Corporate social irresponsibility

‘Freedom of speech means you can say whatever you want. What you can’t do is lie and expect not to be held accountable for it. Not all opinions are equal. And some things happened, just like we say they do. Slavery happened, the Black Death happened. The Earth is round, the ice caps are melting, and Elvis is not alive.’

Deborah Lipstadt – protagonist of ‘Denial’ film, 2016

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Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in Denial (2016), photo by Laurie Sparham/Bleecker Street.

Having recently seen the film ‘Denial’ and been impressed at how it portrayed the libel case brought and lost by Holocaust denier David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books in 2000, I was perturbed when I read in the Guardian that he held a ‘secret’ event at the DoubleTree Hilton in Glasgow a week ago last Friday.

He used this platform to sign his books while spouting vitriol about Jews, the Holocaust and non-‘white’ England. The audience consisted of 40 people and there was reportedly a child in the audience. Irving even received a small standing ovation at the end of the event.

His audiences have grown progressively smaller as his events become increasingly clandestine, with Irving often personally vetting those who enter. This is due to his fears of demonstrations as he has been widely discredited in academic historical circles since the aforementioned ruling during which he was described by the judge as being ‘anti-Semitic and racist’ and sentenced to three years in an Austrian prison. He was released after just over a year and was subsequently banned from Austria, Canada, Italy and Germany.

Jackson Carlaw, Deputy Leader of the Scottish Conservatives and MSP for Eastwood, my constituency, condemned the event and was reported in the Guardian as saying:

‘He [Irving] is a disgrace and the peddler of a deeply hateful message which Scotland and the world can well do without.’

‘David Irving, a minor and discredited historian, has spent a lifetime maliciously and notoriously seeking to deny The Holocaust. No platform should be offered to this man by anyone who cares about either the truth or wider humanity.’

According to Labour MSP James Kelly:

‘These views are disgusting and have no place in modern Scotland. It underlines why we must continue to challenge intolerance and bigotry, not let it fester behind closed doors.’

As Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, I support these statements and am glad and proud that Scottish politicians are not afraid to speak up in light of modern-day racism and intolerance.

Englishman Irving said at his event that he has moved to the north of Scotland as it reminds him of when England used to be ‘white’. Well Irving, I have news for you- Scotland welcomes diversity and multiculturalism. Our society thrives on tolerance and pluralism and, as your attendance rates show, you are wasting time preaching hate up here.

I am extremely disappointed and ashamed that his clandestine tour, arguably milking the film release of ‘Denial’ for what all it is worth, was given a venue in Glasgow at the Doubletree Hilton. In the spirit of ‘not standing by’ to hatred, racism and intolerance, I am under no illusion that I can alter or prevent Irving’s distorted depictions of history; however, I do think we should make it as difficult as possible for him to find a platform upon which to speak in Glasgow and elsewhere. If we Glaswegians are good at one thing, it is responding to hate with a calm and collected ‘square go’.

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The DoubleTree Hilton in Glasgow, doubletree3hilton.com 

The DoubleTree, which is in franchise with the Hilton, is not exactly an unsuspecting hidden underground venue – it is connected to one of the most well-known hotel chains in the world. A spokesperson for the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel confirmed the event took place and stated that:

‘The hotel management does not adopt, share or promote the views of the individuals or groups to which we provide accommodations and services.’

Nonetheless, when Holocaust denial is a crime, as is hate speech, and your brand risks being tarnished for association with or indirect promotion of these views or pure and simple racism – surely in the name of corporate social responsibility (CSR) you should have gone to further efforts not to host such an extremist event in your establishment?

Examples of good CSR practice include Airbnb’s laudable nondiscrimination policy and activism in this area with #WeAccept  or even the Marriot’s explicit reference to human rights in its CSR policy.

Indeed, the Hilton’s CSR issue areas include ‘local community impact’ and ‘responsible sourcing’ and it achieved 100% in a Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index measuring LGBT workplace equality.

Perhaps the DoubleTree by the Hilton should look into the ‘local community impact’ of hosting such events or expand its ‘responsible sourcing’ initiatives to include disallowing socially irresponsible event hosts to invite custom into its premises.

While I am saddened that the event was even allowed to take place, in 2017 no less, I am unwavering in my commitment to raise awareness about the Holocaust and its contemporary relevance, challenging racism, prejudice and discrimination. I know from experience that the Glaswegian and Scottish communities, of all backgrounds, play a global role in speaking up against hatred and lies, often in their own unique way. Glaswegians, like myself, are unlikely to ‘haud’ their ‘wheesht’ in the face of racists like Irving being given a platform upon which to speak in their city by leading hotel chains.

