In tribute to his lifetime efforts for reconciliation between Germans and Jews, and between Germany and Israel, the WJC’s Theodor Herzl Award this year was bestowed posthumously on the late publisher Axel Springer. His widow Friede Springer received the award at a dinner at Berlin’s Jewish Museum on Monday, 15 September 2014. Chella Safra, WJC's Treasurer, presented the award. Here is her address to the guests of the dinner.
Dear Friede Springer,
Dear Ronald Lauder,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A warm welcome to all of you on this special evening.
First, I would like to thank our host, Ronald Lauder, for inviting us here tonight.
We are assembled at this magnificent museum – which by the way is the biggest museum of its kind in Europe and one of Germany’s most visited museums – to honor a man who was one of the great business leaders of post-war Germany.
Within a decade, he managed to build Europe’s biggest publishing house. He created many newspapers which still rank among Germany’s most widely read publications.
But this man, Axel Springer, was more than just an influential publisher, or a media tycoon, as we would call him today. He was also an opinion leader. He was also a man of strong convictions, a moral leader who never shied away from controversy.
Yet even those who strongly disagreed with him then will probably accept that he left a lasting mark on post-war Germany.
For he was more than just a defender of Israel here in Germany, he was a real friend, an active supporter. He was somebody for who reconciliation was more than just a word. It was a deeply held conviction.
In June 1966, when Axel Springer paid the first of more than 30 visits to Israel. At that time, before the Six Day War, Jerusalem was a divided city, as was Berlin. He met with the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek. Both men strongly believed in the reunification of their cities.
In 1966, Springer built his headquarters here right next to the Berlin Wall, in the center of the city, with a view over the terrifying No Man’s Land towards East Berlin. Kollek also refused to move his municipality headquarters in Jerusalem away from the Green Line, as some suggested.
The following year, 1967, Jerusalem was reunited. Axel Springer would not live to see the fall of the Berlin Wall, which happened four years after his death in 1985, but his vision also became reality when Communism fell and Berliners could finally reunite.
History had proved both men right.
During his first Israel visit, Springer also pledged 900,000 US dollars for the new library and auditorium of the Israel Museum, which is equivalent to about 6.4 million dollars today. Many, many donations to Israeli and to Jewish institutions and projects here in Germany followed.
But Springer’s support for Israel and the Jews was more than just about money. His company was - and still is - the only independent media company to have a corporate constitution. One of the five key principles is to promote the reconciliation between Jews and Germans and support the vital rights of the people of Israel, another to promote freedom and democracy.
Axel Springer knew: If we want to our fundamental Western values, it is necessary to make choices. Promoting reconciliation of Jews and Germans, of Israel and Germany, is something that was not always popular at the time, and it still isn’t today. But it was a choice based on strong convictions. Springer wouldn’t publish a paper that was opposed to Israel’s vital rights.
He once wrote: “Israel’s enemies can’t be our friends.”
Today, those words are more pertinent than ever. Israel is again under attack, not just under an armed attack from Hamas and other fanatic groups. It is also under attack from many here in Europe. There are boycotts. There are anti-Israel demonstrations, even here on the streets of Berlin.
There are people, even Nobel Prize laureates, who consider Israel a danger to world peace, but who remain silent when hundreds of thousands of Syrians, or Iraqis, are being slaughtered by fanatics. Others equate Israel with Saudi Arabia and Qatar when it comes to selling arms.
Axel Springer never pandered to that sort of moral equivalence, and until today, his newspapers know where they have to stand when hatred of Israel, when anti-Semitism is rising.
Axel Springer’s BILD-Zeitung recently ran a big campaign against anti-Semitism in which prominent Germans spoke out. It was outstanding, it was a rallying cry. Yesterday, we saw what a great success the demonstration was. This was also in part thanks to the Springer publications.
Axel Springer’s legacy continues, and thanks to you, Mrs. Springer. You ensured that the commitment of your late husband to Israel and to the Jews is continued.
It therefore gives me a great pleasure to give to you, Mrs. Springer, the Theodor Herzl Award of the World Jewish Congress, in recognition of Axel Springer’s tremendous efforts to bring Germans and Jews, and Germany and Israel, closer together.
Let me end this speech with a quote from him in 1971: “Twenty-five years after Auschwitz, German relations with the land of the Jews cannot be normal but will inevitably be special.” The same can still be said, 70 years after Auschwitz. This is still a special relationship, and it will be for many years to come.
But yesterday’s rally, and the positive events of the past 25 years which saw a blossoming of Jewish life in Germany, a level of Jewish immigration that no other country in Europe witnessed, bear witness: We are now reaping what Axel Springer sowed during his lifetime.
The Jewish-German symbiosis, which is on show in all its facets in this museum here, is a special one indeed.
Thanks to the life-long dedication of Axel Springer, and thanks to your efforts, Mrs. Springer, it has become a special relationship again in the positive meaning of the word after - and despite - the Holocaust.
Let us all make sure, through a determined effort, that it stays like this, that Jewish life continues to blossom in this country and that Israel and Germany remain friends and allies.
Let us make ensure that Axel Springer’s legacy continues to inspire people.
Thank you very much!