Thank you very much for coming, not for the first time, and for giving us the opportunity to hear such moving testimony.
And a special welcome to you, students, because you’re the reason we’re here today. Really, you ought to have come first in my list of people to greet.
What Marian Turski said shows us just how important living witnesses are.
Even though they can scarcely comprehend the terrors and the bitterness and the unspeakable, people can speak movingly about Auschwitz. Let me quote someone:
“In Auschwitz you feel like you’re in another world. Distant, indifferent, oppressive. But here I felt more intensively than ever before that I am a human being. This was one of the most valuable experiences I have ever had, and I think I will come back to Oświęcim, provably more than once, to try to learn what happened here.”
The author of these sentences is one of you, a trainee, Laura.
Laura is one of some 3000 young people who have taken part in the youth project at the Young People’s Centre at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau.
I find it absolutely remarkable that there is such a project, and that it has become a fixed element of Volkswagen’s engagement.
Because one must not forget that the company’s history is linked with the Nazi era, with forced labour. Volkswagen was one of the first major companies to face up to its own history, at a time when to do so was by no means obvious, and when confrontation was difficult, stretching into the family histories of members of the company’s staff, or its then chairman. It was not an easy decision.
It is quite remarkable that one of the many conclusions that could be drawn from this company history was to support this project. I believe we should thank those who had the courage to take this step. Because it is truly exemplary as a way for companies to handle their history under the Nazi regime. For people who have travelled to Auschwitz, seeing the place in person is probably one of the most moving moments at which to consider the past.
The project’s 30th anniversary is a special milestone. I can still remember my first time in Auschwitz, Christoph. In fact, I think we were the first group; we were the ones who inaugurated the Young People’s Centre.
While we were there, Marian Turski, we drove along with an inmate. Kurt Scholz was a German citizen from the Reich; these prisoners were not in Birkenau, but in the main camp. There were various other categories among the prisoners. Anyway, Kurt Scholz took us there – it was his first time back at Auschwitz – and I can still remember how terribly shaken he was.
I don’t know how you do it today, but back then you always had to work at the memorial for half a day, mowing the grass maybe, and in the archive for half a day, doing searches. I still remember Kurt suddenly finding the card drawn up when he was brought to the camp, with the well-known photos, head-on and both profiles. The card also listed his sentences. He had been imprisoned because he was a member of the Social Democrats. He took us all over the camp, but there was one building he didn’t want to enter – Block C. He said no one who went in there ever came out alive. He said he hadn’t had to go in there before and he didn’t want to go in that day either.
We didn’t really start confronting all that happened in Auschwitz until the Auschwitz trials got under way in the early 1960s. Last year two films came out about Fritz Bauer, the Prosecutor-General in Hesse who carried out the trials, battling resistance on the part of the old Nazi lawyers, who were all still employed in the public prosecution office. By the way, Bauer did not dare tell the German authorities that he knew from a contact in Argentina where Eichmann was, because he feared that someone would warn Eichmann. That shows just how difficult things were in our country. It took the student movement and a new generation of teachers who were untainted by the Nazi era to really confront the past.
It will have been terrible for the living witnesses, for the victims, to see how completely their suffering was hidden and the guilt of others ignored. That is why what we are doing today is so important.
We will have to ask ourselves these questions again when there are fewer living witnesses whom we can ask about their experiences. Moreover, our society is developing in such a way that we are suddenly hearing questions we never had to think about before: for instance, from young Muslim immigrants, who ask what they have to do with Auschwitz, and why they really need to learn about something in class that was actually our fault, our parents’ fault, not theirs.
Some of them come from countries where they’re taught anti-Semitism from the cradle. We tell them that Germany is not just any old country, but one with a particularly difficult history. And that everyone who lives in this country has to recognise this history and, above all, play their part to ensure that it never repeats itself.
Learning about Auschwitz, as a synonym for the evil people can do unto others, is, I believe, still very necessary.
However, I do have one request to make of Volkswagen. I’d like to tell you a story. But first let me say a warm welcome to the Polish Ambassador to Germany, who is here with us today. I experienced this story myself, with one of the Ambassador’s predecessors, Janusz Reiter, though at the time he was still a journalist, who knows Germany well and who fought the communist regime with the Solidarność movement. He came to see that first group of visitors to Auschwitz, watched us, and at some point he asked me, “Tell me, do you actually know where you are here?” And we replied, “Well, yes, Auschwitz.” “But are you aware that it’s in Poland?” What he meant by that was that, when we go to Auschwitz now, we must not forget that it is in Poland. Along with our responsibility for history, we also have a responsibility for our relationship with today’s Poland, even if it is difficult sometimes. By the way, it’s no wonder that the big extermination camps are all in Poland. Hitler had given orders to eradicate the entire Polish culture. If you go to the old town in Warsaw today, you will find a mediaeval old town, but one that is just 40 or 50 years old. Because Warsaw was destroyed not by war, but deliberately, as a means to wipe out Polish culture.
I changed the dates for our group, and we spent a third of our time at the memorial and the rest in various Polish towns. Some of it in Poznań, where Volkswagen is, but also over near the Russian border, in eastern Poland, in Wrocław. Today, when German-Polish relations are difficult, it is particularly important to approach the Poles, to talk to them, to try to understand why each country is the way it is.
Our hope is that this will help to build up a good understanding. It starts with each side trying to understand why the other is as it is and thinks as it does. Not, of course, so that you immediately say “Yes, you’re right”, but simply so as to understand why they are the way they are. And to see how we might perhaps move closer to each other.
This, too, is a duty deriving from the history of the Second World War. It is our responsibility to prevent something like that from happening again – by talking with the people in our neighbouring countries. And so I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all those who have been active in this endeavour over the past 30 years. Thank you very much to the Volkswagen group, which has made an exemplary contribution by confronting its history not merely once, but again and again, every year.
We see that in the fact that Laura is right when she says, “Whether things become good, better or worse depends on me.” I believe that is the best lesson we can learn from German history and from what happened.
And finally, it remains for me to say thank you to Marian Turski. Thank you to you, my friend, to you and to all of you who have given us such an amazing gift. Because you have to imagine what that’s like, someone coming here and accepting a prize.
An Israeli President, Shimon Peres, representing the country whose population we Germans reduced by at least six million through mass murder on an industrial scale. He comes to the German Bundestag and instead of talking about reconciliation or partnership, urges us to show love. That is far more than understanding and partnership. Imagine that: he urged both sides to love, bringing a message from representatives of the victims’ people to the nation of the perpetrators. What an amazing gift! What a gift to us Germans, to be able to return to the world of civilised nations through the European Union, through reconciliation with Poland, Israel, Russia.
This is an example of how even bitter enmity can turn into partnership, then friendship and, as Shimon Peres believed, even love.
Our mad world desperately needs examples like that. From the darkest hours, from the heaviest sorrow, something new can grow, something that in future will ensure that a better life is possible. And Laura is right. It depends on each and every one of us.