International Holocaust Memorial Day: What it means to me

HMD blog graphic
Assistant Director of Insight and Public Affairs

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) 2020 marks 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we remember the millions of people who were stripped of their dignity and murdered during the Holocaust, I’d like to share my family’s story and reflect on how this has influenced my life and the work I do today.

I have mixed heritage. On my dad’s side, my heritage is German Jewish. His parents, Martin and Ursula were refugees who fled Nazi Germany for South Africa in the 1930s. 

Max and Herta’s story

Martin’s parents – my great-grandparents – Max and Herta, initially refused to leave Germany. Like many Jews, having experienced persecution throughout their lives they thought that Nazi-ism might also ‘blow over’. 

They were wrong.

One night in 1938, an SS officer arrived at their door. But rather than arrest them, the SS officer told Max and Herta to leave right away. SS forces would be coming for them in the morning. 

They left immediately. They got on the second-to-last boat to leave Germany before the borders were closed to Jews.

That SS officer risked his life to save theirs. We will never know what happened to him. If he had been caught, he may have been killed. 

Ulla and Eva’s stories

Ursula’s family had a less happy ending. When Ursula left Germany she left behind her mother, Eva, and a younger sister, Ulla. 

Through an extraordinary chance of fate, when she settled in South Africa Ursula got to know the heiress to the Wedgwood fortune – the same Wedgwoods who still make fine china and crystal to this day. The Wedgwoods sponsored many Jews to make safe passage to England. 

Eventually, arrangements were made for Ulla and Eva to do the same. Ulla made it to Britain through the Kindertransport. This was an incredible rescue programme supported by the British government which saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children. 

Ulla was never reunited with her family.

Ursula and Ulla’s mother Eva never made the journey to Britain. She was transported East out of Germany and into Poland in a cattle truck, along with thousands of other Jewish men, women and children. They were crammed into over-stuffed carriages, travelling for days on end without food, water, sanitation or dignity. 

The train’s destination was Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps. It was there that perhaps as many as two million Jews, Gypsies, disabled people and gay people were worked and starved to death or suffocated with cyanide gas on an industrial scale. 

I don’t know whether Eva died in transit, or in the gas chamber soon after her arrival, or after months of indignity, starvation and agony. I hope it was the former.

What these stories mean to me and why they matter

The stories of Martin and Urusla, Max and Herta, Ulla and Eva might sound extraordinary – and they are. Lives saved or lost through amazing twists of fate. Every family that lives with the legacy of the Holocaust has their own extraordinary stories to tell. 

Why am I telling you these stories? There are two reasons.

The first is that the injustices suffered by my family are part of the reason I have spent my career in public service. Fortunately, we rarely encounter horrors of the same severity in modern Britain. But the Holocaust still inspires me to make a difference and speak up on behalf of those whose voices are not always heard.

I believe in the power of public services to transform lives for the better and help people in vulnerable circumstances realise their potential. I also believe in the importance of checks and balances to make sure that people in those vulnerable circumstances are kept safe and their dignity is respected.

The second reason I am sharing these stories is that the great injustices that people inflict on each other can be too hard to fathom when we speak only about numbers. Six million Jews, Gypsies, disabled people and gay people were systematically murdered by a European government during the Holocaust. Six million. 

Millions more were displaced, their lives and the lives of their children – and their children’s children – forever re-written by the trauma they endured. How can any of us possibly comprehend that scale? How can we not get lost in the magnitude of the numbers?

But a single story is different. We can relate to another human being.  We do it every day as we connect with each other through stories and sharing personal experiences – from the people we work with, to our friends, children and partners. 

I wanted to share the stories of Eva, Ulla, Max, Herta, Martin and Ursula because I hope their stories help to make sense of the Holocaust in terms of the real-life impact on individual people. 

It is in the telling of and listening to these stories that we not only remember the legacy of the Holocaust, but also allow its injustices to inspire us to call out the injustices we see today.