This is the talk I gave at The Friends Meeting House concerning Holocaust Memorial Day. The reaction, which was very enthusiastic surprised me, and many people asked me to post it on my blog… so here it is.
Following on from our other speaker (David Selo) who considered the historical importance of Holocaust Memorial day, it has fallen to me to look at this subject in the light of today… and the impact of the past on the present…
I decided to wear my stole to honour today; this particular stole carries a number of symbols that I feel are closest to my heart and are relevant — the star of David, which denotes my origins, and the dove of peace which is particularly important to me, also the Ankh… the Ankh is the Egyptian hieroglyph for life and has become associated with eternity, and it is also sometimes called The Crux Ansata. It represents the goddess Hathor who is associated with the zest for life and interestingly she is also the goddess of death. Her symbol reminds us of the beauty of being… and also non-being, in this world and the next. Symbols are important; the one symbol I don’t have here is the symbol of the butterfly, which was drawn, etched and painted by thousands of children at the (Theresienstat) Terezin Concentration camp… it seems so important that these children chose this symbol, because the butterfly represents the soul, endurance, hope, life, rebirth and renewal.
Holocaust Memorial Day has come to represent the sorrow and tragedy of many people throughout the world, innocent people who have died for their apparent difference. I don’t believe there any difference between any of us. Whether one is marginalised by so called race, or ideology, the act of murder is just an excuse to vent hatred and exert power…. Right now there are 40 known wars taking place as we sit here, 40 places where people are killing each other for ideology or racial differences, and equally frightening… there is also a corporate war, fuelled by human greed, waged on the very fabric of our planet itself, its resources and all its life forms.
As we all know, and some here will know better than I, lessons from the past can teach us a lot about the future. And to start with, I won’t accept the complacency that says ‘It couldn’t happen here’ because… we need to remember that the Concentration Camp is in itself is a British invention; it was used in the second Boer War, from 1899 to 1902… and concentration camps were also used by White Americans to contain and control the Native American population in the mid 19th century so this method of corralling and controlling people of so called ‘difference’ has been in operation for a long time. The other reason that I won’t accept any kind of complacency, particularly from those that say ‘It couldn’t happen here’ is because it is happening in part right now…
Look no further – men and women are being treated in the most degrading way, solely because of their so-called difference… people are being detained right now in UK Removal Centres, this is Government created language, language used to dehumanise… hence this interesting phrase… UK Removal Centres. A UK Removal Centre is not somewhere where furniture is stored, it refers to a place designed to imprison people whose only crime is to seek freedom when their home is no longer safe, who are housed in prisons with names like Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, Campsfield House in Oxfordshire and Colnbook Immigration Centre – run by Mitie PLC, and Dungavel in Lanarkshire run by the GEO Group. Who are these innocent people and who are the companies chosen to do this dreadful work for Her Majesty’s Government? Mitie promotes itself as a UK facilities management company, whilst the GEO Group is a worldwide Group committed to providing ‘leading, evidence-based rehabilitation programs to individuals while in-custody and post-release into the community through the “GEO Continuum of Care programme which includes cognitive behavioural treatment, integrated with post–release support services”.
The privatisation of detention centres means that corporations (with shareholders) are making money out of imprisonment of innocent people who have been expelled from their homes and their homelands, and we, one of the richest countries in the world are paying for companies to forcefully hold and imprison people for our own political ends, and those imprisoned are called immigrants and aliens.
It is with a heavy heart I see that our own Government may use child refugees as bargaining chips for its own political ends. In its first days of power the new Government rejected any attempt to reinstate child refugee protection rights, an inhumane position that defies understanding.
Returning to the holocaust… The secret of identifying the machinery of holocaust lies in the methods and means. The devil definitely lies in the detail — Topf and Sons was a company known for its industrial heating and brewing systems. They also happened to manufacture crematoria ovens in Buchenwald, Dachau and other concentration camps and later became known as ‘the engineers of the final solution’. Closer to home, another company that you may know better is Thomas J Watson’s IBM which played a particularly ugly role the holocaust story. In this case the detail relates to the production line – every concentration camp maintained its own Hollerith-Abteilung (Hollerith Department), assigned to keep tabs on inmates throughout the war using of IBM’s punch-card technology. Apparently Willy Heidinger, who was the chief executive of Dehomag, the German subsidiary of IBM was an great supporter of the Hitler regime, did a lucrative deal with Watson’s company shortly before the war. The Nazis went on using the technology during the implementation of the final solution; in his book IBM and the Holocaust, Edwin Black states that “without IBM’s machinery, continuing upkeep and service, as well as the supply of punch cards, whether located on-site or off-site, Hitler’s camps could have never managed the numbers they did.” The devil does indeed lie in the detail. So, when you next Google something on your personal computer, please give a thought to the origins of IBM.
