OPINION: A silent tribute – then action to stop hatred

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OPINION: A silent tribute – then action to stop hatred

Deeds, not words: the minute's silence for Holocaust victims in the House of Commons must lead to action against all atrocities, writes Laura Marks and Dame Margaret Hodge

MPs observe a minute of silence in the House of Commons.
MPs observe a minute of silence in the House of Commons.

A minute’s silence must be followed by renewed education, reflection and ultimately, action against anti-semitism and global hatred. 

Sometimes things are best said without words. Repeatedly, speeches in the chamber of the House of Commons have been accused of lacking significance. Personal attacks and quick soundbites have all too frequently come to dominate the ‘war on words’ we hear on a weekly basis. But often, the power of silence is underestimated. And 80 years ago this week, MPs could respond only with silence.

In December 1942, following reports from the Polish resistance, the British government publicly accepted that the Holocaust was taking place in Nazi-occupied Europe. The facts had been reported in the press for months before that. However, there was something powerful about a formal recognition by the British government, alongside its wartime allies. The language of the declaration was chilling and uncompromising. It reported that the Nazis were “now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people”.

When the declaration was read in the House of Commons, the horror and the brutality that was being reported resulted in silence becoming the most powerful response. In a remarkable display of unity, the whole House stood for an unplanned and unprecedented moment of silence. To stand in unity was a strong protest against what they had just heard.

For Margaret, this is also a moment to reflect on her personal losses. Both her parents lost many family members in the Holocaust.

Last week, MPs re-created this tribute with a minute of silence in the chamber of the House of Commons. They remembered the six million Jewish people who were murdered by the Nazis. Entirely innocent men, women, and children who were persecuted simply because they were Jewish.

For Margaret, this is also a moment to reflect on her personal losses. Both her parents lost many family members in the Holocaust. In November 1941, Margaret’s grandmother, Marianne, was taken from Vienna to a concentration camp in Lithuania. She never even made it into the camp. She was forced into a trough and shot outside the gates of the concentration camp. She was 56.

Margaret’s Uncle was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, with her aunt receiving his number and confirmation that he had been gassed and killed there. In her last letter to her son, written nine days before she was murdered, she wrote twice: “Don’t forget me completely.” And on a visit to Auschwitz, Margaret saw the suitcase her uncle had travelled with; his initials were engraved on it.

The minute’s silence in the House of Commons honoured those who survived the Holocaust, and seven survivors of the Holocaust attended in person from the public gallery. These are men and women who have given much of their lives to share their testimony and to encourage others to work for a world without genocide. The moment of silence, led by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, was a powerful symbol that MPs are committed to playing their part in that.

It is our firm hope that MPs left the chamber last Thursday reflecting on the ways they can work to build a world free from hate and prejudice.

Not every story from the Holocaust ends in tragedy. Margaret’s Aunt survived the war in the Ardèche, in south-eastern France, protected by the humanity and brave support of impoverished local people, from the priest to the policeman to farmers. And many ordinary citizens stood up to persecution and death to fight the tide of hatred, by hiding Jewish neighbours and friends.

It is our firm hope that MPs left the chamber last Thursday reflecting on the ways they can work to build a world free from hate and prejudice. Holocaust Memorial Day acknowledges that the world has failed to prevent the genocides that have taken place more recently. Since 1945, genocides have taken place in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. This reminds us that we are duty-bound to act today.

We live in a world where Uyghur Muslims are facing the loss of their identity, yet another example of entirely innocent men and women being incarcerated simply because of who they are. Women are subjected to forced sterilisations and abortions. Children are being forcibly separated from their families. Similarly, in Myanmar, Muslims are being forced to flee for their lives.

Sadly, antisemitism remains a scourge in our society in the United Kingdom. There have been far too many incidents in recent years in which British Jews have been made to feel unwelcome in their own country.

If the events of 80 years ago tell us anything, it is that not just MPs, but the whole country should know about the Holocaust and should act to prevent such horrors from taking place anywhere and at any time. Institutionalised discrimination starts with words. And the MPs’ moment of silence is a reminder of our collective responsibility to end these horrors.

The symbolism of Thursday’s solemn gesture is powerful and profound but it must lead to action; action to learn from the horrors of the past, to build a safer world.

Laura Marks OBE is an inter-faith social activist, policy adviser, writer and media commentator who has founded and chaired a range of social organisations including Mitzvah Day International and the government-founded Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

The Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge is the Labour MP for Barking, and has been an MP continuously since 9 June 1994.

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