Survivors of genocide have called for people to understand, empathise with and value each other, as hundreds gathered at a Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) ceremony and condemned the rise of prejudice.
Survivors joined senior politicians, actors and faith leaders at a memorial event in central London to commemorate 79 years since the Holocaust, and 30 years since the Rwandan genocide.
Several speakers made reference to the Israel-Hamas conflict, with the chair of the HMD Trust, Laura Marks, saying she was “appalled” by the October 7 attacks and that the “subsequent war in Gaza has caused immense civilian suffering”.
“The very fabric of our world feels fragile,” she said.
Ms Marks expressed her “sincere hope” that HMD “can breach divisions and bring people together no matter what race, religion or ethnicity”.
Vera Schaufeld and Antoinette Mutabazi, survivors of the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide respectively, spoke of that same fragility and told the PA news agency of their hope for people to come together.
A similar theme was taken up by the Prime Minister who condemned the “despicable resurgence of antisemitism” in a video message played at the ceremony.
“It is sickening that Jewish people are once again facing the most abhorrent antisemitism here in this country, in this century,” Rishi Sunak said.
“As prime minister, my message is clear: We’re not going to cower away and accept it, not on my watch.
“We will do whatever it takes to keep our Jewish community safe, but more than that, we will be far bolder and more assertive in defending our liberal values and our way of life, we’ll end the passive tolerance of words and actions that will go against everything we stand for, and we’ll tackle the root cause of this hatred with the most ambitious national effort to educate future generations.”
Ms Schaufeld was born in Prague in 1930 and was told when she was nine years old that she had to move to England on her own after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and never saw her parents again.
She gave testimony during the ceremony in which she recalled losing her identity as “Vera” and becoming “the Jew” before she left for the UK.
Ms Mutabazi was 12 years old when she fled and hid for 90 days from people intent on committing genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Her mother, two brothers and 80 other relatives were murdered.
Both women felt that it was more important than ever to hold events of commemoration.
Ms Schaufeld, 93, told PA: “Especially as the present situation is giving rise to more antisemitism and I feel this is something that we thought didn’t exist, and it suddenly seems to be more prevalent, especially among young people and students, and I find that really, really awful.
“And I think there’s anti-Muslim feeling as well and I think it just has to stop existing and we have to be a civilised people who can live together and respect each other from whatever communities.”
Ms Mutabazi, 41, said: “It’s more important as ever to be able to commemorate the Holocaust, because it brings people together and we all need to be able to value individuals for who they are, not discriminate.”
Ms Schaufeld was a teacher before she retired and Ms Mutabazi is a chaplain.
Asked what their message to the world was, Ms Schaufeld said: “To try and understand other people, and to have empathy for other people.
“I was a teacher all my life, and I think it’s so important to make teachers and children understand how important it is to respect each other and to understand that people from different countries might need more help and more support as children.”
Ms Mutabazi said: “I want to inspire the next generation to connect – connect with your emotion, connect with those around you and value each person.”
She told PA: “I’m passionate about the next generation, leading the better life that we lost.
“We talk about the fragility of freedom, it’s not free when … you (Ms Schaufeld) lived all this 79 years ago … and then 30 in Rwanda, it keeps coming.
“So I hope when we come together to commemorate, we can learn the lesson and where ‘never again’, it will be the reality not as spoken but as action.”
Angela Rayner, shadow deputy prime minister, and Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, both took to the stage to condemn the rise in antisemitism and call for people to challenge hate.
Ms Rayner said: “Many people wouldn’t expect me to say this but honestly Michael I’m really pleased to share the stage with you today.”
The MP added: “We have the responsibility to challenge hatred and prejudice within our society.”
Mr Gove said the “test” of how free a society is is how safe minorities are within it – a test he deemed the UK as “failing” – citing that Jewish communities have seen the biggest rise in antisemitism “since the Second World War”.
Home Secretary James Cleverly and Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle also attended the event.
Welsh actor Sir Jonathan Pryce did a reading of the “last letter” by Arvid Harnack, a resistance fighter, to his wife before he was executed by the Nazi regime.
A number of musical performances took place and the audience stood as they were led in prayer.
Holocaust Memorial Day will take place on Saturday January 27.