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“It was a horrible night,” Nechama Drober remembers, who was eleven years old at the time. Together with her parents, she looked out the window of their apartment and watched the Königsberg Synagogue burn. 42 years after its dedication, in the night of 9 November 1938, the synagogue was ransacked by National Socialists and set ablaze. Prayer books and Torah scrolls – everything went up in flames. Nechama heard the screams of children as German SA troop entered the Jewish orphanage next door to the synagogue, forcing its residents onto the street barefoot and in their nightgowns.
Around the world, we are these days commemorating the eightieth anniversary of the November pogroms of 1938. I am ashamed by the unfathomable suffering that German racial hatred brought to Europe and the world. State-organised and executed systematic persecution led to the abuse, abduction and murder of thousands of Jews, and to the destruction and looting of 1200 synagogues and more than 7000 Jewish shops.
Here, too, in Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg, the painful memories of the pogrom night of 1938 are deeply etched into the collective memory. Before the National Socialists seized power, the Jewish community here was the third largest in the German Reich, only behind Berlin and Wrocław. In August of 1896, the Königsberg Synagogue was dedicated with a large celebration – an event that was noted far beyond the Jewish community. At the time, Königsberg was known as a truly diverse and tolerant city, a place where people of different faiths could live both next to and with one another in peace.
Many of the Jews of Königsberg were deported to Minsk and murdered at the extermination camp of Maly Trostenets, in present-day Belarus. This June, I accompanied Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier to Maly Trostenets, where I took part in the opening of a memorial. It is a place where unspeakable horror occurred, something that far too few of my compatriots know about.
Germany acknowledges its historical responsibility for fascism, war and the Holocaust. We would repeat our guilt if we were to keep silent about or relativise, let alone deny, what the generation of our grandparents and great-grandparents did to other human beings and countries. Shared commemoration, remembrance and reconciliation are qualities that shape the policy of my country. Remembrance and accepting responsibility are not a sign of weakness. They make us strong and more sensitive to possible new suffering. That is why, particularly nowadays, we all have a duty to remain watchful and call out the many different kinds of human rights violations that occur in far too many places around the world.
Yet, coming to grips with the past is painful. Healing and reconciliation do not happen overnight. Rather, they occur over years, even decades. It has taken 80 years for a synagogue to again open its doors to Jews here in Kaliningrad. Today’s dedication of the synagogue – on the site on which its predecessor stood and with an accurate reconstruction of its original façade – sends a signal of hope. Jewish life is coming back to this city. That is something you and I are truly happy about. And from the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you!
My thanks go to everyone who for years has worked tirelessly for this moment: Natalja Kopitschina-Lorenz of the foundation dedicated to building the New Kaliningrad Synagogue, as well as the donor and philanthropist Vladimir Katzman and the Berlin association Jews in East Prussia.
I am proud and pleased to be able to say that, today, Jewish life has returned to Germany. Jewish communities currently have nearly 100,000 members again. This is also thanks to the trust that many Jews from the former Soviet Union have placed in Germany. I hope this connection will encourage us to further expand civil society cooperation between Germany and Russia in multifaceted ways.
Today, too, tolerance, respect and diversity are unfortunately not a given in our societies. We must do everything possible to protect Jewish life. Right-wing extremist and anti-Semitic movements in Germany and other parts of the world are on the rise.
Horrific headlines such as those from Pittsburgh only a few days ago bring back terrible memories. In the city of Chemnitz in eastern Germany, there was an arson attack on a Jewish restaurant, and in Berlin a young man wearing a kippah was attacked with a belt and beaten in public. Attacks on Jews, and members of other minorities, are attacks on us all and on our liberal societies. They are crimes and must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
When such events occur, it is worth taking pause and thinking of the turbulent history of this synagogue. The natural way that, already at the very end of the 19th century, people lived in tolerance, mutual respect and peaceful coexistence with one another should be an inspiration to us all – in Germany, in Russia, and even throughout Europe. The synagogue and Jewish community of Kaliningrad are today opening a new chapter of European history. May it be marked by peace, respect, reconciliation, tolerance and friendship. Peace be with us. Mir s nami. Shalom aleichem.