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22 September 2023

The case for a national Holocaust memorial

Detractors forget we won’t always be able to depend on the living testimony of Holocaust survivors.

By Ian Austin

It was disappointing to read the arguments advanced by Rowan Williams last month about the new UK national memorial to the Holocaust. It has never been the intention to use the memorial to give a “generic message about genocide”. Nor will it lay a “self-congratulatory stress on British parliamentary democracy as a bulwark against totalitarian atrocities”.

In fact, the foundation leading the project says the aim is to create a memorial that will “convey the enormity of the Holocaust and its impact; in particular the loss to mankind of the destruction of European Jewry”. It states specifically that “the narrative will be balanced, addressing the complexities of Britain’s ambiguous responses to the Holocaust, avoiding simplistic judgements and encouraging visitors to critically reflect on whether more could have been done, both by policymakers and by society as a whole”.

The most important reason for establishing a new memorial is to remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered by the Nazis. Many visitors will mourn for their own families. But we also need to remember the Holocaust because it matters to us, in Britain, now: it shows how people can treat their neighbours; how communities can turn against those considered “different”; how national leaders can exploit hatred; and how the machinery of the modern state can be used for terrible evil. There will never come a time when those lessons cease to be relevant.

This memorial will honour those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and it will stand forever as a reminder to our whole country what the Holocaust means. For many decades, those lessons have been put before us primarily through the living testimony of Holocaust survivors, visiting schools, colleges, prisons, universities and thousands of community events. Sadly, that cannot be a permanent answer. The generation of Holocaust survivors will not be with us forever, and the time when we can rely on their first-hand accounts is drawing to an end.

This is why we must establish a new national memorial to the Holocaust, and why the government must do it much more urgently.

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There are serious voices in the Jewish community who take a different view. I respect them and their arguments, but there is no doubt the vast majority of Holocaust survivors and refugees, their families and the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community and its leadership support the memorial.

[See also: How should we remember the Holocaust?]

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The chief rabbi in the UK described the venue as “inspirational” and said “it is in a prime place of prominence, the heart of our democracy”. The Archbishop of Canterbury argued, “Its position by the seat of UK government is a necessary challenge to our national life: that the seeds of such cultural and religious hatred would never be allowed to take root here again.”

And the Holocaust survivor Mala Tribich asked, “What better symbol to remind our parliamentarians and the wider public of where apathy as well as prejudice and hate can ultimately lead?”

There is strong support across parliament too, and in June the House of Commons gave an unopposed second reading to the Holocaust Memorial Bill. The Holocaust Commission recommended that a new national memorial should be sited in central London, to attract the largest number of visitors and to make a bold statement about the importance Britain places on preserving the memory of the Holocaust. Victoria Tower Gardens is the ideal setting because it will serve as a permanent reminder to people in parliament next door that political decisions have far-reaching consequences. It will show what can happen when politics is poisoned by racism and extremism.

Of course great care must be taken in designing the memorial and in shaping the message communicated through its learning centre, and partnerships must be built with the many institutions working on Holocaust education and commemoration.

The memorial will take up just 7.5 per cent of the park. Arguments about security and the impact on traffic are incorrect too, as the number of visitors will be a tiny fraction of the millions of tourists already visiting Westminster. Dr Williams is wrong as well to complain about the number of coaches. These will be a very small number compared with the current levels of traffic on what is already a major bus route.

I share Dr Williams’s sadness at the closure of the Jewish Museum in Camden, north London, and agree that our country should have a national museum that tells the whole story of Jewish life in the UK and the contribution Jewish people have and continue to make to Britain. But that is not an argument against a memorial to the Holocaust.

There is no risk that the memorial will be used to project a superficial, celebratory or self-congratulatory message. It is a serious project, and one that has the potential to make a profound and lasting impression on the cultural and political life of this country.

I hope that Dr Williams and others will look again at the arguments for the memorial, drop their objections and get behind the project. I would like for the government to accelerate progress – so that the survivors still with us will be able to see it completed.

[See also: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers redux]

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