16 April 2024 Time to read: 5

In plain sight: Q&A with IHRA Chair Lord Eric Pickles on the UK IHRA Presidency

With the start of the UK IHRA Presidency, IHRA Chair Lord Eric Pickles discussed his motivations for holding this important position and his hopes and plans for the year.

Lord Eric Pickles with the Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl

Lord Eric Pickles with Holocaust survivor Ivor Perl

The motto of your IHRA Presidency is “In plain sight.” Could you tell us more about it, how did it come about? 

LP: A month before I was going to be made a Lord, I went on the March of the Living for the first time. On my bus was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor named Ivor Perl.  

The only time I’ve seen him looking vulnerable was there, on the separation ramp. I went up to him and, I said, “Are you alright Ivan?” He grabbed my wrist with enormous strength and he says, “Listen, Eric, I was here with my mum. This was the last time I saw my mum. This is where our family was destroyed. Do not believe all this nonsense about the birds not singing at Auschwitz. That it was all in darkness. It was a day like this that I came.”  

And I looked around. It was a beautifully sunny day, and there were clouds in the sky. And he said, “I could hear the birds singing, and I could watch butterflies flutter their way along the lines of separation. Do not believe that the Holocaust happened in a dark corner. It happened in broad daylight, with the world watching on.”  

It was a very emotional moment for me. And it had a massive impact on me. It made me do a lot of thinking. The thing is, he wasn’t talking about having empathy. He wanted me to look beyond trying to feel empathy, and instead to see that this is what human beings are capable of doing as part of policy.  

Because in terms of our remembrance, we need to understand the full mechanized basis of that destruction. And that’s why I chose it, because it seems to me to explain everything. 

The Holocaust happened in broad daylight, with the world watching on.

And this has guided you all these years. You’ve also been involved with the IHRA for quite some time as the UK’s Head of Delegation and are now entering a new phase of your involvement with the IHRA as IHRA Chair. What’s your motivation behind taking on this role? 

LP: I’ve come from a working-class family, I’m knighted, I’m a member of the House of Lords, but you need to understand this: nothing of what I’ve done is more important to me than being the IHRA Chair. My job is to bring the best out of the organization. I regard this as something that I want to really make a mark on, and leave the organization stronger, because we come at a time when things are changing.  

After having worked closely with the Swedish and Croatian IHRA Presidencies, I see this as the third part of a three-part act on how we teach about the Holocaust when no one is alive anymore who witnessed it. Things are going to be very different. There’s a chance that the Holocaust then just becomes history that retreats from us. We can’t let that happen. The Nazis were a warning from history, not just because of their brutality, not just because of their racism and antisemitism, but because they showed the full panoply of what the state can do if it decides to do something evil. 

This calls to mind the importance the IHRA places on historically-informed policymaking. What has that principle meant in your work?  

LP: We cannot afford to miss inconvenient truths. We cannot use the Holocaust to rinse our history. We need to ensure that what we say is accurate, even if that is unpalatable. But like in all families, we need to take folks along with us. Our job is not to exclude, or to remonstrate. Our job is to persuade with the power of the truth. The truth can never harm us. It can never harm a nation.  

Our job is to persuade with the power of the truth.

Turning back now to your IHRA Presidency, what impact do you hope it will have, both on the international community and on the local level?  

LP: We want to ensure that we’re taking along the whole family. We’re keen to reach out to people. That’s why each British embassy will be holding at least one function over the year. But we also have two kinds of experiments planned: My Hometown and the Holocaust in 80 Objects.  

My Hometown is about getting young people, all across the IHRA membership, to get a feel for what happened in their town during the Holocaust. The Holocaust in 80 Objects will engage influential figures to tell the story of objects from the Holocaust in 30-, 45-second short videos. 

We’re really looking forward to those campaigns. Your IHRA Presidency will also mark the 25th anniversary of the Stockholm Declaration. Where do you see the IHRA or the field in general going in the next 25 years?  

LP: The nature of the IHRA has changed quite a bit. It’s a different organization to the organization I joined 10 years ago. And, I suspect, different from what it was 25 years ago.  

To me, the IHRA is like a big family. And it’s about, really, trying to translate all that expertise that our delegates offer into some practical ways of dealing with things. The IHRA is not a campaigning organization. It’s here to offer expertise, to offer guidance, and to offer thought. I want to see the IHRA continue to evolve, become stronger, more confident, and reliable in terms of its contributions.  


I promised the Swedish IHRA Chair I would do a proper roundup of the Malmö Forum Pledges, to see where countries are in terms of implementing those pledges. It also seems to me to be a good time to see how effective the various working definitions are and how they are being used, how we might be able to develop patterns of practice to ensure that they are more widely disseminated. So, in many ways, I plan to do a stock-taking to give us a way to map out where we will go next.   

I want to see the IHRA continue to evolve, become stronger, more confident.

And finally, what are your three biggest hopes for your IHRA Presidency?  

LP: Well, my clear hope is that the Plenaries run well, that our conferences run well, that the expert groups continue to progress in their work. I want to see the Holocaust in 80 Objects and My Hometown work, especially because I think they might give us some ideas in terms of teaching, in terms of remembrance. I recognize I’ve given you more than three, but if we can achieve progress in all those, I’ll be very happy.