Speech delivered by Dr (h.c.) Charlotte Knobloch at the German Bundestag on 27 January 2021
Kvod Ha-Rabbanim, President of the Bundestag, Representatives of the Constitutional Bodies, Members of the German Bundestag, Federal Chancellor, Mrs Büdenbender, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I stand here before you – as a proud German. Like my late lamented grandmother Albertine Neuland. Together with my grandfather, loyally bound to her German homeland. Highly respected in the mercantile community of Bayreuth. A passionate Wagnerian. Murdered in Theresienstadt in January 1944. It was from my grandmother that I inherited my love of people – in spite of people.
I stand before you as a proud German. Like my G-d-fearing father Fritz Neuland. As a loyal German patriot, he was deeply outraged by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. A decorated veteran of the First World War who had fought at the front for his German Fatherland. Under the National Socialists, his loyalty, his Iron Cross, afforded him no protection at all from humiliations – barred from practising his profession, dispossessed, seeing his mother deported, separation from his daughter, forced labour. My father taught me to love Germany – in spite of that.
On 9 November 1938, Germany opened the gates of Auschwitz – before the eyes of the world and to the acclaim of broad sections of the population. The National Socialists, hatred and indifference sealed the fate of millions of Jews in Europe.
On 27 January 1945, the Red Army liberated the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Indifference gave way to certainty about a singular, unprecedented crime against humanity that remains scarcely imaginable to this day. Here I am in the Bundestag, 76 years later, telling you of my life – a German life.
At the end of October 1932, I was born in Munich. In that city, the Jewish self-assurance that had emerged after centuries of discrimination and persecution was reflected in three synagogues. Most German Jews were German patriots. They wanted to assimilate; they wanted to belong.
When Hitler came to power, I was three months old. But not even our adult friends and acquaintances could grasp the devastating significance of that day. Germany’s Jews, more than 500,000 in number, were too deeply rooted in their homeland to harbour any doubts. Jews had been living on German soil for more than 1,600 years and had enjoyed equal civil rights since 1871. And the law was the law – wasn’t it?
When I was four years old, my mother left us. She had succumbed to the pressure to which she had been exposed by having converted and married a Jew. Her departure left nothing but pain.
My grandmother moved in with us. She wanted to ensure that I could have a reasonably normal life. We would play, sing and laugh. She taught me the fundamentals of our faith. But no efforts could obscure the fact that life was becoming ever more arduous for us Jews: edicts, prohibitions and vilification were making our daily lives unbearable.
One afternoon I wanted to go out to play. In the opposite backyard I often met up with girls and boys from our neighbourhood. That day the iron gate was locked. I called out. They turned away. From behind me came the scolding voice of the concierge’s wife: “Jewish children are not allowed to play here!”
Tears welled up in my eyes. Back home, Grandmother took me on her lap. No point in playing down what had just happened. She spoke of dark times that would soon pass. That was my first experience of being different. After that, I was no longer allowed to go out alone. The dark times did not pass. In 1938 they became even darker.
From the spring of that year I attended the Jewish school. I had so looked forward to going to school. But now fear was present in the classroom too. Going to and from school meant running a gauntlet of slogans and vulgar and abusive taunts.
However strong we may want to be, exclusion and hostility leave deep wounds.
At the end of the 1930s, Aryanisation was in full swing. Jewish businesses and professional careers were being systematically destroyed – right under the eyes of German society.
Our lives were now conducted entirely within our homes. But there was no privacy. Mostly in the evening, when it was dark and Jews were prohibited from leaving their homes, there would be a prolonged ring on the doorbell. Men in long coats would enter and stroll through the apartment as if it were theirs. China, rugs, cutlery, pictures, antiques, lamps – they helped themselves freely and then drew up receipts – in precise detail. Germany.
Harassment, threats, insults and violence – not just verbal attacks – had now become the norm when dealing with Jews. Fear, perplexity and intimidation accompanied our every thought. As did the anxious question “What will happen next?”
Once my father and I wanted to go out briefly for some fresh air. Men jumped from a car. “Get in!” Father was made to let go of my hand and was bundled in. A complete stranger grabbed my hand and placed it on her pram. She accompanied me for a bit. At home I waited with my grandmother. After several agonising hours my father returned. Fortune was still with us on that occasion.
Let me say clearly at this point that anyone who compares anti-Covid measures with National Socialist policy towards the Jews is trivialising anti-Semitic state terror and the Shoah.
That is downright unacceptable!
In June 1938, Hitler visited Munich. The main synagogue caught his eye. The next day he ordered its demolition. The steel ball and explosives flattened the House of G-d.
The ninth of November. In the evening we hurriedly left the house. No time to ask questions. Holding my father’s hand, I trailed through the streets. Noise. Shouting. Smoke pouring out of the windows of the Ohel Jakob synagogue.
Two SA men were dragging Solicitor Rothschild – Grandpa Rothschild, as I called him – out of his house. Blood was streaming down his face.
I was not to stop walking. Or stumble. Or cry. Whatever I did, I was not to attract notice.
