Holocaust Memorial Day 2014  Keynote address by Chris Butler

Leeds Town Hall 26 January

Lord Mayor, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, I am privileged to be invited today to offer a personal reflection on this important day. My name is Chris Butler and I am the Chief Executive of the Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and proud to be a nurse.  We are responsible for providing services for people with serious and enduring mental health problems and learning disabilities.

The theme of today is "Journeys".  This is entirely appropriate.  For the millions of victims of the Holocaust their experience was characterised by:

A journey from home to imprisonment

A journey from family and community to estrangement

A journey from wholeness to torture and degradation

A journey from life to death

Among many other things, 1945 marked one of the most extraordinary population movements in European history.  All across the continent hundreds of thousands of people were returning from Soviet exile, from forced labour in Germany, from concentration camps and prisoner of war camps, from hiding places and refuges of all kinds.  The roads, footpaths, tracks and trains were crammed full of ragged, hungry, dirty people.

The scenes of railway stations were particularly horrific to behold.  Starving mothers, sick children, and sometimes whole families, camped on filthy cement floors for days on end, waiting for the next available train.

Borders had changed, whole cultures had all but been destroyed, the homes of survivors had been occupied by local people, their family belongings stolen. For many Jewish camp survivors they had no homes to return too. They had lost everything and everybody. They did not know what to do and where to go.

Widespread destruction and the disintegration of their entire childhood landscapes, the loss of their moral world of parents and families, and the failure of national leaders, left a vacuum, an emptiness which cannot be easily understood today.  Too often the loss was described in physical ways. But the psychological costs of such experiences remain with us today within the survivors and their families.

As Eugene Black said after his liberation from Bergen Belsen on April the 15th 1945

"It was only as I walked out of the camp gates that I broke down and wept. I realised I was 17 years old. Here I was in a foreign land, I had lost my country, my home and my family. I was an orphan.  And why?  Because I was born a Jew".

Last year with the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association I made my own journey - a pilgrimage if you like - to Auschwitz.  It was an unforgettable experience and I am still thinking through what I discovered.  Today I would like to share with you:


Impressions from my journey
Observations on issues which I believe are relevant to the Holocaust then, and how these connect to today's events
Some thoughts for the future

Many of you will know that there are 2 camps.  On visiting Auschwitz 1, approaching it from the car park at a distance, you are struck by how the buildings have no distinguishing features.  It looks like what it was designed to be - a collection of military barracks.

It is when you get closer you see the electrified fence and the infamous gateway - "Arbeit Macht Frei" - made by the prisoners themselves, though now a replica.  This same slogan was used at Sachsenhausen, Theresienstadt and Gross Rosen.  A false promise of the cruellest kind.

When you are there you learn that these ordinary looking buildings hosted extraordinary and terrible events.  Ordinary buildings used as prisons and places of deliberate, and sometimes random, torment and death.  I will never forget the rooms full of human hair, a huge case full of children's clothes and toys, another full of everyday things like shoes, the horror seeing a carpet made of human hair (they know this as the hair tested positive for Zyclon B, the gas used to poison people).

Behind each and every one of these things were people.  People like us; children like your children and grandchildren.

It is important to remember the difference between camps 1 and 2. Camp 1 was originally designated to be a "concentration camp" (a British invention) where enemies of the state and undesirables where congregated - or concentrated.  Surviving on the minimum, many were worked to death alongside routine and deliberate torture and execution.  Here also the concept of medicine and nursing was perverted through medical and surgical experimentation. 

Camp 2, a distance away, was designed to be an extermination camp.  It was to this place that trainloads of exhausted people would arrive right up until near the end of the War.  The Third Reich was coming to an end but the round ups and the extermination did not let up. 

With no food, water or sanitation some people would be dead on arrival.  For the tens of thousands who survived they were separated into two lines.  One side was life of a sort; the other was immediate death.  People were chosen by the SS staff with no regard to family, age or circumstances -simply could they be of economic benefit to the Third Reich.  Unlike Camp 1, Camp 2 was designed on a grand scale in terms of size, its main purpose being the industrialisation of murder.

From the vantage point of the infamous tower in the main entrance (no worthy slogans over the gate here) you can see the remains of row after row of huts which would have been crammed full of victims.  Of those chosen to live, crammed into these huts, their degradation was systematic and intended to be complete.

The purpose built gas chambers in Camp 2 had behind them a concept of murder and then the immediate elimination of people all in one place on an unimaginable scale.

If you can imagine being there in either of the Camps, would you think it to be better to be alive or dead?

