BERLIN (JTA) — Chancellor Angela Merkel, making the first visit by a German head of state to the Dachau memorial, said it was “a very significant moment for me.”
Merkel laid a wreath, visited the concentration camp memorial’s museum and met with survivors on Tuesday.
“The memory of these fates fills me with deep sadness and shame,” Merkel said, the German news media reported.
Max Mannheimer, 93, a survivor who met with Merkel, praised her visit as a sign “of respect for the former detainees.”
Ahead of the visit, critics had accused Merkel of being “tasteless,” using Germany’s darkest chapter for political purposes: She is fighting for the reelection of her party, the Christian Democratic Union, in national elections in September.
At a campaign stop after visiting the memorial near Munich, Merkel was to address a local cultural festival Tuesday night in the town of Dachau. But Jewish leaders praised Merkel for making a statement through her visit to the memorial.
Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told Spiegel Online magazine that as the first chancellor to visit the Dachau memorial, Merkel was underscoring the point that “the horrors took place not only in the east but among us in Germany.”
The Green Party rapped Merkel for combining the somber visit to a memorial site with a campaign speech in a beer tent on the other side of town, the German news media reported.
Renate Kunast, head of the party’s parliamentary faction, told the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper that “anyone who took a visit to a site of horror seriously definitely would not combine it with an election campaign.”
Graumann countered that “if the chancellor had only taken part in the campaign appearance in the town of Dachau, she would have been criticized for not visiting the concentration camp memorial.”
In fact, former Central Council head Charlotte Knobloch said in a statement, “it is remarkable that the chancellor changed her plans in the middle of her election campaign” to visit the site. Knobloch, who heads the Munich and Bavarian Jewish communal organizations, said the visit shows Merkel’s commitment to remembrance and sense of responsibility.
According to the memorial, more than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the camp and its satellite locations between 1933 and 1945. Some 28,000 prisoners died in the Dachau camp, and another 13,000 died at the external sites.