German parliament commemorates Holocaust victims | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 31.01.2019
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German parliament commemorates Holocaust victims

In a moving address, historian and Holocaust survivor Saul Friedländer said anti-Semitism was a "scourge" circulating through both the far-right and far-left. He also warned against growing nationalism.

Israeli historian and Holocaust survivor Saul Friedländer delivered a moving and personal speech to the German parliament on Thursday as the Bundestag observed its annual memorial session to the victims of National Socialism. Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier were among the leading politicians and dignitaries present in the packed chamber. 

Delivering his speech in German, the language he spoke growing up in 1930s Prague, the 86-year-old Friedländer recounted his family's flight to France, their successful attempt to hide him in a Catholic boarding school and his last encounter with his parents, who had tried to hide in a hospital.

"I ran away from the school, and found my parents in the hospital," he told the chamber. "They had to send me back. What must they have been feeling, as they watched their little boy fighting for all he was worth because he wanted to stay with them, as he was taken from the room? It was our last encounter."

Friedländer's parents were caught by Swiss police as they attempted to cross the border in 1942, when he was 9 years old, and deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis on "Transport Nr. 40," he said. 

Berlin Bundestag memorial (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld)

Friedländer was escorted into the parliament by Steinmeier (center) and Merkel

"I often ask myself whether my parents were together during the three days of this hellish journey," he said. "And if they were, what did they say to each other? And what did they think? Did they know what was awaiting them?"

Friedländer's father, being sick, was likely gassed on arrival, with 638 others from his train, while his mother may have survived three more months working as a slave. Of the thousand people on Transport 40, which included 200 children, four survived the war.

Read moreSaul Friedländer: 'Historian of the Holocaust' and beyond

Modern anti-Semitism on the right and left

Friedländer converted to Catholicism while in hiding, before moving to Israel in 1948, five weeks after the state's foundation. He went on to become one of the world's preeminent historians of the Holocaust, his work culminating in a two-volume history, entitled Nazi Germany and the Jews, and The Years of Extermination, published in 1997 and 2007.

Friedländer also used his speech to warn against the resurgence of anti-Semitism at a time when right- and left-wing extremists are questioning Israel's right to exist.

The German parliament

All the party leaders and cabinet ministers were present in the Bundestag

"Today's hatred against Jews is just as irrational as it always was, and new and old conspiracy theories are in circulation again, especially among far-right extremists," he said. "While among the anti-Semitic left the politically-correct type of justification for their hate consists of obsessively attacking Israeli politics while questioning Israel's right to exist."

"Of course it is legitimate to criticize the Israeli government, but the sheer intensity and extent of the attacks are simply absurd," he said. 

Friedländer also offered other warnings to his audience, which included members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), and US Ambassador Richard Grenell, whose President Donald Trump declared himself a nationalist at a rally in Texas last October.

"Anti-Semitism is just one of the scourges that is afflicting one nation after another," said Friedländer, to applause. "Xenophobia, the temptation of authoritarian leadership practices, and especially the intensifying nationalism that is on the march around the world in a worrying way."

Watch video 03:04

The melodies of Auschwitz

Read more'Auschwitz did not begin in Auschwitz'

Annual commemoration

The German parliament traditionally marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on January 27, with a special parliamentary session. This year the speeches were punctuated by music from the Bennewitz string quartet, who played pieces by composers Erwin Schulhoff and Viktor Ullmann, who both died in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

In his opening remarks, Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble said that respect for the dignity of every person was one of the essential lessons learned following the persecution by the Nazi regime. He added that Germany's constitution, which begins by stating that "human dignity shall be inviolable," is one of the answers to the Holocaust.

Schäuble noted that it was "shameful" that Jewish people living in Germany are reporting more anti-Semitic incidents and that more and more of them have expressed a wish to leave the country. 

"But it is not enough to feel shame," he said, adding that "our resistance to anti-Semitism, racism and discrimination of all kinds" was needed in everyday life. 

This year marks the 74th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet Army on January 27, 1945.

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