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Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth on presenting the contemporary witness project “Remembering the occupation of Greece” at the University of Athens

02.02.2017

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,

“Memory is like water: it is essential to life and it finds its own way to new spaces and to different people. Memory is always concrete: it is alive with faces, and places, odours and sounds. It has no expiry date and it cannot be proclaimed […] completed by decree.”

It is probably impossible to describe the situation more poignantly than Auschwitz survivor Noah Flug did with these words. He passed away in 2011 at the age of 86. His words read like a manifesto for the contemporary witness project looking at Germany's occupation of Greece that we are presenting today here in Athens.

This project gives the victims of the Nazi tyranny a name, a face, a voice. Abstract figures of those who lost their lives are transformed into the fates of individuals and their stories. At long last!

Ms Asser‑Pardo and Ms Papatheodorou, it is wonderful to be able to welcome you both as survivors of the horrors that unfolded during the period of German occupation. I would like to thank you and all the other courageous people who were prepared to help with this project.

I can barely imagine how painful the memory of these dreadful events in your lives must be. Here you are making an inestimable contribution to help shed light on one of the darkest chapters in German‑Greek history.

The memories of contemporary witnesses are a precious but also a transient treasure. Anyone who has listened to the words of a Holocaust survivor and been aghast, horrified and deeply moved will surely agree with me when I say this is not something that a book, a film or a play can achieve. We can be thankful that the survivors tell us their very personal tales as long as they can and remind us of the horrific reality that was the Holocaust.

We must never forget that at the time of the German occupation, Germans and their accomplices brought so much suffering upon Greece and its people. We cannot undo the crimes committed then. But we can help ensure that the injustice that was perpetrated is never repeated. We want to uphold the memory of the insane destruction, rampant violence, pure hatred and murder – not as an end in itself but first and foremost to learn lessons for a brighter future. The future needs us to remember the past – I see these two things as intrinsically linked.

It is long overdue that we systematically collate and look at the experiences of contemporary witnesses so that these can be made available to a wider audience. I firmly believe that this project can provide important momentum for a shared German‑Greek culture of remembrance which does not bracket anything out and gives the victims back their dignity.

Particularly we Germans shoulder a special responsibility here. To this, I firmly commit. We Germans know that there has to be shared remembrance and commemoration for there to be reconciliation. That is precisely why in his speech in March 2014 in the martyred village of Lyngiades, Federal President Joachim Gauck asked for forgiveness for the horrific deeds of the Wehrmacht.

“When we take the path of remembrance, we are not doing so because we are fixated on the past. […] Rather we are looking to the past to take on its message for the present and the future: never forget that you can choose between good and evil. […] Grant all people their dignity and their rights. And finally, respect and seek out the truth. [Truth] is a sister of reconciliation”.

It is true, the paths leading to reconciliation are long and arduous. We need both determination and strength. But reconciliation also inspires trust and hope. However, we do not stop at such appeals. We now have a Future Fund with an annual budget of one million euros to fund numerous reconciliation and education projects between Greece and Germany.

We are supporting remembrance projects in martyred villages and the Jewish communities – for example in Kommeno and Thessaloniki. Similarly, my Ministry is funding research and study projects to create a shared culture of remembrance.

In December 2016, our Foreign Ministers together opened the exhibition “Divided Memories 1940 – 1950 – the distance between history and experience” in Thessaloniki. This exhibition was also funded by the German‑Greek Future Fund. I am delighted, Minister Gavroglou, that you are with us here today.

The excellent cooperation between the Freie Universität Berlin and the University of Athens is exemplary. Working like this, our cooperation will be successful. I would also like to thank other bodies who have lent support, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Freie Universität Berlin and the “Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”. Without their important financial contribution, this project would not have been possible.

Shared remembrance and commemoration remain an urgent necessity as demonstrated by recent events in Germany and in Greece. Representatives of extreme right‑wing parties in Germany describe Holocaust memorials as a “disgrace”. Neo‑Nazis tried to force their way into Greek schools where refugees were to be taught.

In both our countries, the vast majority of the people reject such actions. But we need this silent majority to become a vocal one, one that stands up to be counted, making a clear commitment to reject hatred and forgetting what happened. We owe this to the victims. Remembering makes us strong and perceptive at a time when we urgently need genuine democrats, friends of freedom and valiant defenders of human rights. 

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