Israel-Germany: Transforming the burden of our history into a unique bond

The following is the text of a speech to the German Foreign Ministry in honor of the opening of the Yad Vashem exhibit, Beyond Duty, about diplomats who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Excellency Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, Distinguished Friends and Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I must confess that I feel a certain weight of history on my shoulders as the Ambassador of Israel to Germany at this time and to be here today in this place with the Foreign Minister of Germany. In our respective ways we represent two peoples that have such a complicated past and today is heavier than most.

Even several decades after first learning about the Holocaust and then living in Berlin and travelling around Germany, I still cannot fully grasp or comprehend the meaning and impact of the systematic extermination of six million men, women and children of the Jewish people. In some ways living now in Germany for several months and seeing firsthand the present vibrant relations between the two peoples, makes it even more difficult to understand and contend with our common history. Clearly I am not alone in struggling with this sense of bewilderment.

In the years after the war, when the true extent of the Holocaust became apparent, each Jew internalized his own lessons and conclusions regarding the immensity of the tragedy. Both of my parents’ families lived in Israel in Jerusalem before and during World War II and neither family was touched directly by the tragedy of the Shoah.

For me it became a lot more personal when I married my wife Laura, who is with me today, whose Mother’s family was from Dortmund Germany. Her great grandfather was killed in Theresienstadt and her great grandmother died in the Dortmund ghetto. Laura’s grandfather took his wife and two daughters to Brussels and they survived by remaining in hiding. Subsequently her grandfather was betrayed to the Gestapo, captured in Brussels and deported to Auschwitz where he was gassed a short time after his arrival. Now my children have this horrific legacy that my wife has always lived with, and also share this sense of bewilderment and consternation.

During these last months in Germany, I have met and spoken to many Germans from many walks of life in several cities. In these conversations my interlocutors mostly initiate reference to the Holocaust and I have been moved by how Germans have not shied away from their historic responsibility with regard to the Shoah, unlike some other countries.

In one such conversation, a person did not hesitate to tell me openly that his grandfather was a Nazi war criminal in one of the more notorious concentration camps and was killed in 1945. My interlocutor clearly rejected his grandfather’s crimes. I was really taken back by this blunt admission. It was then I realized that on the one hand, I see my wife and her family still trying to cope with the senseless death of her grandparents and on the other hand it made me wonder how does one contend with a grandparent that actually carried out these murders. I do not have the answers to these questions but I have come to realize the following:

First: Germany accepted responsibility for the Holocaust and the more the two peoples continue to share their respective experiences, the greater the chance that our complex relationship can give way to a new paradigm of deeper mutual understanding, reconciliation and cooperation.

Second: We can never understand the true impact of the Holocaust or even begin to grasp what the six million who died could have contributed to humanity had they lived. How many great scientists, scholars, artists, athletes musicians, philosophers and masters in all areas of human activity were lost?

Third: The more we remember and try and understand what transpired, the greater the chance that the relations between the Jewish people as a whole and the German people and maybe others will never go down this path of antisemitism, intolerance, notions of racial superiority and genocide. And

Finally: My most important objective as Ambassador to Germany will be to help ensure that the burden of our history can actually be transformed into a unique bond that strengthens our bilateral ties. Tomorrow Minister Gabriel will embark on a brief but meaningful visit to Israel that I am sure will contribute to that end.

In this spirit, I think the opening of this exhibition today about diplomats that were recognized as Righteous Among Nations conceived by Yad Vashem, fulfills a vital role. If there are elements of the Holocaust that can never be truly fathomed, these stories of courageous diplomats who saved many thousands of Jews can be understood, admired and must never be forgotten.

These are stories of great personal courage, integrity and heroism that should be engraved on our collective consciousness and remind us that where there has been a great evil there can always be a greater good. These are diplomats from Great Britain, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, Germany, Peru, Spain, Turkey and Sweden.

These are indeed inspiring stories — Aristides de Sousa Mendes from Portugal said that “I would rather stand with G-d against man — than with man against G-d’. Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, who saved thousands of Jews in Hungary, said “I will never be able to return to Stockholm without knowing that I had done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.” Sadly Raoul Wallenberg fulfilled his mission but never returned home and tragically perished in a Soviet prison after the war.

These are all stories of how one dedicated human being could make a difference and tip the scales between disaster and salvation.

In the final analysis we cannot change history but history can change us. The dreadful images of the Shoah can never be deleted from our memory nor should they be. But now we can also see other images in addition to the inspiring images in this exhibition. The sight of Israeli and German students working together on joint research projects — the sight of German and Israeli startups energetically pursuing joint ventures — the sight of both our fighter pilots conducting joint maneuvers in the eastern Med — the sight of discreet and intimate cooperation between both our governments to save German and Israeli lives — the sight of German car companies seeking out new Israeli advanced mobility technologies, and more.

The future does not wait for anyone and all these images are fast becoming reality. Together, they begin to forge a profound complementary partnership freer of anger and guilt and one inspired more by hope and common cause.

This event and exhibition today is another modest step that amplifies the essence of humanity in this tragic story. May the memories of these righteous diplomats be blessed.

Thank you

About the Author
Jeremy Issacharoff is Israel ambassador to Germany.
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