BERLIN, Dec. 9 (JTA) — On his visit to Germany, Israeli President Moshe Katsav has had reminders of the awful past — and the promising future. Speaking Monday on a visit to a memorial at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Katsav said Germans and Jews share a responsibility to warn against genocide. That came a day after Katsav helped dedicate a new synagogue in Wuppertal, an event that he saw as a sign of hope for the future of Jewish life in Germany. At Sachsenhausen, Katsav said the Shoah was “a trauma for both the Jewish people and the German people.” All people, and especially Germans and Jews, have the duty to “ensure that this never happens again,” said Katsav, facing the ruins of the crematoria and bowing his head. Katsav’s three-day trip provided a study in the contrasts of budding Jewish life in Germany against the backdrop of the Holocaust. Eclipsed by the ceremonious events was a small neo-Nazi demonstration against Israel, which ended up drawing some 35 right-wing extremists to Berlin on Monday. They were far outnumbered by shouting counter-demonstrators, many of whom waved Israeli flags. The mood of the pro-Israel demonstrators was nearly gleeful, despite the bitter cold. The invitation to Katsav from German President Johannes Rau was seen as underscoring Germany’s support for Israel, despite heated debates here over whether to deliver weapons to the Jewish state. Katsav’s visit included meetings with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Jewish leaders and heads of the main political parties. It also included an historic moment: On Sunday, Katsav became the first Israeli president to participate in the dedication of a synagogue here when he and Rau unveiled the new synagogue at Wuppertal. Germany’s Jewish population has tripled to 100,000 since the fall of communism, due to immigration from the former Soviet Union. Later, in Berlin, Katsav told Jewish leaders he was worried about anti-Semitism in Europe but optimistic about the future of German-Jewish relations. He did not share the pessimism of his predecessor, Ezer Weizman, who upset the Jewish community during his 1996 visit when he said all Jews should leave Germany for Israel. In contrast, German Jewish leader Paul Spiegel said in an interview with the Welt am Sonntag newspaper, Katsav’s visit was a “symbol of solidarity and a sign of the recognition that Germany today is another Germany, in which Jews can live again.” While celebrating the rebirth of Jewish life in Germany, Katsav took issue with German popular and political attitudes toward Israel. In Wuppertal and in Berlin, he said he did not understand “how one could equate Palestinian terror and our fight against terror,” and accused Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat of “doing nothing” to stop “the hate aimed at Israel.” In contrast, he said, Israel does not wish to harm civilians in its fight against terrorism, Katsav said in Wuppertal, expressing sorrow that Palestinian civilians still have lost their lives in the fighting. Pro-Israel demonstrators echoed Katsav’s frustration at prevalent anti-Israel attitudes here. “It is important to show our solidarity with Israel and to protest against anti-Semitic criticism of Israel,” said student Katya Grote, 24, a member of “Young Democrats, Young Leftists.” “It is not wrong to criticize Israel, but when Israel is described as ‘unrepentant’ and ‘vengeful,’ and when Israel is compared to the Nazis, this is relativizing history, this is Holocaust denial,” she told JTA while her companion, a 22-year-old student named Oliver, waved an Israeli flag. At the small demonstration of the extreme right, separated from the pro-Israel demonstration by several lines of police in riot gear, a speaker criticized Israel as a “vengeful” state that had gone to war in response to bus bombings. German law prohibits the delivery of weapons to a war zone, so Israel should not get the missiles or tanks it has requested of Germany, the speaker said — a variation of the theme intoned by some mainstream politicians in recent days. “We are against weapons delivery to Israel,” said Rene Bethage, a member of the extreme right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany, “and we are for solidarity with the Palestinian people, because they are under pressure.” Earlier, Katsav and Rau stood before the ruins of the Sachsenhausen crematoria and laid wreaths after touring the memorial and meeting with Jewish survivor Werner Goldstein. Katsav said it was difficult to imagine the suffering of inmates in this camp, located “just a few kilometers from the pulsating city of Berlin.” “The Jewish people have never fully recovered from this, and its after-affects will accompany us for all time,” he said. Many people were tortured and killed at Sachsenhausen, Katsav noted — from Jehovah’s Witnesses to homosexuals, from political opponents to Gypsies. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the camp between 1936 and 1945, and tens of thousands lost their lives due to starvation, disease, exhaustion or execution. “But no other group suffered as much as the Jews,” Katsav said.
Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.