Holocaust Memorial Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:56 pm ar 2 Chwefror 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Baroness Taylor of Stevenage Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 1:56, 2 Chwefror 2024

My Lords, I have commented before about the absolute privilege of listening to debates in your Lordships’ House, but today’s debate has been even more extraordinary in hearing the testimony of so many noble Lords with deep, passionate and personal commitment to Holocaust Memorial Day. The incredible personal testimonies and witness have been emotional and deeply meaningful. I thank the Minister for leading the debate, and for her compassion and commitment, which were very clear from her opening remarks.

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken so powerfully. It is always invidious to single people out, but I do not care about that; I am going to do it anyway. I thank my wonderful noble friend Lord Dubs for his remarkable testament and his remarkable life. We all love him, and we are so grateful that he is here. I thank Nicky Winton for saving my noble friend so that he can be here with us today: it is such a privilege to be in this House with him. I also thank the ancestors of my inspirational noble friend Lady Anderson for fleeing to this country so that she can be with us today. I thank her for her vivid reflections on her visit to Israel. I also mention my noble friend Lady Merron for the outstanding work that she has done with the Jewish community over so many years, and for making us so proud when she represented the Jewish community at the King’s Coronation recently.

Such horrors as we saw in the Nazi massacre of a generation of European Jews, and the genocides that have followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur, can feel beyond the limited capacity of the only words we have to express them, but the weight of history demands that we do what we can to recognise so many precious lives lost. We remember them and, as others have said, their potential, which was so devastatingly cut short. At the heart of our remembrance is our commitment to strive always to act on the lessons learned. Yet we hear again of the dreadful anti-Semitism after 7 October, and we witness on our streets the horrors of anti-Semitism, including horrible scenes on television, such as the pictures of hostages that were posted by their friends and relatives being torn down from hoardings in London just a few weeks ago.

As I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, the long shadow of the Second World War was ever present and real for my parents and grandparents. The trauma they had been through and the long, painful legacy that war leaves for those affected by it were ever present. My family is not Jewish, but our roots are in the East End of London, where there was a significant Jewish community whom they worked and lived alongside—as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Gold. As news emerged, both during and after the war, of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, it was felt deeply even by those whose families were not directly impacted. The heartbreak for the families and those who had managed to escape to this country was incalculable and unimaginable.

Our parents and grandparents made sure that we understood that, while we could never feel the depth of pain of the Jewish community, we had an absolute duty and responsibility to educate ourselves about what had happened, to learn the lesson from it and pass it on to future generations. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, referred to that responsibility of those of us who are not Jewish.

All across the country now, there are services and events to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. I worked with our small liberal Jewish community in Stevenage to initiate ours around 13 years ago. We are blessed to have in our community the formidable Gillian and Terry Wolfe who have supported us, led by their wonderful Rabbi Danny Rich and lay reader Linda Paice. I say a huge thank you and pay tribute—as others have—to the Holocaust Educational Trust and Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which provide such enormous support nationally for this type of civic engagement, as well as many other activities.

On Monday night in Stevenage, our moving and emotional Holocaust Memorial Day event heard extremely powerful testimonies from the charity, Generation 2 Generation. As many of the survivors and witnesses are now reaching an age when the demands of travelling and speaking become too much, Generation 2 Generation is supporting them to pass the baton to their children and grandchildren. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, mentioned the grandson of Lily Ebert, and these people are doing similar witness. Our first witness that evening was Anita Peleg, the chair of Generation 2 Generation, on behalf of her mother, Naomi Blake. Anita used her mother’s photographs and audio recordings of her mother telling her own story; we heard that Naomi, then Zissi Düm, was born in 1924 in Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia, to a large Jewish family within a thriving Jewish population.

Naomi’s settled life changed from one day to the next in 1944, as the German-backed Hungarian regime took over. She and all her family, friends and neighbours in Mukačevo were marched into a ghetto. By 1944, all the Jews had fled or been deported. Naomi’s words are a sharp echo of the theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day: the fragility of freedom. She said: “One feels that one has nice neighbours, reliable neighbours, but that can all change in a moment”.

Other noble Lords have referred to the conditions that were imposed. They were imposed in Hungary as well: Jews only allowed to walk in the road; Jews cannot leave home after dark; Jews forbidden to meet in groups; Jews forbidden to study; Jewish men to be taken to forced labour camp; Jews not allowed to own businesses. Things went from bad to worse for Naomi and her family as, in April 1944, they were taken five kilometres out of town and then put into cattle trucks to Auschwitz. She was then moved to Stutthof concentration camp, where prisoners were subjected to awful punishments including being made to stand in scorching sun for hours with no protection. Naomi was then moved to Brahnau concentration camp, where she and her sister worked in a munitions factory. There, the women workers at least were able to retaliate a little, as they passed on the skills involved in sabotaging the bombs that they were assembling for the Nazis, ensuring that they would never work.

We have heard about starvation being used as a weapon to keep prisoners in order. In those camps, with food so scarce, understandably it became unbelievably precious to them. One prisoner had a battered picture of bread from her family’s bakery that she would look at in bed to imagine herself back in the time when there was plenty. Those women promised each other that, when they were free, they would always carry bread with them— a promise that Anita told us her mother always kept.

In 1945 Naomi managed to flee into the woods from the notorious death march with some of her fellow women prisoners. Unfortunately, although they remained free, the liberating Russian soldiers that they met subjected them to further physical and sexual abuse. Naomi returned to Mukačevo in July 1945 to find that her home was in ruins and 17 family members, including 10 young nieces and nephews, had been murdered.

