Israeli, German Presidents at Bergen-Belsen
Israeli, German Presidents at Bergen-BelsenAmos Ben Gershom/GPO

President Isaac Herzog visited the site of the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp today, accompanied by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the Minister-President of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer. At the start of their visit, President Herzog and President Steinmeier laid a wreath at the memorial, after which the presidents walked to the Jewish memorial, originally erected by the camp’s survivors after the war. President Herzog recited the Kaddish prayer in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, like his father, the Sixth President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, who visited Bergen-Belsen during his state visit to Germany in 1987, as the first Israeli head of state to visit there.

On 15 April 1945, near the end of the Second World War, British forces liberated the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp from the Nazis. Chaim Herzog, then a British Army officer, participated in the liberation efforts.

The Jewish prayer El Malei Rachamim was recited by the same rabbi who participated in the memorial ceremony at the camp during President Chaim Herzog’s state visit in 1987. Later, local youth, both Germans and Jews, read sections from the Diary of Anne Frank, who died in the camp in 1945.

President Herzog and President Steinmeier delivered remarks and paid tribute to the memory of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust, alongside the memorial stone placed at the site during President Chaim Herzog’s visit, to the sound of Hatikvah being sung by Holocaust survivors in 1945. This chilling rendition was recorded by a journalist visiting the camp after its liberation.

President Isaac Herzog: “When the camp was liberated, a military convoy rolled into the site headed by an officer, who stood on a wooden crate and shouted in Yiddish, in front of hundreds of people, hundreds of human skeletons: ‘Yidden! Yidden! Es leben noch Yidden!’ In English: ‘Jews! There are still living Jews!’ There are still Jews in the world! That Jewish officer was my father, Chaim Herzog, of blessed memory, later President of Israel.

“Four decades later, my father returned here as the Sixth President of the independent, strong, and democratic Jewish State of Israel. My father chose to begin his visit here, at the same place where I conclude my visit. Here he addressed the victims of the Holocaust and said: ‘In the name of the Jewish People, and in the name of the State of Israel, I repeat our oath never to forget you, and to be forever faithful to your bequest: the imperative of life.’ Thus said my father, and thus say I today as President of the State of Israel, the state of the Jewish People. Here, in this terrible place, we remember the imperative that is binding on us all: the imperative of life, the imperative of the Eternity of Israel, and of the duty to work for its sake in every generation.

“We must work together, Israel and Germany, to defend the national home of the Jewish People: its future, its security, and its prosperity. To fight without compromise against antisemitism and racism. That is our duty. On behalf of the past and for the sake of the future.

“Beloved Holocaust survivors, the passage of time has not dulled the memory of the atrocities inflicted here. Nor can anything in the world obscure your heroism and fortitude of spirit, your ability to emerge from dust and ashes, to rebuild and to be rebuilt. To the young people with us here today, I emphasize: our foremost duty is to the Holocaust’s martyrs and survivors. It is a duty to remember and to remind people of the Holocaust and the resistance, from generation to generation.

“When the survivors were liberated, ‘brands snatched from the fire’ (Isaiah 7:4), my father had the privilege of organizing the first prayer service in the camp after its liberation. At the end of the service, all the orphans recited Kaddish, the prayer that I was privileged to recite a few moments ago. With your permission, I wish to conclude my remarks here and my visit to Germany with the final words in the Kaddish prayer: ‘May He who creates peace in His celestial heights create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.’

President Steinmeier of Germany: “In my capacity as President of Germany, I emphasize again, here and now: the Holocaust is a painful part of German history, which belongs to us, and which we must not deny, nor do we ever wish to forget. That which must never be allowed to repeat itself must not be forgotten.

“Mr. President, dear Isaac Herzog, I am moved and so grateful that we are standing today side by side. The friendship between our countries, between Germany and Israel, is a great gift for me. The past constitutes a commitment for us, and we wish to shape the future together. I promise you: we Germans are conscious of our responsibility.

“In front of the graves of the dead at Bergen-Belsen, and of the millions of people murdered in the Holocaust, every form of antisemitism, which unfortunately still exists today in Germany, is a warning sign for our country. Antisemitism must have no space in our society. Wherever it becomes apparent, we must oppose it—forcefully.”

President Herzog and President Steinmeier then met with Holocaust survivors, who had arrived especially for this moving encounter: Albrecht Weinberg, Jovan Rajs, Naomi Rinat, Menachem Z. Rosensaft, and Jochevet Ritz-Olewski. The meeting was also joined by young people from the local area. The survivors told their stories from the camp during and after the Second World War and spoke about the importance of remembrance and learning the lessons of history. The young participants told the presidents about how they are looking to the future out of the great darkness that they had learned about as children.