Holocaust Memorial Day Commons Debate

Fabian Hamilton MP speaks in the House of Commons Holocaust Memorial Day Debate

24th January 2013

If you would like to see the recording of the House of Commons debate, please fast forward the linked recording to 14:52 hrs


The transcript of Fabian's speech apppears below.

Fabian Hamilton (Leeds North East) (Lab): I should like to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Graham Evans) on having secured this timely and important debate. It is essential that we are reminded why we commemorate Holocaust memorial day this coming weekend.

I want to follow the excellent speech that has just been made with some recollections of my own and, if the House will indulge me-I will be as quick as I can-with some very personal stories that I have never before relayed in my nearly 16 years as a Member of Parliament. I first visited Auschwitz in 1998. I represent the largest Jewish community in Yorkshire, in the city of Leeds. They live mainly in my Leeds North East constituency, where we have five synagogues and some 8,500 Jewish people remaining from the much larger pre-war community. I was persuaded to go, first, because I am myself Jewish and had never been to a concentration camp, but also because so many of my constituents felt that it was right to go that January day. So, at 2 o'clock in the morning, we set off from Leeds to Manchester-we could not fly at that time from Leeds-and then to Krakow. We chartered a plane and all paid our contribution towards the cost, and 24 hours later, we were back home. It was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had.

As I am sure other Members will relay this afternoon, and as the hon. Member for Weaver Vale so clearly and carefully put it in recounting the story of his visit, one cannot but be affected emotionally, and almost physically, by what one sees in Auschwitz-Birkenau. I thought Birkenau, in many ways, was more moving. Auschwitz has become a museum. It is well-preserved and looked after by the Polish authorities. The guides are professional and they give visitors a very clear story, sometimes, quite naturally, with a Polish bias. But on getting to Birkenau, one can see almost unspoilt-if I can put it that way-the horrors of that camp. There is the railway the hon. Gentleman described, that goes from the beginning-from that wall and that gate-right through to the crematorium and the showers: the gas chambers, which were partially destroyed. There are the huts, originally built for horses, which were imported from Germany and, so I understood from our guide, contained up to 1,000 people who were kept captive there. The facilities there were horrifying. The prisoners were treated probably worse than the horses would have been treated. The Nazis destroyed most of those huts, leaving-as other Members who have visited the camp will recall-a sea of chimneys, all in straight lines, where the boilers and fires were, to give some rudimentary heat in the depths of winter.

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend's moving contribution, but in many ways it reflects other moving contributions that I have heard from schoolchildren who have been on visits organised, very effectively, by the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has become an advocate of the importance of learning about the horrors of the holocaust. Is that not a tribute to the work undertaken by the trust, and to its public funding by both Governments? Long may it continue.

Fabian Hamilton: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Other Members have also mentioned the Holocaust Educational Trust. It was founded by my good friend Lord Janner of Braunstone, a former Member of this House, who has done so much to establish it and ensure that its work continues. It is because of the trust that so many young people have an opportunity to visit the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): I, too, have been on one of those visits. When students return, they are very keen to share the information that they have gained. Students at a school in my constituency invited a survivor of the Kindertransport to speak to their peers as part of their project. Given that there will come a time when there are no more people left with first-hand experiences, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for us to continue to support the Holocaust Educational Trust so that it can continue its work when those survivors are no longer with us?

Fabian Hamilton: I agree wholeheartedly, and in a couple of minutes I shall say something about some of the survivors in my constituency. Sadly, they will not be with us in perhaps 10 or 15 years, and certainly 20 or 30 years. When the children with whom we visited the camps-thanks to the Holocaust Educational Trust-are in their 40s and 50s, there will be no survivors left to speak of their first-hand experiences. It is so important for those experiences to be shared down the generations, and for us to continue, enforce and support the work of the trust.

Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab): I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of an extremely moving film called "Shoah", made by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg went around the world collecting the testimonies of survivors in many different countries. It was a remarkable piece of work that took a very long time. At least the film's existence means that those people's voices and faces are still there for future generations.

Fabian Hamilton: Let me pay my own tribute to Steven Spielberg for his work in preserving those memories. He is a very famous, world-renowned film director and producer who has done so much himself to ensure that those voices continue down the generations on film and in digital media, and it is absolutely essential that they do.

