HMDT Blog: HMDT Chair Cathy Ashley’s speech: Don’t stand by

This is the transcript of a speech given by Cathy Ashley, Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, to today's Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Department for Communities and Local Government.

HMDT Blog: HMDT Chair Cathy Ashley’s speech: Don’t stand by

We all know the Edmund Burke saying ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'

Nisad Jakupović is a survivor of the notorious Omarska concentration camp. For him, it’s more than a saying.

‘I was under arrest at a local school sports pitch, and there was a guard – a former desk-mate from school and a close neighbour – who ignored me when I clearly needed help. Yet there was a similar situation where another familiar face, someone I knew less well, chose to help me out.’

Nisad now contributes to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust’s work to commemorate the Genocide in Bosnia alongside the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda and the Genocide that is still ongoing in Darfur.

Last year, at the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust we paired artists with survivors. The ceramicist, Clare Twomey met Nisad. Inspired by his story of his experience in the concentration camp, where prisoners carved simple spoons from wood in order to drink their meagre bowl of soup, Clare has made 2,000 ceramic spoons. Last year, she asked members of the public what, in their view, makes humanity. She is inscribing their responses on the spoons and will give them as gifts to the public on Holocaust Memorial Day next week. They will have Humanity in their Hands.

The theme chosen by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust this year is Don’t stand by.

The conditions that allowed The Holocaust, and subsequent genocides to happen were at least, in part, because ordinary people tolerated or even colluded with the insidious persecution and violent repression of others and in some cases, even took advantage for their own personal benefit.

Some of my family escaped the Holocaust. Some were murdered in concentration camps. We benefited from the best and the worst of human nature. My grandparents were hidden by strangers in Holland. I still feel in awe of such extraordinary bravery by people who risked not only their own lives but those of their own loved ones. My father recalls being a 10 year old boy in Berlin and watching the Nazi Youth march by. Everyone was meant to stop and give the Nazi salute. My dad didn’t. A man in the crowd shouted at him. Another whispered in his ear, telling him 'Go home now, you are not safe'. That man didn’t stand by.

An elderly relative, Ludwig, died last year. A Jewish boy in Germany in the 1930s, he was given a home by a kind stranger in England who had answered his father’s advert in The Spectator for a private sponsor.

Of course, not standing by takes many forms. My maternal grandmother was a feisty woman. Her sister used to tell me stories of how she had to rugby tackle her to prevent her waving a red flag out the window at Kristallnacht. They did manage to get out, but their parents were sent to Theresienstadt and ended up being killed in Auschwitz or never heard of again.

My sister-in-law is from Cambodia. She was sent into the killing fields. Some of her siblings died, she survived. I often think how it is a miracle that my nephew was born despite the efforts of Hitler and Pol Pot.

This Holocaust Memorial Day we think about the extraordinary acts of courage and humanity of those who did not stand by.We know that on Holocaust Memorial Day, people across the country will learn about the past, and consider what they can do not to stand by today.

You at the Department for Communities and Local Government know more than most about not standing by. I know in this room are colleagues working with marginalised groups, supporting initiatives against antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred, and developing programmes of community integration.

I am sure, given the work that you do, that you like me are extraordinarily aware of how fortunate we are. We don’t have to show the bravery of journalist 30 year old Ruqiq Hassan, murdered by Isis for writing about the daily life of residents of Raqqa. But every step we take to not stand by to prejudice and discrimination in our communities, is still significant. We know that sadly, hostility and prejudice based on people’s ethnicity, sexuality or faith still continues, hence the importance of work undertaken and funded by this Department to report it, challenge it and reduce its occurrence.

In talking about the Department, can I take this opportunity to particularly thank Sally Sealey, who it is a real pleasure to work with. Her OBE is a fitting tribute to the work she does to promote Holocaust commemoration and education.

On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember for a purpose. We learn about the past so that we can do more to create a safer, better future. Today, we see around us situations that are genocidal or at risk of descending into genocide. And we know that genocide is still ongoing in Darfur.

There will be more than 3,600 events around the country to mark Holocaust Memorial Day this year, and again the BBC will be broadcasting the UK Commemorative Ceremony on Wednesday evening.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.