Around the Jewish World: Germany Continues Its Atonement by Inviting Barak to the New Berlin
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Around the Jewish World: Germany Continues Its Atonement by Inviting Barak to the New Berlin

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Sixty years after the start of World War II, Germany’s chancellor has announced that Israel’s prime minister will be the first foreign leader to officially visit the rededicated capital of a reunified Germany.

The visit is planned for Sept. 21, one day after the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made the announcement Wednesday as part of a news conference marking the 60th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, which triggered what he called “one of the most awful crimes of German history.”

Schroeder, speaking for the first time from his temporary headquarters here, suggested that the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was linked with a feeling of “responsibility to not forget our history, and also to not repress it.”

Schroeder’s invitation to Barak — which has been accepted, sources say — is a significant step for the administration that claims to represent Germany’s postwar era. Increasingly, Germans want to lift the cloud of World War II from their conscience — and Schroeder, at 55 years younger than his predecessor, Helmut Kohl, has expressed a desire to look more to the future than the past.

Such sentiments have alarmed observers who fear Germany will lose its soul again as older leaders with a memory of the war are replaced.

But Schroeder and his ministers have occasionally drawn links between the experiences of the past and the decisions of today, even when it seems politically dangerous to do so.

Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer shook up his pacifist Green Party when he invoked the slogan “Never Again Auschwitz” to justify German involvement in NATO’s airstrikes against Kosovo.

In June the Parliament finally voted to create a national Holocaust memorial in Berlin, after more than 10 years of heated debate. And Michael Naumann, culture minister, has pledged to double the funds available for the preservation of sites and memorials related to Nazi war crimes.

In related news, German President Johannes Rau said Wednesday that compensation for Nazi-era slave laborers is a necessary element in future good relations between Poland and Germany.

He made the comments to Alexander Kwasniewski, Poland’s president, during commemorative ceremonies at the German-Polish border, where the first shots of World War II were fired.

Wednesday would have been the deadline for creation of a German industry compensation fund, and Kwasniewski has reportedly expressed deep disappointment that the goal was not met. Poles were among the many millions forced to work for German industry during the war. Talks on the fund are scheduled to resume in October.

The topic of reparations is often invoked by those Germans who say they are tired of paying for the sins of their grandparents. Such views may be linked in part to high unemployment in Germany — in some areas of the former East Germany more than 20 percent. Increasingly, it is popular to blame foreigners for taking jobs, although statistics show that they are not.

When it comes to blaming Jews, the Holocaust compensation theme often is invoked.

Standing with his Polish counterpart, Rau called reparations an important element in “reconciliation and good neighborliness,” and added that good relations could not be taken for granted. The two presidents shook hands across their border at Slubice and Frankfurt on the Oder River, where the first shots of World War II were fired.

Official relations today between the nations are warm, with Germany supporting Poland’s bid for admission into the European Union, but a recent opinion poll showed that a quarter of Poles — predominantly the older generation — believe that reconciliation with Germany is not possible.

Meanwhile, Polish victims of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin were honored with a plaque installed at the camp memorial Wednesday, and in Jerusalem, the German government placed a wreath in memory of all victims of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

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