Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on awarding the Siegfried Lenz Literary Prize to Amos Oz in Hamburg

14.11.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Olaf Scholz,
Mrs Lenz,
Mrs Oz,
Ladies and gentlemen,
And, most especially, Amos Oz,

We are honouring you today, Amos Oz. And we are honouring you in the name and spirit of Siegfried Lenz.

Both of you were united by a shared literary friendship over many decades. But only one of you is here today.

I remember the last time I saw Siegfried Lenz very clearly. We met at Helmut Schmidt’s birthday party in January here in Hamburg’s City Hall. Both of us were very much looking forward to today, to the foundation of this award and the first prize winner; all of this meant so much to him.

Siegfried Lenz died on 7 October.

Just a few days ago, I received a very personal letter from you, Ulla Lenz, which included a quote from your husband that moved me greatly: “Scratch your name in the sand where it is wet and the wave has still to wash ashore; scratch your name in the sand and watch it fade away. After that, you will find it easy to depart.”

Siegfried Lenz has departed this earth. But he has not left us. He is still with us. With each and every one of us here in this room, in their own impressions, perceptions, advice – in both literary and personal memories.

And Siegfried Lenz is still with you, of course, Amos Oz. Your literary and personal friendship has deep roots. I could not possibly do justice to the many facets of its richness in this speech.

But I would like to mention one thing in particular: your literary and personal friendship is bound up with something that we will all encounter at many levels in the coming year – the relationship between Israelis and Germans in the fiftieth year of our diplomatic relations. Preparations for this anniversary are underway in both of our countries. For me, today is a worthy prelude – a literary foretaste of the milestone that we will be marking with intense political activity, and hopefully also celebrating, next year.

Siegfried Lenz reminded us that this country, Germany, would not be the same without Israel, neither in terms of our relationship with our past nor our conscious approach to guilt and responsibility.

This is the reason why I said that we are honouring Amos Oz today in the spirit of Siegfried Lenz. In 1980, at a meeting with Israeli authors, Siegfried Lenz asked his Israeli colleagues what they expected from contemporary German literature. The answer was – to our surprise – not “coming to terms with the past”, but rather acknowledging the suffering that the Jewish people were subjected to by us.

This is precisely what the novels by Siegfried Lenz stand for. And in this way he has made an important contribution to that cornerstone of relationships between people and nations: creating trust. Trust built on understanding. Understanding of each other can only grow when efforts are made to understand each other. Understanding and agreement cannot be taken for granted or demanded, but must grow through listening patiently, reading curiously and – as Amos Oz would say – speaking responsibly. Through culture, and perhaps especially through literature, because we can learn more about the deeper meaning, the dreams and traumas of people and nations, from their stories, from novels and short stories, than in all the history books put together.

Siegfried Lenz took to heart what Amos Oz once said to him at Kibbutz Hulda: “If you want to understand Israel, if you really want to experience the soul of the country, then take a walk through the streets at night. In the heat of the summer night, lots of people sleep on their balconies. If you tread quietly, you will hear them sigh, moan and whimper in their nightmares; they dream in multiple languages, overcome by pasts that never end.”

Siegfried Lenz heeded this sentiment, and it is precisely for this reason that he became a bridge-builder between our literatures and peoples. Why was this important? Because it was only when the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade was awarded to Amos Oz in 1992 that the public’s attention turned to Israeli literature. After a sluggish start, Israeli authors have now come to prominence, with more Hebrew works being translated into German than into any other language – a thing scarcely imaginable all those years ago.

Siegfried Lenz was the inspiration at the beginning of this incredible development. He acknowledged the work of his writer friend with a level of pathos that we are barely familiar with today and a deep personal connection to Amos Oz.

The two writers’ origins couldn’t be more different. At the beginning of the greatest cataclysm to befall the Jewish people, Amos Oz was born on 4 May 1939 in the then comparative safety of Jerusalem. Siegfried Lenz, on the other hand, was born in 1926 and was exposed to the National Socialist regime’s programme of indoctrination in the Deutsches Jungvolk and Hitler Youth. When he was drafted into the Kriegsmarine at the age of 17, he managed to desert in occupied Denmark.

Amos Oz’s family managed to escape the Nazi terror, moving from eastern Europe to Jerusalem in the early 1930s. Joseph Klausner, Amos Oz’s great uncle, studied in Heidelberg and was a professor of the history of the Orient in Odessa before emigrating to Jerusalem after the October Revolution. His books, “Jesus of Nazareth” and “From Jesus to Paul” are timeless classics. Amos Oz’s grandfather had already sung the praises of Jerusalem in poems; his father, a well-known literary scholar, “could read sixteen languages, eleven of which he also spoke.” His mother “also spoke five or six languages”. Which is why her son later recalled: “My parents and all their family members were European people.” With their European heritage, families like the Klausner family made a great contribution to ensuring that present-day Israel, on its narrow territory, has produced such an intellectually and culturally rich society that shares its roots with Europe.

