Lessons from The Long Night: why we must all stand up to bigotry

Sajid Javid reflects on the modern-day relevance of Ernst Bornstein's memoir of life and death in the Nazi labour camps.

The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP

In Danny’s forward to The Long Night, he makes the point that with every Holocaust story you learn something new.

Each time a survivor shares their memories you gain another perspective on what happened.

And whenever you hear from someone who was actually there, you’re reminded once again of the human lives that lie behind the cold, hard statistics of the Shoah.

As an MP and a minister I’ve been privileged to meet with several men and women who lived through the Holocaust.

I’ve had the honour of hearing their testimony first-hand.

Thanks to Karen and everyone at the Holocaust Educational Trust (HET), 100,000 young people a year can say the same.

And, thanks to the government-backed Lessons From Auschwitz project, thousands of schoolchildren and teachers are able to visit the most notorious of death camps every year.

I myself accompanied a group from my constituency back in 2011, soon after I first became an MP.

And it was one of the most emotional, moving experiences I’ve ever had.

But it’s now more than 70 years since the camps were liberated.

Time, inevitably, takes its toll on the brave, strong men and women who survived the Third Reich.

That’s why it’s never been more important to listen to them and to learn from them now.

And it’s also why I’m so pleased to see this new, English edition of Ernst Bornstein’s incredible story.

Not just because it’s an amazing piece of writing, which undoubtedly it is.

But because The Long Night contains a number of lessons that all of us would do well to reflect on, both today and in the future.

The first is the way the full horror of the Holocaust unfolds only slowly.

It creeps up on you.

The first time Bornstein encounters Nazi soldiers they’re chatting to civilians and handing chocolates to children.

The first labour camp is relatively humane.

But as the book goes on, the situation grows gradually worse.

Conditions deteriorate.

Rations decline.

Brutality increases.

Death – initially a rare occurrence that provokes great shock – becomes routine.

And, almost before you know it, you’re reading this horrific, vivid, deeply disturbing account of the death marches.

It’s a reminder that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers.

The Holocaust began when anti-Semitism was legitimised.

It began when hatred and bigotry were allowed to grow without challenge.

When low-level violence and discrimination against Jews was tolerated and then encouraged.

And that’s a lesson that’s so important today.

Last year the Community Security Trust reported an alarming increase in anti-Semitic incidents.

In the summer there was a worrying spike in levels of hate crime more generally.

It’s easy to dismiss, and say they are just some isolated cases.

But the Holocaust shows the danger of letting intolerance take root.

Of normalising bigotry.

Left unchecked, hatred quickly snowballs and can lead to truly horrific acts.

But it’s not enough to simply tell ourselves that we disapprove. We have to stand up and take action.

Which brings me to the second lesson I took from the Long Night.

We often look at the Holocaust through the stories of individual survivors and victims.

But this book reminds us that it’s not just the victims who were people.

The perpetrators were too.

Too often, they’re dismissed as some vast, faceless machine.

Doing so diminishes their individual guilt.

And that’s not something Bornstein allows.

He paints a vivid picture of named kapos and “block elders”.

Of specific SS men and camp guards.

Each with their own character, their own face, and their own story.

Then there are the bystanders.

Passengers on comfortable trains who turn their faces away.

The farmer who refuses to offer sanctuary, or even a scrap of food, to fleeing prisoners.

And the crowds of worshippers who file out of church on Sunday morning and studiously ignore the column of human misery that’s marching right past them.

Supposedly good Christian men and women who, in Bornstein’s words: “Calmly surveyed our misery and, with hardened hearts, observed us like statisticians contemplating criminals.”

The Holocaust would not have happened were it not for a few evil individuals.

But it could not have happened without millions of ordinary men and women choosing to look the other way.

Remembering the complicity of the bystander is particularly important right now.

Because the blunt truth is that hate crime is not committed and permitted by some faceless “other”.

It’s down to people.

People just like you and me.

I’ve talked before about the insidious way anti-Semitism has made a comeback in politics and polite society.

But if our only reaction is to tell ourselves how awful it is, then we’re not just failing the victims.

We’re failing in a fundamental moral duty to society.

We have to call out bigotry and racism whenever we see it and wherever we see it.

We have to object when a line is crossed from legitimate debate to smears and abuse.

We have to push back when people lazily reach for glib comparisons that belittle what happened, calling those we disagree with “Nazis” or claiming someone’s actions are “just like the Holocaust”.

Ultimately, we must be prepared to do that most un-British of things – we have to make a scene.

Maybe that’ll be in private.

Maybe in the media.

Maybe on Twitter.

In fact it could be anywhere: the top deck of a bus or right here in Parliament.

What’s certain is that if we don’t speak out against hatred and anti-Semitism it will become normalised.

It will become part of everyday life.

And once that happens, the consequences once again will be tragic.

But I’m hopeful.

I look around this room and I see people who are willing and able to take a stand.

I see organisations like the Holocaust Educational Trust spreading the word.

I see the HET’s ambassadors, amazing young people who have volunteered to make sure survivors’ stories are shared with their peers.

It reminds me that most people are fundamentally good at heart, even if they need a little nudge now and then.

That’s why the third message I took from Bornstein’s testimony is a message of hope.

First, in the fact that throughout his time in the camps and in years that followed, Bornstein simply refused to be beaten.

He was determined to fight on.

To see justice done.

To ensure that the crimes committed against his family were not forgotten.

That, in itself, I find very inspiring.

But I’m also struck by the many acts of kindness he describes.

The nameless farm girl who offers a starving Bornstein some bread.

Meister Hermann, the electrician who takes Bornstein under his wing.

The fellow inmate at Flossenberg who risks his own life to save the author from certain death.

Together, they show that even in the darkest, longest of nights, light can shine through – but only if we choose to let it.

There’s a small Holocaust memorial established by Ernst Bornstein, I think it’s in Dachau.

The inscription simply reads: “To honour the dead and to warn the living.”

The Long Night does exactly that.

Noemie, I can’t thank you enough for bringing your father’s words to a new audience and to a new generation.

I know it wasn’t easy.

But as first-hand memories of the Holocaust begin to fade, his painful testimony becomes more important than ever.

And it’s more important than ever that we heed his warning and learn from it.

That’s why I’m so proud to be overseeing work on the new national Holocaust memorial and learning centre, to be built just a short walk from where we are right now.

It will help ensure that the people of this country never forget the horrors of the past, and remind us all of the need to resist bigotry in all its forms.

Dr Enrst Israel Bornstein was strong enough to survive years of abuse at the hands of racists and anti-Semites.

Surely, in 2017, we can be strong enough to stand up and speak out in the face of such hatred.

Thank you.

Published 18 January 2017