The speech made by Charlotte Nichols, the Labour MP for Warrington North, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2022.
I rise to speak today to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day, which, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, commemorates the 6 million Jews murdered during the holocaust, alongside the millions killed under Nazi persecution of other groups, including Roma and Sinti people, Slavic people, LGBT and disabled people and political and religious minorities. On this day, we also remember the subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia, Dafur and Bosnia.
As the holocaust fades from living memory, I want to put on record my gratitude to all of the survivors whose testimonies are at the heart of holocaust education, but which come at huge personal cost. It is impossible to comprehend the abjectness of the horrors that they experienced, the trauma that follows them through their lives, or the sacrifice that bearing witness entails. Marceline Loridan-Ivens said:
“If you only knew, all of you, how the camp remains permanently within us. It remains in all our minds, and will until we die”
Similarly, Shlomo Venezia, said:
“Everything takes me back to the camp. Whatever I do, whatever I see, my mind keeps harking back to the same place. It’s as if the “work” I was forced to do there had never really left my head…Nobody ever really gets out of the Crematorium”.
Those who survived the camps were greeted with
“incredulity, indifference, and even hostility”
upon their return to their communities. Although the allies won the war against Nazism in Europe, antisemitism has never been defeated, and fascism grew rapidly in the UK in the post-war years, contrary to the narrative of triumph over Hitler.
Jewish soldiers such as Morris Beckman and Jules Kanopinski returned to London to find fascists staging outdoor rallies in the east end,
“shouting out the same antagonism and the same filth as before the war, and now even worse—they were saying the gas chambers weren’t enough”.
The anti-fascist 43 Group that they and their comrades established, and the later 62 Group, would be breaking up, on average, 15 fascist meetings a week and engaging in regular physical confrontation with fascists, including in the battle for Ridley Road, which was memorialised this year in a BBC drama. The irony is not lost on me that, in the very week that Ridley Road was released, my synagogue in Manchester, where much of it was filmed, had our Friday night service gate-crashed by the far right. It may be a historical drama, but the hatred in it is very much contemporary.
I have sat in synagogue while fellow Jews have been slaughtered elsewhere in the world for practising their faith, as I am, and so to proclaim our faith proudly, to stand as proud Jews, is itself an act of defiance. As the partisan vow declares, “Mir veln zey iberlebn”, which means, we will outlive them. From generation to generation, the Jewish spirit endures.
In Kveller, Rachel Stomel writes:
“In the context of Jewish law, remembrance is not a reflexive, passive process directed inwards. Our sages teach us that the way we fulfil the Torah’s commandment to remember the Sabbath—’Zachor et Yom HaShabbat le’kodsho’ (remember the sabbath day to keep it holy)—is by active declaration in the performance of the kiddush, the Shabbat blessing over wine. We are commanded to remember the Amelikites brutal massacre of our people—’Zachor et Asher asah lecha Amalek’ (remember what the Amalek did to you)—through intentional, public, verbal affirmation, and by ridding the world of the evil that they represent. Neither of these Torah commandments can be fulfilled by quiet contemplation, memorialisation must manifest through specific action.”
The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is “One Day,” both as a call to action for that one day when we have eradicated the hatred that leads to genocide and because one day, as a snapshot of what happened, can be helpful in seeking to understand and process the enormity of the holocaust. The brutality and the hopelessness of the concentration camps and the lengths to which the Nazis went to extinguish any faint glimmers of hope are summed up in this quote from the survivor Shlomo Venezia, who was forced to work in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, emptying the gas chambers of bodies, including those of family members, processing their hair and teeth, and loading them into the ovens for cremation. He said:
“One day, while I was presenting my testimony at a school, a young girl asked me if anyone had ever emerged from the gas chamber alive. Her schoolmates laughed at her, as if she hadn’t understood a thing. How could anyone survive in those conditions, when the deadly gas used had been carefully developed to kill everyone? It’s impossible. In spite of everything, however absurd her question may seem, it was quite relevant, since it did indeed happen.
