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Holocaust memory as a fig leaf for modern hate

No memorial to the horrors of the past should alleviate, or mitigate, guilt for the crimes of the present

The fall of the Berlin Wall in October 1989 aroused a euphoric debate about the city’s post-Communist future. In a Die Zeit op-ed entitled “Berlin as Federal Capital of Germany, Yes or No,” I argued that political functions should remain anchored in the western city of Bonn, thereby decentralizing any resurgent phantom German ambitions; that Berlin should be the cultural mecca, capitalizing on the best of the Western and post-Soviet liberationist creativity of the Eastern sector; and that federal power should be further diluted by the autobahn democracy linking Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg as financial capitals.

Indeed, such bifurcated capitals are common: Washington/New York, Ottawa/Toronto, Canberra/Sydney, Brasilia/Sao Paolo, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv etc.

The title of the article became a seminar at Eichstedt University in Bavaria, at which the foreign participants expressed apprehension at Berlin’s reunification.

Over two decades later, I admit that I was wrong. Berlin is a success story culturally and politically. It has also made huge commemorative and pedagogical efforts to honor the victims of the Nazis’ crimes. This process of active memorialization corresponded with the arrival of thousands of Soviet Jews who have revived the city’s communal institutions. The outdoor Topography of Terror museum, The Jewish Museum, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe — all have become stops on the tourist itinerary.

The European office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre participated in the return of the 1930s Institute of Sexual Sciences, today’s Gay Museum, just as we were present, last October, at the inauguration by Chancellor Merkel of the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under the National Socialist regime. The last victimology in the Nazi chain of horror – the extermination (euphemistically named “euthanasia”) of the disabled – is planned to have its own memorial very soon.

At each of these signposts, survivors have spoken, victims were mourned and political leaders have denounced the perpetrators. Yet, the massive investment in memory has neither prevented nor mitigated the resurgence of anti-Semitism, gypsophobia, homophobia or even skinhead violence against the disabled. Dare one suggest that mourning for the victims of 70 years ago is so much easier than defending the same victim groups of today?

As part of the Roma and Sinti ceremony, a book tribute was made to 90-year-old Reinhard Florian, deported in 1941 to the Auschwitz Zigeunerlager. A play was performed about “the Gypsy Boxer” of the death camps and a newly discovered film of brutalized Roma child victims was screened at the opening of Israeli artist Dani Karavan’s magnificent memorial to the murdered Gypsies.

Memorial to the Sinti and Roma in Berlin (photo credit: CC BY rosmary, Flickr)
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma in Berlin (photo credit: CC BY rosmary, Flickr)

Yet, today, gypsophobia is on the rise. Pogroms against Roma are increasing in Eastern Europe while they are deported in the West from Dale Farm in England and murdered in villages across Hungary

Every November, European anti-racism movements mark “Kristallnacht” (the Night of Broken Glass pogrom prelude to the Holocaust). And yet, their outrage at the synagogues destroyed in 1938 was unmatched in November 2000 when synagogues across Europe were attacked as blow-back from the Middle East Intifada.

Twenty years ago, the Museum of Deportation and Resistance was opened in Lyons, France. At that time, Germany was rife with racist attacks. Suzanne Lagrange spoke in Lyons of her deportation together with her father from Paris to Auschwitz, where they were separated on arrival. She recounted how she waved to her father through barbed wire, and a German guard who told her she could embrace her father then shot him in the neck.

A young German student stood up to apologize. Lagrange told him to sit down. “There is no intergenerational guilt.” she said. When he sat down, she then rebuked him, saying, “Now apologize! Not for the crimes of your parents, but for the attacks on migrant hostels and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Germany today…. There is no intergenerational guilt, but you bear the burden of intergenerational shame and responsibility to act today.” The audience was hushed.

Jews and Gypsies today share a contemporary victimology. The prejudice of indifference and moral disengagement. Few express outrage at jihadi anti-Semitism against Jewish targets or at Hundary’s neo-fascist Magyar Garda Youth or its sponsor, the Jobbik party’s incitement against Jews and Roma. The Gypsy groups at the 2001 Durban United Nations World Conference against Racism were among our few allies at that Judeo-phobic hatefest.

A new moral re-engagement for today’s victims demands that memory and pedagogy be recoupled and applied to the fate of the children and grandchildren of the Jewish Holocaust and the Romani genocide. Otherwise, as the United Nations marks International Holocaust Commemoration Day, memory can ironically serve as a fig leaf for hate.

About the Author
Shimon Samuels is Director for International Relations of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He has served as Deputy Director of the Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, European Director of ADL, and Israel Director of AJC. He was born in UK and studied in UK, Israel, U.S. and Japan.