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Speech by Ambassador Ploetner at the occasion of the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Thessaloniki

Speech by Ambassador Ploetner at the occasion of the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Thessaloniki

Speech by Ambassador Ploetner at the occasion of the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Thessaloniki, © Michalis Pappous

27.01.2019 - Rede

Ambassador Jens Ploetner held a speech on the occasion of the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Thessaloniki.

It is not easy standing here.

It is not easy standing here on January 27th, the remembrance-day of the victims of the Holocaust.

Today, 74 years ago, the concentration camp of Auschwitz was liberated. Latest then, the world began to fully understand the full scale of horror of the Shoah. I am convinced: for all times the Holocaust will stand as an unparalleled crime against humanity, as a total breakdown of the most basic values of humanity.

Standing here today, we remember the heinous and deadly machine which was set into motion as soon as the German Wehrmacht occupied Thessaloniki and Greece in April 1941. Arrests, confiscation and expropriations, the plundering of Jewish synagogues, homes or shops soon began. By July 1942, thousands of Jewish boys and men were sent to forced labor. The infamous ransom was demanded, the community lost its cemetery.  In the beginning of 1943, all Jews were forced into Ghettos. It was the preparation for the final deadly act of this devilish plan – the deportation. Tens of thousands were sent to Auschwitz, some to Treblinka. Very few survived.

Standing here today, not far from the place where these children, elders, men and women last saw their beloved home one can hardly imagine the pure horror they felt as they were crowded into cattle-cars. Looking into the terrified eyes of their children - what comfort could parents still give them? What must the grandfather have felt seeing his entire family embark on a voyage they most likely knew would not end well? Where is God?  - many might have asked.

It is not the numbers we should remember; it is the individuals. We should not in the first place remember these people as victims. It is the proud, the creative, the ingenious members of a beaming Jewish City we should remember.

Building on what their forefathers’ had started as early as in the 16 th century, this city soon became a sort of melting pot of Jewish communities from all over Europe. Knows as the „Jerusalem of the Balkans“, it was the only city in the Ottoman Empire in which the majority was of Jewish belief and culture.

The contribution of this community to the cultural life of Europe cannot be estimated high enough..

And that is why the painful memory of Nationalsocialist rule is always also a cruel reminder of what was lost. Something crucial is missing. Something is missing to all of us. In art, in music, in literature. The song that was not written, the music that was not composed, the poem that was not put into verses.

This loss is irreversible. It is a wound that will not heal. The memory of all the crimes, the persecution, the murder of Jews will therefore always carry this pain, the pain of what never came into being.

It is not easy standing here. The country I represent has assumed the moral responsibility of the deeds of our ancestors. The megalomaniac project of the murder of all Jews may have been the fruit of Hitler’s sick brain, but it was put into practice with deadly precision by many. And even more looked away, did not want to know. How could in the immediate neighborhood of the city of Weimar – home to Goethe, Schiller, Johann Sebastian Bach or Cranach – how could right next door hell open its gates in Buchenwald.

How? Why? There is no satisfactory answer to this question.

There is no escaping this past.

As a young student, I spent a year studying law in Bordeaux, France on an Erasmus scholarship. I felt very European.

In the early weeks of my time in Bordeaux, I went to a Boulangerie. The lady owner handed me back my change with a „Dankeschön!“ Spontaneously, I replied: Oh, you speak German – have you lived there? In place of an answer, she pulled up here sleeve and showed me a blueish tattoo – her inmate number from Auschwitz. In that moment – there was no escaping from being German…

A few years later - I had since joined the diplomatic service – my first posting was Israel. I was anxious to see how a young German diplomat would be welcomed, if at all. Today, I think of my encounters with Holocaust survivors, with survivors of the Concentration Camps with gratefulness and humility. The invited me to their regular meetings, curious about today’s Germany and eager to tell me stories of the better days of their lives in Germany. We cried quite a lot together, but we also laughed. In one of our first meetings, one elderly lady remarked that I was a bit reluctant to join in the sometimes cheerful mood, she took my hand and said: „Remember Jens: You can laugh about everything, but not with everybody. Laugh with us, Jens!“

The pain, the shame, the responsibility growing from it – all is an ineffaceable part of our identity, of the basic understanding of our state and it belongs to the core tenet of our constitution. Our pain is enshrined in its first sentence:

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.

It comes close to a miracle that today relations between Jewish communities across the world and Germany are close and trustful. It comes close to a miracle that Israel and Germany call each other partners and friends. And we are grateful that the Jewish community in Germany is thriving and growing. Synagogues are being built, Rabbis ordained, Jewish schools opened.

We take pride in our close and trustful cooperation with the Jewish community of Thessaloniki and our common project – together with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation – to build a Holocaust Museum in this city.

While we are grateful for all these positive developments – we cannot be satisfied. Still, synagogues are guarded by police in Germany. Still, we read of anti-Semitic attacks against our Jewish citizens. Never must we allow us to be complacent, to shrug and say: „Well, there always are a few crazy people…“

We have made the painful experience that it always starts with a few…

That is why our attitude must be one of Zero-tolerance when facing anti-Semitism – especially in Germany, but in Europe as a whole. 

Allow me to close on a more general remark: We are living in challenging times. The core values of our western democracies are under pressure, even under attack. From outside, but also from within. Nationalistic, xenophobic and also anti-semitic forces are on the rise in many European countries, but also beyond Europe. Stigmatizing foreigners in order to justify harsher migration policies, stoking fear and division in societies to curry political support. Let us be aware of the climate this creates! Let us never again embark on a path that pits one country, one people against another and preaches that our victory can only grow from the defeat of the other.

Never again!

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