Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Convocation Ceremony of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (31.05.15)

31.05.2015 - Speech

Mr. President Ben-Sasson!

President Peres!

Esteemed fellow honorary recipients!

Dear friends, families, and most of all:

Dear graduates!

Wow, what a wonderful audience, what a beautiful day for your celebration and for a two-hour lecture on our bilateral relations… I hope you are prepared for that...

No worries, I am not here to lecture –

I am here to congratulate you all!

Today, you are harvesting the fruits of your hard work. Today, you are receiving your doctorates! Masel tov to all of you!


If I may ask: Which of you are receiving doctorates in law?

Great, I thought you might still be in the library...

Okay, I admit it: I also did a PhD in law...

When I sat in your chair, many years ago at my own graduation, I overheard an argument that some graduates were having: Which of their academic disciplines had the longest and proudest tradition?

A medical student got up and said: “Remember: When God created Eve, He cut her from Adam’s rib. So He performed the first ever surgery. So medicine is the oldest subject!”

But then a student of architecture came up and said: “No! Before that, God created the earth out of chaos. So architecture was first.” But then this law student said: “ And here do you think the chaos came from?”


I was a law student myself, in 1984, when I heard of a brave and outspoken man who had just become Prime Minister of Israel;

a man who has shaped the path of the Jewish and democratic State of Israel;

a man beside whom I never dreamed to sit one day, in this historic place.

That man is Shimon Peres!

Kwodd HaNassi, Kawodd Gadoll huli, la'Amodd Immcha, we'im tisch'a ischimm elle, hayomm, all Bimma achatt. Todda Rabba!

Five years ago, President Peres came to my country. Right in the heart of our democracy, in the German Bundestag, he told us about his grandfather, Rabbi Meltzer.

The little boy Shimon loved his grandfather and on many cold winter nights, he warmed himself under his Tallit.

Until the day the Nazis came. They forced all the town's Jews into the synagogue.

Rabbi Meltzer went ahead of his congregation, wearing that same Tallit.

The Nazis locked the doors behind them and set fire to the synagogue, leaving nothing of the congregation but scorching ashes.

That’s the story Shimon Peres told us.

Yet, in that same speech, President Peres spoke of, I quote, the “unique friendship” between Germany and Israel today.

President Peres, as so many other Israelis, had reached out his hand to Germany, to the land of the perpetrators. And together, we held hands across the abyss of the past and built the bridge of friendship!

This friendship, my friends, is nothing less than a miracle!


“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,

als alle Vögel sangen...”

writes the Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine: “In the fair month of May, when all the birds were singing”.

In the month of May, 70 years ago, the birds fell silent. The War had ended, and the sunlight of spring exposed the worst crimes in the history of mankind, the Shoah against the Jewish people.

And yet, in the same month of May, only 20 years later, half a century ago, the State of Israel took up diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany.

And today, again in the fair month of May, “im wunderschönen Monat Mai”, you are celebrating your doctoral graduation and you are welcoming the German Foreign Minister in your midst!

Dear friends: That is only three generations, just the blink of an eye by history’s standards, who have walked the path from humanity’s darkest valley to humanity’s brightest political miracle!


Three generations – and look around you:

All three generations are with us here today!

The first generation witnessed the darkness. Shimon Peres is here. Some of your grandparents are here. And also Regina and Zwi Steinitz are here. Regina and Zwi survived the hell of the Shoah, of Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen. They live in Tel Aviv but they still return to Germany every year to bear witness of their suffering to young Germans. Sachsenhausen is where I met them a few weeks ago and they accepted my invitation to come to Jerusalem and celebrate with us today. Welcome, Zwi and Regina Steinitz!

Dear Zwi: In your same generation, not so far away from your hometown, my own mother was born in Breslau. Back then, Breslau was a thriving center of Jewish life - the city of Ferdinand Lassalle, Paul Ehrlich, Edith Stein and Fritz Stern.

A few years after my mother was born, Jewish families started to flee from Nazi hatred and violence. Among them the great historian Richard Koebner. He came right here to the newly founded Hebrew University.

