On Wednesday evening, several of our staff and volunteers attended the Holocaust Memorial Day event organised by ACRE (Alliance for Cohesion and Racial Equality) and Reading Borough Council. It was very well attended. The memorial and candle-lighting ceremony and prayers were led by Rabbi Jonathan Romain. There were also contributions from councillors Rose Williams and Jo Lovelock, HM Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire James Huxley, students from Queen Anne’s School, and RRSG’s very own Nick Harbourne, who spoke a little about Reading City of Sanctuary. The highlight of the evening, however, was the address by Lord Alfred Dubs – or just Alf, as he prefers to be called.
As a six-year-old boy, Alf was one of the children rescued on the Kindertransport trains, organised by Sir Nicholas Winton (it’s a fascinating and inspirational story – I recommend watching the film Nicky’s Family to find out more). He spoke about his memories of that time – how he didn’t fully understand, being so young, but felt uneasy as soldiers patrolled the streets, wearing swastikas on their uniforms and carrying guns; how he and his classmates had to glue a picture of Hitler into the front of their school books. While both his parents escaped and joined him in England, most of the Jewish community they had known back in Prague were later killed in Nazi death camps.
Once safely in the UK, Alf grew up, studied at LSE, then became involved in both charity work and politics. In 1979 he was elected MP for Battersea South (which in 1983 became just Battersea), before being appointed a Labour peer in 1994. Throughout his long career, he has dedicated himself to upholding the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Most recently, he fought for an amendment to the Immigration Act 2016, allowing unaccompanied child refugees safe passage into the UK. This has become known as ‘the Dubs Amendment’. After much resistance, it was successfully passed in May 2016, and the first children started arriving in September.
This was not welcomed by some people, however; many in the UK remain suspicious of refugees, and indeed immigrants more generally. The reality of this has been highlighted by the rise in hate crimes after Brexit, and in the US, after Donald Trump was elected president. Perhaps the most tragic example is the murder of Jo Cox MP. It is impossible not to notice parallels between the increasing acceptability of these attitudes now, and the increasing acceptability of antisemitism in early Nazi Germany.
An audience member asked Lord Dubs how he remains so optimistic in the face of such opposition, so positive after such depressing displays of racism and antisemitism. He replied that he finds hope in the people standing up for refugees; in organisations and individuals who speak out against injustice, people who are willing to put their heads above the parapet and do something positive to help – organisations like ACRE and RRSG, individuals like Jo Cox and Sir Nicolas Winton. This is the message I took away from the evening: however despondent you may feel, however hopeless the situation seems, there is always something you can do about it, even if you only help one person in a small way. Small acts of bravery, defiance and kindness can make life better for everybody.