When the Wehrmacht invaded Poland, I was seven. Once the war started, Jews had virtually no prospect of leaving their German homeland. My uncle in New York managed to organise two affidavits - two. Under the US regulations, my grandmother was too old. She wanted us to go. Father and I would never have left her. Subject closed.
When people came to see my father, I heard what they were saying. Since being stripped of his licence to practise as a lawyer, he had been a legal counsel for Jewish clients. They told him of relatives who had been deported to the Dachau concentration camp. I did not understand everything, but I did realise that this was a matter of life and death.
With a few possessions we had to move into a basement. The last vestiges of apparent security were gone.
Since November 1941, trains had been travelling eastwards out of Munich, crammed with Munich’s Jewish citizens of all ages. Friends and acquaintances were vanishing for ever. Ever-increasing numbers of desperate people came to my father seeking help, clutching deportation orders. They wept, pleaded – I still hear them today. But Father could not help them. No one could. And we all knew that.
I was nine when we received notice of an operation to transport elderly people and children to Theresienstadt. Grandmother or I had to go on the train. My lion-hearted grandmother instantly made the unthinkable decision.
Early next morning, Father was to take me away – to a place of safety, he hoped. But before then came the most difficult moment of my life. Grandmother said she was going to a health spa for treatment and would soon be back. But I knew what that meant. Weeping, I clung tightly to her – to love, tenderness, security. Those would be absent from my life for a long time to come.
My Father brought me to a village in Franconia. The family of Zenzi Hummel, my uncle’s former maid, took me in as Zenzi’s illegitimate child. I had to take leave of my father – perhaps for ever.
I became Lotte Hummel. Became accustomed to the outside toilet, to a single tub of hot water for the whole household, to sparsely furnished, ice-cold rooms and to physical labour and fear, homesickness and unspeakable loneliness.
Zenzi was a devoutly religious woman. She had made a pact with G-d that if she protected me her brothers would return safely from the war. And so it came to pass.
At the end of May 1945, I was on a cart behind Alte the alpha cow, heading towards the farmyard, when a car stopped. There stood my father in front of me. It was no light-hearted reunion. Even today I can only guess what ordeals they had inflicted on him. Acid had almost entirely robbed him of his sight. But he was alive, and so was I!
I did not want to return to Munich! To go back to the people who had insulted us, spat at us, showed us in every way how much they suddenly hated us. But I had no choice. And so I encountered them all. I wanted to get away from that city, from this country.
When I was 16, I first met Samuel Knobloch from Poland. His mother and five siblings had been murdered in the ghetto. In Plaszow concentration camp they had shot his father before his eyes. He and his brother Ruben had survived Plaszow and Buchenwald concentration camps and the southward death march. On 8 May 1945 they had been liberated.
Samuel was the love of my life. We became a couple and had no more ardent wish than to start a new life in the New World. I learned dressmaking with a view to obtaining a visa that would enable us to emigrate. Every two days we searched for our names on the list of entry authorisations. At the end of 1951 my son Bernd was born. As soon as he could walk, we intended to set off.
There is a saying, “If you want to make G-d laugh, make plans”. Saint Louis, Missouri, which was to be our new home, has never seen me.
We had another two children, our daughters Sonja and Iris.
In silent co-existence with the non-Jewish environment, the Jewish community tried to move on from survival to building a new life – a life taken away from six million daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and grandparents. A life in mourning. In pain. In anger. A life in Germany. But Heimat is Heimat, homeland is homeland.
Only in the 1960s and 70s was the silence broken. On the non-Jewish side, awareness of the crimes of the past began to grow. And there was an increasing realisation that addressing and coming to terms with the past was imperative to building the future. This allowed trust to grow on the Jewish side – in the new Federal Republic of Germany, where a viable liberal democracy was able to be constructed on the rubble of history. And which become a positive force in a united Europe, in the liberal world. A state which safeguards and defends the inalienable human rights of every individual.
I began to get involved – initially in social matters within my own Jewish community. Later, my efforts became increasingly concentrated on moving from separate co-existence to a more interactive co-existence.
This required a massive effort within society!
We built bridges across seemingly impassable abysses and then set out to cross them.
Today, Jewish communities again exist throughout the country. They are often small. But they are there. And they are there to stay. Despite all the setbacks suffered!
New synagogues were built.
In my home city, the Jewish Synagogue now once again exists in symbiosis with the Frauenkirche church and the Town Hall.
Jewish schools, professorships, students’ support organisations, sports clubs, rabbinical seminaries – a multitude of institutions, clubs and groups show that pluralist, vibrant Judaism has once again become a recognised force in our society.
And, finally, the immigration of Jewish “quota refugees” from the post-Soviet countries demonstrated to the world at the end of the 20th Century that Germany is once again a good and hopeful place to call home.
Today, I thank G-d for the chance to help provide a long-term perspective for Jewish life in Germany. I thank the great majority of people in our country, who want exactly this. And I thank my fellow campaigners from politics and society who have aided me in this – unwaveringly, courageously and resolutely.
