19 April 2010
In Germany, ceremonies were held on Sunday to mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen. In April 1945, Allied troops entered the camps and freed the inmates of the camps. Sachsenhausen, close to the German capital Berlin, was one of the first Nazi concentration camps.
Around 100 survivors of the Ravensbrück women's camp attended the remembrance ceremony there. Education Minister Annette Schavan, who replaced Chancellor Angela Merkel, told them "your history will remain an eternal warning to us".
At the Bergen-Belsen memorial, near Hannover, German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said the camp had been "hell on earth.” He also expressed his admiration that so many survivors had made the long journey to the former campsite to take part in the commemorations. Charlotte Knobloch, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, laid a wreath at the Bergen-Belsen memorial (picture). In her speech, she recalled the horrors of the camps, but also thanked staff at the memorial for their efforts and their dedication to preserving the memory.
Due to the current closure of European airports, the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald S. Lauder, was unable to participate in the Bergen-Belsen commemoration. However, his keynote speech (below) was read out at the event. In it, Lauder warned of a new rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and said sites such as Bergen-Belsen had to be preserved for future generations.
Address by Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress,
on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen
I thank the organizers for hosting this very important event.
In a few decades – when the last survivors are no longer among us – historical sites, memorials, museums, films, photos, books and other documents will be all that is left.
Our youngsters won’t be able to listen to immediate eyewitness accounts, to survivors who can personally show them around here and tell them what they were made to suffer.
Our direct link with that the past will soon be broken, and this means we have to double our efforts in keeping the memory alive.
But are we really prepared for that?
Are we ready to take over the relay baton from the generation that lived through World War II and make sure memorials such as this are still being held when the eyewitnesses are no more?
Teaching History in classrooms in very important, but it cannot replace visits to sites such as this.
It was here where Anne Frank and her sister Margot died, after having survived Auschwitz. The two girls were just two of an estimated 18,000 prisoners who died here in March 1945, weeks before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
The Diary of Anne Frank has conveyed the lessons of the Holocaust to millions of young people in such a way no school, no conference and no speech ever could.
It is important that we find more such means to keep the memory alive for younger generations.
At Bergen-Belsen the Nazis also held tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war. Almost 20,000 of them died, most of them during the winter 1941/42. They were not given shelter, they died from starvation, disease or the cold weather.
In April 1943, Bergen-Belsen became a concentration camp where Jews and subsequently inmates of various groups and from a great many countries where imprisoned.
It was the place where those who had miraculously survived the death camps in Auschwitz and elsewhere and thousands of kilometers of death marches were meant by the Nazis to die in agony.
In the history of the World Jewish Congress, Bergen-Belsen has had a special meaning, too.
These Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons Camp of Bergen-Belsen wanted to elect their own leaders.
After the oppression of the previous decades they wanted to determine their own fate, not have it imposed on them.
Most of them wanted to go to Palestine, to build the Jewish homeland there.
After the Shoah, the Jewish people finally wanted to be free!
Josef Rosensaft became the head of the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany, with its headquarter here in Belsen. His son, Menachem Rosensaft, is a friend of mine.
Menachem told me how his mother, Dr. Ada Bimko, who immediately after the liberation had headed a team of doctors and nurses from among the survivors to help care for the critically ill inmates, met his father Josef in the DP Camp.
Under the leadership of Josef Rosensaft the Central Committee of Liberated Jews lobbied the British to allow emigration of Jewish DPs to Israel, and it became a member of the World Jewish Congress.
In 1948, a DP delegation from Belsen and the British Zone took part in the World Jewish Congress Plenary Assembly in Montreux, Switzerland.
They raised the plight of the 200,000 Displaced Jews that were stranded in DP camps across Germany and who had to live in dismal conditions.
The World Jewish Congress campaigned tirelessly for these DPs to be treated well, for their rights to be safeguarded, and above all for them to be allowed to go to live in Israel.
In a resolution adopted in Montreux, the World Jewish Congress called the establishment of the “Jewish State of Israel…an unshakable reality” and declared that as the majority of Jewish DPs desired to go there, they “should be given the opportunity of doing so, in order to rehabilitate themselves in security, dignity and peace.”
In 1952, my predecessor, then World Jewish Congress President Nahum Goldmann, was here for the inauguration of the Bergen-Belsen Memorial, together with German President Theodor Heuss, who gave a remarkable speech.