Another horrific detail of the holocaust, which abruptly brings us up-to-the moment is Zyklon B. This cyanide-based pesticide was used to gas men, women and children and was also a widely used insecticide; its variants are still manufactured and used today. It is horrifically poisonous, and kills all forms of life, human, mammal and insect alike… yes…this particular form of extermination and its modifications is not confined to people, chemical pesticides kill, and are widely used to undermine life on our planet to this very day. I was reminded of this tragic fact only a week or so ago by my own MP, Caroline Lucas, who was curating at an exhibition of some beautiful nature paintings and landscapes at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne. During her talk she reminded us that in her own lifetime we have lost half of all our beautiful wildlife in the UK. Half. Moderns farming with its propensity to kill everything that moves, has contributed to the destruction of so much, and where will that take us in 50 years’ time? I hope, most truly that we will seek to reverse what we have destroyed, in so many ways.
During the 12 years that the Third Reich held power, people across Europe who were under the shadow of this most dreadful system said that they didn’t know what was going on, an excuse echoed time and time again. Later on, Nazi sympathisers and other members of the extreme right have reiterated and developed their position by denying the existence of the Holocaust itself, and an interesting and alarming parallel is now manifesting itself on a global scale. Today Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites occupy a number of corners of the world, they appear to be growing in number, but we all hope that their growth is a mere anomaly. Climate change denial which shares many similarities, is not only widely spread, readers of millions of right-wing newspapers, published in the UK, Australia and the United States are aggressively promoting climate change denial in order to uphold corporate convenience and imperatives, and keep their advertisers happy.
There is a definite relationship between Holocaust denial and climate change denial. What I find most alarming is the similarities between these two topics in terms of images, images that we have all come to know. In the case of the Holocaust the black and white images show seeming piles of rubbish, which aren’t rubbish at all, they are piles of corpses – people – people who had hobbies, families, passions and personalities like you and I, piled into heaps… and also piles of artefacts, clothes, prosthetics, wedding rings and hair, and those tragic images have a horrible parallel with the images of today, right now … vast piles of human stuff — debris of all kinds (in apparently distant lands) with children sifting through the rubbish in order to find something to eat, or trade… and also images of lakes and seas of plastic, clogging up the very soul of the planet, fish, corals and plankton… piles of discarded consumer products filling up filthy landfill as consumerism continues on its relentless way… and images of struggling animals trying to survive oil slicks, animals fleeing the destruction of their habitat, by land grabbers, by fire, by corporate greed – forests and jungles burnt and destroyed, places that once served as home to millions of beautiful, now extinct species, from plants to mammals, from hummingbirds to butterflies. The similarities cannot be overlooked. These are anti-life images and they are the work of humans. Another kind of favoured Fascist image was the family propaganda pics of the Nazi regime happy Aryan family images, whose smiling faces are not different from the happy family images now appearing on TV that promote gas guzzling cars, giant SUVs that protect people and their families from other people in similar cars, reminding us that we must protect our own… Always protect our own. No wonder we think in terms of ‘them and us’. The machinery of marketing tells us to do so.
I do not want to close this talk on a negative tone. The concept of Holocaust Memorial Day is in itself humanitarian and enlightened. It must serve to remind us that we are as much creatures of compassion and empathy as we are creatures of cruelty. But I cannot overlook that my forbears came to this country, and were not imprisoned, they were free to come here. My antecedents came from Portugal, Italy, and Holland on one side, and from Germany on the other, and I am truly grateful that they came here, and above all things… were allowed to stay. And it’s the same for all of us, every single one of us in this room, because we are all refugees according to history… the latest scientific evidence shows that we are much more closely related to each other than was previously thought. There are no five races. We are one race, we all came from Africa, and we are all much more closely related than we realise. If you take any two apes or chimpanzees you will discover they are much more distantly related than you and I. You and I are related. We belong to one race and one race alone that lived in Africa 300,000 years ago, and then 100,000 years afterwards we chose to wander the planet. The 7.7 billion people on this planet are all related to each other. We seem diverse, as diverse as flowers in a beautiful and colourful garden, but we are all related.
Perhaps the best lesson to be learnt from Holocaust Memorial Day is that we are here, together, sharing this moment in the Friends Meeting House, the home of one of the most generous, hospitable, peace-loving faith groups of all. We are the privileged guests of The Quakers, a group I honour with all my heart, and thank today. It will not be a novelty to our hosts when I say that we just need to cherish and respect each other, to celebrate each other’s difference in terms of ideas, skin colour, beliefs and enthusiasms… because, as we all know… we learn absolutely nothing from exterminating each other, but we do learn from revering and celebrating life itself, in all its beautiful manifestations. Thank you.