It is ‘pure dead’ corporate social irresponsibility.

<> on March 22, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Anti-racism protesters in George Square, Glasgow on 22 March 2014 at a Unite Against Fascism rally on UN Anti-Racism Day, Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Follow-up to the event: Human rights after the Holocaust: what have we learned?

Hi all,

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.

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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

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‘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.

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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.

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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?’

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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.

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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?’

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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’.

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My thoughts

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!

Laura
😀

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.

Human rights after the Holocaust: what have we learned?

Henry-and-Ingrid-Wuga

Image taken from Hind. S, ‘Jewish refugees who found love in Scotland after fleeing Nazis prepare to celebrate 75 years together in their new homeland’, Daily Record (13 November 2013), available here.

I’m really excited to share with you the invitation to an event I am organising in my role as Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust with the University of Glasgow’s School of Law and student organisation Law in Action.

It is called, ‘Human rights after the Holocaust: what have we learned?’ and will take place on Thursday the 25th of February from 5.30-8pm at the Senate Room in Glasgow University’s main building. It is for students, academics, relevant networks and others interested in the event topic. Tickets are available via EventBrite here.

I am honoured to have two Holocaust survivors, Henry and Ingrid Wuga, joining us to give their testimonies and participate in a question and answer session. This will be followed by a panel discussion with leading academics and practitioners in human rights, history, refugee issues and international law. We hope to reflect on the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust, particularly in the context of human rights issues today – such as the refugee crisis, hate crime and genocide.

Henry and Ingrid Wuga are originally from Nurembourg and Dortmund respectively, and came to the UK on Operation Kindertransport which saved 669 Jewish refugees during WWII. They are now fellow Scots!

Panel speakers include:

  • Ms. Amal Azzudin (Human rights Activist and Glasgow Girl)
  • Mr. Gary Christie (Head of Policy and Communications at Scottish Refugee Council)
  • Ms. Carol Ewart (Independent Human Rights Consultant)
  • Dr. Jacques Hartmann (Professor of Public International Law and Human Rights Law at University of Dundee)
  • Ms. Thérèse O’Donnell (Professor of Human Rights Law at University of Strathclyde)
  • Professor Ray Stokes (Professor of Business History and organisor of Annual HMD Memorial Lecture at University of Glasgow)
  • Mr. Andrew Sirel (Solicitor at Legal Services Agency and Professor at University of Glasgow)

Full speaker biographies are available here.

I hope to see you there for what I hope will be a moving and thought-provoking event, linked to the 2016 ‘Don’t Stand By’ Holocaust Memorial Day theme.

Keep posted for a follow-up blog post about the event with photos and quotes!

Laura

🙂

 

‘If we forget, they will have gotten away with it’

‘If we forget, they will have gotten away with it’.
Mala Tribech MBE at Holocaust Educational Trust Conference 2015.

On Monday 6th of July this year, we approached the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings; the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide; and we remembered the recent passing of the valiant Sir Nicholas Winton on the 1st of July. He saved 669 children, mostly Jewish, from almost certain death by transporting them from occupied Prague to Britain on the operation Czech Kindertransport during the Holocaust.

Regional Ambassadors with Karen Pollock MBE and Nick Robinson

Regional Ambassadors with Karen Pollock MBE and Nick Robinson

So fittingly, on Monday 6th of July this year, I was one of hundreds of Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) Ambassadors and A-level / 6th year students from across the UK who made the journey to London to attend the 2015 Ambassador Conference. The Conference is a way of learning more about the Holocaust and the contemporary lessons we can learn from it. Throughout the day we heard from fascinating keynote speakers (biographies are available here), participated in workshops of our choice and were honoured to hear from some first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust. I hope this blog post will tell you a little more about the day and I will share some ‘golden nuggets’ of information or messages in the form of quotes from the speakers which inspired me. I hope they inspire you too.

I’ll mix up the order of the day and describe the first-hand witnesses’ testimonies first, as these are, in my opinion, the most important ones for you to read, especially if you’re short of time! The way I see it, in this transitory life, we should seize the chances we get to hear Holocaust witnesses’ stories since our lives coincide with theirs. This way they directly communicate their stories to us and we are more likely to share them. Otherwise, their stories are left untold and history is more likely to repeat itself. I didn’t take many notes during the testimonies as I was so engrossed, and have definitely missed details and paraphrased the quotes, but I hope I can summarise some of their stories for you here, do them justice and at least virtually introduce them to you.

