German Holocaust Memorial Day Marked with State Ceremonies and Controversies

Four years after its introduction, Germany’s national day to commemorate the Holocaust is sparking debates about history and memory.

The Jan. 27 commemoration of Holocaust Memorial Day, which coincides with the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945, was highlighted by a ceremony held in the Bundestag, the German parliament, in Bonn. Other remembrance ceremonies took place in state parliaments. Numerous local groups sponsored lectures and debates on Holocaust-related topics.

However, despite the emphasis on Holocaust education envisioned for the day, a survey by the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper of schools in the city of Frankfurt revealed that few schools had planned special events for the occasion.

The day came as the country is embroiled in ongoing public debates about confronting Holocaust memory and the necessity for a central Holocaust monument in Germany.

President Roman Herzog, who initiated the day of commemoration in 1996, spoke to the Bundestag on Wednesday and condemned all manifestations of anti- Semitism.

He said that although anti-Semitism occurs in other countries, acts such as the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in Germany justifiably elicit more outrage. In December, the gravestone in Berlin of Heinz Galinski, a former head of the country’s Jewish community, was blown up in a still-unsolved arson attack.

Herzog criticized a recent discussion about whether or not Holocaust victims are using their victimhood to get compensation.

This has to do, said Herzog, “with right and justice.”

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder backed a compensation fund for those worked as slave laborers for German companies during the Nazi regime. In a statement in honor of the memorial day, Schroeder said the German government is working to solve this issue as quickly as possible.

Schroeder also spoke out against closing the books on Germany’s confrontation with its past, a demand frequently put forth by conservative thinkers. “Every attempt to escape responsibility for our history is condemned to failure,” he said.

In his Bundestag speech, Herzog lent support to Ignatz Bubis, the head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, calling him “a German patriot.”

In recent months, Bubis and the well-known novelist Martin Walser have been embroiled in a debate about Holocaust memory. In a recent speech, Walser said Holocaust memory is often used against the German people as a “moral bludgeon.” The novelist claims it is time to take Holocaust memory out of the public arena and put it on a more private level.

In Frankfurt on Wednesday evening, there was a march against Walser’s views. The march began at the site where the novelist held his controversial speech, and ended at the site of a memorial for Frankfurt’s Jewish citizens who were murdered during the Nazi era.

In the debate about whether to build a central Holocaust monument in Germany, Herzog backed the monument concept. However, he said it is also important to have memorials throughout the country at sites that relate to the Holocaust, such as Gestapo torture chambers, buildings used for the deportation of Jews and schools where Jewish students were dismissed.

Jewish leader Ignatz Bubis has backed a new design for the monument by U.S. architect Peter Eisenmann that incorporates a library, research center and exhibition space.

Elsewhere in Germany, Bavarian Governor Edmund Stoiber handed over to the Jewish community a list with the names of 11,000 Jewish males who were imprisoned in Dachau. The list, used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials after World War II, was recently rediscovered in the National Archives in Washington.

Former World War II Resistance fighters issued an appeal to German youth to fight against racism and xenophobia. They said young people should support a government initiative to reform citizenship laws and allow dual citizenship to end what he called the “second-class treatment” of former guest workers and immigrants.

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