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Bundestag Vice-President Pau,
Since 2008, a sculpture by Frank Meisler beside Friedrichstrasse station has reminded us of how little sometimes lies between freedom and imprisonment and between life and death.
Perhaps you have already noticed this memorial. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the rush hour and people travelling, the seven bronze figures of children remind us that the fate of young people was decided here.
For thousands of children, the train journey to a cruel death in a Nazi concentration camp began in Friedrichstrasse station.
Five figures made of grey bronze stand for the estimated 1.5 million Jewish children who were killed in the Holocaust – 1.5 million children were tortured, beaten to death, poisoned or gassed.
For other children, however, the trains to freedom and a life in safety left from Friedrichstrasse station. These children are represented by two figures in a lighter bronze, who are looking in the opposite direction to the other five figures. The Kindertransport, or Children’s Transport, which we are commemorating here today in the Federal Foreign Office, enabled thousands of Jewish children to escape to the United Kingdom and other countries between 1938 and 1940.
How did the Kindertransport come about in 1938? The blind racial hatred of the Nazi regime reached its first tragic climax during the pogrom of the night of 9 to 10 November 1938. Synagogues were set on fire and Jewish shops were destroyed or damaged. Many people were killed. The Nazis imprisoned 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps.
The British Government, shortly followed by the Belgian Government, reacted quickly and eased the visa requirements for child refugees – a policy decision that would save the lives of around 18,000 Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. A private individual, Nicholas Winston, organised the transports, obtaining the necessary funding entirely from donations.
We are honoured to have some of the people who were rescued as children here with us today. I am deeply moved to be able to welcome you here.
At the time you had to say goodbye to your parents and home. Often, you took nothing with you but a small suitcase containing your most important belongings. And you took your memories of your family, friends and the home you had to leave behind. You were denied a carefree childhood, but given the chance of a life in freedom. You survived.
Back then, you took a journey to the unknown. No doubt you were very anxious about what life in another country would be like and whether people would treat you well. You wondered when you would see your family, friends and home again.
You went on to find refuge in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, France, Spain, what was then British Palestine, the United States, Norway, Australia and Canada. I am also pleased to welcome representatives of these countries here today.
We now know that 40 percent of the children did not see their mother and father again after the war. Many of the children went to the United States or Palestine, and only a few returned.
Along with many survivors of the Kindertransport, we also have school pupils here with us today. I am very happy that you are here. Your presence and endeavours help to keep the past alive. You help to ensure that future generations confront German history, and in particular its darkest chapter. These golden wristbands that we are all wearing this evening stand for that. History, with all its high and low points, is the shared bond that unites the generations. We are all part of a community of remembrance, regardless of whether we are young or old or male or female.
The future needs remembrance. Only those who are aware of the past can help to ensure that its tragedies are not repeated. The children who were able to flee Germany on the Kindertransport were as old as you are now. They were rescued and that is why they can be here with us today as older people and tell us their moving stories. What good fortune!
Children are our hope for a better world of peace and freedom. The world of tomorrow and the more distant future mainly lies in your hands and heads. That is why I would like you to tell other people about the Kindertransport. My hope is that you will help those who need your help and continue working to ensure that everyone here in Germany can live in freedom and without fear, irrespective of their background, religion, sex or sexual identity.
I also warmly welcome the German and Polish trainees and the vocational school students who recently convened at the International Youth Meeting Centre in Auschwitz and did voluntary work together at the Memorial and Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Thank you for all your hard work!
Ladies and gentlemen,
We owe a great debt of gratitude to the countries that are now our friends and to their courageous and determined citizens. They proved their humanity in inhuman times. Their actions in the past should serve as an example to us all for our actions today.
People in Germany also helped the Kindertransport. The Jewish German businessman Wilfrid Israel, who owned a department store in Spandauer Strasse in the Mitte district of Berlin, is just one example among many. He used all of his extensive personal and business contacts to enable Jewish children to leave Germany. Albert Einstein wrote about him that never in his life had he come in contact with “a being so noble, so strong and as selfless as he was”.
Wilfrid Israel was shot down in an attack on a civilian aircraft over the Bay of Biscay in 1943. A Stolperstein, or stumbling stone – a small bronze plaque in the pavement – pays tribute to him in Spandauer Strasse today. What a wonderful gesture of gratitude and respect it would be if the city of Berlin named a street or a square after him.
People still have to leave their homes today. There are currently 60 million refugees worldwide. Almost half of them are younger than 18. Over a third of all the refugees who arrive in Germany today are children. Let us open our hearts and help wherever we can. Our own history should teach us this.
Our society is now more diverse than ever before – 20 percent of all Germans are descended from someone who was born outside Germany. Germany is a country of immigration.
Nevertheless, once again we are experiencing an era in which discrimination, social exclusion and racism seem to be becoming socially acceptable once again. We cannot allow that to happen.
At the same time, however, we are also experiencing a huge surge of solidarity and empathy in our society. We are witnessing humanity across all age groups and social classes. Without the many thousands of volunteers, we would not have been able to take in and integrate refugees here in Germany.
Following the good example of the host families who offered their help in 1938, we want to show our human side today.
We are working to ensure that people from different backgrounds, faiths and cultural traditions can feel at ease in Germany – and live in the heart of society, not on its margins. If at times we feel uncertain and worry that the task is too difficult, may the memory of the children who were able to flee and survive some 80 years ago give us strength and hope. Humanity is worthwhile at all times and in all places.