In this blog post I will follow-up the event I organised as a Regional Ambassador for Scotland for the Holocaust Educational Trust, ‘Human rights after the Holocaust: what have we learned?’ on 25 February 2016 at Glasgow University.
For more information about the event and speaker biographies, please see my previous blog post. We were honoured to have Holocaust survivors Henry and Ingrid Wuga deliver their testimonies, followed by an audience Q&A session. We then had a panel discussion on the event title question with contributions from leading academics and practitioners who deal with human rights, refugee, international law and historical issues. If you skip to the bottom of this blog, you can read my personal reflections on the event!
I had the support of the School of Law and Law in Action (LIA). Law in Action is a student-led initiative which works on practical, legal projects such as human rights education. I was grateful to have the assistance of 15 LIA volunteers, named at the bottom of this blog, as well as of its Director Meghan Devine. Daniel Ferguson, Samantha Menzies and Zosia Pardela all took comprehensive notes for me during the event, notes which have helped me to create this blog! I also was grateful to Andrew Sirel, Jennifer Crawford and Lorna Brown’s help from the Law School as well as everyone from the HET’s support.
I made a Storify article which collates the tweets before, during and after the event. The Southside Extra, Dundee Law Society and BBC Radio Scotland interviewed our guests of honour Henry and Ingrid Wuga on the day! (Click on the links to read and listen).
I’ll be releasing 10 short video clips from the event each week on my Youtube channel to which you can subscribe so you’ll be notified when they are uploaded, and these will also be shared on the Scottish Regional Ambassador’s Facebook page (which is also linked at the right-hand side of this blog) to hopefully give lasting effect to the important messages expressed by the speakers.
All photos taken at the event by Luciano Franchi are already available on the aforementioned Facebook page. I’d really appreciate if you could like and share this page!
So without further ado, here is is a summary of last week’s unique event…
Henry and Ingrid’s testimonies
‘We are both Jewish-German refugees driven out by Hitler’. Henry.
Having come to the UK from Nuremberg and Dortmund respectively through the rescue Operation Kindertransport, Henry and Ingrid, both born in 1924, shared with us their experiences of growing up in Nazi Germany as Jewish children, reflecting on what it was like coming to Britain as child refugees during the Holocaust.
Living in Germany during the rise of Nazism
Henry grew up in Nuremberg at a time where it was host to many large Nazi rallies. He remembers the rapid societal changes which took place after Hitler came to power in 1939, for example the local anti-Semitic magazine by Julius Streicher ‘Der Stuermer’ and the book burnings (e.g. of authors: Albert Einstein, Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka, Robert Burns) in market places across Germany.
At primary school, he remembers being made to sit at the back of the class, along with two other Jewish boys. The other children and his teachers, even those who he had previously considered friends, stopped speaking to them. He remembers a song they would sing:
‘Two Jews bathed in a water hollow, one quickly drowned. We hope the other one will follow’.
All this was a direct result of the ‘power of intimidation from the Nazis’ which created a culture of fear of being associated with Jews.
Nazi officers once came to Ingrid’s house and threatened to remove her instead of a Polish girl they had been looking for, but luckily her parents had her papers to prove her identity. Ingrid said that as a child, she struggled to understand the persecution;
‘We were hated. Why were we hated? We were Jewish, but being Jewish doesn’t make us bad people. […] Please don’t hate me.’ Ingrid.
Henry spoke about the promulgation of the Nuremberg laws in 1935 which were ‘beyond belief’ and made you a ‘non-citizen, a no-one, you had no rights left’ and promoted segregation of Jews from non-Jews. He remembers Jews being beaten up on the streets. The strict prohibition on attending concerts, the cinema, public meetings and providing business to non-Jews severely affected his family. Life was extremely tough.
The traumatic Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938
Kristallnacht happened in November 1938 and most Jewish synagogues were burned and houses destroyed. ‘A young Polish boy in Paris shot a German official in Paris and that was used to do this tremendous pogrom in Germany’, although Henry and Ingrid sometimes wonder if the event was premeditated and if this boy was an agent provocateur.
Henry’s house was destroyed. He recalls that night vividly;
‘Everything was smashed to pieces […] I personally remember everything was full of feathers […] they came to your house and trashed it.’ Henry.
Ingrid’s house was luckily unaffected but her extended family was affected by the pogroms. Her father was not at home that night but the police came and threatened to beat him if he did not report to a police station to be sent to a concentration camp. This was due to the mandate for most Jewish men to be taken to concentration camps. Ingrid’s father did report and was luckily released after 6 weeks.
