David Cameron has praised the “courage and bravery” of Holocaust survivors — and his pride at leading “a nation with such extraordinary people in it”.
The Prime Minister extended the warmest of welcomes to more than 50 survivors at a Downing Street reception to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday.
Blowing kisses to pensioners seated at one table, Mr Cameron also paused to chat to guests who had escaped atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia as he worked his way around the state rooms at Number 10.
He recounted his experience at the Holocaust Educational Trust dinner last September, where he had launched a Holocaust Commission to investigate the best means to secure Shoah education for future generations. He asked guests for their ideas on what the initiative might achieve, telling women from Jewish Care’s Holocaust Survivors Centre: “Getting you here today is to thank you. We hope the commissioners are going to come up with a brilliant idea, but you may have to tell them what to do.”
The PM was joined by newly-appointed commissioners including Helena Bonham Carter, Lord Finkelstein and historian David Cesarani.
Samantha Cameron also dropped by with her youngest daughter, Florence, the toddler playing with a group of survivors.
Many of the attendees expressed satisfaction that a sombre day of remembrance was being marked in a convivial atmosphere. The only time the crowd fell silent was for Mr Cameron’s address.
“I’ve had some extraordinary gatherings of people in this room,” he said, “but I don’t think there’s been a more extraordinary group.
“The stories I’ve heard tonight are just unbelievable. People who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto. Someone who told me they had been in two ghettos, two slave labour camps and two concentration camps. People who came [to Britain] as part of the Kindertransport.”
Mr Cameron told the story of a woman who fled Prague in 1939 shortly after her grandfather had written the message: “Wherever you go, be a great daughter to the country that gives you a home,” in her diary.
“What I can say to the 50 Holocaust survivors here is that you have been incredible children. You have lived incredible lives. You are an amazing example to all of us.
“The bravery you show by going into schools and colleges and talking about what happened — it takes my breath away. To have you here makes me incredibly proud to be prime minister of a nation with such extraordinary people in it.”
He added that he thought he had been having a challenging day, until he met a woman who had told her story of survival to pupils at six schools.
Many of the survivors were making an emotional first visit to Downing Street. Jack Kagan, who escaped from a concentration camp and served with the Bielski brothers’ resistance group, said the event had been “tremendous. Mr Cameron said we have to find a way to ensure the Shoah is never forgotten. It’s early days for the commission but I am positive about it. How much longer can I tell my story? I’m 85-years-old. My story will go on in the museums.”
Zigi Shipper, who endured Auschwitz and other camps, observed with astonishment: “To think that I could be here in Downing Street — it’s just unbelievable. That’s what I told David Cameron. He told me he wanted to do everything he could. It’s so important. People need to know, but how many of us are left?”
There was only one pleasantry that Mr Cameron eschewed. He turned down repeated offers of a cream scone, telling guests he was “on a January diet”.