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.
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.
"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.
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."