Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
MR NEUMARKER: (In German.) Dear Mr. Secretary of State of the United States of America.
(Via interpreter) So everyone, I’d like to welcome you all here, and Minister Maas, (inaudible), also the vice president of the German association of Sinti and Roma in Germany, Ms. Romani Rose.
(Via interpreter) And I am the head and the chairperson of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I’d like to hand over now to the moderator, Ms. Sauerbrey.
MS SAUERBREY: (Via interpreter) Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and most importantly, also survivors. And ladies and gentlemen, the memory of the Holocaust, to research it and also to then – also give this on to new generations this year in the U.S. and Germany. We’ll then now sign a letter of intent on this.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken will speak to us.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning. Foreign Minister Maas, Heiko, thank you for your partnership in launching what will be a historic dialogue.
Eighty years ago this week, Nazi forces invaded the Soviet-occupied city of Bialystok, Poland. They pulled Jews from their homes, beat them, executed many on the spot. Some forced older Jewish men to dance, and if they didn’t like the performance, set their beards on fire.
Then the Nazis herded more than 700 Jews into Bialystok’s synagogue and set it ablaze.
What happened in Bialystok was not isolated. The barbarism was systematic.
By launching the U.S-Germany Dialogue on the Holocaust, we are helping to ensure that current and future generations learn about the Holocaust and also learn from it.
Together, we honor those who were killed. They were not indistinct numbers, even if a number is seared in the minds of many of us. But they were not just numbers. They were not, as their killers saw them, indistinct, inhuman. They were family members, they were friends, mothers, fathers, daughters, sisters, loved ones, human beings.
We honor the survivors who share their stories with enormous courage and determination, including those here today: Margot Friedlander, Franz Michalski, Peter Johan Gardosch. You honor us with your presence, you honor us with your testimony, you honor us with your memory.
We study the past so that we can understand the Holocaust as more than the final act of exterminating six million Jews as well as Roma and Sinti, Slavs, disabled persons, LGBTQ individuals, and many others. It was the culmination of countless individual steps designed to vilify and dehumanize people.
So we learned, for example, that as early as 1933, Jews were purged from Germany’s civil service, Jewish businesses boycotted, books by Jewish authors banned and burned in a massive pyre not very far from where we stand today.
Like the path through this memorial, the Shoah was not a sharp fall, but a gradual descent into darkness. As survivor Primo Levi wrote, “To sink is the easiest of matters…like streams that run down to the sea.”
That understanding is particularly urgent today as survivors pass from us and those who deny the Holocaust are getting louder and finding insidious new ways to spread their lies.
A recent study found that during the pandemic, anti-Semitic content online increased seven-fold in French, thirteen-fold in German.
In recent months, a swastika was carved onto the door of a synagogue in America, museums dedicated to the Holocaust were defaced.
Today, as in the past, Holocaust denial and other forms of anti-Semitism often go hand-in-hand with homophobia, xenophobia, racism, other hatred. It’s also a rallying cry for those who seek to tear down our democracies, which we’ve seen in both our countries is often a precursor to violence.
That’s why we have to find innovative ways to bring the history of the Holocaust to life not only to understand the past, but also to guide our present and to shape our future.
Together with the United States Holocaust Museum – Memorial Museum and the German Foundation for the Murdered Jews of Europe, our governments will strengthen Holocaust education. We’ll counter Holocaust denial and distortion. We’ll ensure that public servants, teachers, young people like the young leaders here today understand these issues in depth and feel a responsibility to stop atrocities wherever they occur.
We will build on decades of serious, remarkable work by Germany to grapple with the darkest past of its history, to honor all the victims of the Holocaust, to combat anti-Semitism, to foster a culture of remembrance here and around the world, including through leadership in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. This work has become a defining part of our transatlantic relationship and of shoring up our democracies.
For just as dissent is incremental, so is the work of building up principles and practices that can make real the promise of “Never again,” like the steady march ascending from the depths of this memorial.
My late stepfather Samuel Pisar was 12 years old when the Nazis invaded his home of Bialystok, Poland. A week later, they lined up hundreds of Jewish men and boys, including his cousins Isaac, Grisha, Frol, and mowed them down.
Days later, he and his family were forced to move to Bialystok’s newly walled-off ghetto. His father David was disappeared first, then his uncle, and then his grandmother, and then he was separated from his mother Helaina, his little sister Freida, and sent to Treblinka, later to Majdanek, to Auschwitz, to Dachau.
When he was liberated by American soldiers in 1945, he was the only surviving member of his family.
During the Holocaust, ghettos like the one in Bialoystok were in the heart of cities just like this memorial. That meant that beyond the Nazis, everyone in those cities knew that Jews lived there. They knew the trains were leaving, packed with people day after day. The evil was visible, but most chose to look away, to do nothing.
