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People of the city of Thessaloniki,
It is a great honour for me to have the privilege of speaking to you today. I am deeply moved, for I know where I am now standing, and the reason why I am here.
This day is a day of mourning for the Jewish community in Thessaloniki. Seventy-one years ago thousands of Jews were deported from this city to concentration camps, where, with just a few exceptions, they were brutally murdered. Today we grieve for the 48,000 Holocaust victims from Thessaloniki – innocent men, women and children.
This place is a place of mourning for the Jewish community. Here, following the invasion of the German Wehrmacht, all male Jews were herded together, tortured, humiliated and shortly afterwards deported for forced labour. The injustice that was perpetrated here is unimaginable. Gathering in this place of remembrance today is therefore all the more poignant for all of us. Right up to the present day this memorial testifies to the deep pain of Thessaloniki’s Jewish citizens.
Yet this is a day and a place of mourning also for the non-Jewish population of Thessaloniki, which was a city with an undeniable Jewish identity for many centuries. The Holocaust has changed the face of this city forever, having left deep wounds and scars in its wake. In 1943 the city not only lost numerous citizens. Its unique Jewish life – its culture, its academic heritage, its business – was almost completely eradicated. This loss pains all of us, Jews and non-Jews.
I thank you for inviting me as a representative of the German Government. The suffering inflicted on your community by Germans and in the name of Germanyis indescribable. Modern Germanyrecognises its responsibility for the crimes committed against the Jewish and non-Jewish population in Greece. Even though my generation is not personally culpable, we acknowledge our responsibility. This, the darkest chapter in the history of humanity, must never be forgotten. We are working to ensure that the memory of the atrocities and the National Socialist crimes is kept alive for both today’s and tomorrow’s generation. We owe that to the victims. Yet we also owe it to our children, who have inherited Germany’s history and who have to live with it.
For only by acknowledging our historical responsibility can we shape a better future together. For all of us – Greeks and Germans, Jews and non-Jews – this future lies in a free, tolerant and globally minded Europe. Indeed, the whole of Europe can learn from the history of Thessaloniki with all its ups and downs, successes and tragedies. For this city was a unique melting pot of diverse cultures, religions and languages for many centuries. The way in which tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful co-existence were practised quite naturally on a day-to-day basis over long periods is a model for the future of our continent.
We must remain watchful in future. For anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia are in no way problems of the past. They are still gaining a foothold in our societies today. We must not look away when people suffer discrimination because of their religion, the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation. And we must not allow young people to drift into radicalism because they no longer feel they have any prospects for the future while our attention is distracted by the crisis. And I am saying this quite deliberately here in Thessaloniki, the European Youth Capital 2014. Our future lies chiefly in the heads and hands of the younger generation. Germany and German policymakers are working to make this a reality, and I, too believe in and am personally committed to this goal.
Under your leadership over many years the Jewish community in Thessaloniki has undertaken great efforts towards reconstruction and produced remarkable achievements under the most daunting circumstances. As visitors we can only imagine the energy and resources it has cost you yourself, the members of the community and your many supporters to rebuild and preserve Jewish life and Jewish institutions in this city.
Today I would like to assure you once again that the German Government will provide concrete support for your efforts to strengthen and develop Jewish life in Thessaloniki. It would be wonderful if this could work. We intend to stay in contact with you, Mr Saltiel, on this issue.
We cannot undo the past. We owe it to the victims not to balance out, compare or relativise their suffering, for it is immeasurable. All we can do is ask for forgiveness. And we can help to ensure that the injustice that was perpetrated is never repeated. In the coming years we want to continue to work together as partners and friends and shape the future together. In this way, remembering the suffering of the past could engender a hope-filled German-Greek-Jewish partnership for the future.
I want to be a part of that.
Thank you for your attention.