Voices: As a Holocaust survivor, Britain gave me a home – would today’s government?

·4-min read
My heart is warmed by the kindness and compassion shown by people across the UK (PA)
My heart is warmed by the kindness and compassion shown by people across the UK (PA)

I will never forget the day I arrived in this country as a hungry, frightened nine-year-old. A British RAF pilot had spirited my family to Britain in the back of his fighter plane from Theresienstadt concentration camp, after it was liberated by Allied forces in May 1945.

As we were waiting to be processed at an RAF reception centre, a kind old bobby took pity on my two brothers and me, teaching us our first words of English and slipping us each a sixpence and a smile. I remember it as the first time that a policeman in uniform had ever shown us anything but cruelty.

This small act of kindness was just a taste of the wonderful welcome I would receive from the people of this country in the years to come. Since then, I have become a proud Brit, and raised wonderful children and grandchildren. But the generosity and values that I most admired are today being trampled on.

If the government’s new immigration proposals go ahead unchanged, a future version of me – from Ukraine, or fleeing repression elsewhere – is likely to be treated very differently. They will be denied protection, criminalised, and may even be sent to a detention centre in impoverished Rwanda.

As a small boy, I witnessed the march of Nazi jackboots through the cobbled streets of my native Amsterdam. My father joined the Dutch resistance, and, as a respected Jewish lawyer, became involved with hiding Jews and providing false documents to allow them to escape Holland. One morning in 1942, he kissed us all goodbye and headed off to work. I never saw him again.

My family and I were sent to a Nazi transit camp before being crammed into a cattle truck and sent on to Theresienstadt. I still remember the stench of faeces, urine, sweat and fear in that sweltering carriage, and the relief when the doors were thrown open, only to find ourselves in a place worse than we could have imagined. In the camp, we experienced the gnawing pain of hunger and witnessed human suffering on an indescribable scale.

With the scenes on the television news in recent weeks, I cannot help but recall those terrible years. When I see the crowds of Ukrainian refugees, laden with what few possessions they can carry, I remember clinging to my mother as we waited to be deported, not knowing where we were going or what awaited us. When I hear about the barbarity of Russian soldiers towards civilians in Ukrainian towns and villages, I remember the unspeakable cruelty that seized Europe when I was a child in the 1940s.

My heart is warmed by the kindness and compassion shown by people across the UK, where tens of thousands have offered their homes to Ukrainian families. This public generosity has not been matched by the UK government, with the clumsy bureaucratic obstacles that it puts in the way. But that is not the worst thing.

In its current form, the Nationality and Borders Bill means that refugees like me, who are forced to take irregular routes to safety in the UK, will in future face up to four years in prison. The bill, as both the UN and senior British judges have repeatedly pointed out, is in flagrant breach of the Refugee Convention, which Britain helped to shape.

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The 1951 Refugee Convention was adopted in the wake of the Holocaust to ensure that never again would those fleeing war, torture or persecution be denied protection for lacking the correct documents. A former Supreme Court justice has rightly dubbed the Nationality and Borders Bill a “grotesque” piece of legislation. The Lords have voted key provisions down, but Boris Johnson seems determined to pay no heed to their concerns.

This government can and must do better, when the Lords amendments come back to the House of Commons on Wednesday. This bill is an affront to the long tradition of providing sanctuary to people in need that has made our country great.

I know from my own experience that those who are given a chance will show only gratitude, as so many did when escaping from the Nazis. The generosity of spirit at that time showed that Britain was great. Tearing up our international commitments does the very opposite.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here.

Steven Frank is a British survivor of the Holocaust

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