Ed Vaizey is Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries and MP for Wantage & Didcot
I think it is true to say that all of us grow up aware of the Holocaust. But the real question is when one begins to have a real understanding of the horrors that it involved. The mother of one of my friends at school was a Holocaust survivor but, even to know her and meet her, you simply couldn’t possibly understand what she had been through from the comfortable environment of suburban London.
I think it was going with my own mother to the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum that really made the impact. Seeing the shoes and the family photos, and understanding that people like us were herded to their deaths like cattle. Wives, mothers, husbands, fathers, children.
About ten years ago, the Holocaust Educational Trust took me to visit the Nazi concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was extraordinary to visit a place where such evil had taken place. When I went, the Holocaust Educational Trust took about 400 students a year. Now it takes 3000. I am so proud that this Government and the previous one supported this incredible initiative. It is really important work, because it is only by seeing the physical reality of what took place that one can really sear into people’s memories what happened during that dark chapter.
When I visited Israel in 2012, I discovered some relatives living on a kibbutz. My wider family knew about them, and some of them had met them, but we had lost contact. It was the first time I learned that relatives of mine had died in the Holocaust. They were actually my great great grandfather and mother, and my great uncles and aunts, who were shot in Poland in 1942. I have the records from Yad Vashem, and a realisation that if part of my family hadn’t left Poland at the end of the nineteenth century I wouldn’t be here today.
So the Holocaust has had an impact on me, and the connection, however remote, feels real and tangible. It is also a constant reminder that we have to remain vigilant and energetic in reminding ourselves what people can be capable of.
When the Prime Minister announced a national cross party multi-faith commission to look at how we nationally remember the Holocaust at the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Appeal Dinner last year, some people might have said: why bother? We know about the Holocaust, it could never happen again. But we know that genocides still happen in the world today, and we in Europe need to be reminded. We also know the power of eye-witness testimony, hearing from someone who was actually there, and as events feel more remote, it’s all of our responsibility to make sure that these events are remembered. This is why it is right that the Prime Minister is committed to this challenge and has established this commission.
It means that there will be a lasting and meaningful legacy to the Holocaust in our country for generations to come. We should be very proud of that.
Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. Ed Vaizey MP spoke at the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Annual Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Lecture on Monday 20th January.