Park East Synagogue, New York City
Shabbat November 12, 2022
Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen,
My dear friend Rabbi Schneier,
Dear members and friends of the Park East Synagogue,
I am truly grateful that you invited me to speak to you this morning. It is incredibly meaningful for me to commemorate Kristallnacht in a synagogue filled with life, community and inspiration.
As the representative of the free and democratic Germany, I feel honored and at the same time humbled whenever I meet people who witnessed these times, when I meet Holocaust survivors. I feel honored and humbled because they graciously show their willingness to reconcile, they express their trust in my and often their home country as it exists today. And I am grateful to hear their life-stories of suffering and loss but also of resilience and incredible achievements, powerful new beginnings – about their compassion for the common good and their commitment to connect people and nations in order to build a peaceful world.
It is their experience and that of every single life affected by the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi regime which underline every-time we hear it, our responsibility that: We will and shall never forget.
This morning we remember “Kristallnacht”, November 9, 84 years ago, when synagogues in Germany were burned to the ground. Jews from all classes and professions were imprisoned in the aftermath, were put into concentration camps and lost their jobs and businesses and some even their lives. Kristallnacht’s burnings and beatings, the persecution of defenceless and innocent people in the public eye sent a shockwave throughout the world. It was the forerunner of the so-called Final Solution, the Shoah, of Auschwitz, the most horrific atrocity and therefore the symbol for the Shoah.
When we remember the Holocaust, we do it in order to ensure that such heinous crimes, such outrageous deviations from our core values can never happen again. Therefore, a culture of remembrance is indispensable in our times. In other words: we, our children, and our children’s children must never forget! It is our responsibility to keep the memories alive. We owe it to the victims to remember the horrors of National Socialism. And we owe it to future generations as well.
I will talk about what Germany is doing to ensure that the knowledge about the Holocaust is preserved and is an integral part of the fight against antisemitism. But before that I want to tell you about – or remind those of you, who have heard it before of – a wonderful development that has occurred over the last three decades in Germany – a revitalization of Jewish life in our society.
When I, as a young student of theology, moved to East Berlin in the summer of 1988, I lived in the borough of Mitte, in a neighborhood which used to be a Jewish quarter. Two blocks from my apartment, there was the beautiful Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue), or at least what was left of it. A very small congregation still existed but it was more of a museum and memorial for the Kristallnacht. That has changed dramatically in an unexpected and wonderful way, like the city of Berlin changed so vividly from a divided city and a symbol of the cold war to an open and colorful, international and diverse place. Today this synagogue, built on and within the ruins left from Kristallnacht, is a meeting place for hundreds of Jews who came to make their lives in the German capital and meet at this very place.
In the last three decades, more than 200,000 people have come to Germany as Jewish immigrants, mostly from the former Soviet Union. Jews from all over the world settled in numerous cities of Germany, many of them young Israelis who moved to Berlin, because they enjoy the creative atmosphere and the cultural energy and opportunities there.
More than 100 synagogues are dispersed throughout the country, beautiful new architectural gems or renovated originals, in one case a 300 years old church was transformed into a synagogue. Jewish kindergartens and schools have emerged in the larger cities, Rabbis are trained and ordained in Germany, and new community centers and houses of worship have been built in many German towns. The German government on all levels is committed to supporting the Jewish communities, including safeguarding their places of worship and community. A contract between the federal government and the umbrella organization of the Jewish congregations, the Central Council of Jews in Germany, guarantees an annual financial support of several million Euros.
This renaissance of Jewish life, culture, visibility and – yes – trust in my home country, is, by no means, something that we take for granted. But we are also proud that Jews have again placed confidence in Germany. Jewish life belongs in our country and will forever be part of our culture. The Federal President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier called this rebirth of Jewish life once “ein unermessliches Glück für unser Land”, “an immeasurable fortune for our country”.
And we want to reach out further, for instance to young Jews with German family roots or not, to offer them an independent, own and inside view of our country. One example for this is the most successful exchange programs “Germany close up”, which gives 250 Jewish North American students and young professionals the opportunity to experience contemporary Germany firsthand annually.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The immeasurable fortune, as president Steinmeier called it, is an obligation for my country as well, to be clear, in the fight against antisemitism. Yes, antisemitism and the exclusion of minorities in general are by no means a matter of past history. They are still spreading in our societies today – in Germany, in Europe but also here in the US.
