Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth on the presentation of the 14th volume of the book project “The persecution and murder of European Jews by National Socialist Germany from 1933 to 1945 – Occupied southeast Europe and Italy”

22.06.2017 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Prof. Wolfgang Schieder,
Dr Susanne Heim,
Esteemed guests,

“He who would write poetry must write poetry entire. He who would write history must have the courage to show the truth in all its nakedness.” This quote by Johann Gottfried von Herder could be a mission statement for the book that we are presenting here at the Federal Foreign Office today.

The fourteenth volume of the book project “The persecution and murder of European Jews by National Socialist Germany from 1933 to 1945 – Occupied southeast Europe and Italy” appears, at first sight, to be quite matter‑of‑fact and dry with its 812 pages in a mint-green jacket cover.

And yet this project, which began in 2003 with a new volume added to the compendium each year since then, is nothing less than a written memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. The objective of the project is the comprehensive academic publication of central sources and documents on the history of the persecution and murder of the Jewish population on the basis of archive material from around the world.

Volume 14 contains 312 sources and documents detailing the persecution and murder of Jews in Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania. The fact that this volume on occupied southeast Europe and Italy is being presented here at the Federal Foreign Office shows that we are not shying away here at this Ministry from (self-)critical engagement with the darkest chapter of German history.

At the end of the day, the Federal Foreign Office also shared responsibility for the expulsion, oppression and murder of Jews in the National Socialist era. This is also reflected by documents in this volume.

Allow me to take a closer look at an example from the region, one that is particularly important to me, namely the situation of the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, which I have visited on a number of occasions in the past few years. This Jewish community, which was once so great and proud, suffered in an especially tragic way under the Nazi occupation.

Thessaloniki had been a city with an unmistakable Jewish identity for many centuries. The Holocaust almost completely destroyed this proud tradition and left deep wounds and scars in the metropolis. The city lost almost 50,000 citizens of Jewish faith in 1943.

Not only that, but its unique Jewish life – its culture, its academic heritage, its economy – was almost completely eradicated. This loss pains all of us, Jews and non‑Jews alike.
This volume traces the fate of the Jews in Greece over 150 pages and with more than one hundred documents. Instructions, communications from authorities, private letters and diary entries, as well as newspaper articles and reports by foreign observers are referenced in the process and provide an unfiltered record.

For example, in document 235 you can read the long letter by Nehama Kazes from Thessaloniki to her sons in Athens, in which she uses haunting language to describe the dramatic situation in Thessaloniki:

“Everyone is selling their things on the street so as to have something to eat. People are wasting money as if it were water. They are throwing money out of the window and letting anyone who wants to have all of their property. […] It’s like we’re in a bad dream day and night and we’re living in indescribable fear. Everyone’s packed their handcarts and put them outside their front doors.” That’s what Nehama Kazes writes in her letter.

The German Consulate General’s secret report of 15 March 1943 is also included in the volume. In this document, the then Consul General Dr Fritz Schönberg uses unsettling and bureaucratic language to describe the beginning of the deportations to Berlin:

“The resettlement of the 56,000 Jews with Greek nationality living in the locality began today with the deportation of 2600 persons from Saloniki to the General Government. It is planned to conduct four transports each week in order to complete the entire process in around six weeks.”

I have enjoyed a close dialogue with the Jewish community in Thessaloniki for almost four years now. In January 2014, I was invited to give an address on the occasion of International Holocaust Remembrance Day as a member of the Federal Government – at the place from where the Jews of Thessaloniki were deported. This powerful gesture of reconciliation, the outstretched hand of friendship, moved me greatly.

I have been back to Thessaloniki time and again since then. I am particularly delighted that the Jewish community in Thessaloniki is prepared, with the support of the Federal Government, to implement projects to continue to strengthen Jewish life in the city.

We have, for instance, supported the efforts to renovate the Monasteriotes synagogue. We are also fostering a Jewish education centre and summer gatherings of young people from Greece, Israel, Germany and other countries. And now a Greek Holocaust museum is being set up in Thessaloniki, which the Federal Government is lending its active support. This is more than a museum. It can restore some of the city’s Jewish identity and serve as a meeting place for future generations. The future always requires us to remember the past!

In Thessaloniki, I’ve often made a point of meeting up with Heinz Kunio, who is celebrating his 90th birthday this week. He and his closest family survived the Holocaust. The circumstances were terrible. Since he spoke German, Heinz Kunio was ordered to translate the commands of the SS from German into Greek on the ramp at Auschwitz – which meant that he saw countless members of his community pass by him on the way to a cruel death in the gas chambers of the extermination camp.

In 1945, he was one of the few survivors to come back to Thessaloniki, returning to a city whose Jewish identity had been almost entirely erased by the Nazis. And he studied the past there and gave the victims back their names. He wrote an impressive book about his time in Auschwitz entitled “A litre of soup and 60 grams of bread – diary of prisoner no. 109565”.

And, first and foremost, Heinz Kunio has told countless school classes about his experiences and continues to meet young people to this day. It is important to Mr Kunio to pass these experiences on to the younger generation – to call these memories to mind, despite the pain. These encounters with eyewitnesses, their personal memories, are irreplaceable. And yet there are fewer and fewer of these eyewitnesses in our midst today.

This is why this publishing project, which sheds light on many original documents, the overwhelming majority of which are being published for the first time, is so important. This volume is the product of a great deal of work – conducting source research, reaching decisions on selections and editing. The authors are making the voices of eyewitnesses – both victims and perpetrators – heard with these original documents. It is up to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Access to original documents with commentaries by researchers is so important especially in times of increasing radicalisation and the rapid dissemination of so‑called “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

It is important that we engage in scholarly treatment of the Holocaust also from a foreign and European policy perspective. This is not just a question of shedding light on Germany’s chequered history, but above all of remembering the tragic history of Greece, Italy, Albania and the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. Without an awareness of this history, we Germans – despite all our best efforts to promote understanding and reconciliation – will never be able to do justice to these countries and the role that we play there. All of the trips that I have been on in this region have reminded me about this fact.

We cannot undo the past. But we can help ensure that the injustice that was perpetrated is never repeated. This, the darkest chapter in the history of humanity, must never be forgotten. This book project is committed to this aim. Allow me to thank all those who have played an active part in making it a reality.

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