Nearly 60 years after the end of the Holocaust, residents of the city of Dachau want to close the town’s notorious Nazi concentration camp.
There doesn’t seem to be much danger of that. But the brouhaha over the concentration camp at Dachau, which today houses a memorial to the camp’s victims, erupted when a right-wing politician told a group of visiting Israeli journalists that he thought the memorial should be closed because city residents are tired of having to bear the burden of Dachau’s guilt.
The uproar sparked by Robert Konopka’s comments is indicative of the high sensitivity among Germans — and among Jews around the world — to the memory of the Holocaust.
It also raises the question of whether extremists should be given a platform in respectable media — especially since there is virtually no danger of the memorial closing, according to the memorial’s director, Barbara Distel.
The comments by Konopka, a Bavarian Parliamentarian, caused a public outcry when they were reported on Israeli television and in Yediot Achronot, an Israeli daily.
Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, dashed off a letter to the German government. Israelis launched a letter- writing campaign aimed at halting the memorial’s closure, oblivious to the fact that no closure plans were bring considered. The memorial actually inaugurated an updated exhibition in 2002.
“We regret that the reports by the Israeli journalists about their visit to Dachau raised a baseless impression among the Israeli and American public,” Distel said.
“My colleagues at the Dachau memorial and the survivors,” she said, “would prefer a more critical evaluation of the challenges associated with this work.”
Despite the current opposition to closing the camp, Konopka said he expects to push for the camp’s closure after the last survivors die, when it will be “much easier” to do it, Israeli television reporter Liran Dan told JTA.
In his meeting with the reporters, Konopka, who represents the far-right Republikaner party, suggested there was broad public support for closing the camp.
“He said, ‘Listen, 50 years have passed and the people from my town have suffered enough because of our name,’ ” said Nurit Felter, a freelance journalist who was at the meeting with Konopka.
“He told us he once went to Holland when he was about 12, and they didn’t let him in because the car’s license plates were from Dachau,” Felter recounted. “He said they told him, ‘You are from this horrible city so you are not welcome.’ “
Felter was one of several Israelis participating in an exchange program organized by the Journalists Network. The program started eight years ago with an exchange between Israeli and German reporters, and today several other countries participate in the program.
The Israeli journalists interviewed several people on the streets of central Dachau who expressed sentiments similar to Konopka’s.
“Lots of them agreed they are quite sick of the reputation they have and really think they want to shut the place down,” Felter said.
Resentment against Jews still occasionally surfaces in Dachau. A local politician has said that Lufthansa, the German airline, should name an airplane after Dachau to help the town’s reputation.
Others have complained about having to pay reparations to Holocaust survivors even though they personally are not guilty of persecuting Jews.
In an ironic twist, homes located near the former Nazi concentration camp now are considered prime residential real estate because they are adjacent to the camp’s quiet, green grounds, Holocaust survivor Max Mannheimer said.
Konopka suggested building apartment houses on the site of the concentration camp, Dan said.
Distel, who has worked at the site for more than 25 years, said there are absolutely “no plans to close or destroy the camp memorial.”
“That does not mean there are no idiots around,” she said, alluding to opponents of the memorials.
The encounter that sparked the controversy was organized at the behest of the Israelis, who asked to meet with Konopka.
Several years ago, during another visit to Germany by Israeli journalists, a meeting planned by the hosts between right-wing youths and the Israelis turned out to be a flop. Instead of meeting with extremists, the group met with a priest who worked with both right- and left-wing youth. A few left-wing youths showed up, but the right-wing neo-Nazis instead chose to shout slogans at the Israelis from outside the meeting place.
This time, after the exchange group watched a film exploring the dark side of Dachau’s political landscape, in which Konopka was featured, they asked to talk with him.
Konopka was eager to meet the Israelis, Michael Anthony, the founder and organizer of the exchange program, said in a telephone interview.
“I very simply called him and said, ‘Listen. Some Israeli journalists are talking about how Dachau is dealing with its past. We will have a view of the people who work at the memorial and we want to hear another view,’ ” Anthony said. “He gladly agreed.”
Konopka told the reporters he has never taken his 15-year-old child to visit the memorial “because there is nothing he can learn from this place,” Felter recalled. “He said what the Jews are doing to the Palestinians is the same as what the Nazis did to the Jews.”
Such comparisons have become commonplace in Germany today. There is an ongoing debate in the country about where legitimate criticism of Israeli policy ends and anti-Semitism begins.
As far as the Israelis were concerned, Konopka clearly crossed the line.
“Part of our group began to attack him,” Felter said. “But I told them, ‘Let’s listen to him, let’s hear what he has to say.’ And I don’t think most of the things he said even demand a comment. There is no way in the world we can change what he thinks.”
Anthony said, “Obviously, Konopka is someone who is pronouncing his opposition, but there are people who hold similar views but just don’t say it.”
Nevertheless, he said, “obviously the whole frame of the program was to put into perspective that Mr. Konopka is a small voice in Dachau.”
Overall, Felter said, the Israelis journalists found their reception in Germany positive.
“I, for one, couldn’t see any signs of hatred toward us,” she said, but added, “it is not a very easy country.”
This fall, a group of German journalists will travel to Israel, where “they will learn with their eyes and not only by what they read and see on TV,” Felter said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.