International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance reception: First Minister speech

First Minister John Swinney's speech at the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance reception (IHRA) at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on Wednesday 26 June.

Ladies and gentlemen, could I extend a very warm welcome here to the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, one of the most magnificent buildings in Scotland, and extend the warmest welcome to you as a gathering of IHRA here in Glasgow.

I am John Swinney, the First Minister of Scotland, and it is my enormous pleasure to welcome you to Scotland and to welcome the work that you are undertaking as part of IHRA.

The events that you have just witnessed are traditional fare in Scotland in the months of January and February, and sometimes into March, when we mark the anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, our national poet.

I’m deeply honoured to be able to take part in this series of important events in Glasgow this week, as part of the United Kingdom’s Presidency of IHRA and welcome Lord Pickles to Glasgow, who has given such leadership to this work on behalf of the United Kingdom.

Primo Levi, the Jewish-Italian chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor, who passed away in 1987, wrote these words:

“The Holocaust is a page from the book of humanity from which we should never remove the bookmark of memory”.

Why should we never remove this bookmark?

Firstly, because Holocaust distortion has never been more prevalent in our society today.

And, secondly, because these crimes against humanity – conducted on an industrial scale, against innocent civilians – were executed, as the words of the United Kingdom’s presidency of IHRA say, “in plain sight” and in broad daylight by Nazis and by neighbours.

How could it be that – within living memory – 1,000 children, from the ages of three to ten, could be rounded up and taken to the forest of Uman in Ukraine, in April 1942, only to be murdered over mass graves already dug?

Their tiny bodies then covered with soil?

Their executioners unmoved as to whether surviving children were buried alive, even as the earth continued to move below them?

In one chilling photograph of such unfathomable horror, taken in Miropol, Ukraine, in 1941, a mother holds the hand of her tiny son, who is kneeling barefoot in terror, above a forest death pit.

She comforts him in the moment she is shot at point blank range.

This was the same year over 33,000 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

The young and the old, were made to strip and lie down, upon many layers of wounded bodies and corpses, so that they could be gunned down and buried, en masse, more efficiently.

How can modern society become so numb, so cynical, so complacent, so brutal that children would be amongst the most expendable victims of extermination – in the cruellest and coldest manner imaginable?

Of the Holocaust survivors who remain with us today, many of them have carried the scars and burden of childhood trauma all their lives.

Earlier this year, at the Scottish Holocaust Memorial Day Ceremony held on 30 January, in the Scottish Parliament, the extraordinary Peter Laszlo Lantos, spoke about his experiences of his terrible journey by cattle wagon train – at just five years old – from Hungary to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

He told of the constant hunger, the freezing cold, and the excruciating boredom he endured as a five-year-old, made to stand outside for hours in ice-cold wind to be counted, while the population of the camp swelled to well over 50,000.

Hell on earth, was how Peter described it.

Peter’s father died of starvation.

He and his mother, by some miracle, survived.

On their return to Hungary, it became clear some 21 members of their family had perished in the Holocaust.

21 members of just one family.

One family, among millions, to endure the basest of human depravity.

Tonight we will hear from Geraldine, whose dear mother, Marianne Grant, did all she could to brighten the lives of the children of Auschwitz, by painting murals on the wall of the children’s block.

But children, who were not gassed on arrival, were only permitted to live a maximum of three months, before they too were sent to the death chamber.

In a dedicated small room off the Conflict and Consequence gallery on the first floor of the Kelvingrove is a permanent display of Marianne’s remarkable artworks, which is rotated every January to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day.

I thank survivors like Peter and the late and beloved Marianne Grant, Judith Rosenberg, and Henry Wuga, who died recently in Scotland, for dedicating their lives and energies to Holocaust education.

It is our collective commitment to IHRA and our collective duty to honour their life’s work by addressing contemporary challenges to Holocaust remembrance in defiance of antisemitism today.

The Scottish Government – in its adoption of the IHRA definition of the Holocaust, and by supporting activities like Holocaust Memorial Day – will always proclaim that no Jewish person should ever need to live in fear of being targeted for who they are.

Not then, not now, not ever.

Scotland greatly cherishes our Jewish communities – our friends and neighbours – and the vital contribution they make to our society and to our culture.

It is now almost 25 years since the Stockholm Declaration, through which each IHRA country committed to educating and remembering the Holocaust; countering antisemitism and other forms of hate with knowledge, truth and compassion.

One of the elements of our contribution to that work, of which I am immensely proud, is the partnership between the Scottish Government and the Holocaust Educational Trust, which takes a plane-load of school pupils from Scotland to Auschwitz every year.

As Education Secretary in a previous part of my ministerial life, I had the enormous privilege of accompanying one of those trips to Auschwitz. I will never forget the day.

The day started at Edinburgh Airport with much excitement and energy from the young people who were going on this pilgrimage, leaving Edinburgh at five o’clock in the morning to fly to Auschwitz.

We went through the whole day and we visited Auschwitz and we were supremely well educated and informed and horrified and stunned by our experience.

As we gathered for a memorial service at the end of the train track at Auschwitz, I was struck by the fact – and this was six or seven years ago, when every young person on the plane had a mobile phone – that when we stood at that memorial service there was not a single young person looking at their mobile phone. Not a single beep from a phone. Everyone was absorbed in the memorial of what we had experienced.

As we came home on the plane that night, I was struck by the difference in atmosphere because everyone was still stunned by what they had experienced.

In the succeeding weeks, I visited two schools in my constituency – Blairgowrie High School and Breadalbane Academy – to listen to the assemblies that were led in those schools by senior pupils who had been with me at Auschwitz.

I’ve had many days were I was proud of the pupils of Scotland’s schools, but I was never more proud of those young people for what they shared with their peers of their experience.

It was literally unwritable because it came from their heart and their awareness of what they experienced.

For me, that small contribution to educating the young people of Scotland about the horrors of the past, in our living memory, is so important.

Can I commend all of you, for your tireless efforts and dedication to such a vital cause.

A quarter of a century on from the Stockholm Declaration, it is important not only to ask ourselves whether our collective efforts have made the world a safer place.

We must ask ourselves what more we will do to fulfil our commitments together, and to contribute to peace and security for all, for every Jewish person, for every Jewish child, for every other victim of the Holocaust, so that such vile history is never repeated in a world that has become less safe, and less tolerant for the Jewish community.

This is our mission and our moral obligation. It is the moral obligation to which I commit the Scottish Government tonight.

I thank all of you here this evening, on behalf of the people of Scotland, for your shared work, your shared hope and your shared remembrance and solidarity in this cause.

May we never remove the bookmark of memory, nor witness our darkest history repeat itself, unchecked, and in plain sight.



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