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In conversation with Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Laura Marks CBE

Cherwell Profiles sits down with founder of Mitzvah Day, Nisa-Nashim, and Chair of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, Laura Marks to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2024.

Today marks 79 years since the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. Since 2001, on this day, there has been an international commemoration of those impacted by the Holocaust and other genocides. Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is an opportunity to remember and reflect on humanity in its darkest moments but also to light the flame – the HMD icon – that illuminates a better future. 

Cherwell gestured to Holocaust Memorial Day 2024 by meeting with the Trust’s CEO, Laura Marks CBE on Thursday. 

When we met, she had just come off a Zoom Call with Imam Monawar Hussain discussing the forthcoming events for HMD in Oxford. She spoke highly of him – “he’s a remarkable person”. 

This interest in interfaith relations forms much of what Laura Marks seems to stand for in her work with charities across the nation (and she does work with a substantial number of them). The same year she became Chair of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT), in 2016, Marks co-founded the charity, Nisa-Nashim which is a network of Jewish and Muslim women. ‘Nisa’ and ‘Nashim’ mean ‘women’ in Arabic and Hebrew respectively. 

In the current climate, one would then lean in to ask how the work of the network has been impacted by events in Gaza and Israel. Fairly early on in our discussion, Laura Marks, before I could ask, said “it’s a mess”.

Marks had steam rolling off her fast-turning wheels that had taken her to and from Manchester just that morning for a HMD event. Being busy seems to play a strong part in her approach to charity work and activism. Marks is a multitasker. Once during our conversation I tripped up on the organisation we were discussing and was promptly corrected: “are we talking about chairing the HMD Trust, here, or my work on the Board of Deputies?”

Before Marks began work for the HMD trust in 2013, she was a deputy on the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Of the charity work we did discuss, her time as Senior Vice President on the Board was not without complexity:

“It was all politics. I felt my position made it difficult to get things done and I like to get things done.” Why exactly? “It’s been going 200-odd years.” Indeed, founded in 1760 by a sect of Iberian Jews to honour George III, the Board has had nearly 300 years to establish a way of doing things. And, as a representative body of the Jewish community, the Board is not small: “as well as a Board of Trustees, it’s got representatives – deputies – from synagogues and schools and organisations, and they’ve got all sorts of committees and structures and presidents and vice-presidents.” You get the picture; it’s big. 

Yet, for all the challenges, it was Marks’ time on the Board of Deputies that brought her to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. “I think Tony Blair wanted to ensure the HMD Trust retained a strong Jewish element so on its trustee board, three places were allocated to the Board of Deputies and two to the Holocaust Educational Trust.” So when a place on the HMD board was offered in 2013, Marks took the opportunity. 

Laura Marks is Jewish; her immediate family has no connection to the Holocaust. “My great grandparents came to this country. My family is mostly Lithuanian, some Polish. But if you trace it back, there are parts of the family missing.

“People often say to me ‘why are you involved in HMD?’ But, actually, I think it’s better that I’m involved because I think it’s the right thing to do and not because its history personally affects me.”

Standing behind HMD, according to Marks, is this sense of community bonding regardless of social background. “It’s about bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t meet each other.” Often, Marks observes, you have the two extremes of insular, exclusionary communities and “fragmented, even polarised groups that lack a sense of belonging”. HMD seeks to combat that. 

Each year, HMD has a theme to guide participants’ reflections. In 2024, the theme is ‘Fragility of Freedom’. This seems to resonate, also, with the Trust whose finances have become precarious in recent months. Previously fully funding HMD, the government has now capped funding: fundraising is the alternative. 

I asked what was behind the government’s cap – COVID, the Cost of Living Crisis, mini-budgets? “I think this government has a philosophy that people should raise their own money.”

“I’m not a good fundraiser,” Marks states. But fundraising has a role in the work she does for Mitzvah Day, the faith-led day of social action Marks founded in 2008. “I could ask you to get up on a cold Sunday morning to make sandwiches in a food kitchen but I won’t ask for money.” When philanthropy, government funding and trusts’ donations don’t always pull through, is there an alternative? “It may be the difference between being able and not being able to do something to make a difference.”

Marks has resisted emphasis on fundraising for Mitzvah Day. “Asking for money is a particular skill.” But so is avoiding doing so. Why is that important to Laura?

“Firstly, it forces you to actually engage with the charity. Asking children to bring a pound into school goes on a long journey to actually reaching the charity. Secondly, everyone’s asking people for money. And the third thing has to do with Jews and money.” 

This year there will be a mass fundraising push to respond to the government’s capped funding. At the moment, 70% of the HMDT’s funding comes from the government. Would that control anything the HMDT does?

Marks says, “I don’t think it’s that simple. What we’re there to do is to commemorate and learn from the Holocaust, the victims of the Nazis and the subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. That’s our mission until we can say we have learned from genocide for a better future. It’s not that we have a different agenda from them, I just think we might express things differently.”

As for other faith-based charities in the UK, Marks brought up the recent case of government plans to stop funding of the Inter Faith Network over the supposed absence of condemnation of the Hamas attack on the 7th of October last year.  

At this point, our interview was brought to a close. There needed to be sufficient time for Marks to liaise with Magdalen College President, Dinah Rose before the Q&A event that evening. 

We said farewell and I left with a strong sense of Laura Marks’ frustration with the bureaucracy of fundraising. Marks’ ethos is perhaps better characterised by that of Mitzvah Day: charity through acts of kindness rather than through donation. 

With a background in advertisement, Marks knows that detachment from money isn’t risk free. At Mitzvah Day, “we run hand to mouth; we get the money in and we spend it. That’s true of all my charities. It’s a very scary way to run things – there’s no cushion.” But with fewer sources of money, you have fewer people to appease and arguably a charity can run with more freedom. 

In an opinion piece for Jewish News, Laura Marks proposed that “freedom is not a free lunch. It comes at a price, and that price is eternal vigilance.” Like HMD’s theme reminds us – freedom is fragile. 

With thanks to Laura Marks. And to Barnabas Balint for coordinating this interview.

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