Former Tory MP: How my family’s Holocaust history led me to rescue thousands of Ukrainians

Brooks Newmark has undertaken an eight-week operation to help refugees flee the war


As I reflect on spending the past eight weeks in Ukraine and on the Polish border, moving women and children to safety (7,692 to date), I am often asked what has motivated me.

Like many readers of the JC, I had family that perished in the Holocaust. Mine were from Poland and Lithuania. I grew up as part of the post-Holocaust generation; what happened at that time is hard-wired into our consciousness. But also hard-wired into me is the notion that there were some who stood up to be counted in our hour of need, among them Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, Jan Zwartendijk and many whose names we may never know. In all my time as an MP, I was most affected by a visit in 2007 to Rwanda’s Genocide Memorial Museum in Kigali (which is like a mini Yad Vashem).

In 1994, 800,000 Tutsis were butchered with machetes in 100 days by the majority Hutu. I felt an immediate empathy with many of the Rwandans who told me their stories, and so decided to play my part in helping them rebuild their country by building a primary school for 300 children along with a teacher-training centre. This has grown into an education charity based in Rwanda, which has been active for the last 15 years. I am proud that last year our school was made a Beacon school for Peace Education.

Over the years I have worked at a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, helped rebuild an orphanage in Pakistan, redecorated a children’s home in Sarajevo and, most recently, built a playground for displaced Ukrainian orphans in Poland.

Being active and “doing something” is important to me.

Which brings me to how I became engaged in my latest mission.

I left Parliament in 2015 and returned to Oxford (after a 35-year break) to undertake a doctorate in Education Policy in Rwanda.

I had just completed my field research when the war in Ukraine broke out. I was supposed to go on holiday when I noticed on Instagram a Latvian friend of mine, Raitis Bullits, was on the Polish border with a bus helping to move refugees. I messaged him and asked if I could join him for a few days before I returned to Oxford.

The few days became two weeks, then four, and ended up being almost eight (bar a few days back home for Pesach). Raitis and I started by moving women and children from the Polish border to Berlin, Paris and Riga; we then shifted our operation to Ukraine, with three buses moving women and children to safety from Lviv and Kyiv during the period when the Russians were trying to capture the capital.

As the war moved farther east, so did our operation. Many refugees had begun to escape from Mariupol and the south, so we set up transportation hubs in Vinnytsia and Zaporizhzhia.

The final part of the operation found us setting up hubs in Dnipro and Kharkiv. But the further east we went, the more other issues emerged. As our buses were free for all passengers, many of those trying to escape from the east were worried that this was some sort of Russian trap to bus them to Russia against their will. A second problem was that many of the bus drivers were nervous about going into Kharkiv, as the Russians were less than 10 kilometres from the centre.

To overcome the first problem, I went to Vinnytsia and made a promotional video with the local mayor and families who were using our buses, to show this was a British initiative. The Brits (and especially Boris) are incredibly popular in Ukraine.

The second problem I overcame simply by going to Kharkiv myself. I helped diffuse the tension by being a reassuring presence, meeting the local mayor (who had a book on Churchill on his desk in his bunker) and local Ukrainian community groups in and around the city, who were helping us identify vulnerable women and children to help.

Everyone, including the bus drivers, then felt more comfortable working so close to a war zone.

During the past few weeks I have hit many low points – seeing the mass graves in Bucha, the absolute destruction of civilian areas in Borodyanka and Kharkiv, and hearing the stories of rape and violence against women in and around Izyum.

One story will be forever seared on my mind – a woman from Izyum, who was on live chat with her terrified daughter as bombs were dropping all around her house, saw her daughter bombed in real time.

The daughter is currently in a coma in hospital. Her two-year-old grandson survived, although he is also in hospital. I, like many others, am witness to war crimes being committed by Putin in Ukraine, and he must and will be held to account one day.

Before I left Ukraine I met with the Chief Rabbi, Moshe Azman, at the Brodsky Synagogue in Kyiv on the morning of Shabbat. He is a larger-than-life personality to whom one can’t say no.

When he called me to read from the Torah, I had no choice but to go up and recite the prayers both before and after the Torah reading, notwithstanding my rubbish Hebrew. This was without doubt the highlight of my trip. When I returned to London, I met Lord Harrington, the new Minister of Refugees (who is also Jewish).

We both talked about how important our Judaism is to the work we are doing and agreed with the words of Oskar Schindler: “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”

Brooks Newmark was the MP for Braintree and Minister for Civil Society and is a Member of Westminster Synagogue

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