Robert Jenrick – 2022 Speech on Holocaust Memorial Day

The speech made by Robert Jenrick, the Conservative MP for Newark, in the House of Commons on 27 January 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Holocaust Memorial Day 2022.

I would like to thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for co-sponsoring today’s debate. I am only sorry that the right hon. Member for Barking could not be with us because she is recovering from covid. As Margaret is not here, and therefore cannot be embarrassed, I thought I would say a few words about her. She has championed holocaust remembrance throughout her 28 years in the House and has proven to be one of our most courageous warriors against antisemitism and racism of all kinds. I will miss her enormously when she steps down at the next general election, but I feel fortunate to have served alongside her and to be able to do so for some time yet. I am sure we all wish her a speedy recovery.

Holocaust Memorial Day has been a national day of commemoration for over 20 years and our debates have become a regular fixture in the parliamentary calendar. We use this day to fulfil a solemn obligation, an obligation of remembrance: to never allow the memory of those who died in the holocaust to be forgotten by anyone anywhere in the world.

This year’s theme, “One Day”, encourages us to put aside our differences for just one day, to come together to understand more about our past, and to resolve to act for a better future. I hope that Members from across the House will join me at 8 pm this evening and light candles in our windows as a mark of remembrance.

Today, the 77th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we remember a dark stain on human history, the greatest evil perpetrated by man against man in the long catalogue of human crimes. Today, we mourn with those who mourn, and grieve with those who grieve. We remember the names, the faces and the promise of the 6 million Jews who were murdered. Today, we pay tribute to those who survived and, for all these years, have borne witness to that evil and have served humankind in doing so. Today, we honour and remember the memory of the allied forces, including the 3.3 million British servicemen who left hearth and home, suffered appalling casualties and freed a continent from the grip of tyranny. We pay tribute to the memory of those non-Jewish heroes and heroines who saved countless lives—those people who the people of Israel call the righteous among the nations. In an age of indifference, they acted. In an age of fear, they showed courage and their memory is an example to us all.

As time passes, the importance of this day grows. In 2020, 147 survivors of the holocaust passed away in this country. In 2021, 134 died. The youngest survivor of the camps is currently 77. As the survivors die, the holocaust is moving from living memory to vital history, which is why we must keep their experiences alive. It is why I pay tribute to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, run by the brilliant Olivia Marks-Woldman; the Holocaust Education Trust, led by the indefatigable Karen Pollock; the Wiener Holocaust Library; the Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre, which is in my own constituency in Nottinghamshire; and many other organisations and charities for the work they do to document, record and educate.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating and thanking the Prince of Wales for his initiative in having the portraits of seven holocaust survivors painted? This is one way of ensuring a lasting legacy, and of Holocaust Memorial Day remaining in the public’s consciousness.

Robert Jenrick

I will, and I thought the images of those survivors and their families with the Prince of Wales—just yesterday, I believe—seeing the unveiling of their portraits at the Royal Gallery was extremely moving.

Those are some of the reasons why, as Secretary of State, I worked to gain approval for the National Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, so that, when the time when the last living survivors leave us does come, there will be another permanent centre to reflect, honour and remember those who suffered and died, and to educate future generations. I am grateful to Members on all sides of this House who continue to support that initiative.

Our debate in Parliament also matters. I have come year after year to share my own or my constituents’ experiences of the holocaust. I have talked about my own family, many of whom perished in death camps in what today is Ukraine, but two of whom miraculously survived—my children are their great-grandchildren. Had the right hon. Member for Barking been present, she would have shared with us the experience of her brother-in-law, who is gravely ill.

Herbert was born in Germany in 1930 into a successful middle-class Jewish family. One of his earliest memories is Kristallnacht in November 1938, when his grandfather was assaulted and had all his teeth knocked out. His father had already lost his job as a judge because he was a Jew. Herbert and his little sister were among the very few children who escaped on the Kindertransport. He still has the passport with the Nazi swastika imprinted on it. He remembers little of the journey he took to Liverpool Street—he was only eight. From London he went to Wales, where the children were joined by their mother, who managed to escape. His father did get to Switzerland, but the family were never reunited. Although a refugee, Herbert served in the RAF and has enjoyed a full and fulfilling life in Britain.

The right hon. Lady and I both know how powerful it is to have heard these stories from our own family members, to feel their impact and to have had a personal relationship with those who were victims of the holocaust. It is—I think I speak for all of us in this House who have met them—one of the greatest privileges to meet survivors. It was a huge privilege for me to meet Sir Ben Helfgott, Lily Ebert and Susan Pollack in July, when together we marked the granting of planning permission for the memorial in Victoria Gardens. All were very emotional that day. One said to me, as we walked away, that she could die easier knowing that they had contributed to that project and to educating future generations.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman is making a very important and powerful speech. I had the privilege of meeting Gena Turgel, the bride of Belsen, when she spoke to schoolchildren in my constituency. Does he welcome the work of the trust, which is propagating those memories to the next generation and how important it is that that continuous word-of-mouth is passed on?

