The German President Johannes Rau: Praising German Jewry
NOTE: The following is the message from the president of Germany, Johannes Rau, at the opening ceremony, Sept. 9, 2001, of the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
The museum is a special museum. The purpose of the Jewish Museum Berlin is to familiarize us with "Two Millennia of German Jewish History." This is an ambitious, almost an unattainable goal.
Portraying and bringing to life "Two Millennia of German Jewish History" is not only ambitious but also essential. For how many people know that there has been a Jewish community life within the borders of today's Germany for almost two thousand years?
The first document relating to Jewish life on German soil dates back to 321. In that year, the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, decreed that Jews could be elected to the curia - nowadays we would say the town council - of Colonia Agrippina, today's Cologne. They had therefore already been living there for decades.
Most Jews, who later also settled in other towns along the Rhine and the Moselle, initially lived from farming. Later there were vineyard owners, merchants, craftsmen and doctors among them.
To this day we know very little about the everyday lives of the Jews in towns such as Speyer, Worms, Mianz and Trier during the first centuries. They lived in their own communities. In the early Middle Ages they were strangers to most of their Christian neighbors but they took part in daily life.
The relationship between Christians and Jews changed dramatically with the crusades. During the very first crusade, in 1096, the crusaders killed five thousand Jews. Thus began a new, a tragic phase in the history of Jews in Germany and Europe which, with interruptions, lasted until the 18th century, until the Enlightenment.
These were centuries of rejection, exclusion and persecution: Jews had to wear a yellow mark on their clothing. They were gradually driven out of agriculture, long-distance trade and many occupations and into others. They became the victims of absurd accusations and fantasies. They were accused of ritual murder and well poisoning. They were also said to be responsible for the plague. In times of religious, economic and political conflicts all over Europe, such accusations provoked, and at the same time served as a justification for persecution and terrible pogroms.
Despite all the persecution, despite the exclusion and discrimination, the Jews in Germany and in Europe had a vibrant religious, social and cultural community life. This included a rich Yiddish literature.
Yiddish and German have had a stimulating influence on each other. Yiddish is based on an early form of German and there are still many Yiddish loan-words and expressions in German today.
Jews have not lived isolated from the rest of society but, rather, in a lively exchange with their environment. They have had an impact on the whole society, not just their own community. Let me cite just two examples: The writings of Aristotle were unknown for centuries in Western Europe. It was Jewish scholars who translated them from Arab into Latin and brought them back to Western Europe in the 12th century.
Jews contributed towards Europe's court culture. Think of Subkind von Trimberg, the minnesinger.
It is therefore not only since the Enlightenment in the 18th century that Jews have been making a major contribution towards the development of German and European culture. They were involved in it from the very beginning. Europe's roots do not lie exclusively in Christianity. Jewish culture also forms part of Europe's roots - as does, by the way, Islamic culture.
The contribution made by Jews towards research, the arts and culture in Germany and Europe is extraordinary, even if we just look at the last three centuries. Of the numerous key figures, I would just like to mention Moses Mendelssohn, Rahel Vernhagen, Heinrich Heine, Max Liebermann, Kurt Tucholsky, Else Lasker-Schuler, Albert Einstein, Theodor W. Adorno and the late Hans Mayer.
Different as they all were, they belonged unmistakably to the German-Jewish culture which had evolved over centuries.
The museum we are opening today is intended to make all facets of this culture accessible to us. The Jewish Museum Berlin does not want to be, nor should it be, a Holocaust museum.
That is an important, right decision. Today it is not just young people who know only one thing about the history of Jews in Germany and Europe, namely that the National Socialists planned and carried out the genocide of European Jews.
We must keep the memory of the shoa alive. This building will help to do that, as will the exhibition we are opening today. However, that should not lead us to draw the false conclusion that the Holocaust is the sum total of German-Jewish history.
We must try and counter that impression. And this museum is making a very important contribution towards that goal. The National Socialists did not just want to annihilate European Jews physically but also to determine for all time how Jewish culture and how German-Jewish relations were to be portrayed.
Therefore it is so vital that we find symbols and reminders of German-Jewish relations from almost two millennia in this museum. If we acquaint ourselves with this history in its entirety, we will become even more aware of how heavily the loss is that we also inflicted upon ourselves with the Holocaust.
