Members of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki,
It is a moment of deep joy and thankfulness for me to be accepted as an honorary member of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki today. No, actually it is much more than that. It is a miracle!
A miracle of reconciliation. A miracle performed by human hands – by your hands, dear community, that you have stretched out to us Germans by welcoming the German Foreign Minister into the heart of your community.
We will take hold of your outstretched hands, with great joy and also with great humility – and rest assured that we shall not let go!
For we are aware of the all too painful history of the once large and proud Jewish community in Thessaloniki. It suffered unspeakably under the occupation by Nazi Germany. 50,000 members of this community – men, women and children – were murdered in Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Germany unreservedly accepts its political and moral responsibility for these murders and for the terrible crimes committed in Greece during the Second World War.
Mr Kounio, you were born in 1927. You and your family survived the Holocaust – because you spoke German, of all things! On the ramp to Auschwitz you had to translate the orders of the SS from German into Greek. You therefore saw all the members of your community, young and old, go past you to their deaths in the gas chambers.
In 1945 you returned to Saloniki. I can hardly imagine how you must have felt upon your return – in a city whose Jewish identity had been almost completely destroyed by the Nazis.
Yet, dear Heinz Kounio, the hate and madness of the Nazis did not succeed in stamping out Jewish life in Thessaloniki once and for all. You knew this synagogue when you were a small boy, and after your return you continued to pray here! You were married here, as were your four children. And your nine grandchildren celebrated their Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs here. That is marvellous!
Today community life here is thriving once again. I can only say to you, Mr Saltiel, and to all of you here today: I admire the strength and the love that you have demonstrated in rebuilding Jewish life in this city under difficult conditions.
And I am grateful that we Germans have been able to assist you in this work of reconstruction. That you not only stretched out your hand to us, but have even allowed our German hands to be used in the life of your community: for the restoration of this synagogue and in future for other projects such as the Jewish education centre and the summer gathering with young people from Greece, Israel, Germany and other countries.
Dear community: there aren’t many moments like this in the life of a Foreign Minister. This is an unforgettable moment and I would like to thank you most sincerely for this honour. I hope that it will contribute to a strong German‑Greek‑Jewish partnership. Efcharisto.