This dialogue will help us remember all that can be lost, but also help us to see all that we can save if we choose – if we choose to stand up rather than stand by. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS SAUERBREY: Thank you very much, Excellency, for these (inaudible) words.
(Via interpreter) The German foreign minister now has the floor.
FOREIGN MINISTER MAAS: (Via interpreter) Survivors, ladies and gentlemen, my relationship with this nation’s poignant, painful, and powerful history is hazy. I will never forget how much I loved the medieval city of Nuremburg, a city that was also the birthplace of the horrifying Nazi racial laws. I cried privately at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and I rejoiced after the fact in Germany’s World Cup victory.
The U.S. student Avi Colonomos wrote these words in 2014 when he was 20 years old. He had come to Berlin with a transatlantic program, Germany Close Up, along with other young Jewish people to learn more about today’s Germany. What Avi Colonomos describes is the inner conflict that goes hand-in-hand with remembrance. We are conflicted between tears and joy, conflicted in the face of this history that pains and divides us, just as it moves and unites us in our shared humanity. And yet understanding where we come from is, despite the sins of inner conflict, the best compass to determine which direction we want to go in. To borrow the words of James Baldwin writing in The New York Times in 1962, and I quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
The 2,710 concrete stelae that make up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe behind me show us where we Germans come from and what we are responsible for. The history of murder, horror, and suffering inflicted upon millions of people, incomparable, incontrovertible in its manmade monstrosity here between these stelae, created by the great U.S. architect Peter Eisenman, feelings of profound unease, solitude, grief, responsibility become almost palpable. Yes, remembrance can be painful. Yes, remembrance is a test of our mettle and it has to be painful.
And yet we stand here today, side by side, Americans and Germans, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Atheists united in shared remembrance, united by our belief in values such as freedom, democracy, and tolerance, united too in our determination to build a better future on this foundation of values. That is what Europe is based on and that is what our transatlantic friendship is based on.
Dear Tony, I know how much your family’s personal experiences of the Holocaust influence what you do every day. You’ve just shared this with us. On your first day in office as Secretary of State, you said, and I quote, “I remember that the nation’s power isn’t measured only by the size of its military and economy, but by the moral choices it makes,” end of quote. And the field of stelae behind us is proof of this statement cast in concrete. America’s power, Germany’s and Europe’s power does not come from glorifying history or glossing over the wrong turns of the past, of which none led into such a terrible abyss as did the Holocaust.
Our strength lies in accepting the burden of historical responsibility unconditionally without drawing a final line. Our strength lies in joining forces as we search for the best path forward and to do so together, ideally.
And so I am delighted, Dear Tony, that we’re here today in this unique place in the country of the perpetrators to launch a dialogue on Holocaust issues between the United States and Germany. One of our most pressing tasks will be to prepare our culture of remembrance for changing times. The memorial foundation with its director, Dr. Uwe Neumarker and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum do outstanding work here every day. The American Jewish Committee and its director David Harris as well as the Leo Baeck Institute with William Weitzer are also working with us for a lively culture of remembrance.
And I’m grateful for these approaches for their work because I believe that future generations will no longer be able to benefit from personal encounters with contemporary witnesses. What a great loss. But at the same time, what a great undertaking for us to find new forms of remembrance which do not allow the stories of individuals to fade from our consciousness. We owe this to the victims and the survivors, and we’re delighted and honored – dear Margot Friedlander; Mr. Gardosch, dear Peter; and Franz Michalski – that you are with us today. And we owe it to our children and grandchildren who we want to prevent as far as we can from repeating the errors of the past.
In recent years, we have seen anti-Semitism and racism eating into our societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Just think of the yellow star badges seen at demonstrations against COVID measures, of the torrent of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories on the internet, of the attacks on synagogues and on Jewish people living in our countries, of the rioters in front of the Bundestag, or the rampaging mob in the U.S. Capitol. The U.S. philosopher, Susan Neiman, president of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam and one of the wisest transatlantic voices in this country gave us a piece of advice some years ago that I believe to be very sage, namely that we must refuse to give evil – and racism and anti-Semitism are nothing other than that – any justification and any weight. Only through this refusal and not through inaction, silence, or relativization can we subdue the forces that seek to divide our societies.
What we are doing here today will help. Of course, remembrance is no panacea. People in societies cannot make peace with their past as easily as that. It remains a test, a source of inner conflict. But sharing in remembrance with friends, as we are doing here today, unites us as we face up to this conflict. And it strengthens us, and above all it strengthens our societies for the future. Thank you. (Applause.)
- SAUERBREY:(Via interpreter) Thank you, Minister. We now turn to the signing of the letter of intent.
(The letter of intent is signed.)
