Chair's blog: Reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day

Updated: 23 January 2023

The Chair of Three Rivers District Council, Cllr Debbie Morris, looks towards Holocaust Memorial Day - and considers its personal significance to her.

The Chair of Three Rivers District Council, Cllr Debbie Morris, looks towards  Holocaust Memorial Day  - and considers its personal significance to her.

As we approach Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD), I’ve been reflecting on its importance and relevance to me.

HMD has been designated as 27 January - the date in 1945 when the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was liberated. It is a day to remember the six million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis along with the millions of other people killed under Nazi persecution because of their ethnicity, sexual orientation or political beliefs. It is also a time to remember the victims of more recent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

The Holocaust was a unique event. Never had so many people been systematically slaughtered because of who they were. And this event happened in Western Europe - in the lifetimes of people who are still alive today. It may be history to some but for others, it’s still very much their present.

I have family who lost their lives in the Holocaust: a great-grandmother, great-aunt and cousin were amongst them. They perished in the concentration camps.

My father, his sister and parents managed to flee Germany immediately before the outbreak of World War II. As Jews, though, they had endured years of persecution and discrimination beforehand. In 1938, all Jewish children were expelled from their schools. The use of local swimming pools and other facilities enjoyed by the family was banned too.  My grandmother wanted them to leave the country but my grandfather was steeped in German culture with family roots going back more than 300 years. Furthermore, he had a very prestigious appointment as the Rabbi of the synagogue in Bamberg. That beautiful synagogue was burned to the ground by the Nazis on 9 November 1938 – Kristallnacht. I quote my father on the events of the following day:

“Late that evening, two policemen came to the door and arrested my father. He took his overcoat and a prayer book and was marched out. I ran alongside him and when we reached the square, they asked him about the book, took it from him, hit him on the head with it and handed it back to me telling me to go home. I do not know how many days went by before we knew that he had been taken, together with all the other men of the community, to the Dachau concentration camp. My father returned six weeks after his arrest. He was a shadow of his former self.”

The family had visas for the USA but the outbreak of war meant that they never completed their onward journey from the UK. My father recalled the family arriving with two suitcases and standing in the middle of London, not knowing where to spend the night. Space precludes me from setting out the details of their early years as a refugees but after a period spent in Devon as evacuees, my father and his sister were reunited with their parents in London. They were terribly scarred by their experiences in Germany but ever-grateful to the UK for allowing them to take up residence here.

My father became a very successful architect and on retirement, enjoyed painting. Some of his most powerful artworks reflected his experiences in Nazi Germany. Sadly, he did not live to see me become Chair of the Council. I dedicate this piece to his memory.

Images: Debbie’s father John Katten was ten when he witnessed the atrocities of Kristallnacht, including the destruction of the Synagogue in Bamberg, Germany, where his father was Rabbi. Along with his parents and sister, John found refuge in England in 1939 where he lived for almost 60 years. His two paintings tell his story, including the fire and his journey from the darkness of the Holocaust to a peaceful life in Israel.