New award for Britain’s Shoah heroes

An award is to be created by the government to honour British heroes of the Holocaust who risked their lives to rescue those persecuted by the Nazis during the Second World War.

Liam Byrne, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, announced the initiative on Wednesday, the day after Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid his first visit to Auschwitz, accompanied by his wife Sarah.

“A small number of British people performed some incredible acts during the Holocaust but for too long their stories have gone untold,” Mr Byrne said. “They are stories of great bravery, great humanity, but also great humility.”

Welcoming the move, Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which has led the campaign for recognition, said the heroes were “a great example to today’s young people about the difference individual people can make when standing up against hatred and racism.”

In recent years, the exploits of Major Frank Foley, who saved an estimated 10,000 Jews while working as a British spy in Nazi Germany, have come to light nearly half a century after his death.

But there are other Britons who, although honoured posthumously for their courage by Israel, have yet to receive official tribute in their home country.

Russell Brown, the Liberal Democrat MP for Dumfries and Galloway, cited the example of one woman from his constituency, Jane Haining, at an adjournment debate on the subject at Westminster on Wednesday.

A Scottish missionary in a Jewish orphanage in Hungary, she ignored instructions to return home during the War, was arrested by the Nazis and perished in Auschwitz in 1944.

“If these children need me in the days of sunshine,” she wrote, “how much more do they need me in the days of darkness.”

June Ravenhall, a British woman from Stretton-on-Dunsmore in Warwickshire, living in Holland during the war, sheltered a tubercular Jewish child, Louis Velleman, despite the risk to herself and her three children.

A cross-party group of 131 MPs signed an early-day motion, co-sponsored by Mr Brown, which wants the honour system changed to allow posthumous recognition of heroism.

Mr Byrne told MPs that the precise form of the award would await consultation with the families of those concerned.

Knighthoods, for example, could not be given because a membership of an order of chivalry ceased on the appointee’s death, he said, while gallantry awards had to be made within five years of the relevant event.

Nick Hurd, the Conservative MP for Ruislip-Norwood, was among MPs at the debate who called also for a national memorial to be set up collectively to honour the British heroes.

In a statement, the Prime Minister — who has promised British support towards the cost of maintaining Auschwitz as a memorial site — said that his visit had left him “absolutely determined that we must learn from the past as we build our future”.

He added: “Part of this must be proper recognition for those who made extraordinary contributions to protect others during the Holocaust.

“Their brave actions form a critical part of our nation’s wartime history and they deserve to be recognised through a special award.”

    Last updated: 9:24am, April 30 2009