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Ladies and gentlemen,
In January 2011 Zoni Weisz, a Sinto from the Netherlands, gave an impressive speech in the German Bundestag on the “Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism”. Zoni Weisz described the dramatic moment in April 1944 when his parents, his siblings and other relatives were deported to this camp in the so called “gypsy train” – he was only left behind due to a lucky stroke of fate. Zoni Weisz survived but he never saw his family again.
Zoni Weisz spoke of the “forgotten Holocaust” suffered by the Roma and Sinti of Europe. I also wonder why, even today, the fate of the Roma and Sinti during the time of National Socialism receives so little attention from the public at large. This is indeed one reason why, as a representative of the German Government, I have come here to be with you on this day of particular grief and remembrance. I have come to listen to you and to pause for a moment. I have come to try to understand the scope of the immense suffering which befell innocent people here. I have come to reflect with you on what lessons for the future we can learn from these terrible crimes.
70 years ago today the so called “Gypsy Camp” in Auschwitz Birkenau was liquidated. Between February 1943 and August 1944 a total of 23,000 Roma and Sinti were deported to Auschwitz Birkenau.
More than 19,000 of them died – they fell victim to malnutrition, plagues and diseases or were ruthlessly murdered in gas chambers.
Yet numbers alone cannot do justice to the untold suffering inflicted in this place by Germans and in Germany’s name. The fact that I see some former prisoners who survived amongst those of you here today may help those of us born later to grasp the incomprehensible. Your memories and stories bring abstract numbers of victims to life, depicting the deeply moving fate of the many individuals who either lost their lives here or were left permanently traumatised.
Today, you have come back to the place which is widely viewed as symbolic of the incomprehensible, systematic genocide committed by the National Socialists.
To a place where you personally experienced so much suffering and pain, but also a place where you and your former fellow prisoners courageously rebelled against this suffering. I have a great deal of respect for the strength you are showing by returning to this place to commemorate and make us remember, and I thank you for wanting to come together to jointly remember the past and look to the future with hope.
As I see it, that is neither a given nor an easy undertaking. For, regardless of the fact that my generation did not directly commit Germany’s atrocities, as Germans – young or old –, we have a particular responsibility.
We must and indeed do acknowledge the cruel and inhumane crimes committed by Germans both here and in many other places.
We do not want to be guilty of forgetting, playing down and certainly not of denying what happened. We owe this to all victims of National Socialism, including the European Roma and Sinti.
Zoni Weisz concluded his speech in the German Bundestag in January 2011 with the following words: “I retain […] the hope […], that our loved ones did not die for nothing. We must remember them in the future, we must also continue spreading the message of peaceful co existence and building a better world so that our children can live in peace and security.”
With this, Zoni Weisz is expressing the idea that remembrance and commemoration are not restricted to looking at what has already happened but that they should also direct our gaze to what is to come. The future requires us to remember the past!
And our shared future lies in a Europe that is peaceful, tolerant and open to the world. The European project of peace is dedicated to diversity and the protection of minorities in a very special way. This is a crucial pillar in our European foundation of values.
The strength and sovereignty of our free, inclusive societies is particularly evident in the fact that minorities live within majority society as equals, are respected and can flourish, enjoying equal opportunities – without losing their own customs or being forced to give up their roots.
When, ten years ago, Germany’s former Federal President Johannes Rau gave a speech in Berlin, he did not only remember the uprising of the Roma and Sinti in the camp at Auschwitz Birkenau on 16 May 1944.
He also put his finger on a wound which is still gaping and painful today. In 2014, 70 years after the liquidation of the so called “Gypsy Camp”, we are forced to see that a great number of Roma and Sinti still live in abject poverty, suffer discrimination and are sometimes persecuted – what’s more right here in Europe.
Xenophobia, racism and homophobia are by no means problems of the past, they are still deeply rooted in our societies today. We must redouble the efforts we have made to date to combat the open discrimination and stigmatisation of Roma and Sinti seen in many places in Europe, they have already raged for far too long. We must not turn a blind eye to our fellow citizens living without prospects, in the poorest conditions and isolated from the majority society.
The European Union is not sitting back and accepting this situation. In 2011 the European Commission initiated a process which offers hope that change is on the way. A strategy for the Roma was approved which placed the topic of economic and social inclusion of the Roma and Sinti further up the agenda. Since then the member states regularly provide reports on the progress being made.
In April this year, the third European Roma Summit took place in Brussels. It dealt with the current situation of the Roma and Sinti in the 28 member states and brought together 500 representatives of EU institutions, national governments and parliaments, communities and civil society organisations.
All of these endeavours constitute the start of a long, rocky path to change, but one which is worth every bit of effort.
The problems related to the inclusion of Roma and Sinti are multi faceted and differ from one member state to another. All those involved have a responsibility: from accommodation to public infrastructure, from healthcare to participation in education and the labour market – there’s a lot to get to grips with.
What gives me even more hope than political strategies is meeting and talking to young people. Yesterday, in the International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim, I had the chance to talk to young adults from Germany, Poland and the group of Roma and Sinti. In a seminar this week, some of them are examining the deprivation of rights and murder of the Roma and Sinti during the era of National Socialism as well as the reality of their lives as a minority group in today’s society. Projects with young people are a particularly effective way of commemorating and overcoming prejudices and isolation, that is why they are of particular importance to me.
If, here in this place, we take the time to talk, get to know each other and remember then I’m confident that we can raise awareness all over Europe that the Roma and Sinti are not outsiders but rather are part of our society, indeed part of our European identity. Recognising that this diversity is an enrichment rather than a danger and pointing out that we’ve been living together in Europe for centuries are the hurdles that I want to clear together with you.
You may know the novel “Denk nicht, wir bleiben hier” (Don’t think we stay here) by Anja Tuckermann. I would like to make the message of this moving book my own: let’s speak out against forgetting! For we cannot undo the past, but we can work together to ensure that the injustices committed here and in many other places are never repeated, so that we can shape our future in Europe together.