I was honoured to lead the Holocaust Memorial Service at City Hall yesterday. Please see below a copy of my speech.
Welcome to City Hall and thank you all for joining us at this annual Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony.
There are lots of events locally and nationally. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust mentions some 3,600 activities across the country, taking place around this time. As the seat of city-wide government for London it has been important for us that we play our part and hold this ceremony, in this place; and we have done this since the first Holocaust Memorial Day was established in the UK in 2001.
We are honoured today to have with us a number of survivors of the Holocaust and their relatives. We also have a number of old friends who make a point of being here with us on this day every year. I am also grateful that so many of the Mayors and Council Leaders from the London Boroughs have joined us. I also know that today has a personal resonance for one of our colleagues, Nicky Gavron AM, who is a second generation survivor who lost members of her family in the camps, including Auschwitz.
And, let me give a special mention to Andy Lawrence and the children from Hampton School, who have made Holocaust education a major part of their learning. A warm welcome to them and to everyone.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 is ‘Don’t Stand By’; and I want to start by mentioning 2 quotes to help set the context. I am sure you know the first, it is from Pastor Martin Niemoller. He was a German priest, who eventually fell foul of the Reich, and survived several years of internment, including a period in Dachau. Writing some years after the end of World War II he said;
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me”
For me, this captures the insidious nature of the process of persecution, but also contains a warning about needing to take responsibility to oppose it.
The second quote is from the very familiar figure of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He gave a series of lectures in 1967 under the heading of “The Trumpet of Conscience” and at one point he says;
‘‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.’’
Clearly, Dr. King was talking then about the Civil Rights struggle in the United States, but his words are helpful in the context of today’s ceremony. For me they remind us that we all have a duty to speak out when we disagree with those who would presume to act in our name.
But, let us never pretend that taking action, individually, in what are extreme circumstances, can ever be easy. Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish writer, in his 1947 book “If This is a Man” describes the descent he experienced during his 11-month incarceration in Auschwitz. He, like others, tries to maintain some semblance of humanity by ‘withdrawing consent’ to the numerous impositions of his guards. But in the inhuman setting of the camp, amidst the beatings, deprivations, indiscriminate brutality and murder taking place all around him, he realises that he and his fellow prisoners have been “reduced to silence”. Did he finally, perhaps understandably, ‘stand by’? I would argue that he did not. He chose to document his experience and in the process provide a warning to us all; and, he was persistent in the face of those who did not subsequently believe the story – it took 10 years before the book was published in any significant numbers.
In October last year, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as a guest of the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was as part of their ‘Lessons from Auschwitz’ project, and I was with some of the young people participating today and Rabbi Garson, whom we will be hearing from.
Before visiting the camps, we were taken to the site of a Jewish cemetery in the small Polish town called Oświęcim, 2 or 3 miles from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps.
Oświęcim, translated into German, is what we know as Auschwitz. We were taken there partly to remind us that in this town, before the rise of Nazism, Jewish people lived, worked and raised their families. Now, there are no Jewish people in Oświęcim. Just a cemetery, where a whole community is buried.
For many of us, our focus is largely on the millions that perished in the gas chambers. In Auschwitz, there is a map detailing the main sites of the ghettos, transit camps and prisons from which Jewish people and others were transported to their deaths. They came from Greece; Latvia; Croatia; France; Hungary; Belgium; Italy; Russia; and of course, from Germany and other parts of Poland.
But, what made that level of slaughter possible was the involvement of so many others, in the main ordinary people. We were told that the sheer logistics of such a huge operation, moving trains across a whole continent, would have involved thousands of people – train drivers; signalmen; office staff working out the timetables; engineers building the infrastructure. Some might not have known, it is true, but clearly many did.
We will shortly be hearing from Hannah Lewis, who will tell us of her own moving story of the Holocaust, and later from Jean Baptiste Kayigamba, who survived the terrible genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
So as we gather today to listen to our guests and the haunting memories of those too few who survived the horrors of genocide, it is as important as ever that we respond to the 2016 Holocaust Memorial Day call for us all never to stand by. So that those who did not live to see this day can know that we shall remember them, still. And in their name, and the names of all those who suffer, we shall continue to fight bigotry, fight prejudice and fight intolerance.
So, we have reached the end of our ceremony today.
On behalf of us all at City Hall and I’m sure everyone here in this Chamber, I would like to give our thanks to Hannah Lewis and Jean Baptiste Kayigamba for their incredible testimonies, and to these wonderful young people from the ‘Lessons from Auschwitz Project’ who give us cause for hope for the future. I would also like to thank Rabbi Raphy Garson; Dan Gouly and Josh Middleton; Anita and Lizzie from the Holocaust Educational Trust; Olivia and Mark from the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust; and finally the Jewish Music Institute for their contributions to our event today.
Part of what we have been doing here today is remembering. At the beginning of Primo Levi’s book he includes a poem;
“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children”