Operation Kindertransport to Britain
At this tipping point, both Henry and Ingrid’s families made the tough decision to flee Germany, but struggled to decide on where to go and how. Henry’s parents registered him on the Kindertransport in 1939, after being refused by the US Consulate. Almost all countries refused Jewish asylum. Ingrid also came to Britain on the Kindertransport in 1939. Henry spoke very highly of this British rescue initiative and attributed its success largely to its speedy inception, which was in large part thanks to the then Home Secretary Neville Chamberlain. Henry wonders if a similar haste could be expected from the current Home Secretary Theresa May.
Henry told us that the most difficult parts of his journey were leaving Germany and his parents:
‘The horror […] that you might not see your parents again […] only 40% saw their parents and siblings again […] all the rest went up in smoke.’ Henry.
Henry and Ingrid clearly described their unforgettable first impressions of the new places they were taken to, such as being offered chocolate, apples and white bread on arrival in the Netherlands, and the waiters with white gloves in a dining room in Central Station where Henry stayed overnight when he first arrived. He remembers being picked by guarantor families on arrival in Liverpool. ‘People came to pick children […] but it was like a cattle market.” But also, Henry said, ‘it saved lives, there was no question. It was difficult, but life had begun.’
Henry was welcomed by guarantor Mrs. E Hurwich in Glasgow and Ingrid stayed with the Dixon family in Ashby. The Dixon family had lost their son and used the money they had saved for him to sponsor Ingrid, however, her welcome wasn’t always so warm. One of the first things Mrs Dixon said to her was at fifteen, ‘We would rather have taken a boy’. Ingrid also spoke of the disdain she felt from her co-workers when she was working as a child-minder. She remembers overhearing comments such as, ‘Why does that bloody German girl have to work for us?’, as friends could have had the job.
Displacement within the UK and internment
Henry described how he was moved around the UK, from Glasgow to Perth and back to Glasgow, when Perth became a protected area as he was not permitted to remain there as a ‘foreign alien’. Ingrid also had to move from West Kilbride to Glasgow as it is situated on the coast, an unsafe place to inhabit during wartime.
Henry told us about his experience being interned in various camps, ending up on the Isle of Man, because he was labelled by MI5 a ‘Category A Dangerous Enemy Alien’ in 1940. He was found by the High Court in Edinburgh to be ‘corresponding with the enemy’ by sending letters to his parents through his uncles in Brussels and Paris – a serious offence in wartime, despite the fact that one could go for years without hearing information about the well-being of loved ones. However, he was treated and educated well in internment and released after 10 months as a ‘Friendly Alien’ as he was under the age of internment and considered ‘de-nazified’. When he was released, he was given no instructions as to how to travel back to Glasgow, despite only being aged fifteen! Henry also reflected on the influence the media’s portrayal of refugees had in relation to his treatment.
Henry’s father passed away in 1942 and his mother was hidden by a German Catholic family, and survived. Ingrid lost fifteen cousins in Auschwitz.
‘We are the fortunate ones, we found a home in Scotland, we have a family, daughters, we have four grandsons; we belong here, and it’s been quite wonderful.’ Henry.
Ingrid and Henry’s conclusions
‘I tell you these stories because it’s important to see the kindness of people. […] This is our country. We are here now. […] It’s a good story in a way. We got out and we found a home and we had a happy ending.’ Henry.
‘It did not end in a concentration camp’ Ingrid.
‘When you think of what is going on now, these millions of people fleeing war, we were lucky we were out and were not camp survivors.’ ‘This should not be forgotten.’ Henry.
‘Don’t stand by. Speak up and speak out. Don’t tolerate intolerance, speak against it; because if you don’t speak against it, if you are neutral, only the perpetrator will benefit, the victim will not benefit.’ Henry.
Ingrid felt that, despite having experienced some hostility when she first arrived in the UK, the empathy and compassion she was shown, especially by an employer who once invited her out to swim even though she was at work, is something which will always stand out for her:
‘How wonderful to be treated […] like a human being.’ ‘How important it is just to get a helping hand and a kind word. It makes a big difference’. Ingrid.
Audience Q&A on survivors’ testimonies
The audience then had the opportunity to pose various questions to Henry and Ingrid. Key points which came across in their responses included the importance of education in integration of refugees into their host society to enhance social cohesion; that we should try to combat extremism; and how societal attitudes were changed so quickly as a result of the charismatic power of Hitler, his absolute control and horrendous intimidation.
‘One hopes these things don’t happen again, they happen all the time unfortunately, this horrible problem of religious hatred is really quite horrendous’. Henry
‘Somebody said to me once, “I can’t sit with him, he’s black”, and I said to them, “I don’t care! He’s black and he’s probably good, he’s white and he’s probably not a nice person”. So don’t make colour a difference, or religion. It depends on the person… if they’re good people, I’ll sit with them.’ Ingrid.
Lastly, Ingrid and Henry said that they are committed to keep telling their story as it is always very positively received, especially by pupils and even prisoners at Barlinnie prison, and proves to be very effective in helping people learn about the Holocaust.
