German Jewish leader: Rethink 'failed' Holocaust education

Stephan Kramer also says hate-crime laws partly to blame for rise of far right.

kramer 88 (photo credit: )
kramer 88
(photo credit: )
The secretary general of Germany's Jewish community has declared that the country's tough hate-crime laws are partly "responsible" for the rise of the German far right because they sweep the growing problem of anti-Semitism under the carpet - instead of confronting and defeating it in a frank and open debate. And in a high profile demand for change in German-Jewish relations, Stephan Kramer, the secretary general of the Zentralrat der Juden in Deutschland (Central Council of Jews in Germany), has also called for a re-think on the country's Holocaust education. In an interview with this reporter, he claimed that in the last 20 years it had gone "terribly wrong" because it had sent a message to young Germans, who were born decades after the Holocaust, that they should be ashamed of their country - causing resentment and an identity vacuum within society which the extremists are exploiting. In a move which will have repercussions within the Berlin Jewish community, Kramer also harshly criticized some of his own colleagues for claiming that anti-Semitism today reminds them of 1933, dismissing this as "absolutely not true." While stressing that Germans should take anti-Semitism very seriously and "stand up and do something," and saying he had sympathy with Holocaust survivors who were worried about a repeat of the persecution suffered by Jews in the pre-war era, Kramer emphasized that the liberties enjoyed by him and his compatriots today were not comparable to 1933. The decision of the German Jewish secretary general to call for a completely new vision to combat the racism was timed to coincide with the November 9 anniversary of Kristallnacht and is bound to cause intense debate within the Jewish community. Kramer's most significant attack was on Germany's hate-crime laws, which he said had caused much of the current problem. "The situation right now has proven that all those laws have been unsuccessful in dealing with the issue," he said. "Not only unsuccessful - to some extent, they are responsible for the fact that we have such a rise in anti-Semitic movement in today's Germany. "If you had a situation in the last few years where open speech would have been more important than enforced silence, then the problem would have been much more open to the public and people would have been more aware of the problem at hand," he said. "Instead of that, it was more or less covered up. People did not speak out because they were afraid to be brought in front of a court, but the fire was burning beneath the carpet. To make people immune to the problem, you have to confront them." Kramer added that the current laws were ineffective: "They (the far right) make those statements anyway. The statements are out there. And since we don't confront those statements with opposing arguments and prove them as wrong, the majority of the population who listen to the arguments take them for granted." One of Kramer's most sensational calls is for complete reform in the way German society discusses the Holocaust, claiming that society has to be proud of its present and patriotic, but mindful of its past. "I think, and I know that this is a very harsh judgement, that Holocaust education in the last 20 years went terribly wrong in Germany," he said, adding that young Germans were either completely deferential towards Jews because of the past, or were fed up with hearing about the Holocaust all together. "If this is the result of the Holocaust education, it was a failure. We have to change it." Declaring that Holocaust education for young people should be based around human interest stories and less around graphic images, he said: "You should confront people with their comparable young people who have been through the Holocaust - for example, the Anne Frank diary. You cannot always show these pictures of Auschwitz. You can't have this confrontation all the time and say: 'Look at the pictures, this confrontation,' and say: 'Look at the pictures of Auschwitz - sit down, suffer and swallow it.' "What we need to do is say to them: 'How did Anne Frank or comparable schoolchildren, your neighbor maybe who was sitting on the same bench as you in the second or third grade, go through the Holocaust? What happened in the beginning? Jews were denied texts, Jews were denied to walk on the sidewalk, Jews were denied to go to the swimming pool. Jewish lawyers, medics or dentists weren't allowed to practice anymore.'" Asserting that the current education inadvertently had only served to make all Germans feel guilty of crimes committed long before their births, he called for a resurgence in pride in modern Germany, and its divisions from the past. "What I would like people to understand is: 'There is no general German guilt. There is no guilt for all Germans.' Guilt is something very special that is personal - so someone who never lived during this time, who was never born in this time, cannot be guilty. "I think the lack of identity that most Germans feel today, the lack of patriotism - that causes a vacuum that we have in society, and leads to the situation where the extremists, of the left and the right, are going to march into that vacuum and give people a certain explanation and answers to their lack of identification," Kramer said. "Why should Germans of the Germany of after '45 not be proud of their country?" he asked. "It is a democratic country, with a parliament, with checks and balances. We should find a definition for that. We, together, as democrats, as Germans. We have a most important task together to give these people an identity." And in a move designed to develop a positive future-focused vision of Jewish society in Germany, Kramer also criticized recent statements by leading German Jews who claimed anti-Semitic attacks today reminded them of the 1930s. "To say that Germany today is Germany of 1933 would be terribly wrong. It is absolutely not true," he said. "If today is like 1933, I couldn't get on a flight to New York, I would face discrimination from the state in every area, institutionalized discrimination, not just extremist groups. "In my view, if you call the fire engine when you light a candle five times, then on the sixth time he does not come, and that is what I am worried about," said Kramer. "I reject completely the assertion by some in our community that we are in 1933 all over again."