In a powerful plea against forgetting, Shoah survivor Eva Szepesi told her moving life story to the German Bundestag to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. She was rescued from the Auschwitz concentration camp at the age of twelve. For half a century, Szepesi, who is now 91, was unable to talk about what she had experienced. She had now made it her life's mission "to speak for those who can no longer speak," said Szepesi during the act of commemoration.
Every year on or around 27 January, the Bundestag remembers the millions of victims of the Nazis. Seventy-nine years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Red Army, this year's commemoration was focused on how different generations are each approaching the issue of the Holocaust. Sports journalist Marcel Reif, the son of a Holocaust survivor, gave a commemorative speech as a representative of the so-called Second Generation.
Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of the Bundesrat Manuela Schwesig, President of the Bundestag Bärbel Bas, Federal Chancellor Scholz and the Vice President of the Federal Constitutional Court Doris König took part in the act of commemoration as representatives of Germany's constitutional bodies.
"Having the courage not to remain silent"
In her speech to open the act of commemoration, President of the Bundestag Bärbel Bas stressed that, "when survivors speak, the dead also have a voice". It takes courage not to remain silent, she said, and added that the ceremony was commemorating very different people who were victims of Nazi terror, such as six million Jews, Sinti and Roma, people persecuted for political reasons, gay people and those who were branded "anti-social", and also the victims of euthanasia.
Society as a whole had a duty to pass on what had happened from generation to generation, said Bas. There was no statute of limitations on responsibility for the Holocaust, she warned, adding that antisemitism was also a problem of the present day. Since the Hamas attack on Israel, more than 2,000 antisemitic offences have been committed in Germany. "This outbreak of antisemitism is a stain on our country," said Bas. "Our actions must always be guided by humanity towards others, towards every single person: these are the lessons of the Holocaust," she stressed.
The Shoah began with silence and averted eyes
Eva Szepesi, who witnessed the Holocaust herself, also expressed concern about current developments. She described how it fills her with pain when children today are afraid to go to school and when her great-grandchildren need police protection just because they are Jewish. In her speech, Szepesi expressed her incomprehension as to how anyone could not seek to defend the Basic Law and "the wonderful democracy in which we live". It was therefore all the more important not to remain silent, she said. "The Shoah did not begin with Auschwitz. It began with words and it began with silence and averted eyes," Szepesi warned.
Szepesi emphasised at the end of her speech that the current generation was not to blame for what had happened, but that it bore responsibility for what was to come.
Guest speaker Eva Szepesi was born into a Jewish family in Budapest in 1932 and was deported by the Nazis to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp at the end of 1944. She was twelve years old when the camp was liberated. Szepesi was one of the few children to escape the Nazi gas chambers and death marches. She broke her silence for the first time on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and later wrote down her experiences in a book. In 2017, she was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for her engagement as a contemporary witness.
"There can be no repeat of the darkest chapter in history"
Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz was deeply impressed by Szepesi's words. Women, men and children like Eva Szepesi had to experience what people are capable of and what they can do to each other, said the Federal Chancellor. There could be no repeat of the darkest chapter in history, he said. "We have it in our hands to defend our democracy and the freedom of everyone in our country," the Federal Chancellor wrote on Instagram.
Sports journalist Marcel Reif, born in Poland in 1949, spoke as a representative of the second Shoah generation. He spoke about how difficult it was for his father to talk about the Holocaust and what it was like for him to return to the "land of the perpetrators". It was important to talk about this time today, he said. Marcel Reif referred to the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against issues such as right-wing extremism as a cause for hope. As a reminder and advice in these times, he concluded his speech with the words of his father: "Be human."
Marcel Reif's father only just survived the Holocaust after being rescued from a deportation train at the last second. Many other members of his family were murdered by the Nazis. The Reif family emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1956, later moving to Kaiserslautern. Reif's career as a sports journalist and presenter began in the 1980s. Reif only learnt the real circumstances of his father's story after his death.
Students from the Berlin University of the Arts provided the musical programme for the act of commemoration. It included works by the composers Ferenc Weisz, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, Günther Raphael (1903-1969), who had to fear public scandal in Germany, and Rosy Wertheim (1888-1949), who survived Nazi persecution in hiding in the Netherlands.