We can be proud of our Federal Republic, Ladies and Gentlemen! But we must defend it vigorously! We must not forget for a single day how fragile the precious achievements of the last 76 years are!
I need not set out the chronology of anti-Semitic incidents in our country. They are committed openly, unashamedly – on an almost daily basis. Conspiracy myths are gaining increasing traction. Anti-Semitic thought and speech is once again a vote-winner. It has re-entered the realms of respectability – from schools to coronavirus rallies. And, of course, on the Internet – the breeding ground for hatred and incitement of all kinds.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in 2021, we look back on 1700 years of documented Jewish life on the soil of present-day Germany. I would like to thank the Federation, the Länder and local governments for supporting initiatives in this framework. I am saddened, though, that the desire for happiness and normality is still tainted with the old fears and worries. Members of the community, friends and acquaintances, are wondering out loud whether emigrating would be best after all.
Strong support from policymakers is important. A debt of gratitude is also owed to the security officials who protect the Jewish community and its facilities. Yet there is a disconnect between political principles and reality within society. Especially since some are unwilling to engage in painful analyses.
Without doubt, the greatest threat to everybody in our country – as in the past – is right-wing extremism. And, of course, radical right-wing ideology is a central pillar of anti-Semitism.
And anti-Semitism is also deeply rooted in left-wing extremism.
And then there is the new phenomenon of jihadism, the threat posed by the radical Islamist hatred of our way of life. The hostile image of the “Jew” symbolises the hated West, modernity, liberal values. Making Jews and their institutions favoured targets for this form of terror.
However, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism is greater than simply its obvious manifestations. Any attempt to address the root causes of anti-Semitism must not shy away from those areas which are painful:
- Including at the very heart of society.
- Including where there is a refusal to integrate and adopt democratic values.
- Including where intolerance was allowed to simmer below the surface for too long in the name of tolerance.
- Including where veiled anti-Semitism is sold as “intellectual”.
- And where the word “Jew” is not used, but instead “Zionist”, or other coded language.
And also where the State of Israel is defamed, delegitimised and condemned on the basis of double standards.
The battle against anti-Semitism is a Sisyphean task. Yet anyone unwilling to get used to machine guns outside Jewish institutions must tackle it.
I wish that kippas did not have to be covered up. That Star-of-David necklaces could be worn as safely as crucifix pendants, and Makkabi football shirts as safely as those of Bayern Munich.
It is not just about protecting Jewish people. For wherever anti-Semitism is present, any form of hatred can take hold – racism, homophobia, misogyny, the whole spectrum of contempt for others. The battle against it is a battle for human dignity, for democracy, for unity, for justice and freedom.
Ladies and Gentlemen, in Germany, too, we see division, polarisation, aggressive rage, and refusal to work towards reconciliation.
Some talk of wide “corridors of opinion”. This is an important debate, which should not be abused to allow the unsayable to be said. Words lead to deeds.
When the boundaries of the precious assets of freedom of speech and assembly are being defined, more attention should be paid to the idea behind Article 18 of the Basic Law.
On no account must the police be left to pick up the pieces of failure to act by the legislature and judiciary.
I would like to say something on a personal note about the police: as a girl, I was harassed and beaten by men in German uniforms, because I refused to tell them where my father was. Now, for many years, officers from the Munich police have protected me – risking their own lives to do so. On behalf of my family, I would like to take the opportunity before this distinguished House, to say: Thank you!
Ladies and Gentlemen, I had lost my homeland. I fought for that lost homeland. And I was able to find it again. And I will defend it!
I stand before you as a proud German. Although everything seemed to preclude this, and many things still do. Mourning, pain, despair and loneliness are my constant companions. But I know that our country does much to keep Jewish people safe – and hopefully ensure that they are never again left alone!
I am proud of our democracy. Despite my belief – which is no secret – that it ought to be more vigorous in defending itself. The enemies of democracy are stronger than many people think.
I am proud of the young people in our country. They bear no guilt for the past. Yet they assume responsibility for the present and the future – are interested, passionate and courageous.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I stand before you as a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, Munich native, Bavarian, German, European, Jew – as a human being. I appeal to you: please look after our country!
And this appeal is explicitly not directed at those seated on the far-right of the chamber! I cannot pretend not to care about the fact that you are sitting here. I am not addressing you all as a homogenous group! Maybe some of you are still ready to recognise which tradition it is that is being revived. To the others within your “movement”, I say: you will continue to fight for your Germany. We will continue to fight for our Germany.
I say to you: you lost your battle 76 years ago!
Ladies and Gentlemen, in conclusion, I would like to share three thoughts with you:
The first is for the millions of victims we remember today. They are in our hearts. They will not be forgotten. Never!
The second is for the contemporary witnesses. Many of them have spoken from this lectern of unimaginable horrors. We are now passing the baton to you – trusting that it will be in good hands. Do not forget us!
And the third is for the young people: there is no better compass to guide you than your own hearts. Do not let anyone tell you who to love and who to hate!
G-d bless our country! Am Yisrael Chai!
Thank you for your attention.
(Sustained applause – Audience rises to its feet)