This interview is with Cathy Ashley on her appointment as Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust in 2010.
So, we’re here with Cathy Ashley, who is the chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
Cathy, why did you want to be the chair of HMDT?
Well, it was a bit of a surprise, even to myself. I got an advert sent to my work email address, informing [me] that this post was being advertised, and it just got to me. And the more I thought about it and reflected on it, the more I felt drawn to applying for it. I had been in the past involved, and attended various local HMD events, and I have a family background, which both involves family members dying in the Holocaust, and my father came over from Germany as a boy because of being Jewish and escaping what was going on there at the time. But also, on the other side of the world, my sister-in-law’s family was – died under the Pol Pot regime, and the organisation of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust seemed to me to both reflect the lessons and horrors of the Holocaust but also in relation to more recent genocides, that really reflected my own personal family experience. Throughout my – both childhood and adult – life I’ve always felt very passionately in relation to Human Rights, and that it’s important to challenge bigotry and prejudice and racism, and also to reflect on what needs to be done differently both on a personal level but also on a society level, and as I say, Holocaust Memorial Day Trust seemed to encapsulate that personal and wider view.
So, have you noticed anything new about the organisation that you didn’t know before that appeals to you now, or what did you like about the organisation to begin with?
What I liked about the organisation was that it recognised the magnitude of the Holocaust, the true horror of what had occurred, that it respected those who were victims and survivors within the Holocaust, but it also did that in a context of recognising and paying tribute to those who had been victims of more recent genocides, and it applied those lessons and reflection in current times and to all members of our society. So it’s not an organisation that is for any particular interest group, or for any particular communities, and it applies to all of us in terms of what we can do to learn the lessons of the past and to prevent discrimination and bigotry and bullying and just – inhumanity really – to exist.
My outlook on life is undoubtedly strongly influenced by my family background, and not only that a large number of my extended family – great-grandparents – were killed in the Holocaust and in Auschwitz, but also that my paternal grandparents went into hiding in Holland and were protected and saved by complete strangers. That my father was sent over as a young boy from Germany to escape the Nazi regime, and was given a welcome in this country, and that my nephew is in a sense someone who only exists because, not only one side, the paternal side of the family, did we survive the Holocaust, but also that his mother survived the Pol Pot regime, many of her family were killed under Pol Pot. What that brings to me is the view that humanity is responsible for incredible acts of generosity and kindness, and as in the case of hiding my grandparents... people make exceptional sacrifices for complete strangers because of their belief in doing the right thing at any cost. But also that humans are capable of exceptional inhumanity, and it seems to me that we have a responsibility in life, and one of the reasons that I’m attracted to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, and being its Chair is to focus on the responsibility we have to highlight and support – raise the importance of doing the right thing, wherever you are, whatever activity one is involved with. Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect that both at a personal level but also in terms of ones actions in society.
Do you see any parallels between your role at the Family Rights Group and HMDT?
I’m Chief Executive of a charity called Family Rights Group, which works with families whose children are requiring or involved with social care services, because of maybe child protection, child welfare needs. There are definite parallels in relation to being Chief Executive of that charity and being Chair of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. Firstly, it’s very interesting to be Chief Exec of one charity and to be on the trustee board of another, it makes me reflect much more about what the different roles are and ensuring that one behaves as best as one can both in those different roles, and it’s given me a greater empathy in relation to the trustees at Family Rights Group; the second is that both organisations are about promoting Human Rights, and the importance of respecting individuals including those going through incredibly difficult circumstances, and I suppose supporting people to do the right thing. And at Family Rights Group, one of the population – sections of the population we deal with are family members such as grandparents who are raising grandchildren, and again, society can sometimes be very unforgiving in relation to some of the circumstances that those grandparents and children find themselves in, and I think it’s important for those of us who are involved in the charity sector to, and the Human Rights world to question that.
You have read our five books and read our five films for Holocaust Memorial Day 2011, which of each was your favourite and why?
I would say the books and films that I found most powerful on the list was the The Cellist of Sarajevo, the fact that I have given the book as presents to friends who I feel would also be moved; I couldn’t put it down, when I started reading it – it was upsetting, but it was very thoughtfully, and rather beautifully written, I felt. I also was very affected by the book We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, in part because I knew less about the situation in Rwanda, but I also liked the fact that the author, whilst not hiding his own perspective to attempt to be objective, and that it did attempt to really explore the political context. And in terms of films, well, the one that I’ve seen most recently is Everything is Illuminated, and it’s a quirky film which takes a little bit of time to get into; at first I was thinking, ‘what are the staff of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust doing in recommending this film, but as I got into it, I was very drawn towards it, I actually really appreciated its slightly quirky nature, it was amusing at times, but it was also very, very moving, and there were definitely beautiful qualities in the film and it was affecting.
Do you have an Untold Story?
It was interesting, talking through with my parents, who, as I say, my father did come over from Germany when he was a young boy, his parents were very far-sighted and sent their children over by themselves to foster parents over in England. But half my paternal grandfather’s siblings were killed in the Holocaust, and on my mother’s side, three of her grandparents were sent to Theresienstadt and ended up being killed in Auschwitz or never heard of again, and I’m aware of that obviously none of those individuals names or experiences are probably recognised anywhere in public document, but nevertheless for our family, it’s – it has a devastating mark.
So what would you like everyone to do on HMD 2011?
Well, as a minimum, and it will only take a few seconds, to light the virtual candle; if you can go to an event in the area, then obviously I’d like to encourage you to do so; but most importantly, I think it’s about thinking about and reflecting as to what you could do differently either in your personal life or within your community, or even internationally, which would challenge, bigotry, discrimination, and reflect on both lessons of the Holocaust and more recent genocides, and do whatever is in one’s power to prevent such events occurring in the future.