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Islington Holocaust memorial: ‘We have to understand the lessons from history – and challenge racism’

PUBLISHED: 15:58 29 January 2018 | UPDATED: 17:45 29 January 2018

Islington Holocaust memorial 2018: speaker and survivor Ernest Simon in front of his birth certificate, which marked him as Jewish. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington Holocaust memorial 2018: speaker and survivor Ernest Simon in front of his birth certificate, which marked him as Jewish. Picture: Polly Hancock

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“We have to keep reminding ourselves of history – otherwise brutality will be able to continue.”

Islington Holocaust memorial 2018: mayor Cllr Una O'Halloran joins Year 8 pupils from Highbury Grove School for a discussion session. Picture: Polly Hancock Islington Holocaust memorial 2018: mayor Cllr Una O'Halloran joins Year 8 pupils from Highbury Grove School for a discussion session. Picture: Polly Hancock

This morning, Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz was explaining to a packed Assembly Hall why Islington holds a Holocaust memorial event every year.

Pupils from Highbury Grove, St Aloysius, Central Foundation and Holloway Schools then heard from a man who actually survived this brutality: Ernest Simon.

Ernest, born in 1930, lived in Vienna’s Jewish quarter as anti-Semitism grew increasingly aggressive ahead of the Second World War.

It started with his birth certificate. Ernest showed it to the hall, pointing out how he was marked as Jewish and that there is no such mention of religion on British birth certificates.

Later that decade, Ernest was removed from his school, and his dad removed from his job. It led to Kristallnacht in 1938, a state-led attack on Jewish communities which saw 91 people murdered and 277 synagogues destroyed in Nazi Germany.

Clearly, worse was to come. Six million died in the gas chambers. Ernest was able to survive because of Kindertransport, a UK rescue operation months before the outbreak of the war for vulnerable Jewish children from other European countries.

Islington Holocaust memorial 2018: speaker Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Polly Hancock Islington Holocaust memorial 2018: speaker Jeremy Corbyn. Picture: Polly Hancock

The theme of the event was the power of words – to do good and bad. Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry pointed out the Holocaust didn’t happen overnight, and said people like Donald Trump (not referred to by name, but as leader of the free world) “need to use language in a careful way – because words matter”.

Her colleague, Islington North MP and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, also spoke. He added: “There were people who decided the causes of Germany’s economic problems at the time were Jews, gays, communists – anyone seen to be in a minority. With the power of words, the Nazi Party grew by saying all people’s problems were caused by Jews.

“It’s up to us to understand the lessons from history that if you don’t challenge racist ideas people put around at the beginning, you get on a very slippery slope.

“Commemorating what happened, our message has to be building a world where we challenge those who seek to divide us.” His voice dropping to a whisper, Mr Corbyn finished: “Let us use the power of words to inspire people.”

Speaking to the Gazette during a discussion session at the event, Barry Ackerman, Highbury Grove’s head of philosphy and religion, said of his Year 8 class: “Our kids come from very diverse cultures. It’s absolutely relevant to them, helping them face the troubles of the world and coming up with solutions.

“We cover the Holocaust every year at school, but I thought it would be good for them to observe today’s memorial. They listened very intently to Mr Simon, and there’s a realisation of the issues we are dealing with.”

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