Angela Merkel’s Repentant, Graceful Bow

An ordinary-looking middle-aged woman leans forward toward the camera over the Ner Tamid—The Eternal Flame—at Yad Vashem, the most important Holocaust memorial in Israel and the world. Near her stands an equally nondescript middle-aged man in a yarmulke, the traditional skull cap worn by Jews in sacred places. Reverential, subdued,

the pair exemplify the unutterable shock and sympathy that seize the soul of any decent human being who stands in that place, contemplating in awe the most horrific things ever done by one group of people to another.

But these are not ordinary middle-aged people. She is Angela Merkel, the most powerful person in Europe’s most powerful country, which happens to be the same country that carried out that appalling deed six or seven decades ago. And he is Ehud Olmert, her counterpart in the little nation, less than a tenth the size of hers, that gathered the grieving remnant of the people her country had tried to destroy.

This ceremony in memory took place on March 16th, and the following day Dr. Merkel—a nuclear physicist who grew up in Communist East Germany in the ‘50s and ‘60s—became the first head of government ever to speak before the Knesset, an honor previously reserved for kings and other heads of state. This gesture by Israel’s parliament was significant.

So was the fact that she spoke in her native tongue. It’s a common courtesy to a foreign leader, but this was German, and some Holocaust survivors were disturbed. A few Knesset members boycotted the speech. “I cannot stand,” one said, “to hear German in the Knesset…my parents were murdered in that language.” Another called the Germans “the mother of all Amaleks,” a reference to a people in the Bible so evil and so determined to kill God’s chosen that the Hebrews were ordered to exterminate them all. An eye for an eye, the Torah said, and, it almost seemed to add, a genocide for a genocide.

Coming from Holocaust victims, such sentiments are understandable, but this is not where Israel’s welfare lies in the twenty-first century. Not only has the modern German nation been one of Israel’s staunchest allies, it has been a true friend, in need and in deed. Merkel’s speech was the culmination of six decades of atonement by the world’s most cultured people who had suddenly become the vilest barbarians in history. But what could she say?

She could say, "The Shoah”—the Hebrew word for Holocaust—“fills us Germans with shame. I bow before the victims. I bow before the survivors and before all those who helped them survive.” She could say, “The cooperation and friendship between Israel and Germany is part of history's miracles.” She could say, “The mass murder of six million Jews, carried out in the name of Germany, has brought indescribable suffering to the Jewish people, Europe and the entire world.”

She could also say, "Especially in this place, I emphasize: Every German government and every chancellor before me was committed to the special responsibility Germany has for Israel's security…This historic responsibility is part of my country's fundamental policy. It means that for me, as a German chancellor, Israel's security is non-negotiable.” She could roundly condemn the rocket attacks on Sderot and Ashkelon and properly call them terror attacks. She could say that a nuclear-armed Iran would have “disastrous” consequences, that it is up to Iran to prove that it has no such intentions, not to the world to prove that it does, and that the absence of such proof Germany would call for stronger sanctions.

She could and did say all those things, in the language of Goethe, Heine—that tortured and brilliant German poet and Jewish apostate–and, yes, Adolf Hitler. Growing up in the Red East, she was not subject to the Holocaust education that made three generations of German children cringe in guilt and shame from their own horrific history. She found the guilt and shame for herself, as an adult, going against the tide, even though she was not even born until nine years after the war. And as with prior apologies and reparations, most Israeli Jews accepted hers; she literally bowed before the victims, and the survivors did not turn her away.

Rabbi and Professor David Blumenthal, speaking a few years ago at an international symposium on reconciliation, pointed out that the Jewish religion, unlike Christianity, does not require forgiveness, no matter how heartfelt the apology. It is up to the victim to hear the apology and to accept it or walk away. A Holocaust victim I know, the sole survivor of a large extended family, still dreams of dropping a nuclear bomb on Berlin. Surely many of the 250,000 survivors left in Israel, the aging remnant of what was called “the seventh million,” must have similar dreams. And who can blame them?

But respect for the past and for the unspeakable pain of its victims does not demand that we turn a stony face to the future. Nothing can make up for the Holocaust, nothing at all, not now, not ever. That should go without saying. But the point is to accept real friendship and affection even–perhaps especially–when it comes from people whose parents and grandparents were the worst enemies the Jews have ever had. If we want the future to be different from the past, then to some extent we have to take the past out of the future.

3 thoughts on “Angela Merkel’s Repentant, Graceful Bow

  1. Having  done reconcilliation work with children of the shoa and children of Nazis at the Wannsee, it is imperative that we not forget the past, not let our families have died in vain, and therefore we must create a world of peace, tolerance and understanding of other cultures who toghether plan for th present and the past.

  2. Thank you for these comments. Richard Falk seems to me a standard anti-Israel polemicist, who justifies terrorist attacks on Israel and the U.S. while comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. It is disturbing, but not surprising, that he has significant influence at the UN, an institution I used to admire much more than I do now.

    Kevin MacDonald is worrisome too, but in a more unusual way, and since I have some expertise in this area (see http://www.melvinkonner.com) I will probably write about him and his work some time soon.

    To the anonymous commenter who has done reconciliation work, I applaud all you say and thank you for what you have done. As we say, Yasher ko’ach, may you go from strength to strength.