Few people ever saw and can relate this episode, and yet it is true. One day when everyone had started working normally after the arrival of a transport, one of the men involved in removing the bodies from the gas chamber heard a strange noise. It wasn’t so unusual to hear strange noises, since sometimes the victims’ bodies continued to emit gas. But this time he claimed the noise was different. We stopped and pricked up our ears, but nobody could hear anything. We told ourselves that he’d surely been hearing voices. A few minutes later, he again stopped and told us that this time he was certain he’d heard a death rattle. And when we listened closely, we, too, could hear the same noise. It was a sort of wailing. To begin with, the sounds were spaced out, then they came more frequently until they became a continuous crying that we all identified as the crying of a newborn baby. The man who had heard it first went to see where exactly the noise was coming from. Stepping over the bodies, he found the source of those little wailings. It was a baby girl, barely two months old, still clinging to her mother’s breast and vainly trying to suckle. She was crying because she could feel that the milk had stopped flowing. He took the baby and brought it out of the gas chamber. We knew it would be impossible to keep her with us. Impossible to hide her or get her accepted by the Germans. And indeed, as soon as the guard saw the baby, he didn’t seem at all displeased at having a little baby to kill. He fired a shot and that little girl who had miraculously survived the gas was dead. Nobody could survive. Everybody had to die, including us: it was just a matter of time.”
Elie Wiesel speaks of watching Jewish babies thrown alive into the vast ditches where bodies were burned, confirmed by Telford Taylor at the Nuremberg trials. Lily Ebert testifies of witnessing babies torn from their mothers’ arms and dashed against walls. I have seen the piles of teeth, hair and shoes that represent a tiny fraction of those who passed through Auschwitz-Birkenau, and how small those chambers were, with up to 1,200 people piled into a tiny space so that no poison gas would be wasted. This was not, as we might imagine, a quick process, with it taking up to 12 minutes to be poisoned to death, crushed in among hundreds of panicking people, desperately trying to cling to life, trying to break or claw their way out. Seven hundred Jews were murdered in the gas chambers on the very day before they were set to be liberated and many more died by disease or by suicide in the months following liberation. There are some things that a human just cannot endure.
These survivors witnessed day in, day out what no human being should ever be condemned to see: the very depths of man’s cruelty and inhumanity towards his fellow man laid bare. The Hasidic mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, said:
“If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.”
If man can sink to these depths once, to industrialise the brutalisation and murder of their fellow humans, they can and will do so again.
Indeed, “never again” rings hollow with the genocides that have taken place since the holocaust, and our failure as a nation to learn the lessons of the past as this Government turn away refugees from other parts of the world knowing full well the fate of the refugees from the holocaust denied safe passage to Britain and the US, and returned to their deaths.
We allow a minority in public life to degrade and debase the memory of the holocaust—to make inappropriate comparisons with modern day events as though there can be any parallel drawn, rhetorical or otherwise, between, for example, those who choose not to be vaccinated, or a particularly poor performance in the football, and the experience of the victims of Nazi persecution. We still see the cancer of antisemitism in our communities, with the threat of hate crime in person and online a daily reality that we should not have to live alongside.
Today we honour the victims, the survivors, the heroes and the martyrs of the holocaust. We cannot change the past, but by bearing witness we can change the course of the future. Ira Goldfarb said of his father, the survivor Aron Goldfarb, that
“throughout my father’s life, survival adopted a new meaning. Survival to my father was carrying the nightmares of his childhood and choosing to find joy, humor, and compassion in life every single day. Survival was seeing the worst of humanity and still offering his last piece of bread to someone who needed it more, still building lifelong friendships, and being a devoted husband and father.”
It is hard not to be moved by photos of a beaming Lily Ebert celebrating her 98th birthday in lockdown with thousands of cards sent by well-wishers, or welcoming the birth of her 35th great-grandchild. I can think of few people more deserving of happiness. May we draw strength from their strength, and courage from their courage, as we build a more decent, respectful and inclusive society where all of us can live in peace, harmony and security.