Auschwitz survivor and University of California professor Ruth Klüger's address to the German parliament to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was stirringly relevant to today's great challenges.
BERLIN — If ever we needed proof that our country is able to remember the victims of the Nazi era with dignity while looking optimistically into the future, it was provided during yesterday's Day of Remembrance that marked 71 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.
Having begun with Bundestag President Norbert Lammert's admonition to be aware of the constant threat to liberty, it ended with Auschwitz survivor Ruth Klüger's appreciation of the "simple and heroic slogan, "We Can Do It!"" for Germany's unique efforts to respond to the refugee crisis. It was a lesson in history the likes of which every student in the country should behold.
When a 12-year-old Klüger arrived at Auschwitz by train from Theresienstadt, she was saved with a fib. She would have been gassed with most of her fellow prisoners had it not been for a woman who whispered in her ear to tell the Nazis she was 15 instead of 12. And that's why she was selected to die a slow death by slave labor rather than a quick one by asphyxiation.
But the liberation of Auschwitz prevented that untimely death. The then slight 12-year-old has become a still slight but confident 84-year-old. The literary scholar who, among other things, writes for Die Welt, reigned supreme during Wednesday's speech to the Bundestag, Germany's federal legislative body. She represents an entire generation that has suffered and survived so much, one that is nearly gone. But the suffering has not stopped.
Some 13 million people were sentenced to hard labor in the German Reich, which constituted a quarter of all workers and employees at the time. Berlin alone had 3,000 collective accommodation sites for 500,000 workers. Everyone knew what was going on, Lammert remarked, but it wasn't until 40 years later that the Day of Remembrance was introduced.
And it was only in 2000 that Germany finally managed to establish the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, which has paid compensation to 1.5 million former slave laborers. Lammert characterized this as nothing more than a gesture, a token payment. But it's one that nonetheless was met with considerable resistance by many German citizens, who were of the opinion that there had to be an end to the paying of historical debt.
But, Lammert continued, there cannot be an upper limit to remembrance, no matter how heavy the burden. Every culture has to develop its own culture of remembrance, Lammert said. "This includes this and future generations and those who, for whatever reason, came to us in later years." We should be vigilant against inhumanity, anti-Semitism and racism, "which applies to all who live here."
Ruth Klüger began her speech by returning to the winter of 1944/45, to the women's concentration camp of Christianstadt, a smaller camp within the larger Gross-Rosen. The days immediately following her removal from Auschwitz and its "cadaver stench" were filled with "sheer bliss" to be alive, to see trees and the end of a deep-seated fear for her life. But soon thereafter cold and hunger crept in.
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Model of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp — Source: Lzur/GFDL
The women laborers had to do work whose meaning they didn't quite understand. Even reciting poems while working was considered "an act of sabotage." But Klüger was filled with a "childish, pre-feminist pride and defiance" about the fact that the Germans weren't able to get the Jewish women to march, or goose-step, to work the way they wanted them to. "Men were more willing to do so," she said.
Klüger acknowledged the accomplishments of the women laborers, "women of the middle classes, born around the turn of the century, who had relied on men to provide for and protect them," and who were now forced to fight against men who let them starve. The term "slave labor" doesn't even come close to accurately describing what these women experienced, she said, seeing as how the slave owner at least has an interest in keeping his property alive. But as long as the German raids continued, there was no shortage of slave laborers.
Klüger spoke of the "forced sexual labor" of female concentration camp prisoners who were delivered to "privileged" male prisoners. These women were victimized twice: Because they were not considered slave laborers, they therefore weren't entitled to compensation. Even the post-Nazi generation believed "the age-old prejudice that women were demeaned by intercourse."
Klüger recalled an incident in which she once witnessed a man queuing ahead of her in a shop in Göttingen, raging that "all these foreigners should be gassed, and politicians too, while we're at it." But even less brutal comments did and still do express the general wish to suppress the past.
But the lesson didn't end there. Klüger noticed with "amazement that turned into admiration" how Germany opened its borders and took in refugees, she said. This, she continued, was the main reason why she decided to speak to the Bundestag, despite the fact that she is skeptical about remembrance rituals.
She declared Germany's attitude towards refugees as "simple and heroic."
It would be so easy to criticize this particular remembrance event with a right-wing attitude in mind, because it ended with the popular communist front song "Peat Bog Soldiers," or because it was exploited to honor the chancellor's policies with lessons learned from the past.
But could it be that Germany is finally grown up enough to incorporate communism into its history without forgetting anti-communism? Could it be possible that, as Klüger said, we actually gain "global applause" for our refugee policies but only register the complaints within Europe? Could it be possible that a jolt will go through Germany after this event that will enable us to walk just a little bit taller? It could be.