The memory of the Nazi crimes is inseparable from the German identity, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed on Friday, during her first visit to Auschwitz, at a time when Germany’s extreme right contests the culture of repentance.
“Remembering the crimes, naming their authors and paying worthy homage to the victims is a responsibility that never stops,” said Merkel, who is the first German chancellor to visit the camp that symbolises the Holocaust, since 1995. “It is not negotiable, and it is inseparable from our country. Being conscious of this responsibility is part of our national identity.”
Her voice choked with emotion after listening to the testimony of a survivor who had been taken to Auschwitz at the age of 12, the Chancellor admitted that it was “anything but easy” to go to a place where the crimes of Germans “defy the imagination”.
Chancellor Merkel, accompanied by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, 87-year-old Auschwitz survivor Stanislaw Barnitowski and representatives of the Jewish community, insisted on the importance of giving Auschwitz its “full name”. While located in present-day Poland, the camp is in a region “annexed in October 1939 by the Third Reich” and was “run by Germans,” she recalled, stressing that “it is important to name the criminals clearly.”
“We, Germans, owe it to the victims and to ourselves,” she said.
Merkel explained that she was “deeply ashamed” by the Nazi crimes. Stressing that “silence must not be the sole response,” she noted that “the site itself obliges us to keep the memory alive” and, in the face of the upsurge in anti-Semitic acts, “we need to stand up and express our disagreement.”
The Chancellor also visited Birkenau, located 3 kilometres from the main camp, and particularly the ramp where the deportees were “selected” on alighting from the livestock carriages, with the youngest, oldest and most fragile ones sent immediately to their deaths.
Merkel’s visit comes just a few weeks before the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration and extermination camp by the Red Army on 27 January 1975.
On Wednesday, she announced a grant of 60 million euros to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation for the maintenance of the site, where about 1.1 million persons, one million of them Jews, were murdered between 1940 and 1945.
Insisting that each of the 1.1 million victims had “a name, an unalterable dignity, an origin, a history,” she paid homage to them, while mentioning the culpability and the pain of the survivors.
”I bow deeply” before each of them, she concluded, before going to a meeting scheduled with an Auschwitz survivor away from the glare of the cameras.
Since coming to power 14 years ago, the German Chancellor, who has described the Shoah (Holocaust) as “break in civilization,” has made a number of meaningful gestures, such as visiting Ravensbruck, Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
In 2008, she became the first German head of Government to address the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, where she again spoke of the “shame” that stains Germans.