This op-ed was originally published in The Times on 21 October.
The Holocaust was the single greatest crime against humanity that the world has ever seen. Six million Jews were murdered alongside other minorities in industrial death factories by the Nazis as the Second World War raged. In less than four years, almost two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population had been obliterated.
No reasonable person would suggest that this most awful of genocides should not be remembered. Rather, what we have in this country is a dispute about how it should be remembered.
Plans for a memorial and learning center to be sited in Victoria Tower Gardens next to the Houses of Parliament have been drawn up and this proposal is currently the subject of a planning inquiry. We at the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the representative organization of the Jewish community in the UK, wholeheartedly support the proposed center.
There is something uniquely powerful in situating a memorial and learning centre to humankind’s greatest crime right next to the centre of the UK’s democracy in Westminster. It sends an important message about the importance of the Holocaust to our nation’s history and our collective memory. In doing so the centre will not cast Britain as the saviour of Europe’s Jews. We know that our country had a mixed record — refugees were accepted prior to the War as part of the Kinderstransport programme but Britain could and perhaps should have done more to save the threatened Jews of Europe. Rather, this centre will give a voice to those who cannot speak out about what they endured. The diminishing band of survivors have themselves said how important it is to have a memorial on a specific and important site.
Despite commitments that this kind of tragedy will never happen again following the Holocaust, there have been millions murdered in subsequent genocides around the world. It has never been more vital to have an important, national institution dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust and as a constant reminder of what happens when hate goes unchecked. It will provide a stark lesson about the horrors of persecution at a time when prejudice against minority groups, ranging from racism and homophobia in our own society to the full-on subjugation of Uighurs in China, have been high on the news agenda.
Some have already told the planning inquiry that the Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre will be a target for terrorists and extremists. This may be so. As the UK Jewish community has painfully learned over the past 50 years, schools and synagogues need to be protected against those who would do us harm. What we have not done, however, is close down those centers of prayer and Jewish learning. We have carried on. The very fact that the enemies of democracy and justice would have us abandon plans for a significant memorial is in itself a reason for us to redouble our efforts to get it built.
Holocaust education is already being taught to our children and in recent years the country has paused to mark Holocaust Memorial Day each January 27. A national Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre at Westminster will enhance the education we can give to our children on this most important of themes. Knowledge and understanding of what happened during Europe’s darkest hour is fundamental to ensuring that we build a kinder, more compassionate Britain. We are delighted that both the government and opposition are in favour of this centre. We look forward to the time that our fellow Britons and visitors to our country will be able to visit, learn and understand more about this terrible stain on our continent’s history.
Marie van der Zyl is president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and a Vice President of the World Jewish Congress