of Sammy Barnett. I think the convention in your Lordships’ House is that I am not supposed to address somebody who is not a Member in this Chamber, so I will do so in a very convoluted way. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Polak, for reading the words of Sammy Barnett, which were so moving: a young person of today, so moved by the events of 80 years ago that he can still bring a shiver to our spines by reminding us of the horrors of the Holocaust, of extermination and the concentration camps. It is truly moving and truly horrific. We have a duty to ensure that we fight in our words, in our actions and with our characters, as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, put it, to make sure “never again” becomes not an empty phrase but something we can all live by.

The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, mentioned the importance of education. I am a Roman Catholic. My co-religionists have not always been as pro-Jewish as they might have been. I had in my Catholic primary school some very good teaching, and I remember what one of my Catholic teachers in my infant school, when I would have been six or seven. She would not have used the word “anti-Semitic” to six year-olds, but she said, “Jesus was a Jew, and we need to remember that”. From the age of six, I understood the importance of being—is the word a “Semitophile”? That is, I understood how important it was to treat each and every Jewish person with the same respect as I would anybody else. At various times I have said to people how important it is that we ensure we respect all our Jewish friends and colleagues. Education, even for six year-olds, can be hugely important, and I am very grateful to that teacher for ensuring that I could be slightly more open-minded than the average six year-old in a Catholic community might have been at the time.

Education is so important. From a certain generation onwards in the United Kingdom, I think we all learned about the Holocaust. I learned about Kristallnacht when I was about 10 and was made to read the diary of Anne Frank at secondary school. I say “made to read” because it was a text that we were given as English literature. Why it counted as English literature I am not quite sure, given that Anne Frank did not write in English and it was in some ways appropriate not so much for English literature as for history. I was born in 1969. How recent was that history when I was reading about the life of Anne Frank?

Last night, I watched the film that was made in 1959 based on Anne Frank’s diaries, which had been curated by her father. I say to Sammy and anybody else who feels they are too young to look at what happened in Treblinka or at Auschwitz that those people who lived through confinement and then moved to the concentration camps were sometimes very young. Anne Frank was only 15 when she died. In her diary, she talked about the changes in her life and said, “We couldn’t do this and we couldn’t do that, but life goes on”. Of course, tragically for Anne Frank, most of her family and 6 million other Jews, life did not go on.

As part of the legacy of the Holocaust, we have, through Raphael Lemkin, the definition of genocide. With all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Austin, I hope that your Lordships will feel it appropriate to mention two other genocides. I note that the Holocaust Educational Trust says that Holocaust Memorial Day encourages us to remember the 6 million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust, but also to remember all those affected by subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

I put my name down to speak because the genocide in Rwanda was 30 years ago. At the time, I was a graduate student in Oxford, writing about the European Parliament. I was visiting a friend in Italy in 1994, and she had invited to tea a Catholic priest from Rwanda. He said to me, “Please do something about what is happening in my country. You’re involved in politics. Do something”. I was 24. Yes, I was a member of a political party, but I was not a Member of the European Parliament, I was studying it. What could I do?

The honest answer is that I did nothing. I thought, “Shall I write to somebody?” But I did not. I felt helpless. Thirty years on, I still feel a sense of culpability—that somebody said, “Do something for my country, where there is a genocide”. So one thing that is so important is that when someone has a platform and the ability to stand up and be counted, they should do it.

So not only must we remember the Holocaust but we must pay tribute to those people who have died in subsequent genocides. I hope that, when I stand up in your Lordships’ House and talk about China and the Muslims in Xinjiang, as I sometimes do, there is a reason for doing that: genocide still persists and we need to be willing to stand up and be counted. As my noble friend Lady Ludford pointed out, we need to stand up and support our Jewish friends and those in Israel who are facing unimaginable horrors—but we need to stand up also for those who face genocide elsewhere in this world right now.

Finally, I will mention a visit that I made to Srebrenica in 2021. More than a quarter of a century after the genocide against Bosniak Muslim men and boys, the mothers in particular still weep for their sons. They are still trying to find the relics of their sons, because one of the most horrible things that was done was not just the killing of those men and boys but the dismemberment, because, if you did not bury a whole body, it would be much harder for anybody later to identify the corpse. There are families still looking to find another bone of their lost relative. Genocide is not just about those who are killed. It is about all of those who are affected by it: mothers, brothers, sisters, children and grandchildren. All of them can be affected by genocide.

Our Jewish friends in the state of Israel have all been marked by the Holocaust. We keep hearing, “Never again”. We must make sure that we all stand up to be counted and do whatever we can to stop genocide and crimes against humanity wherever they are. We must ensure that anti-Semitic crimes and Islamophobia are eliminated in this country as soon as possible.