Ten years after that, my own mother had to flee Breslau, now from the War that the Nazis had brought upon Europe and that had turned against its source…

And today? Richard Koebner’s name is enshrined in this university’s Koebner Center, dedicated to exploring German-Jewish history.

And in Breslau, Koebner’s hometown and my mother’s hometown, the old Synagogue “White Stork” was renovated. There I sat just a few months ago and witnessed the first ordination of rabbis since the War. These four young rabbis were trained in Berlin and Potsdam – living proof of the Jewish life which is blossoming again in Europe and in Germany! This blossoming is our blossoming, it enriches us all, and we must protect it against all forms of anti-Semitism, racism and hatred!


Then there is the second generation, my own generation. The generation of your professors who have guided you through these past years of research. The generation of your parents who are so proud of you, here today!

Our generation has lived through the first cautious, often painful re-encounters between our two countries – we as young people in Germany confronting the crimes of our fathers; your parents as young people uncovering the unspeakable memories haunting their parents.

Many of the early ties between Israel and the Federal Republic of Germany came through academia. As early as the year I was born, Hebrew University forged its first connections with German universities. But it took until I was seventeen, before a German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, first came to visit Jerusalem. And even then, it was painful for many in Jerusalem to hear the German language, the shadows of memory.

Your Professor, Dror Wahrman, for example, was sixteen years old when he found out, only by chance, that his father Yakov spoke German.

Just last week, Dror found a very old letter at home, written by his father, at age fifteen, to his grandfather. That letter said: “Father, I want to form a German reading club on our balcony. And I hope nobody will join.”

And today? We have joined! We have found each other – through the darkness. And now we join together regularly, in universities, in government consultations, in business dealings – and, somehow, I feel, on Yakov Wahrman’s balcony.


And then there’s you guys!

The generation of our children.

I am thinking of my own daughter. For her, just like for many of you, the German-Israeli exchange has found a firm place in her life’s journey, in her discovery of the world!

Especially Berlin and Tel Aviv attract young people like Magnets of Modernity!

Thousands of young Germans come to Israel and thousands of young Israelis come to Germany and contribute to Jewish life.

In Frankfurt, Cologne, Berlin and many other German cities today, you find Jewish festivals, Jewish theatres, Jewish start-ups … You can even get a decent bagel in Berlin!

Or so I’ve heard from a Jewish friend...

How would I know what a good bagel is?

I am just a goy from Westphalia – I can tell you what's a good Pumpernickel!


In these stories from three generations, dear friends, we feel what this miracle is really about. It is not limited to political elites.

This friendship is alive in all of society, alive in thousands of stories, alive every day!

There is a German expression that comes to my mind: “Deutsche und Israelis sind einander ans Herz gewachsen.”

In translation: Germans and Israelis “have grown together at their hearts”.

To the medical doctors here: This is not a surgical procedure… But what it means, to me personally, what this miracles comes down to, when I look around this theatre, is a deep affection, which is all the more humbling for where we came from, and unshakable for wherever we will go.


Dear graduates, this is a personal story.

But, yes, I am also the Foreign Minister and I know that the world you are facing isn't run by that kind of affection. It is not rosy.

There is still a lot of darkness out there.

Even look around this beautiful place, look down from this historic mountain.

There is hatred, there is fear, there is injustice. In your own country. In your neighborhood. And also for us in Europe.

But I do have hope! I have hope that reconciliation and understanding and peace are possible! …

Some might call that naïve.

And as you all have PhD's now, I am going to give you the strongest empirical evidence for this hope that mankind has ever seen:

That is the miracle of Germany and Israel - the miracle of friendship after darkness.

This friendship is not just for the history books, it is for the future.

It is not only for the generation of witnesses, it is also for the young and for all those who have come new into our societies, as immigrants, to Germany and to Israel.

It is not static, it is alive and it can deal with the critical questions you ask, to our own governments and to each other.

And maybe this miracle is not just for our own two countries, but it can send out hope to the world, for those in conflict and in fear.

Dear graduates: This friendship proves how the hard work of three generations can create miracles. And now, you can do that work.

Because miracles - this world needs many.

Congratulations to all of you! And on behalf of the Honorary Doctors, thank you for this humbling award, thanks to this wonderful University. I am grateful and deeply moved.

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