Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

Here is my speech on Thursday 19 January 2012 in the debate on

Holocaust Memorial Day 2012

4.2 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I once introduced a ten-minute rule Bill whose Second Reading was 15 years ago last week. It was the Holocaust Denial Bill, and it ended up going to Committee, but it ran out of time just before the 1997 general election. In the subsequent Parliament, my friend Andrew Dismore, the former Member for Hendon, introduced a Bill to mark Holocaust memorial day. I pay tribute to the fact that he was successful where I was not. Perhaps it is a little easier to have a memorial day than to legislate against holocaust denial.

The reason why I introduced that Bill 15 years ago was that Germany, France, Austria and other countries that were occupied by the Nazis have strong laws—although it is a civil offence in France—against denying the holocaust, wearing Nazi uniforms, portraying Nazi regalia or flags or singing Nazi drinking songs at universities, kinds of behaviour that seem to be acceptable to at least a minority of British people.

We should not think that this debate is simply about what happens in other countries or what happened in the past, whether the crimes of the Nazis against Jews, Roma, communists, socialists, trade unionists, homosexuals and anyone else who was different; the crimes carried out, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) eloquently described, in the civil war in the former Yugoslavia; what happened in Rwanda or Cambodia; or what might happen elsewhere in Africa, as difficult internal conflicts are occurring in several African countries. We must also think about the ideology behind such events and how that ideology is expressed in the age of the internet and perpetrated and communicated globally.

We as a society must revisit the issue. We have strict laws against incitement to racial hatred, and we changed our legislation during the last Parliament to make it, as well as incitement to religious hatred, an offence. It is therefore important that we recognise that this debate has a domestic context. I add that we must learn from history, and should remember it. Anyone who, as I have, has walked the streets of Krakow—the place depicted in the film “Schindler’s List”—will have seen the factory and the streets, visited the small synagogue, which is no longer in use as such but is now a museum with photographs of Jewish families, some of whom escaped to the United States of America, and thought, “Where were those people taken?” We know where they were taken; it has been mentioned. They were exterminated, or, if they were lucky, they managed to escape.

Similarly, I went to Vilnius, now the capital of the independent state of Lithuania, in 1978. I led a cross-party British Youth Council delegation that included representatives of the Scouts, the National Association of Youth Clubs, Labour students and young Conservatives. There were six of us. We went by train from Moscow to Vilnius, through the night, and stayed in Vilnius for two days. During that entire time, not one person in the Soviet Lithuanian Communist organisation that greeted us and took us round referred to the fact that it was Vilno, the heart of the Jewish community in central eastern Europe during the first 35, 40 or 50 years of the last century. That is interesting. Under the Soviet Union, they wanted to talk about the Nazis and what the Nazis did, but they did not want to talk about what happened to the millions of Jewish people who lived in that area and were exterminated.

Mr Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) (LD): Part of the reason is that many of them served in the Waffen SS. That was the problem in places such as Lithuania and Latvia. Their memories are short. Sadly, when I went to both places, I saw commemorative marches by members of the Waffen SS, who were greeted with cheers in the streets. That was not 20 years ago; it was 10 years ago.

Mike Gapes: I agree. That is why, as I said in an earlier intervention, we must continue to search for those, whoever and wherever they are and whatever names or aliases they are using, who played a role in those terrible crimes. We must also confront directly those who deny and minimise the holocaust.

I am delighted that the holocaust denier and Nazi apologist David Irving was imprisoned in Austria for his crimes. He launched a legal challenge against the historian Deborah Lipstadt and lost. I am delighted that he lost, and I congratulate her on her victory. It was an important victory for truth and for the memory of those who died.

It is also important to remember in other ways those who died. The great film maker Steven Spielberg has produced an incredible archive of the Shoah that includes the personal testimonies of survivors, taken before they were no longer with us. I have had the pleasure—“pleasure” is probably not the right word; it was a privilege and a great honour—of listening to a survivor speak in a school in my constituency. At least future generations will have those testimonies on film, and we can have that dialogue and relationship with our young people. It is crucial, as hon. Members have mentioned, that all young people in this country take part and learn about these events.

I have a mixed constituency, and I am pleased that in Valentines park in Ilford next Friday we will have our annual Holocaust memorial day service in the holocaust memorial garden, which was established by Redbridge council several years ago. Young people from local schools will be there. There will be Sikhs. There will be Muslims. There will be Hindus. There will be Buddhists. There will be Christians. There will be Jews. There will be people from minority communities, including Roma children, who have taken part in the service in the past. That reflects the diversity of modern Britain, and it is an important part of learning about the past, so that the errors of the past are not repeated in the future.

I am pleased that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) secured this debate today, and I congratulate him and the Holocaust Educational Trust on what they have done and will continue to do in future.

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