German Jewish Leader, Author Meet to Resolve Holocaust Debate

After tossing public verbal accusations at each other for two months, a German Jewish leader and a leading German novelist have finally met to discuss their opposing views on preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

And though the personal relationship between lgnatz Bubis and Martin Walser improved during their four-hour talk last weekend, the two remained radically at odds on public commemoration of the Holocaust and Holocaust education.

The conflict between the two 71-year-old men, which has received extensive attention in the German media, reflects a growing debate among Germans over how to commemorate the Holocaust.

Their tensions erupted after Walser’s nationally televised acceptance speech for a prize he was awarded at a book fair in mid-October.

In the speech, Walser lashed out at the current approach to Holocaust commemoration in Germany, arguing it was time to let Germany become a normal nation without constant public reminders of Auschwitz. He criticized the proposed Holocaust monument in Berlin, which has been mired in controversy for a decade, as a “nightmare,” and said he has begun to look away from film scenes of Auschwitz.

Most people in the audience, including leading politicans and intellectuals, applauded.

But Bubis, who was visibly horrified, called Walser a “moral arsonist” who was opening doors for right-wing extremists in Germany who favor an end to public discussion on Holocaust commemoration. He also called him a latent anti-Semite.

Until this past weekend, Walser declined to meet face to face with Bubis, complaining that the charges were too exaggerated to warrant discussion. He also refused to clarify controversial passages of his speech despite requests by the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Avi Primor, the Israeli ambassador to Germany.

But both men agreed to meet in the offices of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, which subsequently published a transcript of the discussion.

For most of the talk, the atmosphere was frosty.

Bubis retracted his charge that Walser is a moral arsonist whose position is similar to that of some right-wing extremists. Still, Bubis insisted that those who seek closure to the discussion about German guilt for the Holocaust will now consider Walser a “spiritual father,” pointing out that the far-right press in Germany has praised the novelist’s speech.

Bubis also said that given Walser’s prominence as a novelist in Germany, his plea for “looking away” from the Holocaust could encourage many others to do the same.

Walser admitted that he spoke too little about the necessity for public commemoration in his speech. But he repeated his plea for a more individual confrontation with the Holocaust. He said official acts of public commemoration can easily degenerate into meaningless ritual and do not serve to develop the conscience of young people. Instead, he argued that this is the job of the family, religious leaders and teachers.

Walser, who lives in Bavaria in southern Germany, is a former left-wing thinker who has expressed growing nationalist sentiments in recent years. He complained that Germany continues to be treated by the outside world as a criminal nation that constantly has to prove that it is ready to rejoin the civilized world.

In the end, the two men found little common ground except to agree that their dispute has unleashed an important public debate in Germany on the forms of Holocaust commemoration. But the head of the Berlin Jewish community, Andreas Nachama, said it is a positive sign that differing views on Holocaust commemoration are being seriously discussed in Germany.

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