Guided by the theme “Fragility of Freedom”, two survivors of genocide spoke at Portcullis House on Tuesday morning to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day in an event led by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Members of Parliament heard testimonies from Peter Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust, and Sophie Musabe, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi.
During his introductory speech, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle MP called the event an “opportunity to pause for thought, and to remember the millions of Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust.
“Genocide does not always start big; it is a steady process. It begins with discrimination, racism, religious persecution and of course, hatred.
"There is nothing more powerful than hearing directly from those who survived these terrible atrocities,” Sir Lindsay said. “It is why I wanted to instigate the Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony. It is why we must call out hatred wherever it exists and promote peace wherever we can. It is why organisations like the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust are so important in raising awareness and understanding.”
Holocaust survivor Peter Lantos was the first to share his story.
“As a child of five, I was prisoner 8,431 in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp,” Lantos said. “I was deported there from a small provincial town in Hungary during the summer of 1944. My father died of starvation; my mother and I survived.”
Lantos said the extermination of the Hungarian Jews was the “last and the most successful chapter in the Final Solution”.
Lantos recounted the horrors of the camp: the diseases, the lice, standing for hours, and being surrounded by death.
“When the British liberated the camps on the 15th of April 1945, they found thousands of Hungarians dead, including my father.”
When he and his mother returned to Hungary, they discovered that 21 members of their family had been killed, and the conditions of the country after the war were, according to Lantos, comparable to George Orwell’s 1984: “At the age of 16, I was beaten by the police for no other obvious reason than simply being a student, a potential threat to the political system after the upheaval of 1946.”
Lantos trained as a doctor in Hungary and received a fellowship which allowed him to move to London in 1968. Ten years after his arrival, Lantos was appointed Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London.
Lantos concluded his brief speech by saying: “The subject of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. Its importance is impossible to overestimate.”
Sophie Musabe spoke after Lantos about her experience of surviving the Rwandan genocide, adding that Holocaust Memorial Day is a “powerful reminder” of past injustices, and an impetus for “growth and change”.
El Sadiq Manees, a survivor of the genocide in Darfur, was scheduled to share his story but did not speak during the event.
Sir Lindsay noted that this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is significant in that it marks 30 years since the Rwandan genocide, which saw approximately one million Tutsis murdered in a 100-day campaign by armed Hutu militias.
Also recognised was the Cambodian genocide from 1975-1979 in which the Khmer Rouge killed nearly a quarter of the country’s population at the time; the Bosnian Srebrenica genocide of 1995, which claimed the lives of over 8,000 Muslim men and boys; and the genocide in Darfur from 2003-2005, when an estimated 200,000 civilians were killed as a result of violence by the Sudanese governance.
Dame Margaret Hodge MP and Andrew Percy MP read poems between testimonies, and Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Trust, read a Statement of Commitment which pledged “solidarity with people today who face prejudice” and to “work for the security of all and to stand against hatred”.
The Speaker’s Chaplain Tricia Hillas read a prayer co-written by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Senior Imam Qari Asim before the Speaker led in the lighting of candles to commemorate the victims of genocide.
The speeches took place against the backdrop of hundreds of Holocaust Memorial Day events taking place across the country to commemorate the victims and survivors of genocide in the week leading up to 27 January, when the nation will be “lighting the darkness” at 8pm: “Landmarks and buildings nationwide will light up in purple, and households across the country will have candles placed in their windows,” said Laura Marks CBE, Chair of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
“These flames will be a memorial to the millions of people murdered in genocide and will also be a light of solidarity for people today who face prejudice.”