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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Paul Spiegel on November 9, 2000


Sixty-two years ago today, synagogues and houses of prayer all across Germany were torched and profaned. Jewish businesses and houses were looted. There were numerous arrests, and at least 91 people were murdered. This night officially signaled the largest and most awful genocide in the history of mankind.

A few feet from here, on November 9, 1989, the walls erected by another unlawful regime were finally forced open. For this reason, today’s date is a day of joy for all Germans.

But it may never supplant the remembrance of November 9, 1938, the remembrance of a pogrom organized by the State. And certainly, it should never lead to a holiday for the Ninth of November. For the revelry associated with a festival, complete with beer tents and stands selling sausages—appropriate for the joy associated with the tearing down of the Wall—is worthless for remembering the millions who died under Nazi terror.

Memories of the events of those days become spontaneously relevant when we view the pictures of the last few weeks and months: When synagogues are attacked and profaned, such as in Lübeck, Erfurt, in my hometown of Düsseldorf, and here in Berlin as well. Angry and embittered, we see the images of people being driven through the streets, publicly beaten, often murdered.

Can you imagine what kind of memories these crimes awaken in us Jews, indeed, must awaken? And with that, I do not merely mean for those of my generation who had to go through the hell that was the Holocaust. I mean my children and grandchildren too. Can you imagine what we think, when we must see how once again Germans torch our synagogues, profane our cemeteries, threaten us with death and bombs in our homes? Can you begin to know what we think, when we see how a black African is chased through German streets and murdered?

We often hear, “nip it in the bud,” when we are speaking about the battle against right-wing extremism. But we are well past this stage. What we experience here nearly every day has nothing to do with ‘beginnings.’ Already we find ourselves in the middle of this battle against right-wing extremism. A few weeks ago, Chancellor Schröder called us to a “Revolution of Decency,” he called for more people to act on the courage of their convictions. But what does that mean in concrete terms, what does it mean for the individual? What can, what must each of us do?

I am convinced that the majority of the people in this country reject right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. But this majority may no longer be silent. No longer can it look the other way. No longer may it write off the events in our country as insignificant. Germany in the year 2000 is not the Germany of 1938. The “Berlin Republic” is not the “Weimar Republic.” But—in ten years, will this State still be a democratic, open, liberal Republic, like the “Bonn Republic” was?

In spite of the terrible negative events of the last few weeks, Jews in Germany have confidence in this country, in its competent politicians, and in its inhabitants. After their terrible suffering, and despite world opinion, our parents decided to live here once more, and establish Jewish communities. Now as then, we are firmly convinced that this was a good decision, and an important one. We will not and we may not help Hitler and his accomplices win their war after the fact, by making Germany judenrein, free of Jews. But we need a clear signal that the majority of the non-Jewish residents of this country want to have us and our Jewish communities in this country.

Today we remember the events of the evening of November 9, 1938, when the Nazis visibly gave free rein to their hatred of the Jews. It was an operation carried out by the State, and it was enacted in public streets. The German nation became witnesses to the trampling under foot of human rights and human values, in the truest sense of the words. Exultant and howling witnesses were among the onlookers that night. Others simply took in what happened either silently or indifferently. That night, Jews were all but left on their own. With a few exceptions, among them the courageous clergyman Bernhard Lichtenberg, hardly anyone publicly declared his displeasure, his horror. To this day, I do not understand how the non-Jewish population was able to resume its daily existence after that night.

Few are heroes. Few have the courage to step in when they witness skinheads attacking a defenseless man, a defenseless woman – and in the meantime, yes, defenseless children – on the street, beating them up. But every single one of us is capable of calling the police. Every single one of us is capable of taking small steps right where he lives. When dining with friends and derogatory jokes are told about Jews, Turks, Blacks, or gays. When a foreigner is treated badly, discriminated against, in your workplace. Talk to your friends and colleagues when they do such things! Talk to your shop steward and thereby demonstrate your opposition to such things! We cannot yield our streets and favorite restaurants to the brown mob.

I am happy that there are so many of you who—with this demonstration today—say to the right-wing extremists on our streets: “Stop it! Enough! We will no longer stand for the fact that people in our country must once again be afraid!”

We may not cease in our battle against right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. For this is not merely about us Jews, or about Turks, Blacks, the homeless, or gays. This is about this country. This is about the future of every single individual in this country. Do you want to be ruled by skinheads and their predecessors one of these days? That is the real question at hand. Not how many foreigners this country can bear.

Make your democratically elected politicians jointly responsible for what happens here. What good does a special session of the German Parliament do, when they condemn anti-Semitism with beautiful speeches following the attacks on the synagogues in Düsseldorf and Berlin, when the very next day several politicians choose to use words that can be easily misunderstood? When for tactical reasons, they make immigration questions an election theme, babbling about so-called “useful” and “useless” foreigners?

And what is this talk about a Leitkultur, a basic culture? Perhaps German Leitkultur consists of hunting down foreigners, torching synagogues, murdering the homeless? Are we talking about a culture, or about the prevailing values of western democratic culture that we have firmly anchored in our national constitution? Article One of that constitution states: “The dignity of mankind is inviolable. The duty of national power is its protection.” The dignity of mankind – of all mankind – is inviolable, not just the dignity of Central European Christians!

If this principle is the one that is understood as German Leitkultur, then I can only support it. And then I must challenge all politicians, must make all politicians responsible for bridling their populist speeches. They must begin to see that Article One of our constitution is also implemented and taken seriously. Our politicians, our departments of justice, our police are required to do everything – really everything! – they can to protect the dignity of all people in this country.

Ladies and gentlemen of our political parties: Consider well what you say, and cease your inflammatory speech-making! Protect the people of this country and create a framework of conditions that will allow us all to live together. That is the only way you will be able to prove to every citizen, non-Jew and Jew alike, and prove to yourselves and to the rest of the world, that this Germany in the year 2000 truly has a democratic future.

All of us are called every day – but especially on a day like today – to finally get serious with the protection of human dignity. Only when we are serious will memorial services, such as the one today, cease to be empty, burdensome rituals or productions, and become rather meaningful signs of a living and strong democracy.

“Memorial” entails remembering. In the Jewish community, we learn young that remembering is an important part of our history. The Talmud says, “The secret of redemption is remembering.” We owe it to those sacrificed in the Shoah never to forget them or their suffering! He who forgets their sacrifice murders them a second time.

~ Paul Spiegel, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany

© 2000 Paul Spiegel
Translation © 2000 Ruth Sachs

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