There is a great deal of Europe in Israel. But Europe lacks what its persecuted, tortured and murdered Jewish people contributed to the richness of European societies.

Soon after the foundation of the state of Israel in May 1948, the young Amos Oz rebelled against his academic home and left Jerusalem to help build the country at Kibbutz Hulda with his own two hands. Far from a Europe hell-bent on death and destruction, the kibbutz movement sought to shape the new man according to socialist ideas.

Amos Oz returns time and again in his prose to this microcosm where he spent thirty years of his life, most recently in his collection of short stories “Between Friends”, which was published in German last year. The old Israel becomes visible; we meet the founding generation that dreamed great dreams, but which was made to cope with the tough tests of reality. We read about the spartan life that everyone took upon themselves in order to be able to live independently.

Amos Oz talks about this in his magnum opus “A Tale of Love and Darkness”. Nowhere else can we find such a beautiful and haunting, but also tender account of pioneers and their utopia of finally creating their own home. Amos Oz also talks about their descendants, who left their fathers’ founding myths behind them and created the bedrock of modern Israeli identity today. Looking back at his own family history, he also managed to create something approximating a national history of Israel.

The confrontation between the Israel of the past and the present is a recurrent theme of all of Amos Oz’s literary output. It is not just a question of the correct model of society. One topic in particular is a mainstay: coexisting in this region with the Arab world and the spectre, fed by the National Socialist past, of always and only being surrounded by enemies.

In his acceptance speech at the award ceremony of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in the Paulskirche church in 1992, Amos Oz told us how the dilemma can be overcome: “The reason I have conjured up these ghosts today is that my literary work and my peace activity are both inspired by this past. And yet I believe that the past should have no dominion. I reject all forms of tyranny of the past.”

Siegfried Lenz took this on board and put this sentiment into his own words: “Memory has a binding characteristic – it suggests something, it instructs us, it obliges us to act for the present.”

I believe that Israelis and Germans, in view of their respective histories, are called to action by the similarly worded appeal of these two authors.

This obligation applies especially to the peace efforts in the Middle East, of course. The Middle East must, as Amos Oz puts it, finally find a way out of the spiral of “politics of life and death”.

The most recent crisis in Gaza – the third in only five years – was a bitter reminder of how Israel’s security is still under threat. And the crisis reminded us that peace can only be achieved as part of a genuine and effective political process.

The fight against violence and fanaticism of any kind – including in his own country – has become Amos Oz’s life’s work. In his impressive novel “Black Box” (1987), we read about how every form of fanaticism, including fanaticism in ourselves, can be conquered.

For Amos Oz, the longing for peace is a daily struggle. He rejects questions of either-or, victory or destruction, and appeals for dialogue between enemies. He calls on everyone to engage in the Middle East conflict and to advocate neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian cause, but rather peace.

So far, the stakeholders – including ourselves – have not lived up to this in recent years and decades. There has been no shortage of attempts. Oslo, Geneva, Camp David, Annapolis – these city names bear witness to a history of failure. All the questions and all the answers are on the table – where they have been for years. But each time there has been insufficient willingness and courage in the search for peace in the Middle East for a settlement to materialise. The history of the search for peace in the Middle East is a history of missed opportunities. Particularly now – if the spiral of violence starts up again – we must not give up. I don’t know whether John Kerry’s intervention in the conflict is the last chance for a two-state solution. I only know that people want to live their lives without assassinations, rocket attacks, threats and permanent fear. This is why we should not miss this opportunity now.

Two things must happen: Firstly, Israel’s security must be guaranteed and Gaza must not be allowed to remain a launching pad for rocket attacks on Israel! And secondly, the living conditions of the people in Palestine and, especially in the Gaza Strip, must be improved. Just like Amos Oz, I am still convinced that both objectives can only be achieved for the long term as part of a two-state solution.

This solution will not come about over night, however. We have to continue working towards and lobbying for this solution. I will be in Ramallah tomorrow and in Jerusalem the day after that. We need perseverance, reason, persuasion and an unceasing ambition to achieve what has yet to be achieved.

Amos Oz, the author, sets great store by the power of words and still focuses on reason. Using words, he has motivated people to commit to the cause of peace. He has tirelessly invoked the cause of peace and dialogue for decades.

He has done so with stories and narrated memory and in the hope that people learn lessons from memory. Siegfried Lenz saw this function of literature as “the collective memory of humankind”, “the most comprehensive collection of what is experienced and thought”.

“World reason”, as Willy Brandt put it.

Your works, my dear Amos Oz, translated into all of the world’s languages, are a chapter of this “world reason”, and one of the most important at that. I hope that you will continue to fill this chapter and thereby work for the cause of peace. And when you do that, then you will do it in the spirit of your friend, our friend, the unforgettable Siegfried Lenz!

Many congratulations on winning the Siegfried Lenz Literary Prize.

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