BERLIN – Israel's president addressed Germany's parliament on Tuesday about atrocities committed during the Third Reich, while at the same time praising the close and friendly relations that have emerged between the two countries since the end of the Holocaust.
Six million European Jews were murdered by Germany's Nazis and their henchmen during World War II.
“Never in human history was there a campaign like the one the Nazis and their accomplices conducted to annihilate the Jewish people,” Israeli President Isaac Herzog told lawmakers at the Bundestag.
“Never in history was a state responsible, as Nazi Germany was responsible, for the loss of all semblance of humanity, for the erasure of all mercy, for the pursuit of the worldwide obliteration, with such awful cruelty, of an entire people.”
Herzog also spoke about his father, former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, who was among the liberators of the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany in April 1945, as an officer of the British forces.
“I shall never forget how he described to me the horrors he witnessed. The stench. The human skeletons in striped pajamas, the piles of corpses, the destruction, the hell on earth,” the Israeli president told German lawmakers.
Looking forward, Herzog praised close relations between the two countries and their joint commitment to fight antisemitism.
“The partnership between Israel and Germany has achieved global renown, and we must continue deepening and cultivating it, for the benefit of a brilliant future not only for our countries but for the whole of humanity,” he said in parliament.
After his speech, Herzog and Steinmeier, accompanied by their wives, went to Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews — a field of 2,700 gray concrete slabs near the the city's landmark Brandenburg Gate — where they laid two wreaths for the victims of the Holocaust.
On Tuesday afternoon, the two presidents visited the former concentration camp Bergen-Belsen.
After a tour of the memorial site where they met survivors and German high school students, Steinmeier said in a speech that “it took a long time for the Germans to understand that they themselves were also liberated at that time, namely from their murderous ideology and an inhuman dictatorship."
“The fact that we Germans were able to live in freedom and democracy again, at least in the West, is due not least to the allied liberators,” he added.
More than 52,000 mostly Jewish prisoners died at the concentration camp and more than 19,000 prisoners of war, mostly from the Soviet Union, died at the adjacent POW camp.
Menachem Rosensaft, the general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the son of Bergen-Belsen survivors, met with Herzog and Steinmeier after the official ceremony at the memorial site. Rosensaft was born at the displaced persons camp adjacent to the concentration camp shortly after the end of World War II.
“Both presidents made clear that the remembrance of the evil perpetrated at Bergen-Belsen must be a guidepost for the future of both nations,” he told The Associated Press. “For Herzog especially, the visit was clearly a personal pilgrimage that was rooted in his father's experience in liberating the camp.”
The Israeli president arrived in Germany earlier this week for a state visit that also included a trip to Munich on Monday where he participated in the 50-year anniversary ceremony for the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian militants at the 1972 Olympic Games.
Germany is still paying compensation to Holocaust survivors, especially those who are needy and impoverished. The amount paid out each year is decided by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, a nonprofit organization that obtains material compensation for Holocaust survivors around the world.
Tia Goldberg contributed to this report from Jerusalem.