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October 29, 2003


Holocaust Legacy: Germans and Jews Debate Redemption




BERLIN, Oct. 28, 2003. -- It might seem obvious, at first glance anyway, that a German affiliate of a company that once supplied poison gas to the Nazis should not be a subcontractor for the very memorial now being constructed in Berlin to the Nazis' many millions of victims.

That, at any rate, is what the Memorial Foundation for the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has overall responsibility for the memorial, decided in the case of the chemical company Degussa, which was to have provided the anti-graffiti material being used to protect the 2,700 concrete steles that are to be placed into the memorial ground.

After what was described as a long and agonizing meeting, the 23-member board of directors of the Memorial Foundation decided last week not to use the Degussa anti-graffiti product. They did so because a company affiliated with Degussa called Degesch was identified as a supplier of Zyklon B gas pellets, which were used in the death camps to murder Nazi victims.

"The problem we discussed is very complicated," Lea Rosh, a member of the board, told a German newspaper on Sunday. "We asked ourselves: Where should one draw the line? And we came to the conclusion that the line is very clearly Zyklon B."



The Holocaust Memorial, foreground, is under construction in Berlin. Behind it are the tops of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate
But in the days since then, the decision on Degussa has provoked a debate in Germany on exactly the issue of line-drawing. It happens that Degussa, a company based in Düsseldorf that is the world's largest maker of specialty chemicals, employing some 48,000 people worldwide, has had an exemplary record in examining its wartime past and making restitution to victims of the Nazis.

Most important in this regard, Degussa was one of the 17 German companies that created the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, which raised millions of dollars for a special fund to be distributed to victims of concentration camp and slave labor during the Nazi period.

So the issue quickly seemed less than clear, and many questions have been raised: Did the Memorial Foundation board act correctly in singling out Degussa? At what point, especially 60 years later, has a company earned exoneration for its past behavior? Why should Degussa be singled out when so many other German companies -- Daimler-Benz (now DaimlerChrysler), for instance, Siemens or even an American company, I.B.M. -- also collaborated with the Nazis?

"I'm really astonished, because Degussa was very strongly involved in the slave labor initiative, in starting it, in leading the negotiations with the Jewish side and groups in Eastern Europe," said Wolfgang G. Gibowski, a spokesman for the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future. "The Degussa of today is not the Degussa of 60 or 70 years ago."

"Where do you begin and where do you stop with these arguments?" Mr. Gibowski continued, arguing that practically every German company in existence at the time collaborated with the Nazis. "Where do you get the sand to produce those monuments? Do you get it from Israel and America or Germany? Where do you get the cement, the trucks? What kind of buses do you use to take visitors there in the future?"

The debate over the role of Degussa is the latest issue to bedevil the Holocaust Memorial project, which, after many years of discussion, was approved by the German parliament in 1999. Even after that, there were fierce arguments about the memorial's location, cost, design and even the materials used in its construction.

Work on the project, designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman, finally began this year in a large open field in central Berlin, a few hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate and adjacent to the site of the future American Embassy. So far, about 25 of the 2,700 memorial steles have been installed, and work is expected to be finished in 2005.

Some have questioned why Memorial Foundation board members raised no objections to Degussa's participation earlier, even though its role was well known to them. In fact, Degussa itself is not even directly involved; its product, reputedly the best anti-graffiti material on the market, was to have been supplied by another subcontractor.

According to some people familiar with the board's decision, objections were first raised by Holocaust survivors. One of them, whose parents were murdered at Auschwitz, told board members that she would not be able to visit the memorial herself if the distributor of Zyklon B was allowed to supply the material.

"We all know that it's a very sensitive issue," Sibylle Quack, a spokeswoman for the Memorial Foundation, said in a telephone interview. "On one hand you have survivors of the Holocaust who can't stand a firm like Degussa being involved in the memorial, and on the other hand you will hardly find firms in Germany that were not involved with the Nazis.

"But more than 40 percent of Degesch was owned by Degussa, and Degesch distributed Zyklon B," Ms. Quack continued, "so this is a very important symbolic issue. Zyklon B symbolizes the murder."

In many ways, two principles oppose each other in this emerging debate: one is the principle of a sort of forgiveness for a company that has taken real action to atone for its past. The people who work at Degussa are not the same people who worked for it 60 years ago. According to this principle, it is wrong to penalize them for something that they had nothing to do with.

The company itself seemed to embrace this point. In a statement issued on Tuesday, Degussa said that it "regrets" the Memorial Foundation's decision "but respects it." But the company also said it would be difficult to explain the decision to its employees, given its record of the recent past.

In an editorial to be published Thursday, Michael Naumann, co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, expressed irritation at people who insist on a sort of eternal and insurmountable German guilt.

"After four decades of intensive research, after many Holocaust movies and books, nobody can accuse the Germans of remaining oblivious to their history," Mr. Naumann writes. "Some of the accusers and those who would educate us about history have turned into impersonators of their own righteousness. They have usurped the role of victim."

The competing principle is that, whatever the abstract rights and wrongs of the decision involving Degussa, the most important element in the picture is the feelings of the Holocaust survivors themselves.

"You can't say anything against this argument, in my opinion," Klaus Hillenbrand, editor of the newspaper tageszeitung, said. "You can't argue to the survivors that Degussa has become a very fine company, so you have to change your view of this case.

"It's a personal question," Mr. Hillenbrand said. "If there are survivors of the Holocaust who feel this way, you just have to accept it."



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