Alex Sobel – 2022 Speech on Holocaust Memorial Day

The speech made by Alex Sobel, the Labour MP for Leeds North West, in the House of Commons on 26 January 2022.

First, I wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick), and my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) for having secured this debate. It is a privilege to follow the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), whose speech, giving first-hand witness testimony to genocide, is so important in this place. It is always a privilege and an honour to listen to him speak on Holocaust Memorial Day and on other occasions when he recounts his service, not just to our country but to the Bosnian Muslim community. This debate is always a difficult debate for me personally, as a descendant of victims of the holocaust, so I apologise if at any point, I get a little emotional and have to pause for a second or two. I am sure that everybody in the Chamber understands.

As others have done, I thank the Holocaust Educational Trust, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Yad Vashem, the POLIN Museum—which is actually in the Warsaw ghetto—the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre near me in Huddersfield, and those organisations that fight antisemitism today such as the Antisemitism Policy Trust, HOPE not hate, the Community Security Trust, and others. There are many organisations that both keep the holocaust alive today and fight antisemitism, and we should be grateful to them all.

This year’s theme, as we know, is “One Day”, and for me, that means that we have hope that there may be one day in the future with no genocide. It is also about one day in the lives of victims of genocide, when they themselves are facing that genocide every day, and know that that day might be the last day they live. They wake with that thought beguiling their senses, and if they are fortunate enough to survive that trauma, the trauma lives with them and becomes intergenerational trauma. I am not sure how many generations that trauma persists for, as two generations separated, I still feel that trauma, especially on days like this. I hope my children do not feel it, and are not driven by some of the same fears that generations of Jewish and other people have felt.

One of my drivers here in Parliament is that genocide must end and that we must strive for human rights for all, so I speak out for the Rohingya and the Uyghurs, and act as the chair of International Parliamentarians for West Papua. A genocide against one people is a genocide against all people, and we must stand together against genocide wherever and whenever it occurs, without any thought of our own interests. Benny Wenda, from the Free West Papua Campaign, gave me this message for Holocaust Memorial Day. He is exactly the same age as me, so in context, this is 30-odd years ago that he is talking about:

“When I was a child, my village was bombed by the military and many of my family members were killed. I have witnessed my own aunties being raped and dying of their injuries and my mother being brutally beaten in front of my eyes.

Although we carry this burden, we also carry great hope. Our hope is for the next generation to be free from persecution, free from violence, and free from oppression. One day. We carry the hope of peace, and we look to the lessons of our shared history to guide the way.”

I hope that more Members present might join the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua, and find out more about the genocide that is carrying on there to this day.

I want to finish by telling the story of one part of my own family. My paternal great-grandfather was David Laks. He was murdered by the Nazis in the Belzec death camp in 1942. Teresa, my maternal great-grandmother, died of natural causes in 1938 before the start of the war. David and Teresa had five children. Salka and Fanka were the eldest daughters. They lived in central Poland and were murdered, along with their families, in unknown circumstances—I really did not think I would get this emotional; I am sorry—by the Nazis.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)

We all greatly appreciate the good work that the hon. Gentleman does in this House, but we are also very aware of the good work that he does in Papua New Guinea; I think he has been an inspiration to us all. I hope that that gives him the chance that he needs to continue.

Alex Sobel

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me that chance to pause and collect myself. It is very useful in debates such as this to have colleagues who will do that.

The middle child was called Zygmunt; I will come back to him later. The fourth child was my grandmother Regina, who survived the war and lived into old age. The youngest sibling was my great-aunt Marisia, whom I have spoken about in a previous Holocaust Memorial Day debate.

I am going to describe one day in the life of Zygmunt Laks and his family—his wife Guta and their son Karol, who was born in 1939. Zygmunt Laks lived in the Łódź ghetto and worked in a garage after the Nazis took away the family restaurant. The situation in the ghetto worsened; Zygmunt stopped work and just sat in the ghetto apartment with a large axe, waiting for the Nazis to come and take them away. There was an easing in the situation in the ghetto, so he decided to go back to work, but the next day he returned from work and his wife and son were gone. On that day, an SS officer shot Karol, who was just two years old, in the head in front of his mother.

Karol was my uncle—a child who never got to see adulthood, an uncle I never met. I often think about how small my family is: I am an only child of only children, with very few relatives. A lot of our family are just ghosts—just ghosts of the past who were taken away from us by the holocaust.

Guta was never seen or heard of again, but it is assumed that she, too, was taken to Belzec death camp and never returned. Belzec is one of the lesser-known death camps, but it is estimated that as many as 800,000 may have perished there in the very short period—just two years—in which it was in operation. Zygmunt eventually escaped the ghetto to Ukraine, but was killed by a bomb as the war was ending and never returned home.

That this part of my family history survives is due to my aunt, Aviva Hay, who compiled her father’s memoir into a book, “We Are What We Remember”, a holocaust memoir of our family. My father, who I know is watching at home, contributed to this account and very much keeps alive the deep and scarring memories of our family’s experience in the Shoah.

The most tragic thing for me is that the fate of the Laks family is not unique or rare; it is the common story of European Jewry. Today is so important, because we have one day each year that we can share and remember—one day to say that we will not forget—but we have every other day to do all we can to strive for a better world and no more genocide.