There can’t be many causes that would lead senior figures from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats to sit around the cabinet table at Downing Street, writes Justin Cohen.
But David Cameron’s personal drive to ensure the memory of the Holocaust lives on well beyond the survivors ensured that’s the unlikely scenario that greeted journalists at Number 10 on Monday night. Joining the prime minister in the cabinet room for the first meeting of his Holocaust Commission were Labour’s shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and the Lib Dems’ deputy leader as well as the Tory’s Michael Gove.
Joining them round the table were fellow commissioners from the worlds of film, business and community including broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Hollywood star Helena Bonham Carter, sat alongside survivor-turned-Olympian Ben Helfgott.
Over the coming year, this group are charged with examining what more the UK can do to ensure the country has “a permanent and fitting memorial and the educational resources needed for generations to come”.
Opening the meeting, Cameron summed up the cross-party nature of the initiative by joking about the formation of a “new coalition”, before telling around 50 survivors gathered for a reception marking Holocaust Memorial Day that the Commission’s task was a “sacred” one.
“There will be a time when it won’t be possible for survivors to go into our schools and to talk about their experiences. In 50 years’ time, in 2064, when a young British Christian child or a young British Muslim child or a young British Jewish child wants to learn about the Holocaust, and we as a country want them to learn about the Holocaust, where are they going to go? Who’re they going to listen to?”
He spoke of one meeting with a survivor who showed him a diary in which their grandfather had written in 1939: ‘Wherever you go, be a great daughter to the country that gives you a home.’ The prime minister – who spent about half an hour mingling with survivors, gauging their thoughts on what action they’d like to see the country take to keep the memory of the Shoah alive – said: “You have been incredible children, you’ve lived incredible lives; you’ve lived ten, twenty lives over for all those who died. The bravery that you show by going into schools and communities and talking about the Holocaust is just so brave, it takes my breath away.”
Speaking ahead of the reception which she also attended, Bonham Carter said: “It is our generations’ legacy to create a living memory that will survive the survivors and forever remind future generations of the inhumanity man is capable of committing to its own kind.” The actress, whose grandfather Eduardo Propper de Callejon was posthumously recognised for his role in saving hundreds of Jews, said she was honoured to join the Commission “in particular memory of those members of my family who died in the Holocaust and as an inherited responsibility to my grandfather who made a significant personal sacrifice to save hundreds of lives”.
Chaired by the JLC’s Mick Davis, the Commission – which was first announced during last year’s Holocaust Educational Trust annual dinner – is inviting evidence from the public until the end of May. Commissioners – including Dame Helen Hyde, Arts Council Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette, historian Simon Sebag Montefiore and philanthropist Leo Noé – will report back to the prime minister before the end of 2014.
Admitting it was a “surprise” to be sitting around the cabinet table with his Tory Commission colleagues, Balls told the Jewish News: “What we’re doing transcends party politics. We’re seeking to commemorate the defining moment of the 20th century so that in the 21st century generation of generations understand and we apply those lessons.”
While new school resources, memorials and even a museum are among the ideas likely to be discussed by the Commission, Herman Hirschberger, who fled the Nazis on the Kindertransport, said he told Cameron that he would like to see someone shadowing his talks to schoolchildren so that when he has passed away they will be able to relay his experiences face-to-face.