The Circle Closes - World Jewish Congress

The Circle Closes

“Shoah remembrance and the relationship between Germany and Israel have changed. This was also recently made clear by Isaac Herzog's visit to the Bergen-Belsen memorial site," writes WJC Executive Vice President Maram Stern.

 Maram Stern
Maram Stern
Executive Vice President, World Jewish Congress
The Circle Closes

(c) Shahar Azran / World Jewish Congress

Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s trip to Germany at the beginning of September coincided with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972.

For me personally, however, another item on the agenda of the state visit, which lasted several days, was far more important: Herzog's visit to the Bergen-Belsen memorial. For there, several circles were closed at once, showing how the remembrance of the Shoah, the relationship between Germany and Israel and that of the Germans to their history have changed noticeably.

For the Israeli president, the first circle was closed twice: 35 years before, his father, Chaim Herzog, had also visited this place, also as Israeli president. The elder Herzog was at the time the first head of state of Israel to come to Bergen-Belsen. More than four decades earlier, he had been there once before - as a soldier in the British army that liberated the concentration camp.

During his visit to Germany, Chaim Herzog emphasized that relations between the Jewish state and the legal successor to the Reich could never be "normal.”  Without calling this statement into question, his son now struck a different note. Isaac Herzog expressed his gratitude for Germany's continued support for Israel. He stated that he was proud of the partnership with Germany.

At the same time, he called for continuing the struggle against antisemitism, and he called upon Israelis and Germans to defend his country - the homeland of the Jewish people. In doing so, he made it clear that the past must remain a lasting obligation for Germans in the future, and that Israel would insist on the fulfillment of this obligation. There can indeed be no normality in German-Israeli relations. Nevertheless, younger Herzog's words made it clear just how far relations between the two countries have evolved in the meantime.

For me, too, this visit closed a circle in a manner of speaking. As a young student in 1986, I had organized a protest demonstration against the joint visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to the military cemetery in Bitburg. The reconciliation over the graves of the fallen, among whom were also members of the Waffen-SS, seemed extremely distasteful not only to me, but to many other Jews (and non-Jews). The fact that the two politicians had visited the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp beforehand did not make things any better, but rather worse.

Parallel to our protests in Bitburg, my friend and current colleague at the WJC, Menachem Rosensaft, organized a demonstration against Reagan and Kohl in Bergen-Belsen. One could, Menachem explained at the time, honor either the victims of Belsen or those of the Waffen-SS, but one could not do both at the same time. By visiting Bitburg, the chancellor and his American guest would have desecrated the memory of all those Nazi victims they had commemorated at the memorial.

This year's commemoration, by contrast, was free of such controversies and protests. In view of the dignified words spoken by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the idea of a repetition of the events in Bitburg today seems infinitely remote. What's more, Steinmeier is no exception among German politicians. Apart from the right-wing AfD, it would probably not occur to any representative of German politics to risk an aberration like the one in 1986. This proves that our joint task involving commemoration and remembrance cannot be entirely in vain.

Menachem Rosensaft's visit to Bergen-Belsen also closed a third circle: his life is even more closely connected to this place than that of Isaac Herzog and his father, for Menachem is the son of two Shoah survivors. His father, Josef Rosensaft, was first imprisoned in Auschwitz and other concentration camps before finally ending up in Bergen-Belsen on one of the infamous death marches. His mother, Hadassah Bimko Rosensaft, also survived Auschwitz. Their son Menachem was born in Bergen-Belsen on May 1, 1948.

Bergen-Belsen served as a Displaced Persons Camp immediately after the end of the war, a fact that is still not widely known. Under the leadership of Menachem's father, it even developed into a nucleus for Jewish life in post-war Germany. There was a Jewish school, a rabbinate, a Yiddish-language newspaper, Zionist parties, cultural and sports facilities, and even a theater in the DP camp. In the very spot where the Nazis wanted to destroy everything Jewish, the diversity and resilience of Jewish culture was revealed only a few years later.

The camp was dissolved in 1950, but Josef Rosensaft's commitment to remembering the Shoah did not end there. He co-founded the World Federation of Bergen-Belsen Survivors as well as the Central Council of Jews in Germany, and he organized a memorial event with 200 survivors 25 years after the liberation. His son continued this commitment, playing a decisive role in the establishment of the memorial.

Today we are at a crossroads: only a few contemporary witnesses to National Socialism are still alive. Soon, young Germans and Israelis, as well as everyone else, will no longer have any eyewitnesses to talk to. Steinmeier and Herzog have made it clear that the obligation to remember does not end there.

Despite all the difficulties and setbacks, we can take positive stock of the remembrance work we have done so far. And I hope that in 20 to 30 years we will be able to say that this visit was a positive milestone and not the beginning of a backward movement.

Maram Stern is Executive Vice President of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). This piece was originally published in the German outlet in Juedische Allgemeine.