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First, we heard from Mala Tribich MBE. She was born in 1930 in Piotrków Trybunalski in Poland. She told us about her life as a slave labourer working with glass and plywood in the Piotrków ghetto and then as a prisoner in Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. She was liberated from Bergen-Belsen by the British forces in April 1945.

Mala’s mother and sister were taken from the ghetto one day, shot in the woods and buried in mass graves. While her father and brother remained in the ghetto, the men were separated from the women, so Mala wasn’t with them. However, she was with her cousin at the time. I can’t imagine losing half of my close family and then being separated from the rest, at such a young age. The grief must have been insurmountable. Mala then described having to travel for 4 ½ days while being deported to Ravensbruck. When telling us about the dehumanising process on arrival (being stripped, tattooed, having their hair shaved off), she said: ‘We felt as if they had taken our souls’. However, she said she managed to somehow maintain a glimmer of hope while working there, as: ‘Without hope there is no chance of survival’.

On arrival to Bergen-Belsen she said: ‘What we saw defies description’. The camp was so overcrowded. When asked about the accuracy of some documentaries depicting the camp she agreed that they portray it well, but admitted that: ‘One thing film cannot portray is the smell. It was the first thing that hit us’. The smell was a mixture of the smoke billowing from the gas ovens where the Nazis were burning bodies, and the terrible living conditions of the camp through which many people contracted diseases, especially typhoid. She described the people interned in the camp as ‘skeletons shuffling around’.

Mala expressed how grateful she was to the British soldiers who liberated her from Bergen-Belsen. She said repeatedly that they really went: ‘Over and above the call of duty’ in helping them. After two years of recuperation in Sweden, Mala came to England and was reunited with her brother Ben, who we were also honoured to have attend the HET Conference this year. He was the only surviving member of her close family. Mala described the rest of her life as really happy; she got married in 1950 and had two children and three grandchildren. We were so lucky that she came to the Conference to tell us her story, which she also tells in schools and colleges across the UK as part of the HET’s Outreach Programme.

I’d describe Mala as having a heart of gold. Despite all she has experienced she has a really positive outlook on life and her gratitude towards those who liberated her was overwhelming. I’m so glad that she has had a good life after the horrors she was subjected to, and that she has a lovely new family too. She is a beautiful lady, inside and out.

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We then heard Bernard Levy’s account of his experience as a liberator of Bergen-Belsen during the Holocaust. Bernard Levy was only 19 when he arrived at the camp in April 1945 as a corporal in the British Army. His main job was to spray everyone entering and leaving the camp with disinfectant, given the typhoid epidemic there. Also, because of the terrible conditions of the camp at that time, it was near impossible to distinguish the living bodies from the corpses. However, this was Bernard’s job. This must have been an unimaginably harrowing task. I personally can’t imagine being able to do that at just 19 years of age.

Indeed, it took a while for Bernard to feel ready to tell his story as the scenes he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen horrified him so much; ‘it’s strangled me for all these years’. He described the 68 years following liberation as ‘years of silence’. We were really honoured that he was able to tell us his story in July 2015, his first public testimony, and hope to relay what he experienced and his messages to us to everyone we speak to on the HET journey.

Bernard described himself as being ‘war weary’ on arrival at Bergen-Belsen, after ‘touch and go’ situations during the war. He said he owed a lot to the aid work of refugee organisations when the camp was liberated. In this respect, Bernard commended Germany on how much it has come on as a democratic country since the war, especially in welcoming refugees. Germany currently takes in the most asylum seekers in the EU, where 53% of refugees worldwide come from Syria, given the civil war there. It struck me how passionate Bernard was about what he thinks we must do now: ‘We have to do everything we can to spread peace and love’.

Bernard is an inspiring, insightful man and I am also really pleased he lived a happy life after the war and had children and grandchildren of his own. It took great courage to speak out about his experience and I am so thankful to him for doing so.

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There was a ‘question and answer’ session with Mala and Bernard after they gave their testimonies and it was amazing to see a liberator and a survivor on the same stage 70 years later, bound by the common purpose of telling their stories to remember those who perished and educate others. When asked why they do this, Mala replied:

‘Our stories are difficult to tell but I do it for those who didn’t survive. It is our duty to remember them. This is down to us, as if we do not, it is as if they never existed. If we forget, they will have gotten away with it’.