Panel discussion on ‘Human rights after the Holocaust: what have we learned?’
For this section, I gave a bridging speech highlighting why I think it’s important to remember the Holocaust when discussing human rights today. I’ll give a summary of the main points covered by each speaker through the audience Q&A.
Thérèse O’Donnell, Lecturer of Human Rights Law at Strathclyde University, discussed the term ‘bystander’, the misnomer of an ‘innocent bystander’ and the difficulty of attributing responsibility to such parties, especially when the law has a narrow definition of criminality normally dealing with only perpetrators and victims. She spoke of the distinction drawn between German moral responsibility and Nazi legal responsibility during the Nuremberg trials and the Allied Forces’ de-nazification programme which was practically impossible given the scale of such a task. As a result, amnesty was afforded to many bystanders and fairly significant offenders were re-classified as mere followers and escaped responsibility. Thérèse spoke of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions which were introduced as a way of dealing with this responsibility vacuum, as used in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and South Africa.
She also considered whether the ‘responsibility to protect’ under International law could be invoked with more frequency outwith military intervention, or if there is a remedy under customary international law.
She distinguished individual bystanders, who are internal to the site of atrocity, from institutional bystanders, who are external to it; asking whether the League of Nations, the allied nations who refused to take refugees or the churches were institutional bystanders in the 1930s.
Lastly, Thérèse referred to the Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro case in 2007, where Serbia was found to be guilty of not failing to prevent genocide (e.g. in Srebrenica), as opposed to having committed genocide itself, which has a higher threshold than the failure to prevent crimes against humanity.
‘Which States do you think might be held responsible for failing to prevent a crime against humanity in the next few years to come when we see yet more pictures, and there will be more pictures, of atrocities lying on beaches in the Mediterranean?’
Dr. Jacques Hartmann, Professor of Public International Law and Human Rights Law at Dundee University, does not believe in ‘standing by’ but that if you do nothing you are ‘tacitly approving’.
He gave the fitting moral philosophical example of ‘The drowning child and the expanding circle’ in Famine, Affluence and Morality by Peter Singer and quoted;
‘If it’s in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything else morally significant, then we are morally obliged to do so.’ Peter Singer.
He emphasised the importance of being active and speaking up, even where it is not necessarily easy or popular to do so.
Jacques also thinks we should see the refugee crisis not as a crisis but as an opportunity, as refugees are valuable contributors to society. Jacques also commented on the recent Danish laws authorising the seizure of property from refugees to assist in paying for their asylum support. He spoke about the complexity of the issue and of the lack of European Court of Human Rights case-law about it but said that there is a strong argument that the policy is discriminatory. This can be read about in more detail in his blog.
Amal Azzudin, Somalian refugee, human rights activist and Glasgow Girl, who, like Ingrid and Henry, felt grateful having escaped an entirely different threat – the civil war in Somalia, when she was just ten years old.
‘I love Glasgow for many reasons, especially for the people, and how welcoming they were and are to refugees’.
Amal spoke about the Glasgow Girls’ campaign to combat child immigration detention and dawn raids. This began because her Roma-Gypsy friend from Kosovo Agnessa and her family was dawn-raided, taken from Glasgow and detained in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in England by 14 Home Office officials wearing bullet-proof vests and using hand-cuffs. She remembers thinking;
‘How could this happen? How cruel is it to lock children up like they’re criminals? They’d done nothing wrong. Nobody chooses to be a refugee. Nobody chooses for their own country to have war- to have to leave everything behind, your family, your culture, everything you know for no reason.’
Amal acknowledged the success of the campaign but of the problems still faced by many refugees. She spoke of a recent visit to Auschwitz and the impact this had on her as well as of the parallels which exist between the language used towards refugees today, especially by the media, as well as the enforced symbolisation of Jews (e.g. the yellow star) and that of refugees today (e.g. wrist-bands in Cardiff and house doors being painted red in Middlesbrough).
She also showed pictures from her visit to Greece last year in 2015 to help the refugees arriving in Lesbos, highlighting their ongoing plight. One thing Amal will always remember was when a child refugee invited her and a friend to share her sweet which the child had received through local aid:
‘She had nothing, nothing. She was sleeping on the floor, she did not know what was going to happen to her tomorrow, but she had the humanity to share her sweet with us, humanity that a lot of world leaders lack these days.’
When addressing the racism and xenophobia expressed towards refugees from the East, Amal said:
‘We are all human beings. We all bleed the same colour. Why should it matter if somebody is a different religion, as long as we respect each other, that’s what should be more important. As long as we share the same morals, the same values, which many of us do, but unfortunately the media will make you believe otherwise.’
