BERLIN - In a historic speech to the German parliament on Wednesday, President Shimon Peres recited Kaddish and spoke in Hebrew about the loss of his grandfather, the special relationship established between Israel and Germany in the wake of the Holocaust, and about the threats facing the Jewish state today.
With the flags of the Bundestag lowered to half-mast, Germany's political leaders paid tribute to the memory of the Nazis' victims, in a special session marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The entire building rose to its feet as Peres recited Kaddish for the six million Jews murdered during World War II.
"Today, the International Remembrance Day for the victims of the Holocaust, [marks] the day on which the sun shone for the first time 65 years ago, after six evil years, its rays revealing the full extent of the destruction of my people," said Peres.
"On January 27, 1945, the world awoke to the fact - somewhat too late - that six million Jews were no longer among the living. This day not only represents a memorial day for the victims, not only the pangs of conscience of humankind in the face of the incomprehensible atrocity that took place, but also for the tragedy that derived from the procrastination in taking action."
Peres, who rarely speaks about his own personal losses from the war, chose the occasion to share his memories of his beloved grandfather.
"I can see in my mind's eye, at this very moment, the imposing image of my deeply respected grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Melzer, handsome and dignified. I was blessed to have been his beloved grandson. He was my guide and mentor.
"I still remember him at the train station from which I, an 11-year-old child, [began the] journey from my village to Eretz Yisrael. I remember his poignant embrace. I remember the last words, and the order, that [I] heard from his mouth: 'My boy, always remain a Jew!'
"The train whistled and started on its way. I continued watching my grandfather until he disappeared from sight. That was the last time I saw him."
Peres spoke of Israel as the Jewish people's answer to the Nazi atrocities.
"As a Jew, I always carry the pain of the Holocaust endured by my brothers and sisters. As an Israeli, I regret the tragic delay in the establishment of the Jewish state that left my people with no safe harbor.
"As a grandfather, I cannot come to terms with the loss of one and a half million children - the great human and creative potential that could have changed Israel's destiny. I am proud that we are the arch-enemy of Nazi evil."
Peres also spoke about the legacy of the Holocaust, and gave his own interpretation of the words "never again."
"Never again a racist doctrine. Never again the feeling of superiority. Never again a so-called divine authority to incite, murder, scorn the law, deny God and the Holocaust. Never again ignore blood-thirsty dictators hiding behind demagogical masks, who utter murderous slogans."
Peres also spoke of present-day threats to peace and stability.
"The threats to annihilate a people and a nation are voiced in the shadow of weapons of mass destruction, which are held by irresponsible hands, by irrational thinking and in an untruthful language."
Referring to the special relationship between Israel and Germany, he said, "The friendship that was established did not develop at the expense of forsaking the memory of the Holocaust, but from the memory of the dark hours of the past. In view of the joint ... decision to look ahead - towards the horizon of optimistic hope. Tikkun olam - putting the world aright."
"We believed, and continue to believe, that the new Germany will be doing whatever needs to be done to ensure that the Jewish state will never again have to fight for its survival alone. That murderous and condescending dictatorships will never again raise their heads, in our era."
After speaking about Israel's survival against all odds and its many achievements, Peres turned to the topic of peace.
"Israel's victories did not eliminate the dangers it faces. We do not crave land which is not ours. We do not wish to rule other peoples.... Our national ambition is distinct and clear: to make peace with our neighbors.
"Israel supports the principle of the 'two-state solution.' We paid a price in wars; we did not hesitate to also pay a price for peace."
Peres spoke about the need for the world to join forces in opposing dictatorships and oppressive regimes, and naming Iran specifically.
"Like our neighbors, 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 [which] activates terror in its country and in other countries. This regime is a danger to the entire world," said Peres, to loud applause.
Peres concluded by presenting a vision of optimism for the Middle East.
"We want to learn from the Europeans, who unshackled Europe from a thousand years of war and bitterness and enabled Europe's young to substitute the hostility of their forefathers [with] brotherhood. It would be wise to learn from their experience; to dream about a Middle East in which countries will depart from the conflicts of their parents on behalf of peace for their children."
He concluded the speech by reciting the words of the Israeli national anthem.
The speech was translated simultaneously into German and English. It lasted 25 minutes, and received a standing ovation.
The event was attended by the members of the two German houses of parliament, the president and chancellor of Germany, the mayor of Berlin, ambassadors from around the world and a contingent of Holocaust survivors.
Speaking before Peres was Bundestag president Dr. Norbert Lammert, Germany's second-highest ranking official after the president.
"Today we remember all of the victims of the Nazi regime, all those who were robbed of their dignity, their health, their worldly possessions and, indeed, of their lives. European Jews, Gypsy and Roma, people with disabilities, forced laborers, homosexuals, political dissenters, artists, academics, all those people who were vilified and persecuted as enemies of National Socialism," said Lammert.
"We renew our promise not to forget the past. We are aware of the responsibility we bear to combat any form of hate, intolerance, discrimination, exclusion and anti-Semitism with determination."
Lammert also spoke of the relationship between Germany and Israel, saying it was not, had never been and would never be "normal."
"We Germans bear a responsibility for the State of Israel. Whenever the right of existence of the State of Israel and the safety of its population is under threat, where the right of its people to live in secure borders is threatened, there can be no neutrality for us Germans," said Lammert, garnering applause.
"Some things are negotiable, yet Israel's right to exist is
non-negotiable. The existence of a country armed with nuclear weapons
in its neighborhood, led by an openly anti-Semitic regime, is
unacceptable not only to Israel. The international community as a whole
must not tolerate such a thing."
During the speeches, a small
anti-Israel demonstration took place outside the parliament building.
Local reporters said that the protesters opposed Peres's presence, and
that they claimed the honor of addressing the legislature should have
been given to Richard Goldstone.