With Holocaust Memorial Day due to take place on Saturday, MPs across the political divide came together last week to express their horror about the murder of six million people by the Nazi regime. Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet, was one of the parliamentarians to take part in the debate. Yesterday she signed the Book of Commitment which is placed in the House of Commons by the Holocaust Educational Trust every year in January.
In her speech, Ms Villiers said “Later this month, I shall be attending the annual commemoration for Holocaust Memorial Day hosted by Barnet Council in the quadrangle of Middlesex University, as I have been doing for many years now. This is a really important occasion for us in Barnet because we take huge pride in being a diverse, inclusive borough, made up of people from many different faiths, cultures and ethnicities. We are also immensely proud to be the home of one of the largest Jewish populations between New York and Tel Aviv.
The Jewish community plays a hugely valuable role in the borough of Barnet—in business, in public services, in schools, in civic life and in so many other ways. We are incredibly lucky in north London to be a place where many Jewish people have chosen to make their home. They are a community who have profoundly enriched our culture and quality of life, and I was very much aware of that in my years growing up in St John’s Wood.
So for me, one of the reasons why I find the stories of those who perished during the holocaust to be so distressing is because it feels very close to home, so disturbing, so personal, to know that this horror was inflicted on the parents, grandparents and wider family of people who are such a core part of my network of friends, family and colleagues, without whom I would find life to be pretty bleak.
I also have the privilege of representing a number of constituents who are holocaust survivors. I pay particular tribute to Mala Tribich for all that she does with the Holocaust Educational Trust to educate the new generation about what happened.
In my view, the Holocaust was the single greatest act of evil in human history. I know that historians debate that point. The numbers dying at the hands of Stalin were as great, and atrocities such as the Holodomor in Ukraine were certainly acts of the most unspeakable cruelty. But the attempt by the Nazi regime to wipe out an entire ethnic group and harness 20th-century technology to deliver murder on an industrial scale seems to me to be without parallel in terms of the sheer stomach-turning depravity and evil of what occurred.
Last February, I had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem on a trip hosted by Conservative Friends of Israel. It was my second chance to see that exhibition.
Towards the very end of a truly emotionally draining experience, as the account of those terrible events unfolds before you, you reach the exhibit on the Righteous Among Nations—the people who risked their lives to save Jewish people from the terrible fate that so many of them suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
They include people such as Oscar and Emilie Schindler, whose story was captured so powerfully in Stephen Spielberg’s film; Nicholas Winton, who helped nearly 700 children to escape from persecution in what was then Czechoslovakia and never sought any recognition for his efforts; the people in Denmark who smuggled their Jewish population to safety in Sweden; and the population of Albania who defied the orders of the Nazis and refused to hand over lists of Jewish Albanians, and gave sanctuary to Jews fleeing Germany.
The remarkable assistance given by Albania was grounded in a concept called besa—a code of honour which literally means “to keep the promise”. One who acts according to besa is someone who keeps their word—someone to whom one can trust one’s life and the lives of one’s family.
While we are considering the most extreme example of the evil of which humanity is capable, this dark period of history has another side to it. In relation to certain individuals, it demonstrates great acts of courage and compassion. One of the many reasons why we should never, ever forget the events we are reflecting on today is to ensure that if the threat of this kind of atrocity were ever to return to this continent, we would not be found wanting, and that we would be among those brave enough to speak out, and do everything we could to prevent it happening again. Today, once again, we all commit to oppose anti-Semitism and racism in all its forms and wherever it occurs.”
The debate in the House of Commons took place on Thursday 18th January. Holocaust Memorial Day is on Saturday 27th January and Barnet Council’s commemoration is on Sunday 28th January at Middlesex University in The Burroughs, Hendon.