Israeli President Shimon Peres urged Germans on Wednesday to do everything in their power to bring remaining Nazi war criminals to justice, saying that International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks not only a memorial day for the victims, but also serves as a warning of the tragic consequences of inaction in the face of atrocity.
Marking the somber day with an historic speech in Hebrew to members of the German parliament, Peres said that hunting down surviving Nazis was not an act of vengeance, but rather an “an educational lesson” for today’s youth.
“This is not revenge in our eyes,” he said. “This is an educational lesson. This is an hour of grace for the young generation, wherever they may be — that they may remember, and never forget, that they should know what took place, and that they never, absolutely never, have the slightest doubt in their minds that there is another option, other than peace, reconciliation and love.”
Two suspects in their late 80s are currently on trial in Germany — John Demjanjuk, who denies accusations that he was a guard at the Sobibor death camp; and Heinrich Boere, who admits involvement in the killing of Dutch civilians as a member of an SS hit squad.
German prosecutors are pursuing several other cases.
“I stand here before you, as the President of the State of Israel, the home of the Jewish People,” Peres said.
“While my heart is breaking at the memory of the atrocious past — my eyes envision a common future for a world that is young, a world free of all hatred, a world in which the words “war” and “antisemitism” will be dead words,” Peres added before reciting Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.
The president said that the world is now left with the Holocaust’s lesson of “never again — never again a racist doctrine.”
“The threats to annihilate a people and a nation are voiced in the shadow of weapons of mass-destruction,” he said, “which are held by irresponsible hands, by irrational thinking and in an untruthful language.”
The president told the German lawmakers that he was humbled by the opportunity to address them and recounted for them how his grandfather Rabbi Zvi Melzer, from Vishniev in Belarus, was brutally murdered in the Holocaust.
“I still remember him at the train station from which I, an 11-year-old child, started on my journey from my village to Eretz Israel,” Peres recounted. “I remember his poignant embrace. I remember the last words and the order that heard from his mouth: “My boy, always remain a Jew!”
When the Nazis arrived in Vishniev, they ordered all members of the Jewish community to congregate in the synagogue and torched it, leaving no survivors, Peres said.
“The Holocaust must always be prominent in our minds and in the conscience of humanity, and serve as an unequivocal warning in perpetuity,” he added.
He also spoke of Israel’s desire to achieve peace with its neighbors and said that Israel supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians and is willing to give up land to achieve peace.
He also referred to the threat of a nuclear Iran and said “we identify with the millions of Iranians who revolt against dictatorship and violence. Like them we reject a fanatic regime, which contradicts the United Nations Charter, a regime which threatens destruction, accompanied by nuclear plants and missiles and who activates terror in its country and in other countries. This regime is a danger to the entire world.”
Peres was the third Israeli president to address German lawmakers. His visit to Berlin has been a mix of Holocaust commemoration activities and matters pertaining to Israeli-German relations.
On Tuesday morning Peres and his German counterpart Horst Koehler participated in a ceremony devoted to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust, held at a Berlin train station from which many of the city’s Jews were dispatched to their deaths.
Peres met later with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks that included a discussion of Iran and of future cooperation between Israel and Germany. According to Israeli sources, Merkel said at the meeting that the time had come for the international community to move from rhetoric to deeds in joint efforts against Iran. She reportedly said that a lack of decisiveness on the part of the international community sends the wrong message to Tehran.
At a joint news conference after their meeting, Merkel said that next month would be “decisive” in international efforts against Iran against the backdrop of the Iranian refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a visit to Poland Tuesday with talks with Polish Foreign Minister Radislaw Sikorski. The agenda included Iran and Israeli arms sales to the Polish army, primarily for use in Afghanistan as part of the NATO force there. Netanyahu and Sikorski were of like mind over the need for harsher sanctions against Iran and the Israeli prime minister requested Poland’s active intervention on the issue with its fellow European Union members.
Netanyahu also paid a short visit to the Umschlagplatz, the square in Warsaw from where trains carried Jews to extermination camps, and laid a wreath in memory of the 300,000 Jews who were transported by train from the site.
Although the visit to Poland was meticulously planned, Polish media did not give it major coverage. On Wednesday Netanyahu will participate at a commemoration at Auschwitz marking the 65th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by the Allies.