Britain’s Plan for a Holocaust Memorial Recalls Its Government’s Sad Response to Past and Present Refugee Crises

In 2015, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a memorial to the victims of the Jewish Holocaust was to be built alongside the UK’s Houses of Parliament. It would, he said, stand as “a permanent statement of our values as a nation.” To the countless thousands of Jews who were denied sanctuary by the UK as the Nazis embarked on their program of extermination in the 1930s, the precise nature of those values might not have been clear.

Similarly, to the refugees from Syria and elsewhere being turned away today from a Britain exiting Europe on a tide of anti-immigration politics, the £50 million memorial and learning center might appear to be nothing more than an expensive memorial to hypocrisy.

The memorial was supposed to have been built by 2017 but, with the project mired in controversy, three years on work has still not begun. Some critics object because the chosen design will destroy a much-loved public park. For others the memorial is an exercise in redundancy.

Britain already has a number of Holocaust memorials, ranging from a garden in Hyde Park to the National Holocaust Center & Museum in Nottinghamshire. Just a mile away from Westminster is the Imperial War Museum, which is building a £33.5 million Holocaust learning center of its own.

When Cameron first announced the new memorial there was much back-slapping in Parliament over the example of British values that was the Kindertransport, the rescue of almost 10,000 Jewish children from the clutches of the Nazis on the eve of the Second World War. But the Kindertransport initiative was not launched by the British government of the time, but by a group of Jewish and other religious groups who had to fight to overcome official reluctance. In the end the government agreed to take in children, and then only on condition that they would not be a financial burden on the state.

Nearly every one of the almost 10,000 children never saw their parents again. After the war, when it was far too late, the British offered to take in another 1,000 Jewish children, but by then only 732 orphans could be found alive.

During the memorial debate, MPs spoke proudly of the efforts of Sir Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker who managed to rescue 669 Jewish children from Prague in 1939. But Winton’s humane operation had been conducted despite the attitude of the British government and not in collaboration with it. Other individuals had stepped forward to help in defiance of government policy. Among them was Frank Foley, a British secret service officer in Berlin who, risking his own life, flouted strict immigration rules to issue visas to thousands of Jews.

Earlier this month, the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation released its latest amended designs for pubic consultation. At the same time, it fine-tuned its mission statement to address some of the uneasiness about Cameron’s “values.” The exhibition, said Lord Pickles, co-chair of the project, would “be balanced, addressing the complexities of Britain’s ambiguous responses to the Holocaust … encouraging visitors to critically reflect on whether more could have been done, both by policymakers and by society as a whole.”

But even while Britain prepares to face up to its less than exemplary response to the Holocaust, “British values” have been no more in evidence during the current refugee crisis. In 2015 it fell to veteran MP Gerald Kaufman, the son of Polish Jews, to berate the government for having taken in even fewer refugees than its predecessor had done in 1939. The UK had offered to take in 20,000 refugees over five years; the Germans had opened their doors to 10,000 in a single day. “If we do not do it now,” he told parliament, “we will live to regret it for the rest of our lives.”

It is telling that among those in the UK who have stepped forward to do what they can for Syrian refugees who have made it past the country’s strict quota system is the organization World Jewish Relief, which played such a vital role in the Kindertransport 80 years ago.

In 2016, Sir Erich Reich, the chairman of the Association of Jewish Refugees’ Kindertransport Special Interest Group, appealed directly to Cameron to do more. “The echoes of the past haunt many of my fellow Kinder and I whose fate similarly rested with members of the British parliament,” he wrote. It was, he said, now incumbent on Britons to “demonstrate our compassion and human kindness to provide sanctuary to those in need.”

On November 26, during a debate in the House of Lords about plans to mark the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport, one of the speakers was Lord Dubs, who as a six-year-old Czech was one of the Jewish children saved by Nicholas Winton in 1938. For him, the best way to remember Kindertransport was for the UK “to agree to accept 10,000 unaccompanied child refugees over the next 10 years.”

The government had “arbitrarily” said it would cap the number at 480, and had so far taken just 280. Dubs’ motion was defeated.

Later, a fellow member of the House of Lords spoke of his “despair” at watching the proposal voted down. “We tighten immigration controls but the people and the need are all still there,” said Lord Roberts. “We can close the borders but the children in need are still there. When we tighten immigration controls, we are doing something that continues that desperate need.”

If Britain wanted a memorial to the events of 80 years ago, he added, “the best one would be a new attitude and for us to show renewed care. That is a memorial that would change people and it is what I would like to see us, as a Parliament and as a people, embracing.”

Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK. He specializes in health, a subject on which he writes for the British Medical Journal and others.