Germans Honor Victims

The Miami Herald
Germans honor victims
By Brian Siegal

Visiting the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin earlier this month brought home to me how much hatred lay at the heart of Nazi ideology, allowing so many to participate in a historically unparalleled genocide. The experience also made me realize how quickly the world has lost interest.

What else could account for the odious exploitation of the Holocaust's memory in recent months -- from the use of a Hitler photo in a billboard advertisement, to the overuse of the words ``Nazi'' and ``Nazism'' in columns and news talk shows, so they risk becoming as meaningless as an everyday cliché? And let us not forget Oliver Stone's suggestion that Hitler's actions should be put ``into context?''

These demonstrate a lack of empathy, at best, or politically motivated, deliberate disregard, at worst, that diminishes the legacy of the Holocaust, its victims and survivors, as well as the millions who gave their lives to end Hitler's tyranny.

More worrisome still, an Iranian delegation visiting Germany this summer refused to tour the memorial site of the Buchenwald concentration camp. But given President Mohammed Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, this refusal is not surprising.

Clearly, constant vigilance will be required now more than ever, as the last generation of survivors passes on and first-hand accounts grow fewer, to preserve the Holocaust's memory. Present-day Germany provides one of the best models on how to do this. Such was my impression after spending a week in Berlin as the guest of the German Foreign Ministry.

The German government, individual foundations and a number of religious institutions all play a part in preserving the memory of the victims who lie hidden behind the anonymous numbers and ensuring that the lessons of the Holocaust are learned for the future. Rather than denying or disavowing their past, Germans for the most part seem to confront it while looking ahead toward a more promising future.

This was most apparent to me when I visited an elementary school in Berlin. The students were tasked with a project: Identify someone from their neighborhood who was killed in the Holocaust and find at least one thing in common with that person. Each student then created a brick to commemorate him/her, along with a brief description about who they were. The bricks are then joined together to form a ``wall of remembrance.'' It is through exercises like this done in schools around the country that memory is passed on to the next generation.

There are many other testaments to the Holocaust that can be found throughout Berlin, including brass cobblestone plaques placed outside the homes where Jews once lived before being deported and killed as well as the ``Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,'' an abstract presentation of 2,711 coffin-like slabs that vary in height and cover an entire city block in the heart of Berlin.

But beyond physical reminders and remembrances, Germany is also heeding lessons of the Holocaust by combating intolerance, group hatred and Holocaust denial. It is one of over 80 countries that participate on the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research, which recently signed an agreement to promote the remembrance of the Holocaust through education, research and upkeep of memorial sites.

A profound example of this commitment occurred when the delegation from Iran refused to visit the concentration camps and pay respect to the Jews who had been murdered there, and the mayor of Weimar was outraged and cancelled his meeting with them. Standing up against abuse of Holocaust memory helps counter the spread of Holocaust denial and assists in anchoring remembrance of the Holocaust in our common understanding of democratic values.

Another aspect of Germany's commitment to the preservation of memory is building a pluralistic and tolerant society. We visited a group called the Network for Democracy and Tolerance, located in the East Berlin district of Lichtenberg, which helps teachers and social workers in local schools and communities identify and confront racism. In addition, AJC's Berlin office is at the forefront of constructive engagement and dialogue among diverse groups in Germany.

We must confront the denial and misuse of the Holocaust. What I saw in Germany provides examples of why and how this should be done. Germany's progress in confronting the past, fighting anti-Semitism, and speaking out against Holocaust denial gives hope that even though this work is difficult, it can be done.

Brian Siegal is director of American Jewish Committee (AJC) Greater Miami and Broward County Regional Office.