HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY DEBATE – 31 January 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: When the Allies overran the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War, a parliamentary delegation was sent to visit Buchenwald. So distressing were the sights that those MPs saw that one of them, a lady called Mavis Tate, subsequently committed suicide. The very idea, at that time or in the years immediately following the war, that there could arise a school of thought that could seriously attempt to deny what had happened in places such as Buchenwald would have seemed patently absurd.

It was not until the early 1970s that I first heard of a publication called Did Six Million Really Die? At that time, it seemed totally bizarre that anyone could suggest that the Holocaust had not happened, yet by dint of assiduous embroidery, the peddling of lies and the dressing-up of propaganda and deceit under a false label of historiography, that thesis has moved into a different arena. Everyone has heard of it, and organisations such as the Oxford Union debating society think it appropriate to offer the privilege of a platform to its most notorious advocate, David Irving.

I found myself caught up in that dispute because, by sheer coincidence, I had been invited to speak at the Union a few days before the Irving and Griffin visit was due to take place. As a result of the invitation made to those people, I tore up my membership card, having been a member of the organisation for 37 years. I must have put my case across poorly, because time after time I was told that it was an issue of free speech – as though anyone had suggested that Irving and Griffin should not have the right to say what they wanted, as long as they did not break the law. In fact, the question was about who should have one or two of the limited opportunities to speak at the Union that are available every term. A Labour colleague put it far more effectively than I have:

“Even fascists have the right to eat – but that doesn’t mean you ought to invite them to dinner.”

As a result of that little episode, which was widely reported, I received an e-mail from my cousin in Israel congratulating me on making that modest gesture. I was affected when I received that e-mail from my cousin Chana, because she was the only child from the village of Siemiatycze to survive the Holocaust. She survived – she was about six at the time – because an extremely brave Polish farming family by the name of Krynski hid her, her parents and her grandmother in a bunker under a barn for more than a year-and-a-half. If her family had been caught, they would have been annihilated and so would the Krynski family.

The Krynskis were very poor, and they saved my cousins because before the war my cousins had had a little shop on the market square, and sometimes the Krynskis did not have enough money to buy what they needed for the family. Without giving it a second thought, my cousins used to say:

“Don’t worry, Mr. Krynski. Take what you need; pay when you can.”

Little did they think that that simple gesture of charity would one day save their lives.

After the war, my cousin’s family moved to Canada and used to send parcels back to the Krynskis and do the best they could to support them in Poland. Later, they suggested that Mr. Krynski should go to Israel to be honoured for what he had done. It was a sad testimony to the state of post-war anti-Semitism in Poland that he decided, on the whole, that it would not be wise for him to be honoured in Israel for saving Jews and then to go back to live in that part of Poland.

On a brighter note, when I went to Siemiatycze for the first time in 2004, I saw the little shop – it is still there, although it is a flower shop now – and I met the young mother who lives in the little flat above it. I explained that I would like to have a look around, because my family had lived there. She asked whether my family intended to put in a claim to get the property back. I said:

“No, that’s all history now.”

“What a pity,”

she replied.

“It’s a council flat. If you claimed it back, I might get a better offer!”

As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Paul Goodman) said, I was privileged to be invited to represent the leader of our party at the excellent event in Liverpool. It was gratifying to see the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi on the platform side-by-side, commemorating the Holocaust. It was also excellent to see – and meet – the representative of the Muslim Council of Britain, who was attending the event for the first time. I said to him what I shall now say to the House: I look forward to the day when we see on that platform a high representative of the Muslim faith who is of similar rank to those who represent Christianity and Judaism. Then we will know that the Nazis really are on the run.

[To see another family's videos of a visit to Siemiatycze, click here and here. The latter features the grave of cousin Chana's grandfather, killed on the night that she, her parents and grandmother found refuge.]