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Mhiara McKenzie, another Regional Ambassador for the HET for Scotland thanked Mala and Bernard for sharing their stories with us on behalf of everyone there.

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Me and Zigi Shipper at the HET Ambassador Conference 2014.

Another Holocaust survivor, the amazing Zigi Shipper, also attended the event. I met him at the Conference last year and he also gave his testimony to me in Glasgow in 2009 when I did the Lessons From Auschwitz project. I was honoured to be tasked with asking him why we should remember the Holocaust, and this was his answer…

‘It is so important that young people know and there are few of us left. I am so proud of all the young ambassadors who work and travel to tell others. At least I know somebody is doing something. I am so proud of them and they give me hope that our stories are never forgotten’.

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To read and hear voice clips of Zigi’s story, please see this link.

Now I’ve described the Holocaust witnesses’ accounts, I’ll summarise the rest of the Conference in order.

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To begin, Karen Pollock MBE introduced the Conference and told us more about Sir Nicholas Winton’s story. Then we heard from Sir Peter Bazalgette, the Chair of the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, who told us about the interesting new development of a memorial and learning centre in London. He spoke to us about how we, the younger generation, are tasked with making society more ‘liberal and humane’. He also spoke about the digital age we live in which has, at times, facilitated the radicalisation of teenagers and how it has created an ‘empathy deficit’. I supported his conclusion that ‘we need a society of empathetic citizens’ as I think that while we now benefit from having access to so much information at the tap of a touch screen, we can, at times, be too distracted to filter out the wrong from the right, the hate speech from the empathetic speech. Being mindful of what and how we communicate and accountable for what we say is key.

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We then heard from the captivating historian and former Creative Director of History Programmes for the BBC Laurence Rees. He spoke about a documentary he made called ‘Talking to Nazis’ and showed us clips of some interviews with Nazis he had filmed, explaining how they portrayed the moral position of the film-makers through the form of questioning. The clips explored five themes: scapegoats, conspiracy, renunciation, hate and racism; which helped us understand the culture and traits which existed at the time of the Holocaust, and still exist today. It was clear from the description of scapegoating which existed then as a ‘simple shorthand conflation fallacy’ (ie. Jews = communism), it still exists in many forms today (e.g. Immigrants = economic crisis). Political parties and politicians are especially guilty of this and can often be very ill-informed on sensitive issues.

Rees emphasised that we should ‘focus on the culture around us which shapes us’ and our society, as opposed to being too individualistic, and in recognition of the fact that the culture at the time shaped many Germans’ minds and guided their actions. Indeed, I believe that to this day our culture heavily influences our actions and we should try to make sure it is as empathetic, compassionate and humane as possible. Rees was one of my favourite speakers and I would really recommend watching his documentary.

There were many workshops to choose from which dealt with different issues, but I will only describe the ones I attended. As I enjoyed studying the French resistance at University, I chose a great workshop called ‘Defiance: Jewish resistance and rescue during the Holocaust’ led by HET Educational Officer Martin Winstone. He told us about the obstacles to resistance during the Holocaust, such as ‘power imbalances, living conditions, lack of advanced knowledge and fear of reprisals etc.’. However, we learnt about Jewish resistance (the peak of which was in 1943), armed resistance ghetto uprisings, partisan/guerrilla resistance, rescue and spiritual resistance. These were all ways of fighting back and asserting dignity and humanity. Creating acts of culture was a creative form of defiance and ultimately immortalised the culture and spirits of the victims of the Holocaust. For more on this and to get involved in the #donthatecreate campaign the Scottish Regional Ambassadors for HET have created, please follow this link.

After lunch I went to an eye-opening workshop by Professor David Cesarani from Royal Holloway College at the University of London called ‘Saints or Sinners? How should we remember the (in)actions, of Britain in the Holocaust?’. He spoke about how the liberation of the concentration camps by the Brits is often described as a ‘success story’ but then explained the conflicted history of the Jews in Britain and the Brits’ ambivalence towards the Jews during the Holocaust.

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There was then a panel discussion on ‘Representing the Holocaust’ about how we talk and think about the Holocaust with journalist Hugo Rifkind; Professor Robert Eaglestone at Royal Holloway; documentary filmmaker Rex Bloomstein; Dr Caroline Sturdy Cools from the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University; and Karen Pollock MBE, Chief Executive of the HET. This involved discussions of social media, film, literature, physical evidence of the Holocaust. With regards to social media we emphasised how important it is to combat hate speech and misinformation where we see it, to make sure it remains a safe and open space to exchange information and tackle myths. On this note, I’d recommend getting involved in the #NoHateSpeech youth campaign by the Council of Europe, with more information available on this link.