At the beginning of the 20th century no-one in Germany could have imagined the indescribably horror of what happened between 1933 and 1945. The idea of equal citizenship for the Jews had slowly and gradually gained ground. The constitution of the German Reich of 1871 was the first to grant Jews the same rights and duties as all other German citizens. This was of course also the case with the constitution of the first German republic in 1919.
Admittedly, anti-Semitic parties had stood for election since the German Reich. However, they failed to gain decisive influence in either the Reich or the Weimar Republic until shortly before 1933.
Naturally, we know that Jews were discriminated against in many areas of society. A particularly disgusting example were the anti-Semitic attacks of the historian Heinrich von Treitschke. However, the fact that another historian, Theodor Mommsen, spoke out clearly and unambiguously against Treitschke and defended German Jews against slander and defamation is also part of German history.
At the beginning of the 20th century, many thought that anti-Semitism was a relic from an unenlightened age which modern society would eradicate. For many Jews there was no questions that Germany was their fatherland. They were respected citizens and fully integrated into society.
It is for this very reason that so many have been asking for the last fifty years how Auschwitz could happen. I do not have a convincing answer either.
Certainly, without religious, economic and racist anti-Semitism, the Holocaust would not have been possible; however, it was not inevitable. To this very day one hears the claim that German Jews completely failed to recognize their situation in German society. If they had taken anti-Semitic tendencies seriously they would have realized where this was leading.
I can understand this argument because it is an attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. This argument is understandable but it is not correct. It is true that in history few things have a greater influence than traditions which have grown over centuries.
However, it is also true that in history there are calamitous developments which cannot be predicted and which are very difficult to understand in retrospect, if they can be understood at all.
The Holocaust was such an event. It was a complete breakdown in civilization rather than an evil end to Jewish life in Germany which could have been foreseen from the outset. The Holocaust was neither inherent in the German character nor an inevitable development in German history. The blame for what was done to German and European Jews lies with those who planned, ordered and committed the genocide.
Men and women in Germany who protected, hid and saved Jews during the worst persecution are also part of the history of German-Jewish relations. One of these men is the brush and broom-maker Otto Weidt, who employed Jews in his workshop for the blind in Rosenthaler Strasse here in Berlin, and his others, thus saving their lives.
Otto Weidt is one of the silent heroes of whom there were many less than we wish there had been today. However, there were many more than we were aware of for a long time.
That is why it is so important that the premises of Otto Weidt's workshop for the blind, which have survived almost unaltered, are now a part of the Jewish Museum Berlin. I think it is splendid that men and women who showed that even in the Third Reich there was some scope for making decisions and taking action are commemorated in this way. The argument often hears that it was impossible to do anything does not stand up to the example set by these people.
This, too, is part of the history of German-Jewish relations. We should pass this on to young people in particular, whom we want to take an interest in history. Commitment to humanity and human dignity does not only grow through reflecting upon the horrors of the past. It also grows when we look at the stories of people who have shown humaneness under extremely difficult conditions.
Personal courage needs role models.
The Jewish Museum Berlin has made a conscious decision not to become an exhibition center where history is locked up and preserved in display cases. It wants to be a place of teaching and learning. It should become a meeting-point for old and young, for Jews and non-Jews, for people of different origin and different cultures.
This was achieved by this building even when it was empty: since its opening two years ago almost half a million people have visited this fascinating edifice. Daniel Libeskind has thus given the new Berlin's cityscape a distinctive landmark.
This museum will increase awareness of the great contribution which many Jewish Germans and German Jews have made to our culture. The Jewish Museum Berlin shows us that Jewish and German history are more than the Holocaust and the Third Reich.
I hope that the museum will heighten awareness of where prejudice and resentment can lead and demonstrate that there is no humane alternative to tolerance and living together in harmony. Incidentally, intolerance and contempt begin with language.
The exhibition which we are opening today would be inconceivable without those from all over the world who were prepared to lend the museum even quite personal keepsakes.
That will not have been easy for many given their family histories. I would like to express my thanks and my respect to all of them, whether they could be here today or not.
The timing of the opening of the Jewish Museum Berlin is well chosen. According to the Jewish calendar, 18 September marks Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the seventh and holy month. It is followed by Yom Kippur and the feast of Tabernacles. The Jewish Year begins with these feasts, a time of remembrance and of hope for an auspicious future.
The fact that we are keeping the memory alive, thus contributing to a bright future is, in my view, today's gift.
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