The upcoming 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz is a “very difficult date” for her, Germany’s ambassador to Israel said this week, acknowledging her country’s responsibility for the atrocities that occurred at the Nazi death camp.
“I feel deep shame given the unspeakable crimes committed by Germans. I also think how important it is that Germany assumed the responsibility for the crimes of the past and is committed to maintain the memory for our children and future generations,” Dr. Susanne Wasum-Rainer said. “We owe that ‘culture of remembrance’ to the millions of innocent victims of Nazi persecution. We owe it also us, Germans.”
In an email interview with The Times of Israel ahead of this week’s commemoration, Berlin’s top diplomat discussed her nation’s effort to grapple with a difficult past and to ensure that rising Jew hatred is kept in check.
“I was horrified and deeply ashamed,” she said of the October 9 Yom Kippur shooting at a synagogue in the city of Halle, during which two people outside the synagogue were killed.
“It was a nightmare for me, following it as a German citizen but also seeing it through Israeli eyes: An attack on a synagogue in the middle of Germany, where the community had gathered to mark the holiest day of Judaism, Yom Kippur.”
Wasum-Rainer, who has served as Germany’s ambassador to Israel since October 2018, reiterated her government’s commitment to secure Jewish institutions in Germany and to effectively fight Holocaust denial and distortion.
“We are living in a period of time where liberal democracy and its values — liberty, democracy, freedom of religious expression, the rule of law — are under pressure by populist, right-wing authoritarian movements worldwide. Germany unfortunately is not spared by this trend,” she said.
“We would have wished that anti-Semitism and racism would have disappeared after the Shoah. Unfortunately that is not the case.”
The veteran diplomat declined to comment on the current war of words between Warsaw and Moscow about the outbreak of World War II, as well as on Polish President Andrzej Duda’s decision to boycott a memorial event in Jerusalem later this week because he was not given permission to speak.
She did say, however, that “Poland is the country that suffered most under the German occupation and the barbaric crimes Germans committed on its soil,” and that Germany assumes full responsibility for the atrocities committed in the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Turning to bilateral issues, Wasum-Rainer reiterated Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2008 statement about Israel’s security being part of Germany’s raison d’etre. “The governments of Angela Merkel considerably enhanced cooperation in the defense sector and in areas of strategic importance for Israel, like for instance the purchase of submarines by Israel,” she said.
“I want to assure you that any future German government regardless of its political composition will always cherish our special relations with Israel.”
However, she largely evaded questions about policy disagreements between Berlin and Jerusalem, such as her country’s generally pro-Palestinian voting pattern at the United Nations and its refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
Here is a full transcript of our email interview.
The Times of Israel: This week the world is marking 75 years since the end of the Holocaust. How is the public in Germany marking this date? Are ordinary Germans aware of it, are there public discussions on guilt and repentance, on rising anti-Semitism?
Susanne Wasum-Rainer: January 27, 1945, the date of liberation of the former concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, was designated in Germany Day of Remembrance for the Victims of National Socialism in 1996 and was declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day by the UN in 2005. The Holocaust Remembrance Day attracts great attention in Germany, every year and this year in particular.
The 75th anniversary of the day of liberation will be marked in Germany by the Government, the Bundestag, by many institutions, communities, schools and civil society. There will be thousands of commemoration ceremonies in the whole country. Also, many German embassies all around the world will organize or join commemoration ceremonies, often together with their Israeli counterparts.
To serve in Israel is considered a particular privilege by all members of the German diplomatic service
On January 29, at the commemoration ceremony of the German Bundestag both, President [Reuven] Rivlin and President [Frank-Walter] Steinmeier will deliver a speech. It is the first time that the presidents of our two countries will speak at that same occasion.
In light of the atrocities and crimes perpetrated by the Nazi regime we consider the presence of the Israeli president for a joint commemoration ceremony a most generous and moving gesture for which we are deeply grateful. The presence of the president of Israel in Berlin shows how much the relations between our countries have grown. Today they are characterized by trust and friendship.
Two days before the commemoration ceremonies in Germany our two presidents will participate together at the commemoration in Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, on January 27. And President Steinmeier has the great honor to be invited as guest and as speaker to the Fifth World Holocaust Forum that will take place in Yad Vashem on January 23.
In December, Chancellor Merkel visited Auschwitz-Birkenau on the invitation of the Foundation Auschwitz-Birkenau. Germany committed 60 million Euros to the conservation of the former camp as a memorial site. The chancellor underlined the importance to always remember and never forget.
What are your personal feelings about this date, as German ambassador in the Jewish state?
It is a very difficult date! I feel deep shame given the unspeakable crimes committed by Germans. I also think how important it is that Germany assumed the responsibility for the crimes of the past and is committed to maintain the memory for our children and future generations. We owe that “culture of remembrance” to the millions of innocent victims of Nazi persecution. We owe it also us, Germans.
