Matthew recalls moving burial of Holocaust victims on Holocaust Memorial Day

It really is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). I, too, shall speak to the House about one of my experiences.

On Sunday, I attended the funeral service at Bushey new cemetery. It was significant because it was the first and only interment of victims of the Holocaust ever to take place in the United Kingdom. It is remarkable that such a ceremony should take place more than 70 years after the death camps were discovered. The remains were originally given to the Imperial War Museum many years ago. They were acknowledged by a pathologist to be the remains of six people—five adults and one child—and because they were never going to be put on display, it was decided that they should be buried. That was certainly the appropriate decision.

I pay tribute to the Imperial War Museum for its efforts in seeking a resting place for these people. Such decisions are really outside most curators’ experience, but having established that the remains did come from Jewish people at Auschwitz-Birkenau, they took action. The museum contacted the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, and they collaborated and decided that the remains should be interred at the cemetery at Bushey.

As with any funeral, I was not actually invited, but I decided to attend because I have several Holocaust survivors in my constituency—and, indeed, the Holocaust Survivors Centre. Not knowing how many people would turn up, I arrived in plenty of time, and as I travelled along the road, I realised that it was quite an important event. Unknown to me, in attendance were the Archbishop of Westminster, Israel’s ambassador, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Baron Pickles, and Lord-Lieutenant Robert Voss as a representative of the Queen. I addition, I saw many hundreds of my constituents. I understand that more than 1,200 people attended.

The address given by the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis—who happens to be my constituent—moved many people to tears. I watched as several men carefully wiped their eyes when the Chief Rabbi spoke personally to the infant among the six. He said:

“Your childhood was robbed. You experienced such fear and dread, then the ultimate wickedness saw your life taken. We don’t know who you are, your name, if you were male or female or the details of your family. But we do know you were Jewish. All of us here feel a strong connection to you.”

One of my constituents, about whom I have spoken in previous debates, made an impact on me again on that day. I often visit her to eat her home-made cake, and I like to ensure that she is doing okay. I was proud when I saw her at the service on Sunday and witnessed her and other Holocaust survivors accompanying the coffin to the grave. Zigi Shipper, Harry Bibring, Renee Salt and Agnes Grunwald-Spier all placed their hands on the coffin’s blue velvet covering as they walked to where the remains were to be buried in earth brought over from Israel.

As prayers were said and the coffin lowered, people were invited to come forward to place earth in the grave. With such a large crowd, it did not take long for the space to be filled. What struck me as I stood by the graveside was the number of people who held pictures and artefacts of relatives whom I presume were victims of the Holocaust. For them, the funeral was very real, and it cannot be said definitively whether or not the grave contained one of their relatives. We will never know. In so many ways, these six people represent the millions who do not have a last resting place, and whose families, friends and relatives cannot mourn them because they do not know what happened to them.

As I turned away, someone indicated a small bag of earth and that I should place it on the grave, which I did. We undertake many activities as Members of Parliament, but this event was something completely different, and something I will not forget. At the Barnet Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony, we have heard from many speakers over the years, talking about atrocities in Rwanda, Cambodia and other countries, in addition to many local people whose lives have been directly or indirectly affected by the Holocaust. For me, the event has become more personal, particularly this year, as I have had direct contact not just with the survivors, but now with the dead.