Holocaust Memorial Day 2017

Text of a speech I made at the Imperial War Museum to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2017:

Holocaust Memorial Day is an important day in our calendar, and my view, it is growing in importance.  It is a moment to stop and remember the very worst that human beings are capable of; to live for a moment once again with the devastation of that fact; to be humbled by the actions of those who were courageous enough to take a stand; and to make a new commitment that we will not allow it to happen again.

In order to stop and remember, we need to remind ourselves of the facts: six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in Europe between 1941 and 1945; the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of others by the Nazis according to race, sexuality, disability and political beliefs; and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

As part of our remembrance, I believe that it is important for us to feel the devastation of the Holocaust and subsequent genocides once again.  To do this, we need the personal testimonies of survivors, and the details of the lives that were destroyed.  Helen’s testimony was so powerful and moving, and I’m so grateful to you for speaking out and sharing your story.

At this event two years ago, I had the privilege of hearing the testimony of Vera and Avram Schaufeld, who like Helen, both survived the holocaust.  Vera was one of almost 10,000 children who were brought to the UK on the Kindertransport.  Her testimony had a particular power for me, in the tiniest of details – the realisation that she was the same age as my oldest daughter was at the time – nine years old - when her parents took the impossible decision that she would be safer if they put her on a train and entrusted her to the kindness of strangers.   Although I have known the shocking facts of the Holocaust for many years, Vera’s story struck me anew and I left here sobbing.  These moments of emotional engagement, I think are so important they help us to put ourselves in another person’s place and catch just a shadow of the dreadfulness to feel it for ourselves – they make our commemorations more than words, and our commitment to action stronger than it might otherwise be.

We are living in a time when many of the values we hold dear – of equality, tolerance, internationalism and fairness – seem very fragile.  The EU referendum result has legitimised hatred and intolerance in some of our communities, Donald Trump is, by his words and now this week by his actions sewing division and entrenching intolerance in America and across the world, and far right candidates are genuine contenders in elections in France and The Netherlands. 

German author Hans Fallada wrote a powerful and chilling novel called Alone in Berlin about life under the Nazis.   It is a chilling account of what life was like for ordinary citizens living under the creeping, growing horror of the Nazi regime.  It tells the story of Otto and Anna Quangel whose son is killed serving in Hitler’s military.  In their grief, Otto and Anna mount a small campaign of resistance, writing anti-Nazi slogans on postcards which they leave anonymously in public places around the city.  At one point Otto Quangel reflects ‘Danger’s not on the doorstep.  Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where.  We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it.  And then it’ll be too late.’

This Holocaust Memorial Day, our task is to see the danger, to feel and remember the consequences of what happens when individuals don’t notice, or do notice but don’t speak up, and to make sure that we are not complacent.  It is our job to remember that the Nazi government, which committed the Holocaust, started with an election – that people voted on the basis of a message of populism, casual prejudice and unrealistic promises which allowed an utterly abhorrent ideology to gain a foothold.  So we all have a responsibility to be alert, to be true to our values and to resist any attempt to threaten them.

It is easy to feel powerless, in a world where the political landscape across the world is shifting so rapidly.  But I think we must remember the immense power of individual and collective actions – and I draw hope and strength from many of the things I see individuals and community groups doing in my constituency.

Young people from Southwark and Lambeth, joined with many others across the world last Friday, as Donald Trump was being inaugurated, in dropping a banner from the railway bridge in Brixton with the slogan ‘bridges not walls’.

Thousands of women, children and men took to the streets at the weekend to say powerfully, with their feet as well as their voices ‘women’s rights are human rights’.

In a local secondary school, I watched as children listened to the stories of women from Syria who were forced to become refugees understanding what their lives were like before, that they were just ordinary people to whom unspeakably awful things had happened.

Children from St John’s Angell Town Primary marched from their school to Windrush Square to shout the message that refugees are welcome in our community.

And there are many more examples of people quietly – and not so quietly – standing up for what they believe to be right.

So this Holocaust Memorial Day, can I encourage all of us, to remember the scale of the horror; to relive in our own minds the heart-breaking details of all of the lives – lives just like ours – which were so devastated, and to commit ourselves again to making sure that hatred and intolerance cannot get a foothold in our community.

In my lifetime, there has never been a more important time to speak up for the values we hold dear.