It is an absolute privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. Members on both sides of the House have made very moving and powerful contributions, sharing stories, memories and facts that should never be forgotten. As has been said, it is a matter of deep shame that despite the proclamation of “Never again” after the Holocaust, from the killing fields of Cambodia to the desert sands of Darfur, to the mountains and savannahs of Rwanda, we—the international community—have failed to prevent genocides from taking place.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is keeping the memory alive, which is particularly appropriate, as we have heard, given that a week from now marks 70 years to the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the red army. The SS knew they were coming and attempted to destroy the evidence of their heinous crimes. They built bonfires of documents detailing their atrocities. They blew up crematoriums II and III and set fire to Kanada II, the barracks that held property plundered from the victims. The Nazis did not want us to know about the systematic, state-organised murder of Jews, Roma Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, communists and socialists. However, by keeping the memory alive, we reaffirm that they are not forgotten. The voices of the 11 million echo still across this Chamber and, indeed, the world. Those voices will be heard.
About 1.5 million children were murdered during the Holocaust, and the young suffered the most brutal treatments, tortures and punishments, often for the smallest offences. A 16-year-old boy, Czeslaw Kempisty, was hanged from a post for several hours with his hands twisted behind his back. What was the reason? He had thrown some turnips to famished Soviet prisoners of war. Thirteen-year-old Halina Grynstein was shot for approaching the camp fence to exchange words with another prisoner. Seventeen-year-old Benkel Faivel was shot in the head by an SS guard for trying to pass a piece of bread to a woman prisoner. Those were small but very real rebellions. They shout against the idea that the victims of the Nazi Holocaust were passive.
Everyone in this Chamber will have heard the stories of the Warsaw ghetto uprising—the Jewish community held out longer in Warsaw than the entire Polish army did to protect their borders against the Nazi army—the Bielski partisans and the Sobibor uprising, but I want to talk also about the small acts of resistance, which are not as well known. In that way, when we think of Auschwitz and remember the emaciated bodies, the piles of corpses or, indeed, the shoes, suitcases, artificial limbs and human hair plundered from victims, we also remember the vital acts of resistance: a prohibited conversation, the passing of some bread or the throwing of a few turnips to starving prisoners. Those acts showed a real determination on the part of the prisoners, including children—and they knew full well the price that they could pay for their actions—to retain their basic humanity.
Some of the most unforgivable actions in Auschwitz were the experiments by the so-called camp doctors, including the notorious Josef Mengele, who inflicted inconceivable levels of suffering on children with his quasi-medical experiments. Eva Mozes Kor describes her arrival at Auschwitz with her identical twin, Miriam:
“Everything was moving very fast...I noticed my father and my two older sisters were gone. As I clutched my mother’s hand, an SS man hurried by shouting, ‘Twins! Twins!’…Once the SS guard knew we were twins, Miriam and I were taken away from our mother, without any warning or explanation. Our screams fell on deaf ears. I remember looking back and seeing my mother’s arms stretched out in despair as we were led away by a soldier. That was the last time I saw her…”
Eva remembers her introduction to life at Auschwitz:
“The first time I went to use the latrine located at the end of the children’s barrack, I was greeted by the scattered corpses of several children lying on the ground. I think that image will stay with me forever.”
During their time at Auschwitz, Eva and Miriam were put through many brutal surgeries and experiments. Their survival was a miracle in itself; only a few twins were left when the camp was finally liberated. Eva is still with us. She founded the Holocaust museum and education centre in Indiana and CANDLES. That is the acronym for Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors, an organisation whose dedicated aim is “to heal the pain; to teach the truth; to prevent prejudice.”
What a remarkable woman! I pay tribute to her.
In many ways, simply refusing to give up and die in spite of it all was the ultimate act of resistance—living on, like Eva. However, resistance came in many different forms and shapes: active and passive, violent and non-violent, and written and spoken. I shall now tell another story. In the spring of 1943, 19-year-old Ester Wajcblum arrived at Auschwitz and was assigned to work in the munitions factory, where she met Regina Safir and Ala Gertner—women who were engaged in resistance activities. Together with Roza Robota, they began smuggling out gunpowder.
The Sonderkommandos were Jewish prisoners who worked in the death camps. Their duties included guiding new arrivals into the gas chambers, removing the bodies afterwards, shaving the victims’ hair, removing their teeth, cremating their bodies and disposing of the ashes. Due to their knowledge of the camp’s inner workings, the Sonderkommandos were marked for certain death—it was a choice of die on arrival or die in four months’ time. As the time of the Sonderkommandos’ execution approached, they planned their revolt. They fashioned crude grenades by using sardine tins filled with the smuggled gunpowder and, on 7 October 1944, the workers of crematorium I began the revolt. That was followed by uprisings in crematoriums II and III. Crematorium IV was victoriously blown up. However, the SS guards counter-attacked and brutally suppressed the uprising. About 200 of the Sonderkommandos were rounded up and executed with a single shot to the head.
The gunpowder was traced to Ester’s munitions factory—Ester, Regina, Ala and Roza were betrayed. They were tortured: they were beaten and raped and electric shocks were applied to their genitals. But they never gave up the names of people who were not already dead. On 5 January 1945—so close to liberation—the four women were hanged in front of the women’s camp. Their last words were:
“Be strong and be brave.”
As we reflect on the Holocaust and consider the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, we all have a duty to use these memories as a catalyst to rid us of the cancers of racial hatred, intolerance and discrimination. We should be immensely grateful to the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, which do vital work in keeping alive and accessible the stories and lessons of the Holocaust as the number of survivors, sadly, dwindles over time. I join others in commending their work and that of Karen Pollock and Olivia Marks-Woldman in particular.
However, each of us has a responsibility to keep the memories alive and to challenge and defeat the politics of racism and hate at every turn. Evil must be resisted, and if the people of whom I have spoken could resist the evil that they faced, despite their apparent powerlessness, that tells us that we all, as individuals, have a part to play in combating evil. It also tells us how much more responsibility there is on the state to fight all forms of racism and the politics of hate, whether at home or abroad. We must hear the voices of the past and keep their memories alive.