BERGEN-BELSEN (Apr. 6)
President Chaim Herzog of Israel, reciting the words of the psalmist, “My pain is with me forever,” unveiled a rock quarried in Jerusalem at the site of this former concentration camp Monday and dedicated it to the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust.
“I do not bring forgiveness with me, nor forgetfulness,” declared Herzog, the first President of Israel to visit Germany. “The only ones who can forgive are the dead. The living have no right to forget. Thus I will surely remember, with a heavy heart.”
The brief, moving ceremony at Bergen-Belsen followed by a few hours Herzog’s arrival at Bonn where he was greeted with a 21-gun salute and personally welcomed by President Richard von Weizsaecker of the Federal Republic.
Several hundred people assembled here, including Holocaust survivors and West German dignitaries, headed by von Weizsaecker and the Prime Minister of Lower Saxony, Ernst Albrecht. Many fought back tears as the EI Mole Rachmin, the prayer for the dead, was chanted by a cantor.
Then Herzog faced the audience. “In this place, the vale of slaughter, and at the outset of my journey on this soil, I leave as a memorial, my brethren and sisters, victims of the Shoah (Holocaust), a stone hewn from the rocks of Jerusalem. On it are carved the words of the psalmist, as testimony to the decimation of my people: ‘My pain is with me forever’.”
‘THE JEWISH PEOPLE LIVES ON’
He recalled, “I was here for the first time 42 years ago. Then I was a Jewish soldier from the land of Israel, participating in the destruction of the Nazi regime, plucking the brands snatched from the fire. The memory of those shocking sights will never, ever leave me.
“Now, accompanied by some survivors, I return as President of the State of Israel, the independent Jewish State, by decision of its sovereign government, to bear witness before you that the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people will never be betrayed and that the Jewish people lives on.”
At the ceremony, a Holocaust survivor, Hadassah Rosensaft, recognized Herzog as one of the officers of the British army which liberated the concentration camp. She burst into tears and embraced the President.
The memorial service at Bergen-Belsen was a far cry both in mood and setting from the ceremonial pomp that greeted Herzog and his wife Aura when they stepped from their Israel Air Force jet at Bonn airport at 10 a.m. Monday.
After reviewing a guard of honor, Herzog was flown by helicopter to Villa Hammerschmidt, the official residence of President von Weizsaecker. There, German army units passed in review and the national anthems of Israel and West Germany were played. The two Presidents had a brief talk and were then flown to Hannover, capital of Lower Saxony, and from there by helicopter to Bergen-Belsen. Before unveiling the memorial stone, Herzog visited the museum at the concentration camp site and inspected the sole remaining barrack.
STATEMENT BY GERMANY’S PRESIDENT
Herzog’s five-day tour of West Germany, following a five-day visit to Switzerland, was controversial in Israel where some thought no President of Israel should set foot on German soil. Von Weizsaecker went out of his way to thank Herzog for accepting Bonn’s invitation. “Of course I understand those who voiced criticism,” he told reporters three days before Herzog’s arrival. He said the visit by the Israeli chief of state was “an extraordinary event of an extremely important meaning.”
Von Weizsaecker denied that the visit was intended to “close” the chapter of the German past. “In history there can be no such closure,” he said.
HERZOG’S STATEMENT AT BERGEN-BELSEN
Herzog’s words at Bergen-Belsen bore that out, for he addressed himself to those long dead. “You bequeathed to our people the precept of life, the imperative of existence,” he said.
“To ensure that never again would the Jew be a helpless victim, and that never again would Holocaust and destruction be the fate of Israel, you bequeathed a testament to build the future of the Jewish people in its homeland, proud and free. A people strong in its moral right and in its moral force no less than in its ability to defend itself…”
“The grief of your death will eternally be with us. Not as a perpetual hatred. Not as barren, paralyzing hostility. But as a call to strength and steadfastness, a call to understand the depths to which the human soul can sink, and a call to rise above them. To fulfill with all our very being the antithesis of evil, of wickedness: Turn away from evil, and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.”
Herzog concluded: “In the name of the Jewish people and in the name of the State of Israel, I repeat our oath never to forget and to be forever faithful to your bequest–the imperative of life.”
Herzog and his wife spent five days in Switzerland last week as guests of President Pierre Auber of the Swiss Confederation, who is also Foreign Minister. Herzog was the first Israeli President to pay an official visit to Switzerland.
In addition to talks with Auber on bilateral and world issues including the Middle East, the Herzogs were feted by the Swiss Jewish community. They also had an opportunity to visit with their grandchildren.