I am happy that Jewish life has returned to Germany. It is a very precious part of our society. I feel personally very committed to Israel and I am grateful that I could return to Israel for a second time of service at the embassy, this time as ambassador.
To serve in Israel is considered a particular privilege by all members of the German diplomatic service. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to ensure that Jewish life in Germany is appreciated as an integral part of the German culture and society. And I wish the German embassy to be a platform for encounters and get-together for many people of both our countries.
Last year on Yom Kippur, Germany was shocked by a deadly attack on the Halle synagogue, an attack that could have ended much worse. Many Germans — Jews and non-Jews alike — were surprised that there was no security in front of the shul. What has changed in Germany since, with regards to physical security of Jewish institutions?
I was horrified and deeply ashamed. It was a nightmare for me, following it as a German citizen but also seeing it through Israeli eyes: An attack on a synagogue in the middle of Germany, where the community had gathered to mark the holiest day of Judaism, Yom Kippur!
Together with me, the overwhelming majority of Germans was under shock. There were many spontaneous expressions of solidarity with the Jewish communities of Halle and of many other cities all over the country. The attack was not only an attack on the worshippers who were there, and the two people who lost their lives. It constituted an attack on our open German society.
Anti-Semitism is by far not a Jewish problem, it is a problem of all of us
All leading politicians of the government as well as many civil society initiatives made it clear: There is no place for anti-Semitism or violent extremism in our society, we will not tolerate this. This was a very strong message by Chancellor Merkel, President Steinmeier, many many other prominent politicians.
We are happy that Jewish life has returned to postwar-Germany. The federal government as well as all the regional governments have to do everything in their power to protect and secure Jewish life and Jewish places of worship.
It wasn’t only the Halle shooting. People recognizable as Jews are being attacked on the streets of Germany on a near-weekly basis. What you think are the reasons for the increase in anti-Semitic sentiment? What is Germany doing, concretely, to fight this ugly phenomenon?
We are living in a period of time where liberal democracy and its values — liberty, democracy, freedom of religious expression, the rule of law — are under pressure by populist, rightwing authoritarian movements worldwide. Germany unfortunately is not spared by this trend. We would have wished that anti-Semitism and racism would have disappeared after the Shoah. Unfortunately that is not the case.
We have seen an increase in anti-Semitic discourse, particularly [on the web] and by certain racist groups in the social media.
For the German government it is clear: There must not be impunity for anti-Semitic acts and incitement, neither in the real, nor in the virtual world!
We have to consider any act of anti-Semitism as an attack against us all. There are no “easy” cases — any expression of anti-Semitism is absolutely unacceptable. Anti-Semitism is by far not a Jewish problem, it is a problem of all of us. I call for zero tolerance against anti-Semitism and maximum protection of Jewish life whenever and wherever necessary.
Last October, the German government drew up an Action Plan aiming to fight Right Wing Extremism and Hate Speech more effectively. Among the measures taken is the creation of more than 500 hundred additional jobs to fight right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism and hate crime by the Interior Ministry.
The federal government is also tightening its gun legislation. In addition, German legislators are also working to ensure that offenses of anti-Semitism, hate, hate-crimes and incitement to violence will be part of the criminal code. Like in the real world, the internet perpetrators must be taken to justice even more effectively.
Even more important than also those measured is the existence of a strong civil society, which firmly supports the values of democracy and seeks to instill it in the next generation. Fighting anti-Semitism effectively depends on every one of us.
The generation of Holocaust survivors is slowly dying out. What can Germany do make sure the world never forgets what they went through?
The German government is convinced that we have a particular responsibility to shape a remembrance culture that will also allow future generations to comprehend the horrors of the past.
Unfortunately the survivors may not be among us any more in the future. Their testimonials and reports today are the most authentic and most convincing way to keep the memory of the Shoah. We will have to find new approaches towards remembrance.
It is important to ensure that the memories are kept alive in those places where millions became victim to genocide. The sites oblige us to keep memory alive. Therefore we seek international cooperation to preserve the sites where atrocities of Nazi persecution took place. We support for example initiatives that preserve sites of Nazi mass shootings in the former Soviet Union.
In addition, we work with museums all over the world — for example, the German Government has just committed four million Euro for the National Holocaust in Amsterdam to work with youth — as well as with experts and civil society. We try to promote organizations who have adopted new approaches towards remembrance, such as the Israeli initiative “Zikaron BaSalon/Memory@home” whose objective is literally to bring remembrance of the Shoa into the living rooms of people.
We also have to make sure to effectively counter Holocaust denial and distortion. Therefore we will make the international cooperation on countering distortion a priority for our upcoming chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance from March 2020 onwards.