And we have two more people to address us now. First Ms. Margot Friedlander. She was born in Berlin. She survived the Holocaust in a number of hiding places until being deported in 1944 to Theresienstadt. Her father, her mother, her brother, and many other relatives of her were murdered. Margot Friedlander immigrated to the United States with her husband in 1946 and in 2010 she returned permanently to Berlin. Ms. Friedlander, thank you for addressing us today.
MS FRIEDLANDER: I will tell you a little bit of my experiences. In mid-January 1943, at about 2:00 p.m., I was on my way home from the factory where I was working (inaudible). When I approached the house, I noticed a man entering the house. I did not know him. Is he waiting for someone? To be careful, I covered my Jewish star before I was leaving – our apartment door was – happened for him, it is waiting. I pass him coolly, walk up another floor, and ring the bell of Christian neighbors. I hardly knew, hoping that they will be home.
I hear steps. The doors open and the neighbors asked me quietly into the house. On her face, I see stress, and I feel right away that something has happened. She asked me into her living room; we both sit down, and she’s – she is telling me time, a few hours ago, she heard noise at the house. “Open up,” banging on the door, then the clatter at the stairway, and she went to the window. She saw them come out and rudely pushed them into the police car. “Whom?” do I ask the neighbor. “Some people I did not know?” “The lady, Mrs. Meissner, who also lives in the apartment, and a boy.”
“My brother, Ralph; my mother?” She tells me my mother was not there. But one hour after she came home, she found the door locked and (inaudible). I told her all – “Where is she now?” My mother was not waiting for me. But she left a message with neighbors. “Tell my daughter, if you should see her, I am going to the police. I’m going with Ralph, wherever that will be. Try to make your life.” With her words, in my mind, I was able to find help and went underground into hiding.
German gentile people I have never seen before, humans, people with character and courage, helped me, who did not look away, but to do something that could have cost their head. For 15 months, I was hiding with different people. But in April 1944, my look – my luck ran out. I was snitched and saw some good fortune. I was deported to Theresienstadt, where again I was lucky to be able to work in a factory producing the splitting of glimmer that was needed for war effort. That probably saved me from deportation from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. That was the fate of hundred thousands.
In early February 1945, a transport arrived, and with it came Adolf Friedlander. They came from a special work arrangement near Frankfurt/Oder and because the Russians came closer, they were sent back to Theresienstadt. I knew Adolf Friedlander years ago in Berlin. It was so good to meet someone you had known in past life.
(Via interpreter) I’ve lost track of where I am, I’m afraid.
(In English) Together, we experience the arrival of a transport in late February, about 10 days before liberation. I got the assignment to help at the arrival of the train. As the cattle car door was opened, the people, who were no more human – the masses fell out and were pushed out. Many were already dead. Men only, but indistinguishable looking – in striped-looking things like pajamas, but were already tatters. They wear before Auschwitz was liberated on January 27, 1945, put on the death march for weeks, and the left ones, humans, were put on the cattle cars that now arrived in Theresienstadt, the one camp not liberated at the time. At the moment I was seeing the masses, I realized I will not ever see my mother and brother again.
Adolf and I experienced the liberation together on the 8th of May, 1945, as, at first, the people who treated us as – left. The Swiss International Cross came and the Red Cross flag was flying instead of the Hakenkreuz. About 10 days later, they handed Theresienstadt over to the Russians. That was on the 8th of May.
Weeks later, sitting on a bench talking to Adolf, he asked me if I could think of starting a life together with him in America, where his sister was living. We got married on the 28th of June in Theresienstadt, just a day before the last rabbi left Theresienstadt. One day after our marriage, a cable from his sister arrived, telling him how happy she is that he is alive and expect him in USA.
We left Theresienstadt in early July 1945 and spent one year in a DP camp in Germany before we could leave. We arrived in July 28th in America. My husband passed away in December 1997, after almost 53 years of a very special marriage. We both had the same experience. We both knew how very special life is.
A few months after my husband had passed away, I was asked to join the senior club of the 92nd Street Y, where my husband was in a leading position for 28 years. There, many courses were offered, and after more than two years, a writing course started. I was asked to join. I was hesitant, but I did. One night after sleep did not come, the memories, the many memories – I took paper and pen into the bed and started at last to tell my story.
For more than one year, for every course, I did tell the class one more experience, realizing right at the first meeting how very little they knew of these years, almost into my unimaginable happenings what was taking place under the Nazi regime, what humans did, (inaudible).
After living for 57 years in USA, I went for the first time in 2003 to Berlin where I was born and for a visit, and the possibility of planning to make a film, a documentary. A filmmaker had heard about my story. He did. The film was shown in 2005 in Berlin at Jewish Film Festival. After that, my life took a different turn, because I was asked to write something in German. Always thinking that for 70 years, I live with the messages my mother left for me, “Try to make your life,” I started to write my book. It was published in Germany by Rowohlt. It came out in (inaudible) with the title of the words my mother left for me, Try To Make Your Life. In German, Versuche, dein Leben zu machen.
