RACHEL REEVES 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Last month, the UK government announced financial support for the
Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, established to secure international backing for
the maintenance of Auschwitz-Birkenau, site of the Nazi concentration and death
Coming just weeks after the solemn remembrance of Holocaust
Remembrance Day, this is a positive development which underlines Britain’s
ongoing commitment to addressing the Holocaust’s legacy.
It was while
visiting the camp in 2009 that then-prime minister Gordon Brown first declared
that the UK would contribute to the fund, stating that: “As we remember the
worst of our past, we must each commit ourselves to serve the best of our
Part of that commitment was to ensure that we do not allow
Auschwitz-Birkenau to fall into disrepair. In the uncertainty that followed last
year’s change of government in the UK, many of us felt anxious that our pledge
to support the fund might be quietly dropped.
So concerned was I that I
raised the issue in Parliament with the Foreign Secretary. I was pleased to be
reassured that the government planned to contribute to the Auschwitz-Birkenau
Foundation – and so it was last month that Eric Pickles, the Communities
Secretary and Foreign Secretary William Hague announced that the UK will provide
£2.1 million for the site’s upkeep. Though there is much we disagree on,
politicians on all sides of Britain’s Parliament have rightly welcomed the
I WAS reminded of the importance of the Foundation’s cause
when, earlier this year, I joined young people from my constituency on a visit
to Auschwitz-Birkenau as part of the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from
Auschwitz Project – an educational program which has received financial support
from the UK government since 2006, and which gives two post-16 students from
every school and college in the country the opportunity to see
It was not my first visit to the camps. Yet somehow, being at
the site with young people brought home the urgency of ensuring that future
generations are never left ignorant of what took place there.
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To see the
students I accompanied taking in human stories of loss was incredibly powerful.
Holocaust Educational Trust educators enable students to appreciate the impact
the Holocaust had on the lives of individuals. Crucially, the students hear
first-hand from a Holocaust survivor before they leave the UK, and begin to
learn what it means to have families broken up and dreams and aspirations
The need to preserve Auschwitz-Birkenau is clear.
important is the almost incomprehensible truth that over 1.1 million people,
overwhelmingly Jewish, were murdered there. Although those who died were not
afforded the dignity of marked graves, their place of death should not be
allowed to crumble through neglect. Yet growing visitor numbers combined with
the temporary nature of many of the buildings presents a huge
As well as a commemoration, Auschwitz-Birkenau is a monument
to the evil human beings can commit. In a world where the poisons of
anti-Semitism and prejudice persist, what starker reminder could there be of the
dangers of complacency? Safeguarding the future of Auschwitz-Birkenau as a place
of remembrance and education is just one strand of Britain’s efforts to confront
post- Holocaust issues. Despite mainland Britain having never suffered Nazi
occupation, today we feel keenly that the Holocaust is a momentous and complex
chapter in our own history, which deserves to be addressed culturally,
educationally and politically.
This was not always the
Twenty-five years ago, understanding of the Holocaust in the UK was
Commemoration was limited to the Jewish community, and teaching
in schools was sporadic. What a different story today! The Holocaust is a
compulsory part of our national curriculum, and is taught in schools across the
country. As I have seen, thanks to programs like the Lessons from Auschwitz
Project, teaching doesn’t end in the classroom.
War Crimes legislation
passed in 1991 means Nazi war criminals living in the UK can be prosecuted
domestically, and since 2001 we have observed a national Holocaust Memorial Day
each year on the date of Auschwitz’s liberation.
So I hope this move will
not be seen in isolation, but as another step in my country’s ongoing
relationship with the Holocaust.
I was struck to learn that inmates at
Auschwitz secretly buried evidence of the despicable crimes they were
witnessing. If even in their despair they had the strength to ensure that the
truth was preserved for future generations, it behooves those of us who live
freely today do all we can to honor their legacy.The writer is Labour
Member of Parliament for Leeds West.
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