In Germany we make every effort to involve many people and especially youth in commemorating the Holocaust, by inviting survivors, the second-generation or experts to face-to-face conversations, by funding international volunteer programs in the field of education and culture pertaining to our history.
We distance ourselves from any attempt to distort historical facts and to promote one-sided way of remembrance, regardless by whom
Scientific research will continue and will become even more important. The facts cannot be denied.
I also think that art will continue to play a role in dealing with the memory of the Shoah. Through literature, music, paintings and others the horrors of the Shoah can be expressed poignantly and convincingly.
Let’s talk a little about the World Holocaust Forum taking place in Jerusalem this week. President Steinmeier is going to one of the main speakers at the event, and he will travel to Auschwitz and Berlin later with President Rivlin for additional commemorations. What will be his key message to the Israeli public and the Jewish world at large?
President Steinmeier’s speech will certainly be one of his most important speeches. I don’t want to anticipate it.
As you point out, President Steinmeier’s travel to Israel is part of a wider joint remembrance path that President Steinmeier and President Rivlin have decided to follow together this January.
After the World Holocaust Forum, they will meet again on the occasion the commemoration ceremony in the former concentration-camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, and right after that we will have the honor to welcome President Rivlin in Berlin. He will speak at the German Bundestag in Berlin on the occasion of its official commemoration.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is another speaker at the Jerusalem event. He has been engaging in a war of words with Poland over the beginning of World War II. What’s Germany’s position on this question?
I am not in a position to comment on any bilateral discussions between Russia and Poland.
What do you make of Polish President Duda’s decision to boycott the Jerusalem event because Putin was allowed to speak and he wasn’t?
As I said before, I don’t want to comment on political discussions between other countries. Poland is the country that suffered most under the German occupation and the barbaric crimes Germans committed on its soil. Millions of Polish citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, were killed in German camps during the Shoah. Germany carries the responsibility for the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Some leaders of Eastern and Central European countries that have engaged in Holocaust revisionism — glorifying Nazi collaborators and downplaying their own citizens’ role in anti-Jewish atrocities — are going to attend the event Yad Vashem as well. How do you think Israel should address this sensitive issue?
Two points: first, distortion of the Holocaust is unacceptable; we distance ourselves from any attempt to distort historical facts and to promote one-sided way of remembrance, regardless by whom.
Second, Israel certainly does not need history lessons from Germany and we are confident that our close partner Israel will handle that adequately.
Let’s turn to bilateral issues. Chancellor Merkel’s dictum that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’etre is likely to be reiterated by German leaders in the days to come. But what does it mean concretely?
The good relations between Israel and Germany have been further developed under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In her famous speech at the Knesset in 2008 she stated for the first time that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s raison d’Etat.
The German government took many concrete steps in this regard. For example, Chancellor Merkel made Israel one of the few countries with which we have political consultations of the full council of ministers of our respective governments. The governments of Angela Merkel considerably enhanced cooperation in the defense sector and in areas of strategic importance for Israel, like for instance the purchase of submarines by Israel.
Her government facilitated the acquisition of German citizenship for victims of Nazi persecution. These are just a few examples among many.
I want to assure you that any future German government regardless of its political composition will always cherish our special relations with Israel.
Berlin still supports the Iran nuclear deal that Israel considers an existential threat. Berlin doesn’t recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Berlin consistently condemns Israeli settlement expansion. Berlin continues to fund UNRWA, the UN agency Israel argues is perpetuating the Palestinian refugee crisis rather than attempting to solve it.
There was a slight improvement in Germany’s voting record at the UN, but Berlin still supports a large majority of the annual anti-Israel resolutions at the General Assembly. And Berlin has yet to follow the UK and the Netherlands in outlawing Hezbollah. Do you understand why some Israels are skeptical about German leaders speaking of their “special responsibility” for the Jewish State?
It has always been our position that a two-state solution based on a negotiated agreement between both parties, and rooted on the parameters of international law appears to be the only durable solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have not changed our position and our conviction is shared by all EU Member States.
I don’t believe that there is or ever was disagreement on substance between Israel and Germany: Neither the Israeli nor the German government would accept Iran developing a nuclear weapon. However we believe that the JCPOA [the 2015 Iran nuclear deal] provides the best framework to uphold the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
As E3 [the three European countries who signed the deal], we have therefore regretted the decision of the US to withdraw from the agreement. At the same time, we have made clear in the past days at the highest political level that we will not accept Iran to reduce compliance with the JCPOA. Together with the UK and France we have initiated the Dispute Resolution Mechanism with the objective to preserve the Agreement.
In general we do believe strongly in diplomacy for the solution of conflicts. Not every country may be like-minded or an easy partner, but still dialogue is more conducive than confrontation.
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