In this podcast recorded at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we talk to Sir Andrew Burns who is the United Kingdom envoy for post-Holocaust Issues.
So Sir Andrew, you’re the post Holocaust envoy for the UK. Can you explain what that means?
My particular role is to give leadership to the process of following up on the various commitments which the British Government, and many other governments in Europe, have made over the last 10/15 years. On a variety of Holocaust related subjects.
Partly that’s about restitution of property and art, partly it’s about managing the archives. In the future perhaps most importantly it’s about the whole process of education, remembrance and research. Helping to give a lead to the next generation thinking about the awful history of the Holocaust and its – the lessons and the implications for modern life.
And you head up the delegation for the international task force. Could you tell us a bit about the task force and its role and what it’s doing at the moment?
Yes, in a way interest and knowledge and understanding about what really happened during the Holocaust took on an extra – new lease of life in 1989. With the fall of the iron curtain and the opening up of Eastern Europe. The archives became available, people who before had not been really about to tell their stories where doing so and there was indeed a kind of outpouring of reminiscence by people who were survivors, knew survivors and who were conscious that if they didn’t speak up their story would be lost.
And so by, really by, through the 1990s there were a series of conferences and they led particularly to the Stockholm conference in 2000. Which was a conference convened by the British Prime Minister amongst others, the American President, the Swedish Prime Minister. And it was a clarion call really to the world community to pay attention to the Holocaust, what happened during the Holocaust years 1933 to 1945 and what the implications and lessons were thereafter.
And an important strand of activity since then has been related to education and working out ways of ensuring that new generations do learn about the Holocaust, understand it, have it in the right kind of context and think about the implications for the way in which modern societies conduct their political discourse and stand up against the evils of racism and discrimination.
And so the International Task Force is the gathering of European Governments, we just accepted Finland at the last meeting which was held in December , and the numbers have risen from I think a handful to nearly 30 members of European Governments and a number of observer institutions all thinking about education issues, about research, about remembrance. Coming up with new thoughts about how you teach, think about the Holocaust in the years to come when there will really be very few survivors. And so that first hand testimony may be more difficult to achieve, except through videos and other recordings.
We organise the UK Holocaust Memorial Day, why is it important that the UK plays a role in Holocaust remembrance and education?
Well the importance derives both from our history and I think from our own, the strength of our own democratic institutions and the quality of our political life. We of course historically, we were the country that stood up to Nazism, and in the early days of the war, together with some really important allies from the Commonwealth countries – I’m the former High Commissioner to Canada so I think particularly of the Canadians – we stood up against the Nazi tyranny and obviously thereafter had a real responsibility for ensuring that the post war dispensation was one which would ensure that those events couldn’t recur.
But at the same time we have a particularly strong parliamentary democratic life. We think every day about the issues of social inclusion, how to manage a cosmopolitan and varied population, citizenry, who come from all sorts of different corners of the world, but who come to a country that has always felt itself to be in the forefront of finding ways for people to live together in a respectful, collective, collaborative way.
And I think we have a lot of good things to, not to preach to other people, but there’s good practice in the UK and so if we’re active we can spread that good practice around Europe.
Why is Holocaust Memorial Day important?
Well Holocaust Memorial Day brings together, it’s a kind of focus. It’s hardly a day these days is it? It’s a week, it’s a period. I think the most striking thing that I have felt since taking on this job is just what a wealth of activity and interest there is in Holocaust activities, in the history, in the implications.
Britain is a very cosmopolitan society, as I’ve said, and so the events that have taken place in other countries that are of comparable dreadfulness, in Cambodia or in Rwanda or in Bosnia, Sudan, are issues which the British public are interested in and care about and we can all understand that if you allow the political debate or the political atmosphere to coarsen and become receptive to very personalised attacks on people for their background, their race, their religion, if you allow the forces of prejudice to prevail it becomes so more – much easier for those forces to make things even worse. And therefore it’s very important that as a society we take time each year to take stock of the lessons of the past and the implications for the future and therefore consider in our present day lives how we can make our societies better capable of dealing with the much more socially diverse world we live in, facing a lot of challenges which affect us all from whatever background we come.
And finally our final question that we’ve been asking everybody. Our theme this year is Untold Stories, do you have an untold story you’d like to share?
I don’t know that I have an untold story. My interest, I recall that my mother had been at university with a Polish friend and was out in Poland just before the outbreak of the Second World War, walking in the Tatra mountains. And she caught the last train west before Germany invaded Poland. And the following day her Polish friend and her family took a train east and of course in the end that was no good and they were forced back and they had a very, very difficult subsequent life.
My only experience really derived from the 1970s when I was first involved in negotiating the Helsinki Final Act at the conference of European security cooperation, and then went on to live in Romania. And in Romania we had a number of Romanian friends, particularly Jewish friends, who had really experienced great difficulty during the war and during the subsequent Communist rule. And we felt that very poignantly so when I was sent to Israel as ambassador in the early 90s, I found all sorts of reverberations.
It was interesting that that was a period when people were beginning to talk about their experiences. I remember going to an extraordinarily moving conference of the hidden hand in Israel which was about the people, the non-Jewish people, in Europe, particularly of course in Poland and Germany and so on, who had protected and looked after young Jewish children. And of course in the chaotic conditions of the Second World War many of these children had then been scattered and had never really re-found their original parents. And the poignancy and the drama of the stories they were telling and the heroism of the human spirit and the ability to survive those terrible times and go on in strange new countries to make really distinguished careers to make a contribution to society in a really balanced and thoughtful way – totally unexpected really but very heart warming. So out of the ghastliness of the catastrophe of the Holocaust one did find these really encouraging stories of people who had turned this disaster to some degree of good and rebuilt their lives and made tremendous contributions.
The hidden stories are not only hidden stories of people who experienced the Holocaust; they’re the hidden stories of the survivors who went on to live really fulfilled lives subsequently.