19 April 2010
The following interview with the World Jewish Congress President was published in 'Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung', Germany, on 17 April 2010.
Mr. Lauder, you will come to Hannover to commemorate the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer survivors that can tell about the Nazi era. How is it possible to preserve the memory? Which forms of commemoration are needed in the future?
It is true, in a few years, memorials, museums, films, photos, books and other documents will be all that is left. In the future, young people won’t be able to listen to eyewitnesses like we have done, nor will they be shown former concentration camp sites by the survivors themselves. Our direct link with that the past will soon be broken, and this means we have to redouble our efforts in keeping the memory of the Shoah alive.
How can that be done?
I think we need to find ways to reach the young emotionally. For example, the suffering of Anne Frank, who died in Bergen-Belsen, and her diary is probably something a young person can relate to. The second crucial point is: We must preserve the sites of the Nazi horror – like Bergen-Belsen – for future generations. This needs financial resources, but we must not spare the effort. It is only when you visit a former concentration camp that you begin to grasp the horror of that time. No history book can replace that. The documentation center and memorial at Bergen-Belsen is therefore very important.
During your time as US ambassador in Vienna, you defended the travel ban imposed against then Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was under fire for his behavior during the Nazi regime. How in your view is Germany coming to terms with its past nowadays?
There has always been a marked difference between Germany and Austria in terms of living up to the Nazi past, though it has to be said that after Waldheim’s presidency, the Austrians have made some efforts to discuss their own role during World War II. In recent years, Germany has been exemplary in discussing its Nazi past. It has drawn the lessons, assumed responsibility for the survivors, and above all: it has openly embraced the Jews. My worries are more about the future. Sixty-five years after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen there is still anti-Semitism, even among young people. We need more research into why that is so, and we need immediate and effective responses. The lesson learnt from the past should be that anti-Semitism and racism is not tolerable, in whichever form it manifests itself.
Through immigration from the former Soviet Union, Germany's Jewish community is growing faster than any other in Europe. How do you look to the future of Jewish life in the country of the Holocaust?
We do indeed witness a Jewish renaissance here that nobody could even have dreamt of in the wake of the Nazi horrors. Look around: almost every month, a new synagogue is inaugurated somewhere in Germany. Previously defunct communities are revitalized. I believe the Central Council of Jews, under the leadership of Charlotte Knobloch, is doing an excellent job regarding the integration of the new community members. In my view, German Jewry has a bright future, but it needs support and encouragement from the non-Jewish majority, and it needs to find ways to better fight anti-Semitism. We still have an alarming level of hatred against the Jews, and in some regions it is even growing. Why do synagogues in Germany need police protection?
Currently we see probably the last trials against Nazi criminals like John Demjanjuk. Is it a good idea to put such old men on trial?
We welcome that Germany is still trying to bring Nazi war criminals to justice. There cannot be impunity for mass murder, for crimes against humanity. There are other frail, old-age people – the Holocaust survivors – who have been traumatized all their life because of concentration camp guards like Demjanjuk, and who are still waiting for Justice to be done. For survivors, it is important that courts officially recognize the horrible crimes that were committed. Almost every trial shows that the perpetrators often do not feel any kind of remorse or guilt. Sometimes, they don’t even acknowledge any responsibility for their actions, like Demjanjuk. So there is really no reason to feel sorry for the perpetrators.
In the Jewish world there has been a debate for some time about Jewish identity. Do you think it is a danger that remembrance of the Shoah could eventually become a more important part of Jewish identity than common cultural or religious roots?
No, I don’t think so. Through the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation I have been very much involved in numerous projects to rekindle Jewish cultural and religious life in central and eastern Europe. This is about education, Jewish learning, and passing Jewish traditions to the younger generation. In many countries, we are seeing a Jewish revival. The Shoah was a singular event which will always be an essential part of our collective memory, as will be the bitter anti-Semitic resentment that was reserved for us Jews over the last 2,000 years. But Jewish culture is so strong, diverse and backed-up by a positive outlook that we shouldn’t be worried.
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