For President Isaac Herzog, his state visit to Germany was also very much a personal visit, both as a son and representative of the Jewish People and the State of Israel, but also because his roots are partially there.
Herzog, in the fullness of his background, represents the wandering Jew, who lived not only in many parts of Eastern and Western Europe, but also in the Land of Israel and in Egypt.
Usually relating to his Herzog ancestors on the side of his paternal grandfather, the president invoked the forebears of his grandmother Sarah Herzog, whose maiden name was Hillman.
In his morning address to the Bundestag, Herzog described himself as the ninth generation descendant of Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman, who served as a community rabbi in Germany, and was himself a descendant of Rabbi Ezekiel Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Hamburg and its surrounds.
Herzog's address in the Bundestag
Herzog began his address to the German legislators in the Bundestag by reciting Kaddish – the mourner’s prayer in memory of all those who perished at the bestial hands of the Nazi regime.
He also charged Nazi Germany with being responsible for the loss of all semblance of humanity, for the erasure of all mercy, and for the cruel pursuit of worldwide obliteration of an entire people.
Later, accompanied by German President Frank Walter Steinmeier, he went to the Bergen Belsen death camp where he again recited Kaddish and listened as Cantor Yaakov Langel intoned Kel Maleh Rachamim, another memorial prayer that acknowledges God as being all merciful. This was the same cantor who sang at the memorial ceremony attended by Herzog’s father in 1987.
The camp had been liberated by British forces in April 1945. Among those troops was his father, Chaim Herzog, who had then been an officer in the British Army.
When he returned to Bergen Belsen in 1987, it was as the President of the Jewish State – the State of Israel, which had risen like a phoenix out of the ashes of destruction and the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis.
But it was not just the memory of his father having come twice in two such different capacities to this awful place. It was also the knowledge this was where Anne Frank, the young Dutch girl whose diary had created so much Holocaust awareness in the world, had died only a month or two before Bergen Belsen was liberated.
Herzog and Steinmeier laid wreaths at the Bergen Belsen memorial and Steinmeier said that the Shoah was the most painful chapter in Germany’s history.
Herzog emphasized that it was the obligation of those in Israel and Germany to defend the continued existence of the Jewish homeland.
Meeting with survivors
While at Bergen Belsen, Herzog and Steinmeier met with three survivors of the camp and two children of survivors who were born in the Bergen Belsen Displaced Persons camp after the war. Of the camp’s survivors, Albtecht Weinberg, 99, is also an Auschwitz survivor; Jovan Rajs was hidden in a ghetto, and later transferred from Bergen Belsen to Theresienstadt; and Dutch-born Naomi Rinat is also a survivor of the Westerbotk transit camp.
The two people who were born in the Bergen Belsen DP camp were Menachem Rosensaft, born May 1948, the same month as the establishment of the State of Israel, to parents who were both Auschwitz survivors – and Jochevet Ritz Olewski who was born to 1947 to parents who were both Auschwitz survivors.
After the family settled in Israel, her father founded the Committee of Bergen Belsen survivors, which she now serves as president.
Herzog and Steinmeier also met with Jewish and non-Jewish youth, with whom they discussed remembrance and the need to fight racism and xenophobia in all its forms.