Commemorating the 69th anniversary of Kristallnacht
at The New York Synagogue
Remarks by Dr. Hans-Jürgen Heimsoeth, Consul General of
the Federal Republic of Germany in New York, USA.
New York, November 14, 2007
I feel honored to commemorate in your presence the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Sixty-nine years ago, thousands of Jewish families throughout Germany and Austria were terrorized, their homes, property and personal belongings destroyed; Jewish men were sent to concentration camps, from which they - at this time - mostly returned, but often demoralized, broken. They did not yet know what was to come, nobody did. Many, luckily, took this night as the signal to leave Germany, the country where their families had lived, in some cases for centuries, for which their fathers had fought during the First World War, the country which culturally, linguistically and - in their hearts - was their Heimat. The window that many Germans had had to leave their country - 1933 to 1939 - others did not have, such as those Jews living in countries later overrun by the Wehrmacht: Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians.
The terror of November 1938 was as visible, to the world and the German citizens as was the embarrassed non-reaction of the Germans, partly indifference, partly absent courage, partly quiet approval - opening the path to unimaginable inhumanity.
The Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel attributes this inhumanity to "indifference". He also says that "this indifference can be tempting - or more than that, seductive", because one can avoid pain and suffering simply by looking away. Germans and the German government have stood up to their history and the inhumanity committed by Germans and in the German name, and ever since WW II, have tried to learn the lesson of their history. The lessons we learned were to feel responsible for what happened and for what happens today.
Responsibility includes keeping memory alive. As time goes by and the events of Kristallnacht drift into the past, we have to remember them actively. New generations come into existence, young people, who not only have no direct connection with the facts of the past, but who might not even know a relative concerned. We have to try to pass on the feeling of responsibility for what has happened and what is happening in the world.
Germany is a country of memorials, and anyone who has been to Berlin knows that memorials are part of the urban fabric of the city. The Holocaust Memorial in the heart of our capital reminds us of the moral disaster of our history. But far beyond the big memorials, there are also many little signs --cobblestones, mirrors, cross-ties, and lamppost signs --that bring commemoration to everyday life.
In our view, commemorating the Holocaust and learning the lessons of history are universal obligations. Therefore, at the UN, Germany has supported the request for the establishment of an annual International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Shoah. The UN has a crucial role to play in reminding its members of its obligations and the lessons of history. Only by remembering and defending the human rights and the dignity of each and every person in this world may we be saved from having to witness repetitions of history.
But responsibility is not only about commemoration, it is also about forceful government action. The German government has taken its responsibility very seriously, and it is required to do so, as our Grundgesetz, the German Constitution, states in Article 1 that the dignity of man must be inviolable at all times.
This, of course, has had its repercussions for Germany's domestic and foreign policies
Racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism have no place in Germany. We have to stay attentive, and counter every act of racism or anti-Semitism, wherever it is committed - and unfortunately such acts still exist. But it is a priority of our government to see it as an obligation of each and every one of us to stand up against anti-Semitism and racism. Early on, German parliamentarians decided to make Holocaust denial a punishable crime in Germany. Anti-Semitic tendencies have to be met with the necessary consequences. It is of utmost importance that it never comes to such tendencies. Therefore, we must commit ourselves and constantly ask ourselves: How can we best do that? The key words are prevention and education.
The principles that guide the German government internally guide it in its foreign policy as well.
In April 2004, we hosted in Berlin the OSCE Conference on Anti-Semitism. The declaration not only condemns anti-Semitism, it also confirms that "international developments or political questions including such dealing with the Near East and Israel" do not justify anti-Semitism. The declaration also calls for the remembrance of the tragedy of the Holocaust and educational programs combating anti-Semitism. In addition, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) is supported in its newly created Unit on Tolerance by two experts on anti-Semitism and racism. A certain number of projects developed, e.g. with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and Yad Vashem, are co-funded by the German government.
Over the years, Germany has developed close and fruitful relations with Israel. We are happy that these relations are tight-knit and intensifying in all fields: politically, economically, scientifically and culturally. This year, for the first time, the German and Israel governments will meet together, something we have practiced with other close friends like France and Poland.
However, the security and existence of Israel remains threatened, and Chancellor Merkel and the German government explicitly stands by the historic responsibility Germany takes for Israel's security and right of existence. Germany will never accept the denial of Israel's right to exist or threats against Israel, and strongly condemns all such acts. Some of you might remember that the Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, just recently pointed out here in New York that: "The inhuman statements of the Iranian president against Israel are totally unacceptable. They cannot be condemned and stood up against resolute enough." We need progress in the Middle East peace process and Germany supports the vision of two states in secure borders and in peace, the Jewish people in Israel and the Palestinians in Palestine.
Today we are pleased to see that in Germany a growing Jewish community thrives and has found a new homeland. Jewish schools and kindergartens are again being established and synagogues being built. In 2006, three rabbis were ordained in Dresden and one in Berlin. The Jewish community in Germany today is the third- largest in Europe, it is vital and culturally and religiously diverse and rich.
This is possible because some, very few, German Jews had remained or returned and created new communities, with Jews living in Germany after the war as displaced persons. Since unification, the number of Jews living in Germany has grown three- or fourfold, mainly due to the large number of Jews who have emigrated from Russia and other territories of the former Soviet Union. This enormous increase puts some strain on the existing communities, but I am confident that the problems and conflicts inside the communities will be overcome.
Of course, the Jewish community of today is different than the community we had in the pre-war period. And we cannot forget the past, which forced so many into exile and brought so many to their deaths, even though they were as German as could be. We cannot fill the voids, which are so masterly demonstrated also in the architecture of the Jewish Museum in Berlin of Daniel Libeskind. But the new communities may, in their own way, open a new chapter of Jewish life in Germany, which has not only a history of more than 1,000 years but has also contributed invaluably to Jewish thought and Jewish religion through the centuries.
One of those German Jews who stood up for his religion and thought in the '30s and '40s was Leo Baeck, and we were honoured that the German Chancellor received the Leo Baeck Prize from the Central Council of Jews in Germany a few days ago. Chancellor Merkel stressed that young Germans can find in him inspiration and guidance. He taught us civil courage and deep humanity. And it is humanity --seeing the other first as a human being, irrespective of religion, race, nationality-- that we have to teach and to live.
In this sense, Kristallnacht has a vital meaning for us today. It is not only about remembrance and commemoration, but also about education and active and daily action.