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Ambassador’s notebook: Entering Auschwitz with the German president

Through the tears, the joint journey into the past showed how far we have come in building better ties between both peoples
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaks during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)
    
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, speaks during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)     

It was still dark as we took off in the early morning from Berlin and I was trying to collect my thoughts as we began a journey that would last longer than the four-hour flight to Israel. The next week would include attending the Holocaust Forum in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Though the Shoah ended 75 years ago, the survivors have never stopped bearing this horrific memory and trauma. While we must commemorate the liberation of Auschwitz, mankind can never be liberated from the horrific memories and tragedy that Auschwitz Birkenau generated.

We landed in Israel on a special flight of the German Air Force with the President of Germany Frank Walter Steinmeier who went straight to meet his counterpart and close friend President Rivlin. This was a very warm meeting between the two, touching on issues including the resilience of the bilateral relationship, the relations with the Palestinians, the respective domestic political situations and the sensitivity of a German President speaking at an event regarding Auschwitz in Yad Vashem that was beginning to focus everyone’s minds.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on January 22, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At Yad Vashem everyone was eager to hear the speeches of the world leaders particularly the speech of the President of Germany. Most of the speech would be in English, a little Hebrew and two words in German “nie wieder”.

Everyone was stunned when he started it with a blessing in Hebrew that expressed appreciation for reaching this time in our lives.

“I stand before you all as President of Germany – I stand here laden with the heavy, historical burden of guilt. Yet at the same time, my heart is filled with gratitude for the hands of the survivors stretched out to us, my soul is moved by the spirit of reconciliation, this spirit which opened up a new and peaceful path for Germany and Israel, for Germany, Europe and the countries of the world.”

It was an outstanding expression of German sorrow and contrition for the Shoah that has provided the clarity so essential for Israeli German reconciliation in recent years.

And a remarkable number of Israelis from different walks of life and political persuasions remarked how impressive the speech came over considering the difficult circumstances.

On Monday 27th January I travelled with President Steinmeier to Auschwitz Birkenau, where he met President Rivlin and attended the ceremony organized by the Polish President. I braced myself while going to Auschwitz – the very name sends a chill down my spine.

We soon entered the infamous gate of Auschwitz. I almost broke down but used all my diplomatic restraint to hold them back. My thoughts swirled as I walked through the gates with the President of Germany, and I felt unsure how to process this. We then moved through the museum seeing the empty cans of Zyklon B, the mounds of human hair and pictures of children in the camp. I scanned the documents to see if I could find the name of my wife’s grandfather Saul Birnberg who was gassed to death here. I found nothing and had I done so it would have been overwhelming. These were incredibly tough moments.

We walked through the camp and felt the immense horror of this place and I began to understand why prisoners had thrown themselves on the electrified barbed wire. We then went to the courtyard where so many were executed by firing squad and President Steinmeier laid a wreath. Still finding it difficult to hold back tears, I then took a stone, in keeping with Jewish tradition, and laid it as a memory to those that perished. I also quietly said the Mourners Kaddish in Hebrew.

Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lays a wreath at the Death Wall at the Auschwitz I Nazi death camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Finally, we went through the crematoria to see the ovens in which more than a million victims were killed, their ashes having fallen on Auschwitz on every step we took. Auschwitz is in essence an immense Jewish graveyard where the multitude of souls were not buried under the ground.

Soon after we arrived President Rivlin entered the massive tent that had been built around the “Gates to Hell” and met with President Steinmeier.

The ceremony began with a speech by Poland’s President Duda, four survivors then spoke of their horrific memories and their struggle to survive. Ronald Lauder denounced the international community for turning its back during the Shoah and failing to do much more to save Jews who sought refuge. It was somewhat ironic that the Israeli and German delegation would be the first to leave together on their way back to Germany.

The next morning President Rivlin met with Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer. This was the first time that a President of Israel had visited the German Ministry of Defense, and followed an intense year of strategic cooperation with Luftwaffe pilots being trained in Israel, joint Air Force exercises in Israel and Israeli paratroopers taking part in a military exercise on German soil for the first time. In the meeting, the President also raised Israel’s two soldiers missing in action held by the Hamas along with two Israeli civilians. The Minister immediately agreed to meet the Goldin and Shaul families, who accompanied the President to Berlin.

Later President Rivlin met with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and discussed bilateral relations, the need to combat anti-Semitism and the impending Trump Peace Plan. The Minister then met with the families of the Israeli MIAs – a gesture that was greatly appreciated on the Israeli side. President Rivlin stressed his appreciation for Heiko Maas’ deep friendship with Israel and personal role in fighting anti-Semitism.

The meeting with Chancellor Merkel happened at exactly the same time as the announcement of the Trump Peace Plan in Washington, and a discussion of how the plan would unfold in the coming days and weeks. The President expressed his admiration for the Chancellor’s leadership and personal contribution to strengthening the ties with Israel and invited her to visit Israel before leaving office, as a further step in consolidating the close bilateral ties.

The next morning I did not envy either of the two presidents on a commemoration day like this one in the Bundestag in the heart of Berlin. For both peoples this is such an incredibly sensitive and complicated day – an emotional minefield combining sorrow, guilt, anger and still a sense of disbelief that the Nazi regime could have reached such depths of depravity.

Speaking with my German friends, you have a clear sense of how both Jew and German still struggle with this horrific past. Today, however, we also spend much time and determination in working together in what we call “tikun olam,” Hebrew for repairing the world. It was also very inspiring for both sides to see Presidents Steinmeier and Rivlin lead this journey that started in Yad Vashem, proceeded to Auschwitz and culminated in Berlin.

During the week, there were many moments where one could not hold back tears, such as when we passed through gates of Auschwitz. But this joint journey into the past also made both sides appreciate how far we have come in building a better relationship between both peoples and doing so with those courageous survivors who we encountered during each of these days.

Elie Wiesel once said “sometimes I am asked if I know the response to Auschwitz; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.” He may well be correct in this assertion though I thought that the week reflected how far we have been able to come in searching for one.

About the Author
Jeremy Issacharoff is Israel's ambassador to Germany.
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