Event Reports

The Future of Commemoration

by Michael Mertes

How can young Germans and Israelis commemorate the holocaust?

On July 31, about 160 people, among them many Jeckes, survivors of the Shoah and youngsters, participated in an event of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (ASF). The inter-generational panel discussion centred on “The future of commemoration – common remembrance in Germany and Israel”. After the discussion, the topic led to a vivid exchange of experiences and opinions among the participants.

It has been decades since the end of the Second World War. However, “The future of commemoration” remains a relevant topic. In his welcoming speech, the director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation Israel, Michael Mertes, explained why: “Today we are at a turning point in the history of commemorating the Shoah. We can still meet people of the generation, who themselves had to experience this time. No scientific study can ever replace reports of witnesses. For this reason, we need new ways which enable us to pass on those testimonies from generation to generation.”

According to Mertes, the Shoah has developed to a point of reference, regarding the way of how Germany looks on itself. Therefore, he quoted German chancellor Angela Merkel. In her speech before the Knesset on March 1, 2008, she explained that every former German government and former chancellor had been obliged to the special, historical responsibility of Germany in regard of Israel’s security. Moreover, it is an integral part of Germany’s reason of state.

Marianne Karmon, honorary chairman of the friends of ASF, recalled her own experiences of meetings with Germans. She could escape from Germany in 1939. Already in the 1950s, she has revived her relationship to Germany – at a time when it did not earn her much understanding in Israel.

The designated ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany in Israel, Andreas Michaelis, shared his experiences when he met survivors of the Shoah as a young diplomat in Tel Aviv. Their openness and friendliness towards him has moved him deeply. In that respect, dealing with the future of commemoration is not only important in terms of the few remaining witnesses. It is also significant because of sustainable, structural changes of both societies due to migration.

In the discussion, led by Dr. Gil Yaron, representatives of the third generation took the chance to speak as well. Yaron himself reminded the audience on the commandment of the Pessach-Haggada. Accordingly, each generation is obliged to look at itself as if it had participated in the Exodus from Egypt in person.

Yael Dinur, an Israeli ASF volunteer in Berlin to be, spoke about the necessity and possibility to put oneself in the position to understand both the victims and the offenders. Jakob Odenwald, a German volunteer for ASF working in a home for the elderly in Beit Barth and in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, contributed to the debate, too. Judging from his own experiences, he admitted that difficulties existed when people are trying to commemorate the Shoah simultaneously from a victim’s and opponent’s point of view.

Ronit Vered of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin talked about how schools could play a role in passing on the memories without teaching the issue like an abstract syllabus. But is a commemoration of the Shoa in Germany and Israel possible at all? After all, this question remained unanswered. Dr. Christian Staffa, manager of ASF, pleaded for accepting different perspectives that cannot – at least not completely – be harmonised. This was also true regarding tensions between individual and collective positions.

Despite the importance of a national history policy and a commemoration policy, the suffering of the individual victim or the motives of the single opponents cannot be replaced. Michael Mertes agreed, adding that the often lamented rituals of official state commemorations are significant how a community relying on the principle of human dignity regards itself. Nevertheless, every generation should shape those rituals anew.