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.


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  • Victor Hernandez
    commented 2017-02-06 17:23:59 +0000
    Dear Helen,

    I couldn’t agree more with you when you compare the Holocaust as a result of the growth of hate and intolerance with the current situation we are living now, in the world and in the United Kingdom. It is true the resemblances are very similar, but also the mechanisms that took fascist movements to destroy democracies in Europe are the same. Obviously the rise of the populism and excluding movements occurs when financial instability hit democracies.
    Historically the United Kingdom government and diplomacy have been known to be extremely good in changing his goals and behavior depending on the circumstances. That have been proven very practical in most of the occasion because is a quick way to reassess the situation and examine what are the best options, how I need to play my cards, and what can I get from it. This position is utterly logical specially because is almost always linked to get the best economical and financial outcomes and reason is the best ally here. It helps the government and the parliament to quickly switch sides for the sake of a better result for the country and its citizens.
    However, this policy always comes to a human cost as it sets aside all concerns about human rights, friendship and collaboration. One of the things that european nations has resented for centuries for the British government is precisely this readiness to leave the ship if necessary, to trade they own principles, quoting Groucho Mark said “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others”, and to back the winning horse.
    At that’s precisely what the Government and most MPs in House of Commons are doing. Yes, there is the fallacy that the government and the Commons are following the will of the people, when in fact what they are doing is just reacting to the referendum and aligning themselves and the country with the emergency of the populist far rights movements. This move erodes democracy and threaten human rights by adapting to the circumstances instead of defending hate and confrontation. That is precisely what happen in Germany during the 1930s.
    In order to stop lies, Tory and Labour MPs just accept some of them as their own. Obviously, the new UK government after the referendum could just have use a completely different approach and tame the big lions and slow down the process of hate and separation. Instead they chose to go with the flow and use and extremely hard rhetoric to appease the leavers. And the same argument works for Labour. They see themselves in a terrible position and instead of holding to their values, for fear of losing seats and the support in their constituencies; they embrace the UKIP slogans under the excuse, again of democracy.
    Tory and Labour, the two main parties in UK, change their values to get closer to the UKIP lies to keep the voters that usually vote for them. However, both parties completely fail to recognize that surrendering to those arguments won’t make the leave voters more inclined to come back their moderate positions, on the contrary, if the political establishment surrender to them and their vote, they will feel supported and will push for more. They will ask for more radical solutions forgetting the core human values in order to accommodate the important ideas about “protecting” democracy and the country. The leadership of the MPs and political parties are more important in driving the political thought of people without an strong political values. The actions of small groups enhancing multicultural and cooperation values are important but they won’t have any effect on the believes of most people.
    Even big demonstrations with thousands of people won’t make those “new voters of hate and fear” to change their opinions. On the contrary, it is when MPs side one way when the whole political centered citizens start to move to the right. Even remain voters change quickly and accept the terms proposed by their rulers. An example of how people quickly follow the political leaders and MPs can be found in the reaction of the government and Labour, and obviously from the far right, to remain voters that ccomplain about the lies and uncertainties. They are labelled as moaners and antidemocratic. Obviously these positions are the most democratic ones because the put in the check and monitor all the lies and manipulations previous to the referendum, during the current process of Brexit and future political outcomes based in lies. However, this argument has deeply being assumed by the citizens.Even fo those that vote remain! Now is very common to see letters in the newspapers or comments of citizens on TV, saying that they voted for remain, but they are democrats and we need to carry on. This is the power of the political establishments, and those are the consequences of surrendering democratic and human rights values for political tactics.
    Of course democracy is the big word. The fallacy is that democracy mean just a vote in a referendum. Democracy is the whole system that activates itself to protect the rights of everybody to fight and demonstrate their thoughts. Even, of course, after losing a general election or a referendum. Nobody said before to Labour or Tory, after losing a general election, to shut up and stop moaning. Of course they will defend their ideas even after their defeat. That is democracy, to carry on discussing what is right for you, and to change the law if one thing it is not right. Even the Prime minister used democracy in the most distressing sense, when she said “But the message is clear to all – this House has spoken and now is not the time to obstruct the democratically expressed wishes of the British people.” Democracy is precisely check and debate, polish and lobby. Democracy is the work of the Parliament and it definitely look like some MPs will like to abolish it forever if they could.
    Europe suddenly find themselves with a former ally, that now is playing a hate campaign against European institutions and MEPs, and at the same time is asking to cheery pick the best deal for themselves at a cost for the European Union. The rhetoric from the PM is so confrontational that is nearly unbearable for European negotiators; strong position, our deal or no deal, they are weak and need our market, they will be shooting themselves on the foot if they don’t accept our demands. The worse thing is that Europe has no real partner to talk with inside UK. All UK parties have accepted the must “roll behind the flag of the government in this negotiations” and anybody stepping aside is considered a traitor, not just by the tabloids and the radicals, but for Tory of course and also by Labour, on his way to became the National Labour British party, a mix of UKIP and union Labour protectionism against unskilled foreign workers, constantly. Without real counterpart to talk with what are the chances to smooth these negotiations?
    This is the great mistake of the political elites and most of the intellectual establishment in the UK. Labour and Tories won’t be able to fix this mistake. They fail to deliver, and voters will seek refuge in the original product, that is worse of course. If they succeed, it will mean they have accommodated themselves to the new ideas. If both parties are in the same side of the argument, who will defend the 48% of remain voters? Who will properly check and monitor the government? The UK needs a real opposition, not just to the government but also to the ideas that isolationism and hate. It needs a clear voice in the media and the parliament, to talk about collaboration and unity, and to show the moral compass of an educated humanistic western civilization, and not a hate a demonstration of chauvinism. It needs a voice to stops the attacks on democracy, to educate once again on what is the meaning of the vote and the parliament. Perhaps, this voice won’t be able to stop what is already going on, but definitely it will be needed in the future. I am afraid this voice won’t be found in the Labour party never again.
    Against this new populism it is clear that old tools won’t work and/or will make it worse. If we really want to stop the policies that took Europe to 1914, 1945 and the Holocaust we better start now with a new and fresh comprehensive political movement in the UK.

    Victor Hernandez