I did not visit Auschwitz-Birkenau again for 12 years, but the Holocaust Educational Trust asked me to go back with a school party just before the 2010 general election. I declined to go on that occasion because I felt that it would be very bad timing from my point of view, politically; not for the children, of course. However, one of my good friends in the House-I hope that he will not mind my mentioning this-is the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), with whom I was serving on the Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, and he asked whether he could join any visit that was organised or in which I was involved. I told him that if I was re-elected, I would organise a visit for the two of us and our wives, and that, indeed, happened in October 2010.

The four of us went to Krakow at our own expense, and hired our own guide, a young woman called Kasia. She had been doing the job for about 10 years, and I think that it had burnt her out. Although Polish, she was not Jewish, but just the experience of 10 years of guiding people around had made her into a very nervous person. I believe that she retired from the job subsequently. It can only be done for a limited time because the pain is so great. Even someone with no personal involvement cannot but be absorbed into what happened to those many hundreds of thousands of people who were victims of the Nazi persecution. We had a fascinating time. My wife had never been there before. She is not Jewish, but I am. We saw the photographs at the "reception centre", which had not been there in 1998, but many hon. Members who have been subsequently will have seen it. We saw the pictures of the families that had been taken from the suitcases and from their belongings, and put on the exhibition boards at the exit to the so-called "reception centre". My wife looked at them and what she saw were no relatives of mine but people who looked like my relatives-they looked like people from my family's album-and she broke down in tears. That is a reaction that so many thousands of people, including many of us, will have had.

Just a few months after that visit with the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I was asked by the BBC in Leeds to make a documentary. This is important, as it involved the HET and two young people, a young Muslim boy of 17 from Bradford and a young Jewish girl of 17 from Leeds. I was the adviser on the programme, and the BBC producer and interviewer was Liz Green, who runs a daily show on BBC Radio Leeds. This very unusual radio documentary was called "Moon and Star", after the symbols of the two faiths. What was most fascinating was the reaction of those two young people, who could not believe what they were seeing. Their reactions were almost identical, even though the Jewish girl knew the history perhaps better than the Muslim boy. It was very hard to stop the tears towards the end of that documentary, when we were standing outside the remains of the crematorium and the gas chamber. We came back, and the programme was then edited, broadcast and syndicated. I believe it is available in all schools today, and I was proud to have been involved in it.

To take up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), I would like to mention two holocaust survivors. I will then try to finish my remarks in order to let others contribute. The first is a gentleman called Arek Hersh, who at the age of 11 was taken off the streets of Lodz in Poland and to a number of different concentration camps. I met him first in my constituency and subsequently at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, which the hon. Member for Weaver Vale has mentioned. A room there was being dedicated to Arek Hersh, who survived five years in concentration camps. Hon. Members who have visited Yad Vashem will recall the recreation of the main square of the ghetto in Lodz. The most moving moment came when Arek, who had been lifted from that square, was standing in the reproduction of the square. I saw a man, by this time in his late 70s, in tears because he felt he was back there, aged 11-it was very moving.

Of course, as the guide said, when children, young people and adults were taken to the concentration camps they had a number tattooed on their wrist-many hon. Members will have seen these. Arek rolled up his sleeve and there was a number. His friend Yitzak, who lives in Jerusalem and who had been there with him, rolled up his sleeve to show the next, consecutive number. The two boys had shared a bunk together for five years until they were liberated from Theresienstadt in 1945. Arek Hersh now goes around Leeds, Yorkshire and the country telling his story-he is one of those survivors. He is now in his early 80s and he is still very lucid. If any hon. Member wishes to get in touch with him, I will give them his number, because he is one of those last survivors who is still able to articulate his experiences very clearly, in his beautiful Yorkshire-Polish accent.

The other person I wish to mention is Iby Knill, who is very interesting. I invited her here, with Mr Speaker's permission, to talk to Members about two years ago. Unfortunately not many Members attended, so perhaps we did not publicise the talk well enough. She wrote a book called "The woman without a number" because she had not been tattooed. She is Jewish and was originally from Bratislava, although she escaped over the border into Hungary. She was captured as a political prisoner, and her experience is remarkable to listen to. She was in Auschwitz-she was in that camp in Birkenau-and she met some of the most evil representatives of the Nazi regime every single day. She volunteered for a slave labour factory because that was the way to prevent herself being starved to death. She was quite a fit young woman and she was a nurse. She got together with other young women who were in the medical profession and they all survived because they kept together as a group. She said, "If you allowed yourself to be picked off one by one, that was the route to an early death. But if you kept together and kept some solidarity, you generally kept alive-if you were very, very lucky." She was lucky; she went there fairly late.