How can we conceptualise places of such death and distress?  A place characterised by how the human spirit can become so depraved, so murderous.  It is so stupendous, so monstrous, it's almost as though you can't believe it without seeing it for yourself.

How could human beings have come to this?  The people working in the camps were not that different from you and me.  Children of those who worked in the camps often describe their parents as being "loving", as being "ordinary", not grotesque monsters.  Maybe evil is ordinary, insidious, and even banal.  Perhaps it quietly seeps into the human spirit where it depraves and corrupts.  Maybe the original Jewish authors of the story of the corruption of Adam and Eve had this in mind. 

Of course it could not happen today, could it?  Other than for a few extremists we fully accept that the Holocaust happened.  We have seen the images, journeyed to the camps.  "Never again" we said and yet there followed Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia and today we see torture and murder in Syria committed by all sides in the conflict.  We not learn the lessons of the past well enough?

For me one of the things that made the Holocaust conceivable, then possible, was seeing Jews, and other victims, as being objects rather than being flesh and blood, heart and soul; as being "alien" and "other".  There are times when I think that we are not that far away from this.

For me when I hear talk of foreign benefit scroungers coming to take "our jobs"; when people who use the Trust's services tell me what it is like to be kept on the margins of society; when I hear about the deliberate termination in the womb of people who are the "wrong" gender, or for that matter people identified as having a disability; when I read about the desire to make euthanasia a reality; when I read about hate crimes based on gender, racial hatred, religion or homophobia; when I see examples of modern day slavery, even in our own society; when I read about the deliberate oppression of one group of people by another, sometimes culminating in genocide.  All this is about the dehumanisation of people and reminds me that the things that made the Holocaust conceivable, and then possible, are still frighteningly close to us.

For that matter other of today's issues that are, arguably, not that far from aspects Nazi ideologies.  For example the Nazi's Action T4 euthanasia programme saw physicians, murdering over 70,000 people who were "judged incurably sick, by critical medical examination" and only being a drain on resources.  Sometimes I think that I hear feint echoes of this in some of today's debate on euthanasia.  Rather the focus should be on treasuring and helping those with incurable illness, disability, or those terminally ill, to live their lives to the full.   

Controversial for some I know, but I am concerned that for some a utilitarian concept of humanity is seen as being "normal" even "good".  In the 1930s these things were also then part of the common political and societal discourse.  One only needs to read the work on eugenics at the time by Marie Stopes and George Bernard Shaw to see aspects of this.  Arguably the Nazis merely saw such ideas and discourse through to a logical, if extreme, conclusion.  Is this creeping back into society?  Sometimes I wonder.

What I draw from this is that we must always stay closer to love than hate, to tolerance and forbearance than intolerance and impatience, to cherishing human life the human spirit rather than commoditising it. It is our responsibility to speak out and act when we see injustice - this is our responsibility, to safeguard the future by acting now.

So my personal maxim is along the lines of:

Never forget, always forgive, always keep watch, never fail to act.

Despite the darkness of the Holocaust glimmers of humanity still managed to shine through somehow.  Random acts of kindness in the camps; those in communities who risked the same fate as their victims by trying to help.  The courage of survivors here today who made a new life, often with help from kind strangers.

Well known is the work of Dr Tadeusz Pankiewizc in the Krakow Ghetto.

I personally want to pay a small tribute to one such person, maybe be a little less known to many people, someone I came across through Twitter.

Her name, Irena Sendler.  She died in Warsaw on the 12th of May 2008 aged 98.

She was a medical family and trained as a nurse.  She got a job in the Warsaw Ghetto working on plumbing and sewers.

She smuggled children out of the Ghetto.  She his infants in the bottom of her tool box and concealed larger children in a sack in the back of her truck.  She took a dog to work with her to keep away the guards and disguise any noise made by the children.

She rescued 2500 children.  She was caught and tortured - her arms and legs were broken, and sentenced to death.

Somehow she escaped death.  She attempted to reunite families. She kept the names on the rescued children in jar buried in her garden.  In fact most of the families had been gassed.  All of the rescued children were resettled.

In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  She did not win.  Al Gore won for a slide show on global warming.

Both Tadeusz Pankiewizc and Irena Sendler  are "Righteous Among the Nations".

Would you have risked everything if faced with the same situation? Would I?

I am convinced that in all times and places light still shines brightly in the darkness and it is for people of goodwill to make a stand for common humanity and the common good.

I want to leave the last words to a survivor and to a victim:

"I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.  We must take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

Elie Wiesel


"... in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.  I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.  I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again."

Anne Frank

Thank you.

Chris Butler

Chris Butler