Holocaust survivors have warned of a “splintering of social cohesion” in the UK that could lead to a repeat of the darkest days of fascist Germany, as they endorsed plans for a national Holocaust memorial in Westminster.
Three survivors, who were children when the Nazis embarked on a programme of genocide against Jewish people and are among the dwindling number of living witnesses, said the memorial would send a powerful message to future generations. “Germany yesterday could so easily become Britain tomorrow,” one said.
Peter Lantos, who lost 22 members of his family in the Holocaust, said: “We are the last generation to bear witness. When we die, no one can say ‘I was there’ ...
“It’s important for the centre to be more than a record and testimony of the past. It is also a stark and powerful reminder, and warning to a future generation [of] what can happen when xenophobia and intolerance can lead to genocide.”
Ten designs have been shortlisted for the £50m memorial and education centre, which will be on display for the next three weeks at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. They have already been shown in other cities in Scotland, Wales and England, and can be viewed online.
The UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation is seeking the views of the public before an independent jury chooses the winning design in September. The foundation hopes the memorial will open to the public in 2021.
The shortlist of 10, whittled down from 92 entries submitted by architecture and design teams from 26 countries, were all “strong contenders”, said Sir Peter Bazalgette, the foundation’s chair.
The shortlisted teams include some of the world’s leading architects and firms, such as Daniel Libeskind, David Adjaye, Zaha Hadid Architects and Norman Foster, and artists, among them the sculptor Anish Kapoor and the Turner prize-winner Rachel Whiteread.
The siting of the memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens, next to the Houses of Parliament, has raised objections.
A letter signed by dozens of MPs and peers, and sent to all members of the House of Lords in April, said: “The gardens are extensively used by residents, visitors to London and the many thousands who work nearby, including those working in the Palace of Westminster. They are an oasis of calm, enjoyed as a place of exercise, play, picnics, sunbathing and dog walking.”
The memorial would “change irrevocably” the character of the gardens, “which would cease to be an amenity for ordinary people”, it said.
Opening the exhibition in the V&A’s Raphael gallery, Bazalgette said local residents had understandable concerns, but the memorial would improve the park and be a national asset. The project would be subject to planning controls, he added.
The memorial would “underline what happens when society breaks down, when law, order, decency and tolerance, and empathy disappear. This is what happened in 1930s Germany, and it has lessons today, lessons about tolerance, lessons about race hatred, lessons for all of us”.
Video testimonies of 112 Holocaust survivors have been recorded for the educational centre in anticipation of “a time when we have no primary witnesses”, he said.
Joan Salter, 77, who was separated from her Polish-Jewish family during the war, said: “[It is] comforting to assume that civilisation is a one-way street, when in fact experience teaches us that it is but a thin veneer, very easily torn away. Germany yesterday could so easily become Britain tomorrow.
“In recent times, we have seen the splintering of social cohesion, the growing willingness to express extreme views, the ability of some to act out their intolerance with violent acts, the lack of respect for those of different cultures. We live in dangerous times.”
Mala Tribich, who was born in Poland in 1930 and sent to camps at Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen during the second world war, said: “People have been asking over the years, ‘Has the world learned anything from the Holocaust?’ And we have to admit, not a lot.
“But there are lessons to be learned, if only to show what racism and discrimination can lead to.”
Lantos, who became prisoner 8,431 in Bergen-Belsen aged five after being deported from his home in Hungary, said: “The basic question is whether we should forget about these events altogether, draw a line under it and start a new life, or whether we should remember.
“As a survivor, I don’t have any doubt that we should never forget what happened in Europe in the middle of the 20th century.”
The Holocaust was key to “understanding how an evil ideology, when not opposed properly, can triumph”, he added.
Karen Pollock of the Holocaust Educational Trust pointed out that antisemitic incidents were at a record level and Holocaust denial or distortion was increasing.
“The discourse that we’re dealing with today in politics and in the media is a huge challenge for us. We need the next generation to be the people who carry the baton,” she said.
Bazalgette said: “I have the impression that Holocaust denial may well grow in the next 20 years, rather than diminish.”
The memorial project was initiated in 2013 by David Cameron. The jury that will decide the winning design includes the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis.
As well as the 6 million Jewish people killed in the Holocaust, the memorial will commemorate the persecution and deaths of Roma, gay and disabled people.