New Germany Is Trustworthy, Kohl Tells Jews
Addressing the first major meeting of world Jewry in Germany since World War II, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on Sunday pledged a united Germany to a “close, trustful dialogue with Israel.”
“I personally guarantee this,” he told the opening joint session of the World Jewish Congress, the European Jewish Congress and the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
In the course of his 20-minute address at a synagogue in central Berlin, Kohl spoke of “the fragile gift” of the positive postwar relationship West Germany has managed to build with world Jewry.
“This token of trust is and remains a precious gift,” he said.
He also backed measures to ensure that lessons of the Holocaust become elemental parts of education in both Germanys, one of the most pressing demands of Jewish organizations.
President Edgar M. Bronfman of the World Jewish Congress called Kohl’s address “a superb speech.”
“Everything was there that I wanted to hear,” Bronfman said. “It was a historic evening.”
In his formal remarks, Bronfman declared that Germany has an obligation to “support Israel always.”
“Now you have a special obligation to us,” Bronfman told Kohl and an array of other East and West German dignitaries assembled in the synagogue.
“It is not that we speak of collective guilt,” he added. “We do demand, nonetheless, an admission of collective responsibility.”
Sunday’s meeting, the first gathering of Jewish leaders in Germany in more than 60 years, was subdued, almost wary, rather than emotional.
Kohl was applauded as he entered the synagogue and twice more during his speech. But there was little of the raw emotion that accompanied some of postwar Germany’s earlier confrontations with the Holocaust.
For Kohl, it was a clear attempt to steady the most difficult of Germany’s many relationships still laden with the legacy of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust.
East German Foreign Minister Markus Meckel and West Berlin Mayor Walter Mompers were among several political leaders from both Germanys attending the meeting.
For Jewish leaders, it marked a tentative, if controversial, step to establish a dialogue with the more powerful, influential united Germany that is likely to emerge as Europe’s dominant power.
“A unified Germany is a fact, and we’re going to have to deal with it,” Bronfman told a small group of reporters after his speech.
In the course of his speech, he said the World Jewish Congress had come to Berlin “because we have something to say to the new Germany.”
“The new Germany must forever teach what happened, so the lowest point ever reached in man’s inhumanity to man can never occur again.”
He repeated his demand that Germany must “always have a special relationship” with Israel and added that Germany must never possess nuclear, chemical or biological weapons or help others attain them.
Bronfman told the audience of about 400 that the Jews and Germans are bound together by the pain of the Holocaust’s memory.
“Yours because it is part of your history, ours because it is the worst thing that ever happened to us,” he said. "(It) is the only real bridge between us, the only road to reconciliation.”
The World Jewish Congress’ decision to meet in Berlin, the city where Hitler planned and directed the extermination of 6 million Jews, was far from unanimous.
According to congress officials, between 10% and 15% of those normally expected to attend refused, either on personal grounds because they could not bear the emotional strain of being in Germany or because they felt it too early to hold such a gathering here.
“It’s a very personal decision,” said Mendel Kaplan, chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency of Israel. “There was no pressure on anyone.”
Congress officials said that many of those who failed to come were younger Jews not directly involved in the Holocaust, while a large number of survivors came.
Digressing from his prepared text, Kohl acknowledged the emotional burden many carried on their journey to Germany.
“I respect those who have come, and I equally respect those who felt it was not yet time,” he said.
On Tuesday, the congress participants will travel to the Wannsee Villa outside Berlin where Nazi leaders plotted the Holocaust.
In his speech, Kohl also announced that the international president of B’nai B’rith, Seymour Reich, would advise East German authorities in revising history textbooks and school curricula to portray what he called “the full depth and terror of the Nazi past.”
Bronfman and others applauded the announcement as an important initial step.
“It’s acceptable as a beginning,” said Elan Steinberg, World Jewish Congress executive director. “The goal, though, is for a system of inculcating values so that the Holocaust is not just understood but that its lessons are also understood.”
For 40 years, Communist East Germany denied any responsibility for the Holocaust, contending that as a Communist state it was a society of victims of Nazism, not of its accomplices.
Because Hitler persecuted Communists as well as Jews, that position was part of a warped truth taught to generations of East German schoolchildren.
Only last month did East Germany’s first democratically elected Parliament acknowledge responsibility for the murder of Jews and pledge to make reparations.
EAST GERMANY VOTES: Local elections sweep aside the Communist past. A12