HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL DAY DEBATE – 24 January 2013
Dr Julian Lewis: My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) has done the House a service by bringing this topic to the Chamber.
The Holocaust Educational Trust continues to do society a great service by enabling young people from schools up and down the country to have the experience of visiting Auschwitz extermination camp. I went on one of those visits a few years ago. I was a little bit reluctant to go because I had read rather more than was good for me about the holocaust at rather too young an age. I am glad I went, however, because it helped put to rest any doubts I might have had about the wisdom of taking people when they are so young to see such a terrible place. The way in which the trust prepared the young people for their visit in advance, and then debriefed them afterwards so that they could share their experience, ensured that the process was educational and probably life-changing, but not psychologically damaging.
What we have heard today has been evidence of the fact that although the scale of the holocaust against the Jews has not been reached since, the impulses behind it remain and other massacres have had a similar basis for being carried out and have been carried out. When my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) made a brief intervention earlier and talked about the importance of not defining people and damning them by the groups to which they belong, my mind went back to my days in Dynevor grammar school, Swansea, where I had an inspirational teacher by the name of Mr Graham Davies. He once told the class about a short, silent film – I have never been able to track it down – called Prejudice. I have never forgotten the theme of that film. It showed a group of schoolchildren in a playground. All of them were hopping around on their right legs and they seemed to get on very well, but at some point another child came into the playground and he hopped around on his left leg. Gradually, the viewer could see the members of the larger group ganging up against the individual who was different, and eventually they attacked and killed him. The film was simply called “Prejudice”. It had a lesson for me then and it has a lesson for us still today.
I want briefly to tell the story of two little girls who were caught up in the holocaust against the Jews. One was my cousin, Chana Broder, who got in touch with me back in late 2007 as a result of something in the press about my decision to resign my life membership of the Oxford Union Debating Society because of its ill-conceived idea of giving a platform to the holocaust denier David Irving and to the leader of the anti-Semitic British National Party. As a result of those two individuals being given that platform, I decided that the Oxford Union Debating Society was not an organisation with which I wished to continue to be associated. My cousin Chana read something about it out in Israel, where she has lived for many years since the war, and got in touch with me to say that she was pleased I had done that. I thought about her story and decided to relate it in a previous Holocaust memorial day debate in this House. It bears relating once again, because that debate took place five years ago, at the beginning of 2008, and a lot of people present today were not in the House of Commons then.
The story is quite simple. It is the story of a family in a village in eastern Poland called Siemiatycze – which we always anglicise and pronounce "Semiatich" – which was occupied initially not by the Germans but by the Russians, because when World War II broke out, less than a fortnight after the Germans had invaded from the west, the Russians invaded from the east, as hon. Members will be aware, and they carved up Poland between them. The Jews of that part of Poland occupied by the Russians were safe for the time being, but after the German invasion of Russia they were in the front line. I remember my late father telling me that the first time he knew that his family had had it was the only time he heard Siemiatycze mentioned in a radio broadcast, when he heard that invading German forces had reached that place.
Of our family – approximately 50 or so people living in that village – only five survived. Three of the five were Chana and her parents – that little family – and all the ones who survived did so only because they were sheltered and protected by Poles, at the risk of their own lives. Chana and her parents used to run a little village store. A family called the Krynskis, who were a very poor Polish farming family, used to come into the store – a convenience store, I suppose we would call it today – in the years before the war. Sometimes my cousins could see that they were rather short of the wherewithal to make the purchases they wanted to make and they would say:
"Look, Mr Krynski, Mrs Krynski, take what you need and pay us when you can."
Little did they imagine that that simple act of charity would result in the Krynskis saving their lives when many other doors were closed to them, as they fled from the liquidation of the ghetto that was formed in Siemiatycze, preparatory to the extermination of the Jews. My cousin’s family lived for a year and a half in a bunker under a barn, coming out only late at night when it was safe to do so. The Krynski family gave them the sustenance to survive all that time, until the Russians overran the village of Siemiatycze once again and they were saved. They subsequently went to Canada, and then to Israel.
The sad part of the story is that, when people later tried to persuade Mr Krynski to come to Israel to accept an award for his heroism and that of his family, he decided that it was probably better not to do so, such was the continuing atmosphere of anti-Semitism in Polish society after the war. He felt that it would not be a good thing for him to go back to live there, having been rewarded for saving Jews. I know that Poland has moved a long way from those attitudes today, thank goodness, but that was the situation then.
My second story is of a young girl called Nina Karsov. She is a friend of mine. She and her parents were on a train being taken to an extermination camp. They came from Warsaw. Somehow, they managed to jump from the train. The mother was killed instantly, but the little girl, who was two, lay in the snow for quite some time until her father managed to make his way back to find her. He took her back to Warsaw, where they were separately sheltered, again by gallant Polish families. One day, there was a raid on the quarter of Warsaw in which the father was being hidden. In order not to give away the people who had been sheltering him, he raced across to another building, climbed to the roof and threw himself off so that he could not be forced to disclose the identity of the people who had sheltered him. Nina survived and was brought up by the person she calls her Polish mother. She is today a researcher in the House of Commons, working for me.
Those experiences all sound extraordinary, but they are not. By definition, anybody who fell under the spread of the barbarism of Nazi Germany and survived would have had to go through something like that. Those "ordinary extraordinary" stories affect different people in different ways. I am sure that, subconsciously at least, my knowledge of what happened to my family has motivated me always to take the view that it is folly for peaceful democracies to be weak while vicious dictatorships arm themselves and become strong.
Nina found herself being brought up in post-war Poland under the communists. Despite everything that she had been through, she nevertheless worked closely with dissident intellectuals. As a result, she was sentenced to three years in jail by the communists for standing out against what communism meant in post-war Poland. I am pleased to say that, as a result of a campaign by Amnesty International, which made her its prisoner of the year in 1968, she was freed after serving two years of her sentence and came to this country.
Those traumas involve large statistics, but they are carried forward through individual stories. The effects of those terrible deeds perpetrated on so many people in that era live on. They have knock-on effects; they affect other people and they affect the way we look at the world. I do not think there is any danger of our forgetting the lessons of those terrible times. Nina’s story is told in a book called Monuments are Not Loved. My cousin’s mother wrote a book as well. It was called Out of the Depths, which obviously referred to the bunker under the barn in which they survived for so long in such difficult conditions.
We criticise the ways in which electronic media can be abused, but thank goodness those media can also be used to disseminate the truth. We know the truth about the holocaust; we know that there are lessons to be drawn. We will not all necessarily draw the same lessons, but thanks to debates such as the one we have had today and thanks to the work of such organisations as the Holocaust Educational Trust, people will be able to remember, to draw lessons and to take steps for the future so that we are better prepared should something so terrible ever loom on the horizon again.