German parliament commemorates Holocaust

The Bundestag has commemorated the Holocaust, for the first time with the far-right AfD present. In her speech, Auschwitz survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch praised Germany's "courageous gesture" in accepting refugees.

The lower house of German parliament devoted its early afternoon session on Wednesday to the annual commemoration of the victims of the Nazi regime, a few days after the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. This time however — for the first time since World War II — members of a far-right party were sitting in the Bundestag.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD) has some 92 members in the 709-seat Bundestag, and the party recently presented a piece of legislation to the house aimed at preventing refugees whose close relatives are still in war-torn countries from bringing their families to Germany. Meanwhile, Germany's main centrist parties, currently negotiating their way to a new government coalition, has agreed to extend the policy of capping family reunions

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Anita Lasker-Wallfisch addresses Bundestag

But the main speaker in the Bundestag on Wednesday was 92-year-old Holocaust survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, a German-Jewish cellist who survived 11 months in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and who used her speech to praise Germany's initial response to the refugee crisis — Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to open borders to refugees travelling on foot from Hungary in fall 2015.

"For us the borders were hermetically sealed — and not, like here, opened, thanks to the unbelievably generous, courageous, humane gesture that was made here," she said, drawing a long round of applause from the parliamentarians.

The Berlin-based International Auschwitz Committee released a statement last week ahead of the commemoration, once again warning against the rise of right-wing populism across Europe — though without naming the AfD directly. "It has long since become blatantly clear that so-called right-wing populism is increasingly trying to destabilize parliaments, media and democratic institutions from both the inside and the outside and to incite contempt for them among citizens in many European countries," said Christoph Heubner, the organization's executive vice president.

'We saw everything'

In her speech, Lasker-Wallfisch recounted how she survived Auschwitz because she was needed as a cellist in the death camp's orchestra, which was forced to play during the arrival of new transport trains, most of whose occupants were immediately murdered in gas chambers.

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was 17 when she arrived at Auschwitz

"In Auschwitz, it is hard to believe, there was music," said Lasker-Wallfisch, who was born in Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland. "The orchestra was at block 12, almost at the end of the camp road, just a few meters from crematorium 1, with an unrestricted view of the ramp. We saw everything. The arrival ceremonies, the lectures, the columns of people walking toward the gas chambers to be transformed into smoke."

"For many, music in this hell was an absolute insult," she said. "For others, perhaps, it was a possibility to dream themselves into another world for a moment."

Lasker-Wallfisch was also in Auschwitz during the "Hungary action" in the summer of 1944, when close to half a million Hungarian Jews were deported to the camp in a few months and the mass murder was accelerated to an industrial, round-the-clock pace. "Those for whom there was no space in the gas chambers were shot," she remembered. "In many cases, people were thrown into the burning ovens alive. I saw that too."

She also warned against the revival of anti-Semitism in Europe. "Anti-Semitism is a 2,000-year-old virus, apparently incurable," she said. "What a scandal that Jewish schools, even Jewish kindergartens, need to be guarded by the police. 'Jews' is not a collective term — they're just people."

"It is not about feelings of guilt — they are totally misplaced," she added. "It's about the certainty that this should never, never happen again."

Lasker-Wallfisch's speech was preceded by a musical recital of the 1924 piece "Prayer" by Ernest Bloch, with Lasker-Wallfisch's son Raphael Wallfisch playing the cello. 

Some 1.1 million people were murdered at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the war

Past guilt, new responsibility

She also recounted her own story in an interview with the public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, aired on Wednesday morning. "'You play cello? Fantastic! Stay here, I'll come right back','" Lasker-Wallfisch remembered another captive saying on her arrival. "So she ran off and got the conductor of this small orchestra and said that a cellist had arrived. It was my luck that at the time they didn't have an instrument that played low notes."

Some 1.1 million people were murdered in Auschwitz  during the war, before the camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army on January 27, 1945. That date has been marked as International Holocaust Remembrance Day since 2005.

Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble opened Wednesday's ceremony with his own speech reminding delegates of the day's significance. "We remember not as people personally guilty, but out of the guilt of previous generations grows a responsibility," Schäuble said. "The rule of law and democracy demand our engagement.

