BRITISH HEROES OF THE HOLOCAUST – 29 April 2009

Dr Julian Lewis: It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Lynda Waltho), whom I congratulate on her work to bring to the forefront of public consciousness the heroism, magnanimity and immense humanity of Frank Foley. I have had the pleasure of reading Michael Smith’s book, which is, exactly as she has said, a revelation. Some hon. Members may be familiar with the wartime film “Pimpernel Smith”, starring the late Leslie Howard – who himself did not survive the war – as a quiet academic who secretly rescues people from the jaws of death. Frank Foley was Pimpernel Smith in reality.

We have taken a very long time to recognise and acknowledge such heroes, who quietly went back into obscurity – that is, those of them who lived, not to tell the tale, but at least to resume their lives. It is hard to know why we have taken so long to recognise our own heroes. One or two of them were known early on, but not always for what they did in terms of the Holocaust. I have in mind Charles Coward, whose story was made into the famous and gripping film “The Password is Courage”, a prisoner-of-war drama about how that irrepressible young man caused mayhem to his German captors. However, the part for which we remember him today was considered too grim to be included in the film. When he was put to work at Monowitz, near the Auschwitz extermination centre, he worked surreptitiously to save Jews from the jaws of death and to convey explosives to those who eventually blew up the crematoria.

The story emerged earlier than most – this was hinted at in earlier contributions – because of the Nuremberg trials. Charlie Coward was mentioned at the trials for his heroism in exposing the dastardly extermination programme created by Hitlerism. As a result, a book was written that went into some depth about what he did in Auschwitz, but, as I have said, that was considered too grim for the feature film to do more than talk about; sketches were included to give a rough idea of the conditions in which that hero operated.

It is always heart-warming for me to hear non-Jewish parliamentary colleagues – I come from a Jewish background myself – taking the trouble to initiate a debate of this sort. I sometimes hesitate to get involved, because I feel that, in a sense, it means so much more when someone whose family was not affected by the events that we are discussing takes an interest in them. For many years, the Jewish community was perhaps reluctant to draw too much attention to what happened. Sometimes, I think, people felt ashamed that they had not resisted more. But it is pretty well impossible to resist when one is a civilian being rounded-up by armed paramilitaries or men in military uniform.

The amazing thing is that there was so much resistance. Of the half-dozen principal extermination centres, there were revolts at three. I have mentioned that the crematoria at Auschwitz were blown up, but the Sobibor camp and the Treblinka camp where my family were exterminated, were destroyed completely in uprisings by the inmates. To do such a thing in such desperate conditions is a mark of heroism that also deserves more recognition than it has been given.

When I was a young man, I learned less about Charlie Coward – the Nuremberg trials were before my time – than about Raoul Wallenberg, whom everyone taking part in this debate has heard of: Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary who saved tens of thousands of Jews in precisely the same way as Frank Foley. He rescued people from the jaws of death, putting himself in mortal danger, and having come through it all against the Nazis, was arrested by the Russians, hauled off to the gulag and never seen again. At that time, I had no idea that any British person, other than on the smaller scale of Sergeant Coward, had done anything of the sort. I pay tribute to Michael Smith for his excellent book, which was instrumental in giving us the pride of knowing that we had our own Raoul Wallenberg in Frank Foley.

I have also been privileged to read profiles of other heroes supplied by the Holocaust Educational Trust. I draw attention to one of the briefer passages in the little dossier sent by the Trust. It refers to 10 British prisoners of war – John Buckley, Alan Edwards, Willy Fisher, Bert Hambling, George Hammond, Bill Keeple, Roger Lechford, Tommy Noble, Bill Scruton and Stan Wells – who discovered a young Jewish girl, a teenager called Sara Rigler, who had escaped from a death march outside Danzig. They smuggled her into their prisoner of war camp and hid her in a hayloft. As a result, she survived the war.

The only reason why I know about that story is that a programme featuring Esther Rantzen confronted the young woman, now a bit more mature, with her rescuers. I remember Esther Rantzen asking the rescuers:

“But why did you do it? You were in enough trouble already. You were prisoners of war.”

They said:

“We did it because we were British, and this was why we were fighting that war.”

I do not know about you, Mr. Benton, but whenever I think about such stories, my backbone straightens, my spirits lift and I feel that perhaps it is not such an evil world after all. There is a saying that someone who saves a single life saves the world entire. That is what those British heroes did, and that is why I am so happy that broad hints are being dropped in this debate that something will now be done for them.

[Des Browne: It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). Those of us who have listened to the last eight minutes of the debate will be glad that he chose to speak and did not decide that it would be inappropriate for him to do so, because it has been a privilege to listen to him. He was characteristically generous in commending all those who are not of his faith and ethnic background for speaking in such a debate and in saying that it is all the more important that we should speak because our families were not affected. I am not here because my family was affected, although my father did serve throughout the war in many of its theatres, and he later died far too young as a consequence. I am here because I have been affected by the events that we are discussing … ]