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At German parliament, Holocaust survivor urges nation to fight today’s far-right

In emotional Bundestag speech to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Charlotte Knobloch tells lawmakers to mount tougher defense of country’s ‘fragile’ democracy

Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress Charlotte Knobloch speaks during a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany's Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021 at the Bundestag in Berlin. (SCHWARZ / AFP)
Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress Charlotte Knobloch speaks during a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany's Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021 at the Bundestag in Berlin. (SCHWARZ / AFP)

BERLIN, Germany — Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch on Wednesday called for a stronger defense of Germany’s “fragile” democracy and issued a searing rebuke to the far right, vowing: “We will fight for our Germany.”

In an emotional speech to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Knobloch told the Bundestag lower house of parliament that extremists and conspiracy theorists were exploiting fears around the pandemic and a diversifying society.

“We must not forget for a single day how fragile the precious achievements of the last 76 years are” since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945, Knobloch said.

“Anti-Semitic thought and words draw votes again, are socially acceptable again — from schools to coronavirus protests and of course the internet, that catalyst for hatred and incitement of all kinds,” she added.

Knobloch, 88, a former leader of Germany’s 200,000-strong Jewish community who survived the Holocaust in hiding in Bavaria as a child, warned that the “enemies of democracy are stronger than many think.”

“I call on you: take care of our country,” she said, describing right-wing extremism as “the greatest danger for all” in Germany.

‘You lost your fight’

Addressing deputies of the hard-right Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition group in parliament with nearly 100 seats, Knobloch accused many of its followers of “picking up the tradition” of the Nazis.

“I tell you: you lost your fight 76 years ago,” Knobloch said. “You will continue to fight for your Germany and we will keep fighting for our Germany.”

Knobloch fought back tears as she recounted the terror of the Nazis’ rise and the deportation of her grandmother, Albertine Neuland, to the Theresienstadt concentration camp where she starved to death in 1944.

“I stand before you as a proud German, against all odds and although much still makes it unlikely. Sadness, pain, desperation and loneliness accompany me,” she said, but added that Germany’s enduring commitment to reckon with its history made her hopeful.

Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress Charlotte Knobloch speaks during a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021 at the Bundestag in Berlin. (SCHWARZ / AFP)

“I am proud of the young people in our country. They are free of guilt for the past but they assume responsibility for today and tomorrow: interested, passionate and courageous.”

But Bundestag speaker Wolfgang Schaeuble, a respected elder statesman, warned that the German consensus around atonement for the Nazis’ crimes, long seen as part of the bedrock of the post-war order, was showing signs of vulnerability.

He told the chamber it was “devastating” to admit that “our remembrance culture does not protect us from a brazen reinterpretation or even a denial of history.

“And it doesn’t protect us from new forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” said Schaeuble, 78.

Jewish journalist and activist Marina Weisband, 33, also urged continued vigilance.

German Jewish journalist Marina Weisband speaks during a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021 at the Bundestag. (Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

“To be Jewish in Germany is to know it happened and can happen again,” she said.

“Anti-Semitism doesn’t begin when shots are fired at a synagogue,” she said, referring to a terrorist attack in the eastern city of Halle in October 2019.  “The Shoah did not begin with gas chambers… It is not extinct, this conviction that there are people whose dignity is worth more than others.'”

Germany has officially marked Holocaust Remembrance Day every January 27 since 1996 with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag featuring a speech by a survivor and commemorations across the country.

Of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, more than one million were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, most in its notorious gas chambers, along with tens of thousands of others including homosexuals, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

‘Shame’ and renewal

This year’s anniversary is marked by growing concerns about extremist violence and incitement in Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has spoken of her “shame” over rising anti-Semitism, as the Jewish community has warned that coronavirus conspiracy theories are being used to stir hatred.

Anti-Jewish crimes have risen steadily, with 2,032 offenses recorded in 2019, up 13 percent on the previous year, according to the latest official figures.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L) holds the Etz Chaim as Rabbi Shaul Nekrich completes the historic Sulzbach Torah Scroll from 1792, rediscovered in 2013 and just restored, is completed during a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021. (SCHWARZ / AFP)

Following the speeches in parliament, several high-ranking government officials bore witness in the prayer room of parliament as a rabbi put the finishing touches on a carefully restored Torah scroll.

In the presence of Merkel, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and others, Rabbi Shaul Nekrich wrote the last 12 letters of the Sulzbacher Torah Scroll, one of Germany’s oldest Torah scrolls.

The historic Sulzbach Torah Scroll from 1792, rediscovered in 2013 and just restored, during a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021 at the Bundestag. (Odd ANDERSEN / various sources / AFP)

The Torah was created in 1792 in Bavaria and survived a city fire in Sulzbach in 1822, and the so-called Night of Broken Glass in 1938, when Germans across the country destroyed synagogues and killed Jews.

After the end of World War II, the Torah scroll stood unnoticed for around 70 years in the shrine of the Amberg synagogue in Bavaria, until it was discovered again in 2013.

The faded letters and animal skin of the Torah were carefully restored for 45,000 euros ($54,520) with German federal funds in Israel and the Torah will now be used again in services at the Jewish community in Amberg.

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