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  2005-02-02 Köhler—Knesset
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2005 blog


Germany's President delivers an
emotional speech in Israel's Knesset
,  Feb. 2, 2005

holocaust file

Germany's President Horst Köhler, addressing Israel's Knesset on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, delivered an emotional speech in which he began with the admission that "responsibility for the Shoah is part of Germany's identity."

He told of his experiences the previous week when the world commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  "I was accompanied by survivors on my tour of the Auschwitz camp on 27 January," he related.  "I walked through the gate. I saw the barracks, the railway tracks and the ramp.  I walked from the gas chambers to the crematorium. The survivors were by my side.  They helped me, a German, at this site.  I found that deeply moving."

Noting that the number of survivors is dwindling, Köhler asked rhetorically "what will happen when they are no longer amongst us?"  He responded: "They must remain a part of our present. It is vital that their testimonies are not lost. We must not be allowed to forget the victims' faces. We must ensure that the lessons learnt are passed on from one generation to the next, and we must understand, all of us, that the victims of the Shoah have given us a mandate: never to allow genocide to happen again."

Köhler said he visited the Yad Vashem  in Jerusalem the day before his Knesset speech and  described that Holocaust memorial and museum as a place "where the memory of the Holocaust is kept alive and those murdered are given a name.  I heard the voice which reads out the names of the slain children. It renders the dead their dignity and individuality which the National Socialists wanted to take away from them.  Yad Vashem turns anonymous numbers into unique individuals again.  Yad Vashem is a place of mourning and remembrance.  However Yad Vashem is also a place of humanity and hope."

Germany's President said his country "has faced up to the crimes of its past.  In particular, Anne Frank's diary, the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt forced us to come to grips with the legacy of the Nazi tyranny.  Even the generations born after the war know that the years of the Nazi dictatorship are an indelible part of German history. Although they are not to blame, they know that they bear responsibility for keeping the memory of these events alive and for shaping the future."

He said when post-war Germany wrote its constitution, the Basic Law, the lessons from the Nazi past were enshrined in the first article;  "Human dignity shall be inviolable," it says. "Protecting and respecting human dignity is a task for all Germans; this includes defending human rights at any time and in any place.  German policy is ready to be judged by this yardstick."

He added that "every open society ... has enemies," and admitted that xenophobia and anti-Semitism still exist in Germany.  "Comparisons which play down the Shoah are a scandal which we must confront," he declared.  "We should see to engage right-wing extremists and anti-Semites in a political battle, and we must fight it with vigor."

Köhler spoke with pride about the reestablishment of Jewish communities in Germany, turning to Israel's President Moshe Katsav in acknowledgment of his participation in December 2002 at the opening of a synagogue in Wuppertal.

"For us, the Jewish communities in Germany are a sign of trust in our country which makes us glad," Köhler said.  "Today, the golden dome of the synagogue in Berlin's Oranienburger Strasse is just as much a part of the cityscape as the dome on the Reichstag building, the seat of the German Bundestag."

Turning to bilateral relations between Israel and Germany, Köhler said that there are a network of exchanges between Israel students, trade unions, political foundations and parliamentarians.  "However," he said, "I am concerned that the exchanges between our citizens have diminished during the last few years—mainly due to the security situation in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, ladies and gentlemen, today Germany's relations with Israel are closer than those with any other country outside Europe and North America.."

Köhler said he agreed with Katsav that the two governments "must devote yet more attention to youth exchange, for it is the young people of today who will determine the future course of German-Israeli relations."

He described Germany as "Israel's principal trading partner in Europe" but "the economic potential of German-Israeli relations has not been fully exploited in past years. This we should change.  I am convinced that Israel has much to offer the German business community for a partnership based on innovation, not least for start-ups and small- and medium-sized enterprises.  What we need are courageous businessmen with an eye for long-term opportunities."

The final part of Köhler's speech dealt with his perspective on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.  That Israelis are forced to live with the prospect of terror is "even more unbearable when we remember that some of these people are survivors of the Shoah.  I do not think we in Germany really understand what it means to live with the fear that those we love could at any time fall victim to a terrorist attack. What it means to take the bus to work every day, knowing it might be blown up.  What it means never to feel entirely safe in any restaurant.  Every violent death ends an irreplaceable life. Every victim leaves a family with a place that is forever empty at its table.

"The terror must end," Köhler declared. "Suicide bombings are crimes for which there can be no excuse or justification."

He said  in the current situation, he sees  "encouraging developments on both sides.  On both sides the desire for peace is great. Most Palestinians know that the second Intifada has brought great suffering to them as well.  Mahmoud Abbas has spoken out against violence, and has followed his words with action in Gaza...

"Only Israelis and Palestinians themselves can make peace, and only by working together," he observed. "We all know that questions of existential importance for both sides are at stake. I have been watching the seminal struggle for a solution. I can see the fury and despair on both sides.  And I know that any solution to this tragic conflict will demand all that the courageous peacemakers have to give."

Köhler said that he firmly believes "in a Middle East in which Israel and a Palestinian state exist side by side in peace, a region in which nobody questions the existence of the State of Israel.  There must be secure borders in this Middle East. Borders that reconciliation will make permeable.  Why should the Middle East not have its successes to parallel Europe's?  Here two arch enemies, Germany and France, have forged a deep friendship; the Iron Curtain has been torn down, and the division of Europe overcome."
            Donald H. Harrison