Right now, I came very often to Berlin because right at the start, I was asked to give readings in schools, bookstores, but many different places. I talked – well, in cities in Germany, always finding that the students are most attentive, interested to talk to me, to ask questions, and want to know more about what my life is now after much (inaudible) experiences. In 2009, I got surprise in German for the book as the best autobiography. In July of 2009, I came to Berlin and stayed for seven months, having such wonderful experiences, meeting fine people.
People thank me for doing what now became my mission. I often give two or three readings a week, again traveling to many cities. I was reading always for one hour very special pages from the book, and telling to whom I spoke what I want them to do, what I do, because we will not be on with a life many – much longer, and it is for them that it should never happen again, that I don’t want anyone to experience what has been done to the 5 million Jews and millions of other innocent humans.
I tell them that there is no Christian, Jewish, or Muslim blood – that there’s only human blood. We are all the same, that people did it because they did not respect humans. Please, be a human being.
In 2010 I did return to Berlin for good, and never did I regret it for one moment. And here I am and gold still – it’s now almost hundred years to talk to people. It is for you. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS SAUERBREY: (Via interpreter) Thank you, Ms. Friedlander, for your words, for everything you have done for Holocaust remembrance and for everything you continue to do. Margo Wieseler, 25 years old, will speak to us now. She served as a volunteer at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Chicago, Illinois, Skokie.
MS WIESELER: Good morning. Again, I would just really like to thank Ms. Friedlander. Your words really shook me in a way I didn’t even expect, although I expected it to be emotional, but yeah. So thank you very much, and your words of wisdom and passion are truly an inspiring call to action for my generation.
I also want to thank Secretary Blinken and Secretary Maas for highlighting innovative ways to commemorate the Holocaust. Initiatives to preserve the voices of our survivors are essential to prevent my generation from choosing the ease of forgetting over the pain or the shame of remembering. And sometimes standard high-school-level history education can sadly reinforce this tendency, as it can make the Holocaust feel unpersonal and much more distant than it is.
I myself only recently really started confronting my family history and involvement when I began to prepare for my year abroad with Aktion Suhnezeichen Friedensdienste. Aktion Suhnezeichen is a German NGO aiding reconciliation between victims of Nazi persecution and young Germans today. And with the help of them, I had the unique opportunity and great privilege to spend a year volunteering at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a world-leading institution in the field of digitalized Holocaust remembrance in Chicago.
So – and I did find my motivation for serving in the museum in my family history. My great grandfather was a member of the Reichstag, appointed by the Nazi party. I was, still am, and will always be ashamed of this piece of my family’s history, and I was especially anxious to share this with the survivors and their families. They had every reason to be dismissive, hurt, or even hostile towards me, but to my great relief their response was full of love, understanding, and even curiosity towards me and my motivations.
This ability to distinguish between my generation and our ancestors left a lasting impression on me. I was especially amazed by Fritzie Fritzshall, the museum’s longtime president and a teenage survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, who heavily accepted an invitation to dinner from me and a friend. And the cuisine would be German, obviously.
In devastating news, Fritzie sadly died last weekend, leaving another hole that will never be filled. However, her impressing ability to disband black-and-white thinking in place of a more nuanced approach is, I think, something I learned from and everybody else can do.
My generation, young as we are, has been fortunate enough to hear the stories of the Holocaust directly from survivors, reminding us just how recent these atrocities truly were. Because they were – they did happen before our lifetimes. With each passing day, preserving and retelling these lessons gets more important, lest we begin to distance ourselves and forget the lessons learned.
My year with Aktion Suhnezeichen has forever changed me, and I can confidently say that I understand the importance of combating anti-Semitism and using that voice to fight for a free and fair society better than before. If young people like me sincerely want to make “Never again” or “Nie wieder” a reality, we must never stop openly building bridges between the most painful hours of the past, our lives today, and the future we wish to see.
Thank you. (Applause.)
MS SAUERBREY: (Via interpreter) Thank you, Ms. Wieseler. Ladies and gentlemen, the foreign ministers will now place a wreath on the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe, and will then speak to the survivors who are with us today: Ms. Margot Friedlander, Peter Gardosch, and Franz Michalski. Ms. Wieseler and a number of Anne Frank ambassadors are also here, peer guides and volunteers of the Anne Frank Center in Berlin. Afterwards, this ceremony is concluded. And I would like to use this opportunity to thank you on behalf of the foreign office and the U.S. Department of State for having come here. Have a safe journey home. Thank you. (Applause.)
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