The German government is aware of the problem of rising anti-Semitism and of the threat, this development means for society. And I can assure you that the political leaders of my country – with the exception of some of the representatives of the right wing AfD – stand up unanimously against racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, and extremism. We will make sure that the curricula in schools and universities, training programs for professionals in the private and public sector, a wide variety of places of remembrance and Holocaust-education will address these issues and raise awareness for this important fight.
But this is not just a task for politicians. Equally important is the clear voice of civil society, of the arts and the religious communities, of culture and even sports. Especially in times like these, when right-wing extremist pressure is more noticeable globally, we have to ensure that we take a courageous and decisive stand against all forms of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and against those who advocate hatred in our societies.
Institutionally the fight against antisemitism was intensified in Germany too. About four years ago, Dr. Felix Klein was appointed as the first Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism. By now all German states have installed similar commissioners.
The rise of antisemitism is something that we unfortunately have to observe in many parts of the world. Therefore, it is ever more important that we stand together. Therefore Germany is a very active member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which is committed to strengthening, advancing, and promoting Holocaust education, remembrance, and research worldwide.
We work together in this important endeavor also as German-American partners. Last year our country’s foreign ministers pledged to take an active stand against Holocaust denial and trivialization, against rising antisemitism and conspiracy theories. How we educate future generations and how we can keep a meaningful remembrance is a central focus of this dialogue as well as Holocaust education during the training of civil servants and military personnel, among others. Together we want to face today’s challenges, including those in which hatred results in social strife and demonization or persecution of those perceived as “the other.”
We are and will be a reliable partner and friend of Israel, on many levels. The presidents as well as Chancellor and PM meet and talk regularly, we have strong economic relations and a broad variety of cooperation in science and research. We have a long tradition of intensive youth exchanges and ties between the the civil societies of our countries. And more than 100 sister city affiliations exist between Germany and Israel.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Last year Germany and descendants of European Jews all over the world celebrated an amazing anniversary. It was in the year of 321, 1700 years ago, that Emperor Constantine the Great granted Jews of Cologne the right to hold public office. His edict, which subsequently extended this right to the Jews in all provincial towns of the empire, is the oldest document which references Jewish life in Europe north of the Alps.
What an incredible story of more than one and a half millennia we can tell. It is an exciting and powerful story of Jewish influence and involvement in the arts and sciences, philosophy and religion, politics and economy. There were periods of great success in Jewish entrepreneurship as well as German-Jewish patriotism, resilience and vibrant Jewish life. Countless names stand for German-Jewish creativity and ingenuity, like Zedekias, who, in the 9th century, served as personal physician to the Roman Emperor Charles I or his colleague, Paul Ehrlich, who centuries later won the Nobel prize for his scientific achievements. Many German-Jewish Nobel Laureates followed him, including, of course, Albert Einstein. Caroline Herschel, a 19th century astronomer, was the first woman to receive a salary as a scientist. The entrepreneur Emil Rathenau was crucial to use electricity on an industrial scale and his son, the liberal lawmaker Walther Rathenau, served as German Foreign Minister during the Weimar Republic. Indeed, Germany was gifted with German-Jewish artists, philosophers, politicians, and inventors as well as with hundreds of thousands of non-famous fellow citizens who, through their lives and participation, shaped Germany in a unique way.
But it is also true that the German-Jewish history was throughout the centuries a very dark one. Jews were scapegoated and the focus of conspiracy theories, they were threatened by pogroms and persecution, culminating in one of humanity’s lowest points: the Holocaust.
Therefore, the rich and long German and European Jewish history is also an obligation to continuously assure the trust of Jewish citizens and communities – a responsibility for which society as a whole is called upon to uphold. And Constantine’s edict can serve as a reminder to initiate cultural, political, and interreligious debates within our societies on both sides of the Atlantic.
Thank you for your attention. Shabbat Shalom!