Robert Jenrick

I certainly do and the hon. Gentleman makes the point very powerfully. The way we remember is changing. For example, Dov, the great-grandson of Lily, whom I met in Victoria Gardens, is now using his 1.3 million TikTok followers to educate the next generation with her stories. I strongly encourage those who have not seen them to do so. The importance of remembrance remains as strong as ever.

Mr Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con)

My right hon. Friend mentioned Susan Pollack. Some years ago, I stood with other Conservative Members at the memorial in Kigali, which is probably the largest grave in the world, with more than 250,000 people murdered in the Rwandan genocide. Does he acknowledge that one of the most important points of a debate such as this is to look at where we have failed since the holocaust, and where sometimes the very noble sentiments we express in this House have fallen short?

Robert Jenrick

Absolutely. My right hon. Friend has a long record, of which he should be proud, of drawing the attention of the House to exactly those issues. That is exactly the point I was turning to.

Since the holocaust, human civilisation has advanced by virtually every metric. We live today in the most advanced human civilisation in history, yet we are still capable of such evil. To acknowledge that fallibility and where it can lead is the best corrective to these indescribable tragedies. The genocide committed on the Jews, the Roma, the Gypsies and the disabled in Europe in the 1940s was, as my right hon. Friend says, not an aberration in history. There have been subsequent genocides in our living memory: the millions of victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; the million-plus victims of the Rwandan genocide; and the 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were murdered in Srebrenica.

Today, atrocities continue in Darfur, and last month the Uyghur Tribunal’s judgment in London found beyond reasonable doubt that the People’s Republic of China is responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity and torture in Xinjiang region. Its findings were supported by this House in the debate led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). In each of those cases, we see what happens when the powerless cry for help and the powerful fail to answer.

On Holocaust Memorial Day, it is appropriate that we reflect on the atrocities of the past to draw connections with those of the present. While Britain is, as I can attest from my own family, one of the most welcoming places for Jews anywhere in the world, antisemitism is on the rise at home. This year, the Community Security Trust found that anti-Jewish hate incidents rose by 49%.

Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)

On the issue of rising antisemitism, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very good that there are opportunities for schoolchildren to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau, to see personally the horrors that were inflicted on those poor people, and that that is something that should be encouraged, to ensure that more people understand the reality of what happened? May I also just compliment him on managing to secure this debate and on his very powerful speech?

Robert Jenrick

I thank my hon. Friend, and return to my thanks to and support of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which sends hundreds of thousands of our young people to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. I hope this Government will continue to support the trust, as previous Governments did, enabling those visits to continue.

Social media is fuelled with antisemitic hatred, with conspiracy theorists growing their followers daily. According to research published last year by the Antisemitism Policy Trust, there were up to half a million explicitly antisemitic tweets per year made viewable to UK users. During the pandemic, we have seen the use and abuse of holocaust language and imagery, with anti-lockdown protesters carrying signs reading “Vaccine Holocaust” and wearing the Star of David. In May last year, we saw a convoy of vehicles drive through north London with speakers blasting out antisemitic slurs and threats against Jews. In December, the passengers on a bus in Oxford Street, who had been celebrating Hanukkah, were subjected to vile and frightening abuse, with racists banging shoes against the bus.

Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)

I think it was in the dying days of the Obama Administration that Obama told students at a university that

“ignorance is not a virtue.”

Do we not need to put that across again and again? Ignorance is not a virtue. It is education and knowledge that lead us to understand and not to commit such atrocities against others.

Robert Jenrick

The hon. Lady makes her point eloquently, and of course I agree entirely.

Some of us here have been on the receiving end of antisemitism—I know the right hon. Member for Barking has on many occasions. I recently received a letter telling me to teach my “Jewish Zionist wife” to “put out fires”, as they intended to burn our house down and cremate our children.

As Communities Secretary, I encouraged universities to adopt and use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, a cause taken up strongly by the current Education Secretary, but despite those entreaties some universities have not done so. Only last year the University of Bristol, one of our most respected universities, acted painfully slowly to discipline Professor David Miller, a purveyor of antisemitic conspiracy theories that went well beyond the bounds of free speech. Such incidents are one of the reasons I champion the brilliant Union of Jewish Students.

I will end my speech today as the right hon. Member for Barking would have done, by quoting a diary extract of her grandfather’s. Old, ill and interned, deemed an enemy alien at the time, in an entry before Christmas, he wrote,

“Is the present time a blip? Is Hitler only an episode? Are these ideas going to disappear and the better side of humanity re-emerge?”

We owe it to her grandfather Wilhelm, and all the survivors of genocides, to do all we can to learn from their experiences.

Today, we remember not simply the liberation of the camps, but the triumph of freedom and the human spirit. We marvel at the strength, the resilience and the faith of those survivors and of Jewish people here in the UK and around the world. We must continue to tell their stories. We must use this day to continue the fight against hatred in all its forms. Then, perhaps, one day we will have a future without genocide.