Gary Christie, Head of Policy and Communications at the Scottish Refugee Council, said that rather than mistakenly focussing on the so-called ‘pull factors’ for refugees to come to Britain, which has contributed to the fragmented European approach and attempts by various countries to make themselves inhospitable towards refugees; we should be focussing on the complex push-factors.
He emphasised, like Henry and Ingrid, the importance of a warm welcome and spoke of the success of the Scotland Welcomes Refugees website. Gary observed that seeing the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach helped shift the discourse from generic statistics to human beings, and thinks we should continue to challenge the negative, inhumane discourse in both politics and the media.
Gary addressed the EU’s over-emphasis on border security and control as opposed to investment in the asylum system and suggested that the UK do more to participate in mechanisms for responsibility sharing and to address its overly-stringent family reunification rights. He stressed the importance of increasing the scope of family asylum, making more legal routes for asylum and of looking at the issue through an international lens, as we cannot afford to be isolationist.
Carole Ewart, Independent Human Rights Consultant, referenced the UN Charter which sets out that we should preemptively address threats to international peace and security, rather than always being reactionary. This can involve examining and acting to prevent the causes of the refugee crisis- the conflicts which force people to leave.
She then spoke of the strengths of the UN system in terms of protecting human rights, referencing the Universal Periodic Review as a strength for monitoring human rights violations. Carole also referenced the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and how they can play a role in areas where the international community cannot or will not, or in places where governments are powerless. Carole also highlighted the need to review the police forces’ treatment of refugees in south and central Europe.
Carole distinguished the public antagonism towards refugees, evidenced in the rise of radical right-wing political parties such as UKIP, from the state-led antagonism during the Holocaust. She stressed the importance of recognising that ordinary people have the potential to do terrible things.
Professor Ray Stokes of Business History at Glasgow University expanded on Thérèse’s points about the limitations of the legal routes of holding the perpetrators of the Holocaust to account. He spoke of recent efforts to hold businesses which were involved in the Holocaust to account, by way of moral responsibility rather than legal, as an example of a non-legal route which is available. Ray also spoke of the importance of context when understanding the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He said, ‘it is necessary for historians to hate, but we must hate precisely’.
Lastly, our Chair Andrew Sirel from the Legal Services Agency spoke about the difficulties human rights lawyers face when representing migrant children and young people;
‘We see, everyday, failure to properly respect their human rights, basic human rights that you or I share, for example asylum seeker accommodation’.
This was the first public event I’ve organised as a Regional Ambassador I was really pleased with how it went and the interesting discussions we had. Doing HET’s Lessons from Auschwitz Project inspired me in my studies to make links between the Holocaust and human rights and I’m glad I was able to integrate these into my event. I was also delighted to have survivors’ testimony as I think this helps us humanise the victims of the Holocaust.
Henry and Ingrid naturally told their story through a human rights lens, and the panel discussion took place through a ‘Holocaust lens’ in that we were mindful of the lessons to draw from history when discussing some prevalent human rights issues today.
I believe that such a ‘Holocaust lens’ should be used in UK Parliamentary discussions on the proposed repeal to the Human Rights Act 1998, which brings home the rights we enjoy in the European Convention on Human Rights, created in the aftermath of the Holocaust. I also think it should be used by politicians and individuals alike when discussing the human rights, the refugee crisis, genocide, discrimination and hate speech/crime.
We should all speak up and act against racism, prejudice and intolerance and endeavour to show humanity, kindness and compassion, as Henry and Ingrid clearly appreciated.
Most importantly, the opportunity we got to hear first-hand from two Holocaust survivors is an experience which will remain for us forever; which we can pass onto future generations; and Henry and Ingrid Wuga can be two personal points of reference for anyone who denies the Holocaust or dismisses its importance.
A big thank you to everyone who was involved and hopefully we can arrange another event next year! Look out for the video clips!
LIA Volunteers: Alanna Fockler, Caitlin Alexander, Caitlin MacMillan, Colomban Young-Smith, Daniel Ferguson, Eleanor Livingston, Linzi McQuade, Lisa Lennox, Maisie Peebles, Nicole Treanor, Rachel Howie, Samantha Menzies, Shumail Javed, Tamara Levy, Vasilena Hristova and Zosia Pardela.
Further links on the event title theme:
-The Gathering the Voices website for more Holocaust survivor testimonies.
-Wagner. A, ‘Evil progresses cunningly- why human rights matter on Holocaust Memorial Day’ (27 January 2016), available here.
-Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Muižnieks. N, ‘Europe still needs to draw lessons from the Holocaust’ (26 January 2015), available here.
-Alfred. C, ‘What history can teach us about the worst refugee crisis since WWII’ (15 September 2015), available here.
-Carole Ewart shared the following fascinating radio link with Hollywood actors telling refugee’s stories for UN Refugee Day in 1959, available here.
The views expressed by those who spoke at this event are personal, and do not reflect those of the Holocaust Educational Trust.