Speech on the return of cultural objects taken during the holocaust

Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) (Amendment) Bill (First sitting)
27 February 2019

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I thank everyone who has spoken, including my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw and for Ilford North, who are here in support of the Bill and who have done tremendous work themselves in this area over the years.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet on bringing this important Bill to Committee. I am happy to confirm that it has the full support of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. She spoke once again with great force and authority on this issue. In doing so, she does a great service to not only the British Jewish community and the Jewish community throughout the world but humanity as a whole. The Bill says that the sun should never set on justice and righteousness, and that principle, despite its application to the uniquely horrifying episode that was the holocaust, nevertheless carries universal force in its message of human redemption.

I was privileged some years ago to travel with a group of MPs, prominent figures and sixth-formers to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was one of many such visits organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust, led by its inspirational chief executive Karen Pollock and supported by the then Government. I am glad to say that the scheme exists to this day. Anyone who has undertaken that visit could not help but be horrified by the capacity for human depravity exemplified in the industrialisation of death at the Birkenau death camp, or to be moved to renew their pledge to fight antisemitism and oppose the politics of racism and hatred. The Bill is a small practical manifestation of the fulfilment of that duty, and I thank the right hon. Lady for piloting it thus far.

I also pay tribute, as the right hon. Lady did, to the work done by Andrew Dismore, the former Member of Parliament for Hendon and a current London Assembly member. He was rightly praised by the shadow Culture Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), on Second Reading. Andrew Dismore worked tirelessly to get the original Act, which the Bill seeks to extend, through the House in 2009—even sleeping ​on the floor of the Public Bill Office overnight, as one used to have to do, to ensure that he had a high enough place in the ballot to get his Bill heard.

Andrew Dismore also introduced the private Member’s Bill that established Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001. I recently attended the Welsh national Holocaust Memorial Day event in Cardiff city hall, and other hon. Members will have attended their own events. We heard from the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and from Renate Collins, who was “torn from home”, which was the theme of Holocaust Memorial Day, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham said. As a child, Renate Collins was evacuated from Prague in 1939, and she came to live in Wales, where she still lives.

As we know, the holocaust was one of the worst events in human history, with millions of lives extinguished and millions more changed forever. The fact that it happened on our continent, in the heart of western civilisation, is a reminder of why we must be constantly vigilant against antisemitism and all forms of racism and remember that genocide starts with casual prejudice—in the dehumanisation of others who are deemed different by virtue of religion, ethnicity, lifestyle or sexuality. That such horror could be perpetrated, not just by those directly involved, but because of the indifference of others in the general population, should make us all reflect on what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil and on our own roles in actively preventing it from taking root. Let us give thanks to the important work of all organisations that ensure that the world will never forget.

The Bill addresses an extremely important subject: the return of cultural objects looted by the Nazis. During the Nazi reign of terror, millions of precious cultural objects were stolen from the Jewish community. Some have been recovered, but many thousands remain missing. It has been estimated that around 100,000 objects stolen by the Nazis are still missing. We should do everything we can to reunite cultural objects that surface with their rightful owners. More than 70 years from the end of world war two there are still families who have not been reunited with precious artefacts that rightly belong to them.

As many survivors of the holocaust reach the sunset of their lives, it is vital that their descendants have confidence that this Parliament is committed to ensuring that the sun does not set on their ability to recover what is rightfully theirs. The Bill, as we have heard, repeals the sunset clause provision of the 2009 Act, which gave our national museums and galleries the power to return these special cultural objects on the recommendation of the Spoliation Advisory Panel.

Since 2000, 23 cultural objects taken by the Nazis have been returned to their rightful owners, including a John Constable painting, stolen by the Nazis after the invasion of Budapest, which was returned by the Tate in 2015. We must ensure that the panel can continue its vital work. It has carried out its work fairly and delivered justice to the families of those whose precious possessions were stolen. It works in co-operation with our national museums and galleries, the directors of which I addressed at their council meeting at the Science Museum yesterday. They support the panel’s work and are in agreement on the urgency and necessity of returning stolen objects to their owners.​
This is a carefully targeted, specific piece of legislation that works well. It is particularly important for those whose stolen possessions have, sadly, still not been found. For those who might not even know about this process and might not even harbour a hope of getting back what their families once treasured, the Bill can also give hope.

When I undertook that visit with the Holocaust Educational Trust over a decade ago, the spectre of antisemitism might have seemed, to some, to be on the wane, but it is clearly on the rise again, with antisemitic hate crimes, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned, hitting a record number in 2018. That should anger us all, and we must do everything in our power to face it down, including by supporting honourable colleagues from all parties who have been the subject of death threats, racist and misogynistic abuse, bullying and antisemitism. I once again thank the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet for all the work she has done on this vital Bill, which delivers a small amount of justice to those who have suffered so greatly.

In closing, let me say that I had the pleasure in 2017 of watching the Liverpool Everyman theatre production of the beautiful musical “Fiddler on the Roof”, which included—I hope no one minds my mentioning this—my brother Patrick in the starring role of Tevye. Colleagues will know that it tells the story of a Jewish family in Russia who were forced from their home by the pogroms that were the precursor of the ultimate obscenity of the Nazi holocaust. In thinking of the Bill and what it seeks to do, the words of one song my brother sang in that production came to mind:

“Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears.”

As the years fly ever more swiftly by, let us hope that the right hon. Lady’s Bill, in removing the sunset clause, will bring a small ray of happiness to some victims’ families, as they contemplate through tears the horror that befell their relatives because good people did too little, too late to stand up to evil.