Speech by Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble in Remembrance of the Victims of National Socialism at the Ceremony of Remembrance, 27 January 2021
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President of the Bundesrat,
President of the Federal Constitutional Court,
Honourable Members of the Bundestag,
There were Jews living along the Rhine long before Germany existed.
Their story is part of the German story – all its chapters;
The bright and the darkest.
The earliest surviving evidence of Jewish life north of the Alps dates back seventeen hundred years. It is a decree issued by the Roman emperor Constantine in 321 A.D. permitting – and requiring – Jews to be appointed to the city of Cologne’s governing body.
In this anniversary year, we are becoming aware of the great diversity of Jewish life in Germany over these seventeen hundred years. Jews studied here, wrote poetry, worked as merchants and craftsmen, created art and music, and practised as lawyers and doctors. They fought for Germany in times of war. They served in the royal courts, and they were forced to live in ghettos. They lived their faith, Orthodox or liberal, openly or out of sight. In the nineteenth century, some German Jews took up the cause of Zionism, but many more identified with Germany.
German Jewish history is a history of contradictions. It speaks of every-day interaction, but also of tensions with their non-Jewish surroundings. There are phases of tolerance and exclusion, waves of persecution but also celebrations of success in art and culture, science and business.
And a terrible crime against humanity:
The attempt to erase the Jewish history not only from German but from world history.
Supported or tolerated by many other Germans, the National Socialists took anti-Semitism to an unprecedented extreme: they denied that Jews were human at all. This racial ideology served as their justification for their state-organised destruction of Jewish life – in Germany itself and in the European countries that Germany occupied during the war.
One million Jews were murdered in the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone. Seventy-six years ago today, Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army.
Auschwitz: the labour and extermination camp has come to symbolise the National Socialist terror that claimed many millions of victims. These people were robbed of their rights, their dignity, their property and finally their lives.
Every year, on 27 January, we remember all the victims of National Socialism. This year, we do so against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, many guests who we wish could have joined us today – including survivors of the concentration camps – can only watch our ceremony at a distance. Let me assure each and every one of you that in our thoughts, we are with you on this important day.
We remember the European Jews, the Sinti and Roma, the Slavs, the forced labourers, the prisoners of war and all those who died from hunger. We remember those who were persecuted and murdered for political or religious reasons. We remember those who bravely resisted the National Socialist regime, who showed humanity and paid with their lives. We remember the suffering endured by gay people, by people with disabilities, and we remember the fate of those who were excluded for being “anti-social”.
We bow our heads before each and every one.
Our thoughts turn also to the descendants of those who were murdered and of those who survived, for they are still confronted with the traumas of the past.
After the Shoah, Jewish life in Germany seemed impossible, even a betrayal. To those who had survived the Shoah in Germany, their old homeland had become an unfamiliar and unbearable place. Others had been forced to come to Germany in the turmoil after the war; many moved on as quickly as possible: to the United States or to Palestine, later to Israel.
Charlotte Knobloch survived the Shoah in Germany and here she has remained. After many, sometimes challenging decades, she has found her old homeland again. As a representative of the Jewish communities, she has helped to build a new German Jewish self-confidence. Mrs Knobloch, it is a great honour for the German Bundestag that you will be speaking to us at our ceremony of remembrance.
Today, Jewish life in Germany is once again vibrant and diverse. That is our country’s remarkable good fortune – one which we must show that we deserve, again and again. For this, we also have to thank the many Jewish immigrants who made a conscious decision in favour of Germany. Germany, of all places! Most of these immigrants came from the countries of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s. But Jews also came from Israel or from the United States for a longer or shorter time. The new arrivals brought new family stories with them – and new expectations of our country.
Marina Weisband’s family is originally from Ukraine. She herself came to Germany as a child. We invited her as she represents the great diversity of perspectives among young German Jews. I am very pleased that Mrs Weisband accepted the German Bundestag’s invitation to be here today. She will take the floor after Mrs Knobloch to talk about her experiences.
The House expresses its thanks to both our speakers.
Our guest speakers represent different generations. While one generation has suffered under repressed German guilt, the younger generation of German Jews resists being pushed solely into a victim’s role. Young Jews want to live – and to be recognised – as a self-evident part of Germany’s diverse present. Even so, many of them struggle with the impossible task of stepping out of the shadow of the past. Their parents’ and grandparents’ suffering has imprinted itself on their lives as well – and does so to this day.
History is present – for the descendants of the survivors, and for every other German. It concerns us all.
On days of remembrance, responsibility is always called for.
But are we really fulfilling this responsibility?
In Germany, as elsewhere, anti-Semitism and racism are being expressed openly again – with violence and without inhibitions. Jewish institutions require police protection. Jews hide their kippahs and keep quiet about their identity. In Halle, the Jewish community narrowly escaped a murderous attack. After decades of immigration, German Jews are thinking about emigrating again.
That shames us all.
It is devastating to have to admit it: our culture of remembrance provides no protection from blatant attempts to reinterpret or even to deny history. Nor does it protect against new forms of racism and anti-Semitism, which are spreading in schoolyards, in Internet forums and in conspiracy theories.
Twenty-five years ago, when Roman Herzog proclaimed 27 January as a day of remembrance, he expressed the hope of finding “forms of remembrance that reach reliably towards the future”. Roman Herzog’s hope has become an urgent necessity today. We must renew our forms of remembrance. Our collective responsibility remains unchanged – and extends to future generations, as well as to Germans whose families came here after the end of National Socialism. Let us be aware that our country’s image of itself is at stake.
Today, we renew our commitment to German Jewry at a very special ceremony. To conclude today’s ceremony of remembrance, our state representatives will become patrons of the restored Torah scroll of the former Jewish community of Sulzbach. In the German Bundestag’s Reflection and Prayer Room, a Jewish scribe will add the final letters to the scroll.
This will happen for the second time. Created in 1793, it has survived peril many times in over two hundred years of its history: first a town fire and finally even wilful destruction by the National Socialists. The Jews were driven out of Sulzbach as early as 1934 and the Torah scroll was taken to the congregation in near-by Amberg. But in 1938, the head of the Jewish community was warned that a pogrom was coming. He approached the director of the local museum, who hid the Torah scroll there, protecting it from harm.
After the war, the scroll was handed back to the congregation in Amberg, but as the years passed, it faded from memory – until Rabbi Elias Dray discovered it in the local synagogue a few years ago. After the scroll is completed today, he will read from it once again during worship. The scroll links the Amberg congregation to the long history of Jews in the region.
The Sulzbach Torah scroll is a symbol that seventeen hundred years of Jewish life in Germany are not at an end.
As an expression of the equal rights of Judaism, it has been customary, since the nineteenth century, for the patrons of a Torah scroll to include some non-Jewish dignitaries, from mayors to heads of state. Our state representatives follow this tradition today.
We thereby commit to protect Jewish life in Germany from harm; to pass on remembrance of the Shoah – the total breakdown of civilisation – to future generations; and to preserve the memory of the rich German Jewish life that was destroyed in those years. In so doing, we express our commitment to a future in which Jews in Germany can live their Jewish identity openly, visibly and safely in our midst.
As a self-evident part of our shared and diverse Germany.