Address by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the exhibition Lest We Forget

22.06.2021 - Speech

It’s wonderful to see you again, Ms Friedländer. You’re not just in front of me, but also behind me today. And it’s also wonderful that we’ll be seeing each other again already on Thursday when we receive the US Secretary of State together here in Berlin.

Dr Lutz,
Luigi Toscano,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On this day 80 years ago – on 22 June 1941 – National Socialist Germany attacked the Soviet Union. The so‑called war of annihilation in the east marked the beginning of the most murderous chapter of the world war unleashed by Germany, which claimed 24 million lives on the territory of the former Soviet Union alone. Millions more were injured, orphaned and mutilated, both physically and mentally.

These numbers are so inconceivably large that they are actually beyond human comprehension. Yet behind each and every number is a person with his or her entire life story. That is precisely what we feel when we look into the faces that you, Luigi Toscano, have photographed.

They are faces like that of Anna Strishkova from Kyiv. Her parents were murdered immediately upon arrival at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. She herself became one of the children that Dr Mengele experimented on. To overcome this trauma, she went on to become a doctor herself in the former Soviet Union. Just imagine that – having associated doctors only with pain and injury, she decided that she wanted to heal other people.

It’s stories like this that touch us – and if they don’t, I don't think you’re human. But they also make what happened somehow tangible for our human mind.

Ladies and gentlemen,
On my way here, I wondered what it would feel to look into the faces of survivors of National Socialist crimes in a station concourse, amidst gaudy shops and fast-moving suitcases.

But I am utterly convinced that, when you stand here, you also realise that this is precisely where your portraits belong, Mr Toscano. And not only because it was railway stations from which millions of Jewish women, men and children embarked on their journey to the death camps. These pictures also show life – in all its facets.

They show the pain and the scars inflicted on the survivors.

But they also show the kindness and hope that speak from the faces of those portrayed – despite all the horror of what they experienced.

And that is why these pictures are in the right place here – in the midst of life, amidst the hubbub and commotion, in a place that hundreds of thousands of people pass through every day. And therefore, Dr Lutz, we are most grateful to you and your corporation for making this possible.

Allow me to quote a Jewish adage: “Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer, and the secret to redemption lies in remembrance.” This redemptive remembrance cannot be confined to museums, memorial sites or history classes.

It must and should be accessible to everyone, in a place like this. And perhaps it will make people pause and reflect for a moment, in the truest sense of the word, and consider what the faces of the people who are portrayed here tell us.

And this is all the more important because, unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer eyewitnesses still with us, those who can tell us with the persuasive power of their own experience about what still seems incomprehensible to those of us who did not experience it.

And so we are all the more delighted that you were able to come here today, Ms Friedländer. You are not only an eyewitness, but you are also something like the guardian of our social cohesion.

You try to talk to young people wherever possible. You let them share in your fate, which raises some of the most fundamental questions about what it means to be human. In so doing, you also educate people in the ways of empathy – thus performing a very, very valuable service for our democracy.

After all, this democracy is only as strong as those who genuinely defend it, especially in times like these. Just last week, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution confirmed the extent to which the COVID‑19 pandemic has reinforced right-wing extremism and antisemitic stereotypes. Those who parade through our streets with tacked‑on Nazi era yellow-star badges or signs like “Impfen macht frei” (vaccination sets you free), echoing the “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) sign over the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp, are not concerned citizens, but antisemites.

Stating this clearly and acting accordingly is not only a core task of the state, but is a duty for all those who wish to live in a tolerant, cosmopolitan and enlightened Germany in which people encounter each other with one thing above all else, namely with respect. And I firmly believe that this applies to the overwhelming majority of people in our country. And it is up to this majority, ladies and gentlemen, to counterbalance the aggressive and inhumane howls of the minority. After all, a minority can only make itself heard if the majority stays silent.

If we remind ourselves of this fact, then it becomes clear what our task is, namely not remaining silent or indifferent when we encounter hatred, hate speech and intolerance.

We must promote the work of remembrance – “Lest We Forget” – as well as democracy, tolerance and humanity.

Thank you very much.


Top of page