For my speech on Holocaust Memorial Day, I spoke about Holocaust survivors and London residents Alicia and Adam, and the need to reach out to today’s refugee survivors:
It is always a great privilege to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Let me add my thanks to the truly amazing Holocaust Educational Trust for its much-needed and excellent work to keep memories alive, but also to remind us of what our future might hold if we chose to ignore the plight of those in our world who are in trouble.
This year, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is a question: “How can life go on?” Given what we have heard today, and during our past debates on this topic, the force of that question is palpable. Personally, I cannot imagine how I could go on in circumstances even a fraction as bleak as those experienced by so many Jewish people, and others, during the Nazi genocide. For many survivors, almost everything that had anchored them was lost. The loving family connections that had given shape to their entire lives, the familiar places and supportive communities that may have been all they ever knew, their sense of our world as a potential home for them—all of it gone. On top of that, those sources of love and security had been taken away by an unprecedented, unrelenting wave of organised, arbitrary hatred.
In reflecting on this, I will draw on the testimony of one survivor, the artist Alicia Melamed Adams, who was born Alicia Goldschlag in Drohobycz in what is now Ukraine in 1927. We can read her story, in connection with a series of relevant—and beautiful and tragic—examples of her painting, in a booklet. It is a remarkable testament to a truly remarkable and very talented woman.
The German army took control of Drohobycz in 1941, when Alicia was only 13 years old. They forced the Jewish population into a ghetto, and Alicia’s family was separated. Her beloved older brother disappeared without trace at the age of 18 after being taken to another camp; he was one of the first to be taken in that area. During this time, she—at 13 years old—laboured for the Gestapo under the constant and explicit threat of beatings and death. In her words:
“At one time I worked as a cleaner for a Gestapo man. He was one of those who shot people in Bronica wood with machine guns—about two thousand at a time. He always used to drink beforehand. Once he said to me, ‘You are very nice, I will never kill you with the others.’ Then he showed me a beautiful flowering tree and said, ‘I will kill you separately and I will put you under that tree.’ I once painted a self-portrait with that tree. I sold the picture and called it ‘Childhood Memories’, but I’m certain the buyer didn’t know what kind of memories they were.”
Alicia narrowly escaped death a number of times, mainly because she was helped due to the kindness of others or sometimes just by luck—fate. Throughout her ordeal, Alicia was only a child.
After the war Alicia met Adam, also a survivor in western Poland, who is now her husband. I wanted to tell his story too, but we simply do not have time in this debate. I urge the House authorities to give us a proper, long debate next time so that we can truly talk about the stories of such people. Alicia and Adam moved to London, where they have lived ever since, but these events leave an indelible mark.
After experiencing such intense horror, it is understandably difficult to go on with life in a new place among strangers. Stories like those of Adam and Alicia are relevant to how we should treat today’s refugee survivors—those for whom the question of how life can go on must be so pressing. It is so important that we create an environment for them that offers genuine shelter for body and mind, that genuinely reaches out, instead of shying away, when faced with deeply troubling past experiences and their consequences, and that gives survivors a genuine chance to create a new life in this country, just as Alicia and Adam, remarkably, have had the strength to do. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that Adam and Alicia are still with us today, and nestled in the bosom of their loving family.
I hope today the House will recommit to extending a welcoming, understanding, careful hand to refugees today and tomorrow. We must never let survivors of murderous horror feel such loss and despair that they might question how they can go on with life in our country.