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Nick Robinson, BBC political editor, wrapped up the Conference by talking about ‘What you do counts: The role of young people in remembering the Holocaust’. He spoke about the importance of the work of the Ambassadors and the HET as well as his grandparents who fled from Germany during the war.

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It was a pleasure to meet the other Regional Ambassadors from across the UK at the Conference and to hear about their ideas and work plans for this year. The Conference definitely challenged and inspired me. The Twitter coverage of the event is summarised here on Storify. It includes photos of participants holding boards explaining why they think it’s important to remember the Holocaust.

I will continue talking in schools and want to create combined Holocaust and Human Rights Education workshops for schools in the Glasgow and East Renfrewshire area. I would also love to arrange a Survivor Visit. If you’re interested, please get in touch with me at laurapasternak12@gmail.com. I will continue blogging, sharing HET educational materials and memorial activities to schools, universities and through the online community we have at www.facebook.com/hetrascotland.

Thanks for reading and thanks to the HET and all the speakers for an unforgettable Conference! 🙂

PS. Photo credits go to the tweeters on the Storify link above, no copyright infringement intended. Please let me know if you would like any specific credits to be added or photos to be removed. Thank you for your understanding.

PASTERNAK

‘The only way to learn in life is by telling stories.’[1]

On the 15th of September 2009, I found myself staring at a suitcase with the word ‘PASTERNAK’ glaring back at me. This suitcase would have contained pots, pans, clothes and favourite possessions, packed frantically by a family charged with anticipation at the promise of a better life in a new place. They probably prized their one-way-ticket, bought with months of savings, grateful for such a unique opportunity.

‘PASTERNAK’. This means ‘parsnip’ in Russian, linking it to its rustic origins. It is also my surname. It has always been intrinsic to my identity; while being pretty difficult for a child to spell growing up.

‘Any relation to Boris?’ I’ve been asked. ‘I have to ask…are you related to the writer?’…‘Did you know there was a writer with your name?’

Every exam paper, every form I fill out, every register I’ve answered to; I am confronted with this name. A rather unusual name for a Scot. I’ve received letters and certificates with ‘Pasternack’, ‘Pastarnak’ and my personal favourite; ‘Pastomack’. I’ve also had some worse variations, but let’s not go into those right now.

All this being said, I had never come face to face with my own name in such a powerful way as when I was 17, visiting the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp on the Lessons from Auschwitz project with the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Tears trickled silently down my cheeks as I studied the suitcase behind the glass. I quickly dismissed the instinctual response: did a relative of mine come here? This notion was rapidly displaced with a feeling of relief, as I remembered that my name was common in both Poland and Russia and so it made sense that it was displayed here. As I panned-out my focus on the little brown leather suitcase, my relief turned into an overwhelming feeling of guilt. Why would I care more if an unknown family member had been a victim here? I gazed at the other suitcases and began to read the other names, one-by-one, hand-written in wobbly capitals in chalk or on paper labels attached to the front of each suitcase. Weinberg. Meier. Cohen. Each name connected to a family, and each family having suffered in the same way.

Realistically, the name was no more connected to me than any of the other thousands of names in front of me, than the names of any of the other 6 million people killed throughout the Holocaust. I struggled to fathom the sheer scale of the persecution and genocide which took place.

Not only was there physical death, but there was also an attack on culture. Families, stories, relationships and every other wonderful thing which makes us human was assaulted. However, through discovering survivor’s stories and the many art-forms and literature which were and still are created about the Holocaust, it is somehow possible to re-humanise the victims and celebrate their spirits.[2]

I have learnt that there is one constant in life which has and always will prevail. It will survive no matter how much suppression it endures, no matter how severely it is tested.

Humanity.

What is the point in believing in anything if we no longer believe in humanity? That we, as human beings, on planet Earth for a finite amount of time, have far more in common than that which separates us; be it religion, ideology, nationality, social group, sex, race, language, gender identity, sexual orientation, political persuasion or anything else? What will it take for us to understand that we are all connected to one another, that our lives merit equal worth and that the identities which we think distinguish us are futile if we cannot respect our fellow human beings?[3]

‘PASTERNAK’ is no more connected to me than any of the other 7 billion people in this world. I learnt a lot of lessons from my visit to Auschwitz, but the most important thing I learnt from my suitcase story was empathy. How can we apply this empathy today, in 2015, to ensure that we honour the victims and survivors’ existence?

