Survivors call for action on antisemitism at Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration

Holocaust survivors light candles at the JW3's Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration

Holocaust survivors light candles at the JW3's Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration - Credit: Archant

Distinguished speakers at Jewish community centre JW3 urged people to combat the rise of antisemitism in the UK and across Europe as they remembered the Holocaust

In a moving ceremony with several Holocaust survivors in the audience, accompanied by piano and cello interludes, children, parents and grandparents paused to remember and honour those who had died.

Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, who wrote the Stockholm Declaration in 2000, which commits to preserving the memory of those murdered in the Holocaust, rallied people to fight rising antisemitism.

He described how social media have become a “repository for hate speech”, with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram “owned by American corporations who don’t care about human beings, just profit”.

Professor Bauer said: “There has to be an international effort – why don’t you start it here, have a British initiative [...] to find ways of forcing international companies to fight the hate speech?”

Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, introduced by actress Janet Suzman, was born in Breslau, then part of Germany and now Poland, into a highly cultured family, her father a solicitor and her mother a violinist.

Anita’s parents were deported and she was eventually sent to Auschwitz.

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A talented cellist, she was forced to play in the Auschwitz concentration camp band, so that the guards could march neatly in step in the mornings and evenings, as well as entertain the SS guards.

She was moved to Belsen and after the camp was liberated, Anita finally managed to arrive in England in 1946, a year later, while others were caught in limbo – “we had just become a new species, displaced persons”, she described.

Anita had imagined after the Holocaust that she would be able to talk to people about what happened, and that would be “the end of antisemitism” – but the reality was very different.

“Silence reigned supreme, no one asked us any questions,” she recalled.

It became legitimate to ask questions after the Holocaust Educational Trust was created in 1988, she said, and Anita started visiting schools in Germany and speaking about her experiences.

Warning of growing antisemitism, she said, “universities are the most fertile grounds for these aberrations. The virus was only dormant for a while. Except now, it is [under the cover of] anti-Zionism, anti-Israel.”

Another speaker, novelist Howard Jacobson said “contemporary [Holocaust] denial is more sinister and subtle.

“They accept what happened, but accuse Jews of Holocaust exploitation.”

He urged people not to be wooed by racists who were prejudiced against other groups or minorities.

“When illiberals woo us with the promise that we will be safe because they have someone else to blame, intolerants never stop at them. The time will surely come when they start hating us again...

“We express our own humanity best when we care for others. That’s who we are, that’s who we will be.”

Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, repeated that it was important for people to speak out, with the rise of extremist parties Jobbik in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece and the National Union in the UK.

She spoke about a West Hampstead mum who had written to her saying that she was scared of sending her daughter out to school as she wore a blazer clearly identifying that she went to a Jewish school.

“My commitment to you is that we stamp out antisemitic groups wherever we see them,” Ms Siddiq said.

Mike Freer, MP for Finchley and Golders Green, warned against the dangers of hate speech - whether it involved racism, antisemitism, or homophobia.

“The Holocaust didn’t start with the death camps, it started with words. It started with the denigration of a people.”

He urged the audience to speak out if they heard hate speech, on buses or in coffee shops.

“For life to go on, we must fight hate,” he said. “Don’t leave it to someone else, they might be leaving it to you.”

Several Holocaust survivors gathered to light candles at end of a touching ceremony.