Naomi eventually came to this country, went to Hornsey art school and followed her career as a successful artist. As her daughter told us, being able to pour her feelings about what had happened into her work was something she always felt had helped. This quote from Naomi will stay with me for ever:

“To survive is not just to snatch a little more bread for yourself, but to help others. That is what makes you stronger”.

Our second testimony was from Mariana Buchko, supported by Peter Dawson. Mariana is a young woman refugee from the current war in Ukraine and Peter is her host. She told us about the pain of having to leave her husband there, as he is fighting in the war, and of leaving Ukraine, with the pain of having lost so many family members and friends, who have lost their lives at the hands of Putin’s murderous invasion. In spite of her own very immediate and present distress, Mariana wanted to tell us the life story of a long-lived Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and about the Ukrainian city of Berdychiv, the Jewish capital of Ukraine. These are Mariana’s words:

“My story was about Moisei Weinschelbaum from the city of Berdychiv in Ukraine (Berdychiv is the unofficial Jewish capital of Ukraine). During the Second World War, up to 40,000 Jews were killed in this place alone. Moisei is the only survivor from the entire large family, he is 96 years old and before the Russian invasion of Ukraine he still lived in Berdychiv. Today I need to know where he is and whether he is still alive”.

To have survived the Holocaust and then, in your 90s, to be living with the daily reality of the horrific Russian bombardment of your country, is beyond comprehension. Mariana’s courage was tangible that evening. Peter Dawson, her host, played for us a haunting Ukrainian folk song on his cello. The fragility of our freedom was brought to life in the words and music of survivors and their witnesses. It was an evening of powerful and emotional commemoration, which those who were present will never forget.

When we contemplate the fragility of freedom, we must be vigilant to the climate in which genocide takes place. It starts with instability and insecurity, whispers and then shouts of blame and hate speech that the fault lies with a particular group or groups. Then come the restrictions on that group’s freedoms and rights. It then develops into segregation, separation, violence and the degradation of people, which was so powerfully referred to by my noble friend Lady Anderson. It is not because of who they are but because of what they are, and it is shaped by a twisted ideology that creates “others” of our fellow humans—our brothers and sisters. It is a present and living danger as we sit here today and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said, appeasing evil acts does not assuage that at all.

My noble friend Lord Young mentioned an issue I do not want to shy away from: the stain of anti-Semitism that has so recently infected my party. I love the Labour Party—I have been a member for nearly 40 years—but this was a very dark time in our history. I praise the courage of a number of my noble friends, and friends in the other place, who suffered during this time but also stood up against what they saw, and of my party leader Sir Keir Starmer, who has rooted out the anti-Semitism and its perpetrators and transformed our party to be the home it absolutely should be for our Jewish members. Of course we always have more to do, but the journey is well and truly under way.

As we watch our fragile world and its freedoms becoming engulfed in tensions and hate, we must have the courage to speak out against that, wherever we see it. The courage comes from learning the lessons, listening to the witness and keeping the memory of dark times so we guard against them. It is ever more important, as so many noble Lords have said, as we reflect on the shocking events of 7 October and the subsequent conflict in Israel and Gaza.

A national Holocaust memorial situated in the heart of our capital city, adjacent to the mother of Parliaments, will be a powerful daily reminder to our decision-makers in this country—and the millions of visitors who come to London every year—that we take that responsibility seriously. I know there are different views across the House on this subject and it is absolutely right that the whole matter is properly debated, in Parliament as well as through the planning process, but I feel the responsibility that my parents and grandparents felt. We must create the means to carry the lessons down from generation to generation. A lasting Holocaust memorial in this place—which is so respected, so valued and so revered as a symbol of democracy and freedom—will be such a powerful symbol of our commitment and intent. I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pickles, and my noble friends Lord Dubs and Lady Anderson that, if we can bring that German exhibition here to London, possibly even to Parliament, it would be a wonderful step forward.

More than ever, there is a need to educate our young people about the history of the Holocaust, and about the nature and reality of anti-Semitism and all hate crime. They are bombarded daily with internet images: some reflecting, at best, unreliable historical information and, at worst, fearful disinformation and denial. With the Community Security Trust recording 2,098 incidents of hate crime in the two months between October and December last year, the highest since records began, and other hate crimes rising as people respond to divisive rhetoric by turning against their neighbours and communities, everyone is starting to feel uncomfortable divisions.

In Stevenage, we share our Holocaust education endeavour with our schools. Children can often be remarkably insightful as they learn, so I will share with your Lordships a poem written by a primary school child at the Leys school in Stevenage. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, referred to Anne Frank and these are a seven year-old’s reflections on her:

“Anne Frank, Anne Frank

How lonely you must be

Anne Frank, Anne Frank

Stuck in your diary

Diary called ‘Kitty’

As a birthday present for you

Trapped in a room with seven other people

Oh how cramped it must be

Quiet, quiet, silent all the time

Oh how boring, just let out the feelings

Oh Anne Frank, Anne Frank

Rest in Peace”.

We cannot change the history that lies behind us, but we can shape the history that stretches ahead. The best commemoration we can offer to the victims of genocide—the 6 million Jews, the Roma and Sinti, the Slavs, the homosexuals, the trade unionists and the disabled people murdered by the Nazis, and the victims of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur—is to do all we can to shape the future of a tolerant, equal, generous and caring country where, to use Naomi Blake’s words, helping others is what makes us stronger.