What do in Berdychiv in Ukraine, Gurs in France, Lety in the Czech Republic, Maly Trostinets in Belarus and Staro Sajmište in Serbia have in common?
While Auschwitz has entered our collective memory as a synonym for the most terrible betrayal of all civilised values in living memory, these places have largely been forgotten about.
It’s sad, but hardly anyone in Germany is aware today of the fact that they were places where the Holocaust or genocide of the Sinti and Roma took place. These five places stand for the “forgotten Holocaust”.
Dignified memorials have been planned, built or already erected there only in the last few years. Nazis and their accomplices incarcerated people there, humiliated, tortured and murdered them. Seventy-five years have passed since then, during which time the victims have been denied a dignified memorial and their relatives a place to mourn.
All of these places stand for the European dimension of the Holocaust and the genocide of the Sinti and Roma, which reached far beyond Germany and its immediate neighbour Poland.
Although Auschwitz was the largest apparatus of annihilation installed on Polish soil and claimed the most victims, the horror went further, much further than this.
Berdychiv, for example, stands for the over 2000 places in Ukraine where Jews and Roma were murdered in mass shootings.
Gurs tells the story of the deportation of Jews from Baden, the Saarland and the Palatinate to a French camp north of the Pyrenees.
The so-called “gypsy camp” Lety had been forgotten for decades, and it was not until 2018 that the pig farm erected on the site was closed.
Ten thousand Austrian Jews were murdered along with Germans, Czechs and Belarusians in the Blagovshchina Forest near Maly Trostinets.
As early as in June 1942, an SS dispatch reported that “Serbia is free of Jews”. Over the next few years, the former Sajmište concentration camp is, at long last, to be converted into a memorial to the Jews and Roma murdered there.
In all my talks and meetings, I have encountered an alarming contradiction. On the one hand, people appear – or at least this is what it feels like – to be tired of remembering the Holocaust, that it plays too big a role in the public sphere, that our society suffers from a guilt complex, that it is not only old and new Nazis who are calling for a line to be drawn under history and for an about-face in our culture of remembrance.
On the other hand, there are still glaring gaps in knowledge about the Holocaust in Germany – especially among the younger generation. I was shocked by the results of a survey conducted by the US broadcaster CNN in 2018 in Germany and other countries in which 40 percent of those surveyed, aged between 18 and 34, stated that they knew little or nothing about the Holocaust.
Forty percent – that is shameful! And this was despite the fact that, in Germany, Holocaust education is a firm part of the curriculum of all 16 Länder.
So how do we help young people to stand up to hatred and hate speech even more effectively? A diverse and cosmopolitan Germany can only be defended if we make young people aware of our historical responsibility. If young people understand, against the backdrop of the Holocaust, why the first sentence of our constitution, the Basic Law, states that “human dignity shall be inviolable” – and not “the dignity of the Germans shall be inviolable”.
This ignorance of our history is especially dangerous at a time when, in Germany and all over Europe, ethnic nationalist thinking is making inroads into parliaments and into the hearts and minds of the people. Contempt for democracy, antisemitism, antigypsyism, racism and homophobia are spreading more and more – not only on the internet, but also at school, at work, in sports clubs and in pubs.
And what starts with more brutal language ends more and more frequently in brutal violence. With the limits of what can be said, the limits of what is possible have shifted to an increasing degree. In Halle last October, it was only the massive door of the synagogue that miraculously prevented Jews from being massacred.
In Hanau two weeks ago, innocent people were cruelly murdered simply because they were Roma, because they had Turkish or Kurdish roots. And even in a cosmopolitan, liberal metropolis like Berlin, people of the Jewish faith who wear a kippah are frequently insulted and attacked on the street. That is the sad reality in the year 2020.
“Our remembrance has [not] made us immune to evil. […] The spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise.” This is how Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier summed this up recently in his speech at the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem. And he’s right. But these are not just any old spirits emerging from the shadows of the past. They are people who want to hate and murder other people because they look different, think differently, believe differently and love differently.
