Matthew Offord – 2020 Speech on Holocaust Memorial Day

Below is the text of the speech made by Matthew Offord, the Conservative MP for Hendon, in the House of Commons on 23 January 2020.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak after that passionate speech.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, as I have more Jewish constituents than anyone else in the Chamber today, apart from, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer). Unfortunately he is not able to speak because he is a Whip, but I am sure he will be thrilled that I am, no doubt, speaking on his behalf as well.​

If, as a Member of Parliament for any faith group, I either promote or defend a cause or an issue, many critics will say, “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you, because your constituents would expect you to do so.” For many of my constituents—and, by default, for me as well—the holocaust is something very personal. I have constituents who were in places such as Bergen-Belsen, one of whom I have spoken about previously in the Chamber, of whom I am indeed very fond, and whom I visit regularly. I should take this opportunity to wish mazel tov to Manfred Goldberg and Kurt Marx, who both received the British Empire Medal for services to holocaust education in the new year’s honours list. We are very proud of them.

Just like the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), I take the opportunity at this time of year to do two things. First, I always like to read a memoir or factual account of the holocaust, and I am pleased to be reading “If this is a man” by Primo Levi right now. The second thing I like to do—again, like the hon. Member for West Ham—is to consider Holocaust Memorial Day from a different perspective, and for the past few months I have been thinking about concentration camps on British soil.

Any Member who has read Nikolaus Wachsmann’s brilliant book “KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps” will know how the concentration camps came about. The KL refers to the German word “Konzentrationslager”. In Germany in 1933, many of the first people arrested by the Nazis were detained in a variety of locations, including police stations, stables, schools and even industrial buildings—certainly none of the locations we have in our public consciousness. Those people were held in “protective custody” for their own safety, and most of them were released at a later stage. During that time, the law was used to defend many of them. Their relatives went to the courts to say that their treatment was not as it should be, and under the law they did have some protections, but of course that did not last. We know that, as the second world war continued, the rules certainly changed.

The Konzentrationslager of Dachau in 1933 was very different from the Konzentrationslager of Auschwitz in 1944. Initially, Dachau targeted political opponents of the Nazis, such as German communists, socialists, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and persons accused of asocial or socially deviant behaviour. By contrast, Auschwitz was a sprawling death camp containing European Jewry, Gypsies and others. As Primo Levi wrote:

“Trains heavily laden with human beings went in each day, and all that came out was the ashes of their bodies, their hair, the gold of their teeth.”

Representation of these camps in films and popular culture depicts Auschwitz-Birkenau as the pinnacle of the death camps, but Treblinka was close behind it in the number of people who were murdered, alongside other camps such as Belzec, Chelmno and Sobibor. All those camps were devoted to killing. They were death camps, and anyone who went through their gates would not come out again. In 1967, the West German Ministry of Justice drew up a list of 1,200 camps that it said were sub-camps of the main ones. The Jewish Virtual Library has come up with the even greater figure of 15,000 camps that it says were effectively Konzentrationslager.​

To many of us, the representation of the camps through their names suggests a distant location and an otherness that is foreign and certainly not part of the British collective consciousness, but that is not the case. Last summer I was fortunate enough to sail to the Channel Islands, the only part of the British Isles to be inhabited by the Nazis during the second world war, and I visited Alderney. In January 1942, the Nazis built four camps in Alderney. There were two work camps, Lager Helgoland and Lager Borkum, and two concentration camps, Lager Sylt and Lager Norderney. Lager Norderney contained Russian and Polish prisoners of war, and the Lager Sylt camp held Jewish slave labourers. There are 397 graves in Alderney, out of a total population of about 6,000. On their return to Alderney, the islanders had little or no knowledge of the crimes that had taken place, because when they were finally allowed to return in December 1945, the majority of the senior German officers had left and no one really knew what had happened.

Interestingly, in research being conducted by Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls at Staffordshire University, she has described the estimate of the number of victims as “very conservative”, given the difficulty of identifying prisoners in war records. The whole issue of post-holocaust archaeology is very much a contested area, and indeed very painful for many people who had direct experience of the holocaust. The professor has said that her research on the island has come up against great “hostility”, including from the Alderney Government, who she said had refused a permit for her to excavate some of the sites, forcing her to rely, in the research that she undertook, on “non-invasive” methods of analysis, such as drone filming.

I have to tread carefully as I say this, but there is also some reluctance on the part of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom to give permission for the excavation of Jewish burial sites. This is a very delicate area, and I know that the great Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who is my constituent, has been involved in this issue. Rabbinic law dictates that the grave sites of Jewish people should not be disturbed. I have a great deal of sympathy with that point of view, but I do have a belief that unmarked graves, mass graves and locations of bodies hidden by their murderers are not proper graves in themselves, and I believe that it is appropriate for the identification of bodies to be undertaken, because people do need a proper resting place. I do not believe that the locations that I have described are proper graves; and as Elie Wiesel wrote,

“to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

So I certainly will continue with the conversations that I have had with others about the delicate, sensitive process of identifying locations of bodies, and also the persons in those graves.

So for me, Holocaust Memorial Day is not just something that is evoked through films such as “Schindler’s List”; it is something that is very personal and pertinent to many of my constituents. I shall conclude with the words of Primo Levi, in his fantastic book, in which he says:

“It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”