After eighty years, there is no excuse to not know about the Holocaust

MPs will again show their respect by falling silent in the House of Commons

Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in June 1944
Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in June 1944. Photograph: Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

It takes a lot to silence the House of Commons. However, 80 years ago, the Islington South MP, William Cluse, did exactly that. On 17 December 1942, MPs responded to the British government’s first public acknowledgement of the Holocaust with a spontaneous moment of silence – a first for the chamber.

Anthony Eden, the then foreign secretary, read a declaration based on reports from the Polish government-in-exile, detailing the atrocities taking place in Nazi-occupied Europe. Eden reported that: “From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported, in conditions of appalling horror and brutality, to Eastern Europe … None of those taken away are ever heard of again. The able-bodied are slowly worked to death in labour camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions.” As he detailed the crimes being committed by the Nazis in occupied Europe, the house listened in stunned silence.

Cluse was so moved by the horrors about which he heard that he asked the speaker if the house could stand for a moment of silence. Speaker FitzRoy suggested this should be a spontaneous act of the house as a whole. Waved up by Sir Waldron Smithers MP, the house stood for what is believed to be the first moment of silence observed by the Commons.

It is immensely fitting that on Thursday, almost 80 years to the day since that original act, MPs will again make that solemn gesture, joined from speaker’s gallery by Holocaust survivors and their families. People who, 80 years ago, were suffering such appalling cruelty will now be honoured in the heart of our democracy.

These survivors revisit that trauma and suffering when they share their experiences with people across the country. The reason they are willing to do so is a passionate desire to ensure that the Holocaust is never forgotten, and that we learn from genocide for a better future.

This December, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust will publicise eight short answers to big questions. These are key facts that we believe every adult in the UK should know about the Holocaust. The facts are being highlighted at a time when denial and distortion of the Holocaust remains far too common, and when there is widespread ignorance about this recent history.

Eighty years after the Holocaust was first acknowledged, there is no excuse not to know. No excuse not to know that six million Jewish people were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. No excuse not to know that such cruelty came from years of antisemitism and hatred. No excuse not to know that the Nazis also targeted Roma people for annihilation and murdered members of many other groups who did not conform to their warped ideals.

Knowing about the horrors of the past imparts a responsibility to call out prejudice in the world today. Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us of the heartbreaking reality that genocides have taken place more recently in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. In observing this moment of silence, MPs will be demonstrating their commitment to confronting hatred in the world today.

In the new year, a hush will fall on the UK as people mark Holocaust Memorial Day on 27 January. Like MPs in 1942, there is no excuse not to know about the horrors of that time or the genocides that have taken place since. We owe it to the survivors and to those who were murdered to remember and to build a safer world for tomorrow.

The Guardian – December 11, 2023

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