International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

Eric Pickles marks the United Kingdom's 2014 chairmanship of the alliance.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Sir Eric Pickles

It’s a great honour for the United Kingdom to welcome so many delegates from around the world. I have spoken to 1 or 2 upstairs, and I hope the conference is going extremely well.

I have to say to our young ambassadors, I thought you were an enormous credit, not just to the programme, but also to the United Kingdom. I’m worried you might both enter Parliament and take my job away.

My friends, we are not here to remember the countless, faceless millions who died in the Holocaust. We are here to remember the 6 million individuals who were murdered by the state.

If we see those people who died in the Holocaust as a bunch of people moving endlessly towards the gas chamber then the Nazis win. Every time we remember the individuals, we defeat the Nazis again. Whether that’s the testimony of a survivor, whether it’s the testimony of a survivor’s child, whether it’s film, whatever; every time we show that fact, we defeat Hitler, and Himmler and Heydrich again.

Because what was unique is that they didn’t just want to kill, they wanted to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the Earth.

The many survivors I have met are people who make enormous contributions to this country, whether it be doctors, accountants, maybe even tax inspectors, or distinguished Olympians. They are testament to what Europe lost. They lost a generation of people; maybe someone who could have cured the common cold, or cured cancer, or been a great painter, or a doctor, or simply had the right to see their children go through school and be educated and provide a happy life.

Because for the people who died, it wasn’t pre-ordained that they were born in Berlin, Warsaw or Marseille, they would be educated, go to school and university, get married, and then die in a death camp. These were people who were building for the future. These were people who were proud citizens of Germany, of Belgium, of France.

And as the time comes, as it will inevitably come to us all, when the survivors are no longer here to give testimony, it is right that we build something lasting to remember, and that is what the Holocaust Commission is about. It is about us building a permanent remembrance of what happened. There are lots of ideas, and lots of commissioners here, many of whom I have met, and I hope to meet others.

We are determined to get something that will be there – because there still exist people who wish to deny.

We’re very keen in terms of remembrance – we donated £2.1 million to Auschwitz as part of the restoration there. I went across to Auschwitz to see how they were spending the money. And one of the things they were doing was the restoration of some of the shoes.

Now colleagues thought this was a ridiculous idea. But it was so moving, seeing these shoes being taken apart and finding little mementoes and messages that had been waiting there for decades to be found. While the shoes were being restored, one thing was really startling – when you started to look at them these were not simple wooden clogs – these were shoes pretty much like people are wearing today. I remember I was wearing a nice pair of loafers, and there was the identical pair looking back at me.

I vividly recall seeing a pair of women’s sandals – they were red and blue with yellow straps, the sort of thing you would take to a beach, or on holiday. These shoes weren’t designed take anyone to the death camps, these shoes were designed to meet children from school, or maybe to go to an important interview, or maybe even a lovers’ tryst. These were people like you and I, and you and I could have been part of that process.

Now, what’s unique about the Holocaust?

What was unique is this. Someone upstairs said to me – in 1932 what was the most educated country in Europe? I guessed the answer, I said Germany. The very cradle of civilisation. The country that gave us Beethoven, Schiller, Freud. Great inventors like Daimler. This was a country that decided to murder its citizens, and to murder its citizens on an industrial scale.

I have visited Auschwitz I think 4 times now, and it is a chilling place. I’ll tell you the thing I saw that made my skin tingle.

It was the railway timetables. Believe me, it’s a complicated thing to put together a railway timetable. People had sat down and worked out how to get people from the farthest parts of Europe, to murder them. That degree of efficiency is beyond frightening.

Let me tell you something else about my visit. I remember talking to the director – a great man. At the time he’d broken his arm, and it was a cold day. He had this great coat on, spinning round with his beret. He’s a big guy, and he looked just like Orson Welles. A wonderful man. He told me this:

That he often sees different people from different nations coming to Auschwitz. He’s used to seeing Israelis, Europeans, and our friends the Americans. But very rarely anybody from Asia. He saw these folks from South Korea. He’s a chatty guy and he went over and spoke to them, and said to them ‘what are you doing here?’

They had been on a tour – they’d been to London, to Paris, and to Rome, and now they had come to Auschwitz. He said ‘that seems a bit strange, why?’

They said: we have come to learn about European civilisation.

That sounds strange, but he told me that that night, it started to really hit him. I have to tell you it really hit me. It is that brutality - just as important a part of what makes Europe, of what we are capable of, as the work of Mozart or Beethoven.

Is remembering other genocides – does this dilute the Holocaust? We had a meeting of survivors, and some had very strong views, they said in some ways this diminishes the Holocaust. My friends I hope you will understand when I say that I don’t believe that it does.

Because when you think about Rwanda, Srebrenica, of the killing fields of Cambodia – after all Srebrenica is only a day’s car journey away from the gates of Auschwitz, we need to understand that the lesson of Auschwitz is this: it can happen again.

Let me just say this. I said that you and I could have been the victims, but what we need to understand is that the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, came from people like you and me. We are capable, under our veneer of civilisation, of doing this. Of treating our friend or neighbour as a prisoner. I met a young man from Srebrenica whose torturer was his old school teacher.

The most chilling thing, about the Holocaust, is that the Holocaust was not created by monsters, it was the Holocaust that turned ordinary people into monsters.

So we know, even today, even this morning, as I was getting ready I listened to a man on the radio – I’m not going to say his name but he is a member of the European Parliament – who was denying the existence of the Holocaust. This means we have to be constantly vigilant.

So if we we overreact to some silly overpaid footballer who does some silly salute, if we overreact to a Holocaust denier, if we overreact to some ridiculous French comedian, we should continue to do so, because the march to Auschwitz is taken by small and steady steps.

What we intend to do with this Commission, is not to say never again, but to say: we are watching, we will prevent this, we will never allow those creatures of envy and hatred ever to get office again.

Thank you very much.

Published 21 May 2014