Ian Austin MP: On Holocaust Memorial Day, let's remember being British means opposing hatred, bigotry and racism
As we look forward to the future, and the challenges we are faced with as survivors become fewer and frailer Holocaust Memorial Day this Sunday, gives us the opportunity to reflect on the importance of remembering the Holocaust, says Ian Austin MP.
When I first visited Auschwitz with the Holocaust Educational Trust and students from Dudley, I thought I was prepared for what I was going to see. I’d read books and seen films, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer reality of man’s inhumanity to man. I will never forget seeing a mountain of human hair shaved from the heads of inmates to be made into cloth, or the piles of shoes, glasses and suitcases.
Last year I was honoured to join the brilliant project, March of the Living, on a week-long visit to Poland. We visited sites of ghettoes and concentration camps and I will never forget visiting Belzec, a tiny site about as big as two football pitches, where hundreds of thousands were murdered.
At the peak of the killing in 1942, three or four transport trains arrived every day. In August 1942 130,000 Jews were murdered in Belzec. In just one month.
What also brings home the horror of the Holocaust is to visit towns and cities where whole communities were wiped out. My dad came to Britain as a ten-year-old refugee from Ostrava in what was then Czechoslovakia. His mum and sisters were murdered in Treblinka. Before the Holocaust, 10,000 Jews lived in Ostrava, a town with several synagogues and Jewish Schools. A few years ago, my dad and I found his flat and the site of his school and synagogue. Today in that very same town, there is just a single room that serves as its Synagogue and community centre today, seats for just 30 people.
I was flicking through the Telegraph a couple of years ago when I came across an obituary telling the story of Rose Evansky, who died at the age of 94. She had pioneered modern hairdressing and became one of the most famous and influential hairdressers ever.
Rose had been born in Germany in 1922. In 1938 her Jewish father was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp and while amazingly she managed to escape on the Kindertransport and arrived in Dudley as a refugee.
She was only able to escape because a local family who were not related to her and had never met her heard about her from a refugee committee and put up the £50 guarantee -- a lot of money in those days -- that had to be paid before she could escape.
A few months later, in 1939 a 14 year-old German refugee called Kurt Flossman arrived at Dudley Grammar School aged just 14. His father had died in 1937, and he had made his way across Europe on his own. His classmates clubbed together to fund his expenses and local firms sponsored his clothes.
Stories like this show that Dudley – like the rest of our country - has always worked to help those in need and build a tolerant community. Over the years Britain has welcomed refugees fleeing persecution from Vietnam, Uganda and Yugoslavia, and now from Africa and the Middle East too.
This is who we are and this is what we do.
Think of Britain in the thirties. The rest of Europe succumbing to fascism. Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Franco in Spain. Here in Britain, Mosley rejected.
Imagine 1941: France invaded. Europe overrun. America not yet in the war. Just one country standing for liberty and democracy: Fighting not just for our liberty, but for the world's freedom too.
So when people ask what it means to be British or what is special and unique about our country, I say that it is because of who we are as a people and what we are as a country that British people stood up to the Nazis and opposed hatred, bigotry and racism.
I grew up learning about the Holocaust and hearing stories about the suffering, the appalling cruelty and the scale of the slaughter left me with a conviction that prejudice leads to intolerance, then to victimisation, and eventually to persecution. That we have a duty to make a difference, to fight discrimination, intolerance and bigotry wherever we find it.
As we look forward to the future, and the challenges we are faced with as survivors become fewer and frailer Holocaust Memorial Day this Sunday, gives us the opportunity to reflect on the importance of remembering the Holocaust. It is vital to remember the horrors of the Holocaust and to pay our respects to all who suffered at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust or in other more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda or Darfur; and we must also rededicate ourselves to fight prejudice and hatred wherever it is found, because that is the best tribute we can pay to the memory of those who were murdered in history’s greatest crime.