Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP speaks at the UK commemorative event for HMD 2013.
It is always a pleasure to follow Lord Sacks on any occasion. It’s also a little daunting because I think he has an ability to speak for us all. And I thought that was particularly eloquent and I’d like to thank you, not just for that address but for all the work you do for every community over the years.
Now my friends, the second quarter of the twentieth century must always be seen through the prism of the Holocaust. And that light and that scrutiny gets more intense and more unforgiving the closer we get to and through the second world war. That light doesn’t allow ambiguity. There were no good Nazis, there were no good fascists. There were just degrees of guilt. And given that the entire state was taken over, all the machinery of the state was taken over for the liquidation of its fellow citizens, it is impossible to weigh anything else the state did. So it is ludicrous to suggest merely because the trains ran on time, that that can be weighed in the balance against the enormity of the Holocaust, because the Holocaust used all the facilities of the state to dehumanise fellow citizens, to strip them of all dignity, to persecute them onto death, and to dispose of their remains. The state commits a blasphemy if it goes about the process of destroying its citizens, its fellow human beings.
But the most important thing is to hear that voice of resistance, that voice of understanding that, those that went, those countless millions, were individuals. There was nothing inevitable about their death. When they started out in life, they had hopes, they had fears, they had ambitions. People didn’t start out, and go to school, and then go to university, and then they would go to Auschwitz. They started out to make a difference. And it is their loss that we remember today, those countless millions who would have been scientists, doctors, musicians, may have even been comedians who would have made us laugh. Or they may have just been good men and women who would have brought up children and extended the gaiety of Europe. But it’s important in recognising the devastation that brought to the Jewish communities and to other communities that Simon (Schama) made clear, that we don’t see them as the countless millions, because if we do see them as the countess millions, then the fascists and the Nazis win. We must see them as individuals. We must see them as a testimony that we heard so eloquently from Kitty or our president, Ben (Helfgott).
Last week, my department had the opportunity to host Rudi Oppenheimer, a friend to many people here. And he spoke to the staff there and he left an image of a little boy who stood by the wire at Belsen with an imprint of his mother in his hand. Now Rudi came to this country, had a very successful life, made his contribution to the United Kingdom one that we can all be proud of. But we must remember the countless numbers that would have made that contribution to Czechoslovakia, to Hungary, to Poland; to all those occupied lands.
Or maybe the lesson of Auschwitz is that humanity is incapable of learning the lessons of Auschwitz because we saw it again in Bosnia, in Darfur, in Rwanda, in the killing fields of Cambodia.
So Holocaust remembrance is immensely important because we get to remember the humanity. We get to remember the individuals. And this year’s theme of building a bridge is about ensuring that we don’t remain within our own comfort zone, that we reach out, Jew to Muslim, Muslim to Jew, to Hindu, to Sikh, to Christians. That we reach out and recognise that our country, whether it be this country or countries in Europe or throughout the world, are enhanced by the diversity of the different people that make up our neighbours.
The Holocaust started in small ways, but led eventually to the gas chambers. We must, if the Chief Rabbi will forgive me to yet again steal from his eloquence, we must ensure our citizens feel safe to walk the streets. That’s what Holocaust remembrance is about. Ensuring that people can go about their business without intimidation, without worry, without concern. And if we do that, then will be the proper remembrance of the victims and the loss that we in Europe, that we in Cambodia, that we in Africa, feel for those people who were slaughtered by an unthinking, uncaring mass.