I think we should be aware of the other genocides which predate and postdate WWII, global terrorism and the wars currently ongoing in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and South Sudan. Extremism, ignorance, exploitation and inequality are the causes of these problems and not the solutions. Dark tendencies inhabit us all, as human beings. We must become the change we wish to see in society: challenge our prejudices; battle scapegoating and discrimination; and resist supporting materialistic greed and nationalistic narcissism.

Investing in global, human rights based education resulting in tolerant, compassionate and loving individuals is far more sustainable for future generations than fuelling fear, hatred of the unknown or investing in wars. Everyone knows that human rights violations are a by-product of conflict, but it’s time to recognise that they are one of its root causes as well. Human intellect is forever advancing, but what is it really worth if we do not protect human rights? We should each aspire to reach ‘PHD-level compassion’ which is universal and stems from the heart and the mind.[4]

We are all flagbearers now. Please join me in commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day to keep the victims’ memory alive.[5] Remember that everything we do or say influences those around us. We live in a web of circumstances. A famous writer Maya Angelou once said, ‘I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.’ I challenge myself, you and the rest of the world to be brave and find that courage within us- for the sake of all humanity.

I began by affirming the need to tell stories, to keep alive the presence of the past. Let me end with one such story. In researching the picture of the suitcase, I found out that its owner was called Herman Pasternak. His great-great nephew searched for his records after spotting the suitcase in a photograph and found out that he arrived in Auschwitz on the 1st of February 1944 and was killed in the gas chambers a couple of days later, a few days before his 44th birthday. I would like to dedicate this blog to Herman Pasternak, his great-great nephew and every single victim of the Holocaust.[6]

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[1] Lord Browne of Madingley, ‘HET 2013 Appeal Film’, HET (available at: het.org.uk). [2] Please see http://www.facebook.com/hetrascotland to take part in #donthatecreate campaign for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015. [3] Inspired by Russell Brand’s ‘Charlie Hebdo: Whose Fault is it?’ The Trews (E231), available at: http://youtu.be/Dg8Y0WpbfZw. [4] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein) in his speech at the ‘Education for Peace’ Conference in Geneva (14 January 2015). [5] For ideas please see http://www.het.org.uk/ and for Scotland, also see, like and share http://www.facebook.com/hetrascotland. [6] The Travelling Lyon’s blog post where I discovered this story, available at: travelinglyon.blogspot.ch/2010/06/what-happens-to-family-when-you-lose.html (Monday 7 June 2010).

Jaron and Maya meet

My short story for the #DontHateCreate campaign

(Holocaust Educational Trust’s Regional Ambassadors for Scotland)

Jaron and Maya meet. Or rather, they experience an encounter, if somewhat fraught.  Immediately they see more of each other that two potential partners expect to see at first sight.

Their fragile bodies entangled, their clothes ripped off, their trembling skin; inked forearm, striped uniform. They are in Auschwitz now.

100,239 and 100,987 fall in love with a single glance, forbidden as such emotion is at this time. Their eyes meet and each instantaneously transmits their fear, resentment, distrust and hope to the other; they feel they have formed a unique bond. Such a bond is perishable, as is everything in this place.

Their next encounter is accidental, as they cross paths on their way to the toilets- if these rancid holes in the ground can be glorified as such. They speak in hushed tones and conspire to escape at the weakened part of the electric fence where the barbed wire short-circuited during one of the many recent storms. It is sometimes hard to tell if a storm is a storm or just the industrial furnaces flaring up again to burn more bodies.

They meet in the early hours of the morning, when the security is at a minimum yet still virtually impossible to evade.  They are caught mid-embrace at the other side of the fence and once again find themselves herded, stripped and marched; this time towards the ovens. They are livestock now.

Once more, they are confronted with each other’s naked form. They share a glance conveying horror, disgust and dismay.  Theirs is a love unspoken, and ultimately wasted.

100,239 and 100,987 were murdered in the Holocaust, as part of a global project to exterminate an entire race.

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#DontHateCreate is a campaign in Scotland inspired by the cultural legacy of the artists, poets and musicians imprisoned at the Terezin camp in the Holocaust. They showed how hope and human creativity can overcome adversity. Create something related to the Holocaust (eg. Art/song/poem/short-story/photography/graphic-strip/candle/etc.) OR share something already out there which you like. Post it with #DontHateCreate, copy+paste this description and tag 5 friends to raise awareness for Holocaust Memorial Day. Forfeit is to tag 10 friends. Get creative!