Standing where we stand today, Nahum Goldmann said the following, and I quote it in German:
“Vom Standpunkt des deutschen Volkes und der Menschheit gesehen, ist der Sinn dieses tragischen Kapitels, dem diese Feier gewidmet ist, der einer unvergänglichen Warnung…Wenn diese Millionen Opfer mit ihrem Tode etwas nicht für das jüdische Volk, sondern für die Menschheit getan haben sollen, dann wäre es diese unvergessliche und grausige Warnung, die ihr Tod für alle Völker enthält. Nichts wäre fürchterlicher, als wenn unsere heutige Generation diese Lehre und Warnung vergessen sollte.“
In 1960, Goldmann was again in Bergen-Belsen, together with Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, to paid homage to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
In his memoirs, Goldmann recalls that this event was organized following a string of anti-Semitic in Germany, including the daubing of swastikas on synagogues.
In his speech, the 84-year-old Chancellor Adenauer – who once had himself been a concentration camp prisoner of the Nazis – said that Jews had a right to live here in safety and security, and that all those who threatened them would be punished.
Since 1948, when Israel was established as a Jewish state, and since 1960, when Adenauer and Goldmann came here, many things have turned to the better:
Germany made great strides to pay compensation to the Nazi victims, to build a democratic, open society, to commemorate the Holocaust, World War II and the other tragic events between 1933 and 1945, to fight anti-Semitism, revisionism, xenophobia and racism, and also – albeit with less success – to prosecute those that committed those crimes against Humanity.
Europe became united, the Iron Curtain fell and democracy and the rule of law returned to the entire continent.
Millions of Jews have since settled in Israel and built one of the most successful new states of our times.
Israel is a powerhouse in high tech, agriculture, business and entrepreneurship; a democratic, free nation in a region where that is still not the norm.
Six decades after its foundation, Israel is still being attacked. Its raison d’être, its right to exist as a Jewish state, is still questioned, even by intellectuals of the political Left. It has become fashionable in some circles to liken Israel’s defensive actions to those of the Nazis against the Jews.
It seems to become fashionable here in Europe and elsewhere in the world to hold Israel to much higher standards than any other country in the Middle East.
Anti-Semitism is also still alive and kicking, everywhere – even here in Europe where the Holocaust happened. Jewish cemeteries and other sites are still daubed with swastikas, synagogues need police protection, and even the Holocaust is sometimes questioned in its extent, or denied outright.
While the political leaders of this country – above all Chancellor Merkel and the main political parties – are unshakable in their commitment to fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism, it is lifting its ugly head again, even more so in other European countries.
Just last week, a report came out which said that violent anti-Semitic incidents increased by 102 percent in 2009 over the 2008 figures, in the wake of the war in Gaza.
Just last Sunday, an extremist, anti-Semitic and racist party won 16 percent of all votes in Hungary, the homeland of my parents. These people publicly say that they want to “cleanse” the Hungarian nation from “vermin”, and with that they mean the Jews and the Gypsies.
Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, openly calls for Israel’s destruction, and his regime is pushing to have nuclear weapons as soon as possible.
Words and actions of these extremists are strangely reminiscent of the period whose end we are commemorating today.
The ugly specter of anti-Semitism and racism is raising its head again in Europe.
Sixty-five years ago, it was defeated by the brave men and women who stood up to the Nazi tyranny. Millions paid the ultimate prize and were killed.
We, the generations that did not have to live through these horrors, should be eternally grateful that Hitler did not succeed.
We owe it to all those who fought the war against Nazi Germany and were killed, to all those who were murdered because the Nazis declared them enemies of the state, and to all those who after the war rebuilt their destroyed countries that we honor the solemn pledge Konrad Adenauer gave here in 1960:
“Never must the events that happened during the Nazi rule be allowed to happen again anywhere in the world.”
Words won’t be enough. We need strong leadership, courage, and a moral compass to accomplish that.
Trying to appease those who incite to hate and violence will not work.
Each and every one of us has to confront evil wherever it emerges.
And one final point: Bergen-Belsen will always be an important place where we will remember the tragedy of the Shoah and of World War II – the mass slaughter of innocent people.
We pledge to you, the survivors and the liberators, that the World Jewish Congress will always fight to preserve important sites such as Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz for future generations.
We have an obligation to ensure that it will never be forgotten how the world sank into the abyss.
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