Finally, I want to mention members of my family, as I said earlier. I have never relayed this story in public before, although I have told one or two close friends about it. In 1985, my late father, who died 25 years ago next week, rang me up and said, "Fabian, I'd like you to come to Salonica with me this weekend." I said, "Why, dad?" and he said, "I have just discovered that my aunt, who I thought had died in Belsen during the war, survived." That was 1985, 40 years after the war. He was 63 and had last seen that part of the family when he was 14 in 1936.

We took the next flight to Salonica, which is where most of his family came from, and were met at the airport by a tall, elegant 93-year-old called Ida Uziel. Uziell is my family's name, and Hamilton was given to my father during the war when he volunteered for the Special Operations Executive. Ida was very elegant and had survived Belsen with her daughter, Bella, and her granddaughter, who was three at the time. They were all there in the flat in Salonica to greet us and told us first hand their account of their lives in Belsen. It was staggering to hear. What was all the more moving was that they had lost all their original photographs and family mementoes, but my father had duplicates that he had brought along together with the family tree. We sat in Ida's flat and looked through the different family relationships as we heard this first-hand account of life in Belsen-I had never heard such an account before and I was 30 years old at the time. We heard of the liberation by the Russians, their recapture by the Germans and their re-liberation by the Russians.

One story they told us was that they were, of course, starving. They were lucky as they had gone to the camp late, which was why they survived. A lot of people who were liberated at the time immediately ate whatever food they could-of course, that is the first thing anyone would do-but the family were lucky because they were with a doctor, who told them not to eat any dairy products as their bodies would not be able to absorb the fats and it would be very damaging, if not fatal. Sadly and ironically, people died from eating fats that their bodies could not absorb after years of starvation. I am glad to say that the Uziel family did not, as they took the advice of the doctor and ate bread, light food, vegetables and fruits and gradually allowed their bodies to readjust to the nutrition they had been denied for so long. I shall never forget that time. I am sad to say that Ida probably is no longer with us-she would be in her 100s if she was.

Just four months ago, I went to Paris to see relatives. I had recently met a cousin who I did not know existed until the July before last, when she contacted me. She did not know that she was half-Jewish-her father was Jewish but had never mentioned his background. He had survived the war by ducking and diving, weaving and dodging. I should explain that that part of my family had come from Switzerland to live in Paris in the 1930s. My grandmother lived in Paris throughout the war, but luckily she had a Portuguese passport and was spared persecution. Her brothers were not so lucky; one was killed, but the other two survived and so did her nephew, the father of the woman who contacted me last year.

That man, my father's first cousin, is still alive and is now 88 years old. My second cousin, his daughter, told me that he had finally managed to obtain the death certificate of our mutual great-grandparents. I did not even know their names before, but they were called Raina and Isaac Sevilla. I have plenty of photographs of them in my parents' albums. They had come to Paris from Switzerland and taken French citizenship. When the Nazis invaded Paris, and Paris fell, they were asked to register. My grandmother told me that the Nazis were very polite and said, "Please wear this yellow star. We just need to know who you are; we will not harm you in any way." That was a lie, of course.

One dark night in early 1941, there was a knock on the door and Raina and Isaac Sevilla were arrested and taken to Drancy, the notorious clearing house for the concentration camps. They were taken away, never to be seen again, and we did not know what had happened to them until my cousin Peggy found a death certificate issued in Auschwitz concentration camp, which means that we know that that is where they perished. It was one of the most truly moving moments in my life, and I am now 57 years old.

As a result of the experience of my family, and countless thousands of Jewish families in this country, and all over Europe and the world, I take a passionate interest in more recent genocides-I know that other Members want to talk about them-especially the Kurdish Anfal. Last week, I was fortunate enough to chair part of a conference on the Anfal in Westminster's Methodist central hall, and in February last year, together with many other hon. Members, I visited Kurdistan's Administration in northern Iraq. There is huge similarity between what has happened to the Kurdish people in recent years, and what happened in the war to the Jewish people. We have to make sure that we do all we can to prevent that ever happening again. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance; we must always be vigilant.

The transcript of Fabian's speech and supplementary contributions has been obtained from Hansard. To find the original - click here

You may also read this transcript on the web site Theyworkforyou.com - click here Fabian started speaking at 2:51 pm