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Ladies and gentlemen,
On this day 77 years ago, synagogues and places of worship stood ablaze across Germany. Organised bands of thugs smashed up the windows of Jewish shops and demolished the homes of Jewish civilians. Thousands of Jews were brutally mistreated, arrested or killed. In that night of terror, human rights were quite literally trampled under foot.
For Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels to speak of “spontaneous expressions of popular fury” was farcical. In reality, these terrorist acts were organised nationwide. That night showed everyone who didn’t already know it that anti-Semitism had become the new state doctrine of the German Reich. Now, if not before, it was definitely embedded at the heart of society. That night was the horrifying prelude to the complete disenfranchisement of Germany’s Jews and the largest act of genocide in human history.
Today, we remember those events of 77 years ago. We commemorate them, for remembrance means facing up to the high and low points of our chequered history and extracting lessons from both to guide our actions in the here and now. Anti-Semitism and the othering of minorities in general are by no means consigned to the past; these problems still pervade our societies today.
For all the efforts already undertaken, we need to stay self-critical and keep asking ourselves whether we are really doing enough in the fight against anti-Semitism, right-wing extremism and xenophobia. The NSU scandal and the rise of anti-Semitic crime are signs that we must not weaken our resolve on this issue. We must never look away when people suffer discrimination because of their religion, the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation.
Now more than ever, as refugees come to us in such great numbers from the trouble spots of the world, we need to be particularly vigilant.
Ladies and gentlemen,
What can we do today, 77 years after the November pogroms and 70 years after the end of World War II, to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive? Fewer and fewer people remain to us who lived through – or survived – that time and can bear witness. As anyone will agree who has ever listened, speechless, shocked and moved, to a survivor, no book, no film, no play can have the same effect. We can be so grateful to them for continuing while they can to share their very personal stories and confront us with the horrific reality of the Holocaust.
Let us therefore find new forms of remembrance. After all, each new generation has to look for its own ways of dealing with history.
I am encouraged by a representative TNS Infratest survey of young people aged 14 and up, which found that more than two thirds of respondents were interested in the history of Nazism and the Holocaust. One in three thought that schools provided too little teaching on the subject. Two in three felt that their own generation had a duty not to forget the crimes committed by the Nazis, and 80% considered it sensible to commemorate the Holocaust. And 59% of the young people surveyed reported feeling “ashamed” with regard to German crimes committed during the Nazi era, despite not being to blame themselves.
However, the same survey also found that 40% of the young people believed they had to be “politically correct” on the subject of the Nazi era. A total of 43% felt an obligation to look “emotionally affected” when the topic was discussed, and 39% complained that Germans were not permitted to make jokes about the Nazi era.
What do these numbers tell us about awareness of history among the third generation since the Holocaust? The clearest message is that our culture of remembrance needs to keep up with the times and much more closely reflect the needs and media habits of the younger generation.
Let me share a few thoughts on that with you. We still need set places and days to come together and consciously remember. Discussions with eye witnesses, while they are still with us, are also crucial. So is the work done at memorial centres, with youth exchanges and workshops.
But alongside these elements, we need to find a new approach to remembrance that connects more effectively with the younger generation. We all know from our own experience of learning that it has a far more lasting effect when you write a story for yourself rather than simply copying a text.
I am therefore particularly pleased to have heard today about a project run by the Jewish Community of Berlin. Entitled “We will call out your name”, the project demonstrates what commemorating the Holocaust can look like today and how young people can be actively included in the process.
Not only are you a wonderful singer – as you will be proving later on – you have also given us a very special project which I found most impressive.
When you were seven years old, Ms Gerstetter, you asked your Great Aunt Jolly why she had a number tattooed on her arm. Your great aunt told you the number, her prisoner ID number, had been tattooed onto her skin in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Though your great aunt had survived, her sister Rozsika had died at Auschwitz – just seven years old herself.
Unable to shake off that story of the great aunt you lost to the Nazis, you have transformed it into a comic. What’s special about your project is that young people are now encouraged to continue writing Rozsika’s story in an online blog. What might her life have been like if it hadn’t been so brutally cut short at Auschwitz? Where would she be living now? Would she be married? What career might she have gone into?
Figuratively speaking, this project gives Holocaust victims a new life, though fictional, for the one the Nazis took from them. Engaging with such moving individual stories enables young people to connect with the Holocaust at a personal level. It helps them put a face to the abstract numbers of victims.
And that very personal depiction of a young girl’s life inevitably leads us to the questions that keep coming back: how on earth could this happen? How could nearly an entire nation fall for Nazism or at least let it happen without raising a finger to stop it? And with reference to the present, how can we respond to intolerance, cruelty and inhumanity today to ensure that history is not repeated?
This anniversary today is a reminder of our duty to be resolute and passionate in our embodiment and defence of democratic values. We owe that to the many who died in the Holocaust.