Why the fight must still go on
DUDLEY IS known for its industrial heritage, unique zoo and castle — or even for being Sir Lenny Henry’s birthplace. But few JC readers will know that the town also hosts one of the largest acts of Holocaust remembrance in the country.
Ten years ago, as a newly elected MP, I was invited to the local Holocaust memorial at the library. Just six of us listened to prayers —no one else had been told the event was taking place. Next week, hundreds of people — pensioners and students, councillors and officials, residents and those working in the town — will gather at Dudley College to remember the victims of history’s greatest crime.
Our Mayor and Bishop will join leaders of the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in lighting a candle of remembrance. But the rabbi has to travel from Birmingham because there is no Jewish community in Dudley.
We’ve sent out thousands of emails and letters, inviting local schools to send students; working with community groups, charities, local campaigns and trade unions, and asking churches, temples and mosques to notify their members. We organise other events to promote the memorial and its message, this week holding an exhibition of drawings of Auschwitz by local artist Robert Perry.
But the main reason the event has grown is because people want to hear direct from survivors whom the Holocaust Educational Trust arranges to speak each year. This year, we will listen as Susan Pollack tells us how members of her family were murdered and how she survived to come to Britain. In the past, Hannah Lewis, Zigi Shipper, Mala Tribich, Eva Clarke and Joanna Millan have been among those sharing their harrowing testimony. The Trust and its supporters should be in no doubt about the impact their work has.
These events do not just allow us to learn about the greatest crime ever perpetrated in the darkest hours of the 20th century and help ensure these horrendous crimes are never forgotten, but motivate us to dedicate ourselves to oppose the ugly poison of racial or religious prejudice and hatred whenever it occurs.
Students who have taken part in the Trust’s Lessons From Auschwitz programme are also involved. It is amazing to hear young people with no personal relationship to the Holocaust but who are so committed to sharing their experience with their peers and our community. I’ve seen young people return from those visits and go out campaigning against racism and work to build a stronger and more united community.
Other residents have become much more involved in community campaigns as a result of attending these commemorations. Some have become so interested they have taken it upon themselves to travel to Poland and visit Auschwitz.
So, given there is no Jewish community in Dudley, the fact that this event is now part of our civic calendar shows that the Holocaust is relevant to every community in Britain.
Listening to Hannah, Mala, Zigi, Joanna and Eva explain how their childhoods were shattered and families torn apart has taught us that the Holocaust didn’t start with gas chambers and the mass, industrial slaughter of six million people but with people spreading hatred, dividing communities, restricting religious freedom and desecrating places of worship.
So when extremists — the EDL, the BNP and others — try to divide our multi-ethnic, multi-faith community on the basis of what people look like, where they were born or how they worship, events like next Friday’s remind us that it is because of who we are as a people and what we are as a country that British people came together and stood up to the Nazis and laid down their lives for freedom.
When other countries rounded up Jewish citizens and herded them on to trains to the gas chamber, Britain provided a haven for tens of thousands of refugee children. In 1941, with Europe overrun and America not yet in the war, one country — Britain —stood alone for freedom and democracy, fighting not just for our freedom, but for the world’s. And it was British troops, men from places like Dudley, who liberated some of those camps, rescuing inmates from death, many of whom, like the survivors we have been privileged to listen to in Dudley, have gone on to make an enormous contribution to our country.
Events like next Friday’s commemoration teach us that what makes you British is not what you look like, where you or your parents were born, your race or your religion, but the way you behave and what you believe. What makes you British is your belief in democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance and the contribution you make to your community and your country.
So, next week, as we remember these terrible events and pay our respects to all who suffered in the Holocaust and in other more recent genocides, people in Dudley and across Britain will dedicate themselves again to fight racism, prejudice wherever it is found — and that’s the best possible tribute we can pay to the memory of those who were murdered over 70 years ago. On January 27 to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, students, teachers and members of the public will be invited to tune in to hear the live testimony of Rudi Oppenheimer, via webcast, for the first time. You can register at: http://www. het.org.uk/survivor-testimony-webcast