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“At 6.00 a.m. on 28 October, we were arrested in our beds. People from the districts of Berlin-Mitte, Norden and Tiergarten were detained in the barracks in Kleine Alexanderstrasse to await transport. [...] We travelled in trains [...]. The ordeal and the tremendous anxiety led to many deaths (including some by suicide), people fainting, losing their minds or becoming seriously ill during the journey, and it’s the same thing here.”
The extracts from this letter sound familiar – and yet they are not. They remind us of the inconceivable suffering that Nazi Germany caused millions of people who were seized from their homes, crammed into trains and finally brutally murdered. However, the letter from which I have just quoted does not, as one might expect, have a postmark from the 1941-1945 period.
No, in this letter to his nephew in the US, the violinist Max Karp was describing events from the autumn of 1938.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am grateful that we are commemorating the “Polish Action” of 1938 with today’s event. To date, far too little has been known about this systematic expulsion of Polish Jews at the end of October 1938, in which the Foreign Office also played a major role.
When the Polish parliament responded to Germany’s annexation of Austria by stripping Polish citizens who had lived permanently abroad for longer than five years of their citizenship, it did not take long for a diplomatic protest to be raised.
Shortly after the German Embassy in Warsaw had reported to Berlin that the Polish Ministry of the Interior was enacting the law by decree, the deportation action, which had been carefully planned, was launched. Various authorities, including the Foreign Office, were involved in this demonstration of massive state persecution and violence.
The “Polish Action” of 1938 bore the hallmarks of the later deportations and systematic annihilation of Europe’s Jews.
Then State Secretary Erich von Weizsäcker made no secret of his views when he subsequently justified the action to the Polish Ambassador.
He said: “What we certainly could not accept was being left with the burden of a rabble of forty to fifty thousand stateless former Polish Jews because of the denaturalisation.”
It is important that we continue to face up to this past here in the Federal Foreign Office of today and that we do not lose sight of our responsibility for the present and the future.
It is up to us, along with our political partners and civil society, to stand up worldwide for the protection of human rights and to do our utmost to counter anti-Semitism, racism and marginalisation in our societies.
That does not only apply to Germany, but also worldwide. The terrible news from Pittsburgh at the weekend shows that we cannot afford to let up in our endeavours to keep memories of the past alive.
This exhibition plays an important part in this by making the “Polish Action” more prominent in collective memory.
As well as showing us the suffering people endured, the exhibition enables us to see how people demonstrated solidarity in this dreadful situation.
Within a few hours, more than 8000 displaced persons arrived at the border town of Zbąszyń on 28 and 29 October 1938. Thanks to the help of Polish families and international aid organisations, it proved possible to set up infrastructure to look after them. Later on, their resettlement in other towns was organised.
With today’s commemoration event, we are helping to ensure that an important date in German-Polish history is honoured in a fitting way. Remembrance of our shared history is particularly important between our two countries. It has a major impact on relations between our countries and the image we have of each other.
To an even greater extent than before, for example through the new federal programme, Jugend erinnert (Young People Remember), we want to give young people from our countries opportunities to learn more about each other and how they see the past.
This can build bridges, which are so important for us as neighbours.
Allow me to conclude by thanking the New Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum Foundation, Freie Universität Berlin, the Aktives Museum and all other partners involved in the exhibition and today’s commemoration event.
I am pleased that the Federal Foreign Office was able to play a part in this and to have the chance to hear the personal memories of survivors or their descendants. I hope we will all learn a lot.