Many Jews are once again contemplating the prospect of emigrating. Members of other minorities are also asking themselves whether they can still live in safety in Germany. I am ashamed by this depressing state of affairs.
We have been silent and played down this issue for too long while red lines were gradually and repeatedly crossed. It is simply no longer enough to believe that we are in the majority. It is now up to us, as upright democrats, to stand up to this and to set ourselves clearly apart from the often more vociferous racist and antisemitic minority. If we don’t do this, then we Germans in particular would be guilty for a second time.
But we in Germany are not alone in facing this challenge. In 2018, the number of antisemitic attacks worldwide rose by 13 percent compared to the previous year. According to a study by the University of Tel Aviv, the majority of incidents in 2019 were reported by large Western democracies, including the US, France, the UK and Germany.
As the international community, we are therefore jointly called upon to resolutely oppose all forms of hatred and violence against minorities and to defend our open, liberal society.
On 27 January, we commemorated the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. Almost the whole world paused for a moment to remember the victims. Once again, we declared our determination to stand up and say “never again”.
Days such as the International Holocaust Remembrance Day and rituals of remembrance are enormously important. But they are not enough. We must also work during the remaining 364 days of the year for a world in which we can all be different without fear.
This is precisely where the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance comes in. Since 1998, the IHRA has been the key forum for this. It promotes international cooperation on Holocaust remembrance. It develops standards for education. It establishes research networks. And it tackles difficult aspects of remembrance.
The IHRA’s work makes a difference. The fact that the Vatican, for example, finally opened its archives to research yesterday is thanks not least to the IHRA. The same also goes for the pig farm in Lety that I mentioned a moment ago, which will now finally give way to a place of dignified remembrance.
Since its foundation 20 years ago, the IHRA has lost none of its importance, quite the contrary. It now has 34 Member Countries, most of them in Europe, but also Israel, the US, Canada, Argentina and Australia. Under the chairmanship of Luxembourg, all members of the IHRA met at ministerial level to renew their commitment on 19 January. They declared that:
We accept our responsibility as governments to continue working together to counter Holocaust denial and distortion, antisemitism, and all forms of racism and discrimination that undermine fundamental democratic principles. We will work closely with experts, civil society and our international partners to further these goals.
They also stated the following: “We are leading efforts to promote education, remembrance and research on the Holocaust and the genocide of the Sinti and Roma to counter the influence of historical distortion, hate speech and incitement to violence and hatred.”
Germany made a most conscious decision to assume the IHRA chairmanship in this anniversary year of 2020 and to ensure that these commitments are implemented. We are thereby living up to our historical responsibility and are sending a strong signal at a time when freedom, democracy and diversity are coming under massive pressure.
I would like to thank Ambassador Georges Santer for his great commitment to the chairmanship over the past year, which is something that we intend to build on in the coming months. Ambassador Küchler will present our plans for Germany’s chairmanship in detail in just a moment. The focus will be on combating the denial and distortion of the Holocaust, one of the two strategic goals of the IHRA.
All IHRA member countries have made a commitment to face up to their own past, by critically and truthfully researching the history they have inherited. In Germany, we know all too well that this is a long and painful process. We too have suffered and continue to suffer setbacks and serious shortcomings along the way. For example, it was only in 1982 that the German Government acknowledged its responsibility for the genocide of the Sinti and Roma. Many of those affected were no longer alive when the Bundestag decided to compensate forced labourers in 1999.
Much work remains to be done on the map of Europe’s sites of remembrance. Let us together help raise awareness about the darkest chapter of our common history. Ours is a dream of a colourful, diverse and tolerant society in which there will never again be a place for antisemitism, antigypsyism and racism. For this dream to become a reality once and for all, we need all of you, upright democrats, to show your faces, stand up, become more vocal and join in the fight!