Christian Wakeford – 2022 Speech on Holocaust Memorial Day

The speech made by Christian Wakeford, the Labour MP for Bury South, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2022.

I thank the right hon. Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for securing this very important debate. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), and the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for their incredibly moving and powerful speeches.

As has been said several times during the debate, when people think of the holocaust—the Shoah—we instantly go to Auschwitz-Birkenau. We instantly think of Bergen-Belsen . Earlier this week I was in Kyiv, in Ukraine, on a European Jewish Association delegation to Babi Yar, which was the location for the largest mass grave of 100,000 Jews who were killed one by one. There was no gas chamber; they were all shot. Their only crime was being Jewish.

While I was at that delegation, I took part in a symposium to discuss holocaust education, and the rise of antisemitism in football and on our streets across Europe. This is something that we all need to take extremely seriously. We need only consider the instances of last year, when there were not only antisemitic tropes such as blood libel on the streets of London, but convoys being driven throughout the country. It was not right then, and it is not right now.

I have spoken many times in the House about how proud I am to represent the constituency of Bury South, which is home to an extremely large and thriving Jewish community. Within that community there are a number of holocaust survivors, some of whom I have been privileged to speak with personally. I will never forget the way I was addressed by a Kindertransport survivor at a Jewish communal meeting before my election. In the United Kingdom, in 2019, he spoke about the fears for his family caused by the rise in antisemitic hate crime. To be approached in this manner and experience the dawning realisation that the lessons of the holocaust have not been learnt is something that should shock us all.

As the number of holocaust survivors tragically continues to dwindle, I also pay tribute to the second and third generations who are the children and grandchildren of the survivors. They work so hard to preserve the memory of their loved ones and ensure that future generations are aware of the holocaust, the worst crime ever committed. Let me I specifically mention the work of Noemie Lopian. She has published the memoirs of her father, a holocaust survivor, Dr Israel Bornstein. Alongside the grandson of a high- ranking SS Officer, Derek Niemann, they tour the country speaking about their families’ stories and instilling the importance of tolerance and fighting prejudice.

As has been mentioned throughout the debate, the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day this year is “One Day”. This is extremely powerful, and manages to encompass the whole lives of those poor victims and the survivors. It was inconceivable to someone having a happy childhood and growing up with a loving family that “One Day”, within a relatively short period, they would be facing the most unimaginable horrors. I read the words of a survivor, Iby Knill, who stated that from one day to the next, everything could change. She said that one day, she was greeted with an embrace; the very next day, people ran across the road to avoid being seen with her. I read the words of my constituent, Ike Alterman, someone who is rightly revered across the entire Jewish community and by royalty following his recent meetings with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I will read the following section from his memoirs word for word:

“One day in 1942, they said that all Jewish people must congregate in the town square. You could only bring with you what you could carry in your hands and everything else you had to leave…So we were all lined up in the square, standing there for hours and hours and nothing was happening…Each line was about five deep and they started counting the people. I was standing behind my father and he told me to stay on my tiptoes to make me look taller than I was. So there was my dad, my mother, my sister and my little brother. And they came and they counted and just between my father and my mother they stopped, their hand gesture divided us. So my father and I were saved and the rest were marched out through the square…My little brother with his hands above his head. Rifles on them. Never to be seen again.”

For Ike and millions of others, the following years led them to suffer and witness abhorrent and unspeakable crimes. However, those incarcerated in the most appalling, brutal conditions dreamed that one day, they would be free. How the survivors managed this, I will never know, but they built new lives for themselves and thrived; they started businesses and had families, and now have countless numbers of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is therefore imperative to tell the whole story of a survivor’s life, and I therefore commend the My Voice project, which is co-ordinated by The Fed in my constituency. That project documents the life stories of holocaust survivors living in Greater Manchester, and is unique in being located in the main Jewish social care provider in Greater Manchester, which enables it to provide holistic wrap-around care to the survivors as their testimony is recounted. The concept was provided by Margit Cohen, who came to the UK on the Kindertransport in 1938. She stated,

“I have to tell you my life story, my whole life story before I die.”

My Voice captures survivors’ stories in their own voices by sound recording and transcribing the storyteller’s words into individual books. These are more than just artifacts of oral history: they are records of each person’s experience and heritage, encompassing their entire life before, during and after the war years. The project intends the completed books to be used as groundbreaking educational resources to further understanding of the persecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazi regime; to counter prejudice and revisionism; and to give courage and hope to other survivors of tyranny and oppression. To date, 30 life story books have been produced, and a further 12 are in various stages of production. The project works closely with Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which houses the books in its museum, and the team of volunteers who work on the project also received a Queen’s award for voluntary service. I conclude by thanking those brave survivors for telling their stories.