"The majority of people in this country are not xenophobic, but every day people are attacked here because they look different," he added, addressing a rise in hate crime in the past few years. "We should be disturbed if the majority of Jewish people in this country say they have been victims of anti-Semitism. Any form of hatred against Jews is unacceptable, especially in our country."

Read more: Opinion — Germany must never forget Holocaust

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust


The Nazi regime opened the first concentration camp in Dauchau, not far from Munich. Just a few weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power it was used by the paramilitary SS "Schutzstaffel" to imprison, torture and kill political opponents to the regime. Dachau also served as a prototype and model for the other Nazi camps that followed.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Wannsee House

The villa on Berlin's Wannsee lake was pivotal in planning the Holocaust. Fifteen members of the Nazi government and the SS Schutzstaffel met here on January 20, 1942 to plan what became known as the "Final Solution," the deportation and extermination of all Jews in German-occupied territory. In 1992, the villa where the Wannsee Conference was held was turned into a memorial and museum.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust


The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony was initially established as a prisoner of war camp before becoming a concentration camp. Prisoners too sick to work were brought here from other concentration camps, so many also died of disease. One of the 50,000 killed here was Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who gained international fame posthumously after her diary was published.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Buchenwald Memorial

Buchenwald near the Thuringian town of Weimar was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. From 1937 to April 1945, the National Socialists deported about 270,000 people from all over Europe here and murdered 64,000 of them.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Nazi party rally grounds

Nuremberg hosted the biggest Nazi party propaganda rallies from 1933 until the start of the Second World War. The annual Nazi party congress as well as rallies with as many as 200,000 participants took place on the 11-km² (4.25 square miles) area. Today, the unfinished Congress Hall building serves as a documentation center and a museum.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Memorial to the German Resistance

The Bendlerblock building in Berlin was the headquarters of a military resistance group. On July 20, 1944, a group of Wehrmacht officers around Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carried out an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler that failed. The leaders of the conspiracy were summarily shot the same night in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, which is today the German Resistance Memorial Center.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Hadamar Euthanasia Center

From 1941 people with physical and mental disabilities were killed at a psychiatric hospital in Hadamar in Hesse. Declared "undesirables" by the Nazis, some 15,000 people were murdered here by asphyxiation with carbon monoxide or by being injected with lethal drug overdoses. Across Germany some 70,000 were killed as part of the Nazi euthanasia program. Today Hadamar is a memorial to those victims.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial

Located next to the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was inaugurated sixty years after the end of World War II on May 10, 2005, and opened to the public two days later. Architect Peter Eisenman created a field with 2,711 concrete slabs. An attached underground "Place of Information" holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Memorial to persecuted homosexuals

Not too far from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, another concrete memorial honors the thousands of homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The four-meter high monument, which has a window showing alternately a film of two men or two women kissing, was inaugurated in Berlin's Tiergarten on May 27, 2008.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Sinti and Roma Memorial

Opposite the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin, a park inaugurated in 2012 serves as a memorial to the 500,000 Sinti and Roma people killed by the Nazi regime. Around a memorial pool the poem "Auschwitz" by Roma poet Santino Spinelli is written in English, Germany and Romani: "gaunt face, dead eyes, cold lips, quiet, a broken heart, out of breath, without words, no tears."

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

'Stolpersteine' - stumbling blocks as memorials

In the 1990s, the artist Gunther Demnig began a project to confront Germany's Nazi past. Brass-covered concrete cubes placed in front of the former houses of Nazi victims, provide details about the people and their date of deportation and death, if known. More than 45,000 "Stolpersteine" have been laid in 18 countries in Europe - it's the world's largest decentralized Holocaust memorial.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Brown House in Munich

Right next to the "Führerbau" where Adolf Hitler had his office, was the headquarters of the Nazi Party in Germany, in the "Brown House" in Munich. A white cube now occupies its former location. A new "Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism" opened on April 30, 2015, 70 years after the liberation from the Nazi regime, uncovering further dark chapters of history.