Plundered shops, demolished homes, synagogues set on fire: exactly 80 years ago, during the night of 9 to 10 November 1938, a rampaging mob roamed the streets of Berlin as well as towns and cities throughout Germany. They destroyed Jewish buildings, killed people and drove others to suicide.
The November pogroms not only highlighted the National Socialist regime’s will to annihilate. They also symbolised the willingness of a broad section of the non Jewish population to be complicit in these crimes. Or at least their willingness to close their eyes, to be indifferent – the worst thing of all.
After all, it wasn’t the majority population that was being targeted. It was them – the others, the Jews. This crumbling away of solidarity, this despicable attempt to dehumanise, paved the way for the Shoah.
First and foremost, you’re receiving the Jewish Museum’s Prize for Understanding and Tolerance today because with your writings, in your novels, short stories and essays, you fight every form of dehumanisation.
When asked what politicians can learn from literature, you said: a talent for listening. You said it was important to remember that even in times of conflict people weren’t faceless beings but unique – every single one of them.
You believe it´s important to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes. For when we do that, you once wrote, we can no longer be indifferent to others. Then it’s difficult to completely reject someone, to dismiss them as sub human.
You’ve fully lived up to this aspiration, one which you set yourself in your work. In your writings, you pick out the individual from the masses. And in your public appeals for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.
The political tension in the region, the consequences of political actions for the individual, often form the backdrop to your work.
I’m thinking here of your protagonist Ora, who in your book “To the End of the Land”, desperately tries to protect her family and herself from the brutality of the Middle East conflict.
Or of the nameless couple in your very personal book “Falling out of Time”, which represents so many parents who have experienced the loss of a beloved child.
Every line oozes empathy, a deep respect for the dignity of every individual, which touches your readers and makes your oeuvre a work of reconciliation.
“The situation is too desperate to be left to the despairing”.
This is the conclusion you’ve drawn – despite the cruel blows suffered by your own family.
You decided not to close your eyes. You decided to keep on looking, to keep on calling a spade a spade.
You don’t shy away from any conflict and sometimes harshly criticise your home country, Israeli politics and society. It’s the will and readiness to conduct these debates and to endure the inevitable controversies that follow for which we admire Israel’s democracy.
You argue that only a true reconciliation of interests between Israelis and Palestinians can create lasting peace. In April, you said that if the Palestinians had no home then the Israelis wouldn’t have a home either.
Such a statement may meet with opposition, not only from a few but possibly from many people. However, without opinions, without diversity of opinion, democracy is at risk, no matter where – in Israel, in Germany or anywhere else in the world.
That requires an instinct for the sweeping changes taking place in society and, above all, the courage to address uncomfortable truths.
Both these aspects play a crucial role in David Grossman’s work. This was one of the reasons why you were awarded the Israel Prize this year – 70 years after the State of Israel was founded. This is the only way to enter into a dialogue, which is the foundation for understanding and tolerance.
You once described your first visit to Germany in the mid eighties.
I was very touched when I read your account. You wrote that you were hardly able to leave your hotel. You would have preferred to spend your stay in bed. But when you did go out, you noticed a shadow behind every person.
It’s the shadow of the darkest chapter in German history which you saw back then.
It’s also the shadow of the November pogroms 80 years ago, which marked a turning point from the long years of discrimination to the systematic annihilation of Jewish life in Germany and Europe.
You show in your latest book “A Horse Walks into a Bar” how little the shadow has faded since then. On the surface, it’s about a comedy evening in Netanya. However, the laughter is followed by unease when the comedian begins to talk about his mother, a survivor of the Shoah. The traumas of the past continue to have an impact.
And yet, it’s the relations between Israel and Germany in particular which have led you to believe that peace between Israel and Palestine is possible.
In an essay, you write about an almost unbelievable process which has developed between Israel and Germany: the human ability to build bridges over an abyss of hate and mistrust, bridges which have to do with a sense of reality, shared interests and, at some point, mutual curiosity and closeness.
What a statement! I’d like to add that without the readiness of Israelis to engage in reconciliation, without the outstretched hand from Israel, this process would not have been possible. We here in Germany feel great and profound gratitude for that.
We’ve come a long way. How close our relations are was visible once more at the German Israeli intergovernmental consultations held just a few weeks ago in October. We don’t always have to be of the same opinion, we can openly address anything that needs to be criticised. There’s no true relationship without that possibility. This is the mark of how mature, how fit for the future the relations between our two countries have become.
You concluded your essay, Mr Grossman, with an appeal to Germany to become actively involved in the Middle East conflict as a mediator.
This image of Germany as a mediator would do us good. We intend to going on trying to play our part in bringing about a durable peace settlement in the Middle East. I can assure you of that. We cannot do that alone, but together with our partners we’re endeavouring to make a difference.
It’s good to know that we have people like you on our side. Your great personal pain led you to draw the difficult but right conclusion that hate and exclusion will inevitably lead to one thing: to renewed suffering.
That’s a warning to us all: we must never again be indifferent. Not when right wing radicals give the Nazi salute in public in Germany. Not when all over the world populist propaganda is increasing and a reversion to nationalism is being preached. Responsibility and steadfastness are required. We have to act humanely when dehumanisation rears its ugly head.
The Prize for Understanding and Tolerance is being awarded to a champion of humanity. David Grossman is a very worthy recipient.
Congratulations and thank you very much!