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Honoring Nazi victims as witnesses fade
BERLIN: Most countries celebrate the best in their past. Germany unrelentingly promotes its worst.
The enormous Holocaust memorial that dominates a chunk of central Berlin was completed only after years of debate. But the building of monuments to the Nazi disgrace continues unabated. On Monday, the German minister of culture, Bernd Neumann, announced that construction could begin in Berlin on two monuments, one near the Reichstag to slain members of the gypsy groups, known here as the Sinti and Roma, and another not far from the Brandenburg Gate to gays and lesbians killed in the Holocaust.
In November they broke ground on the long-delayed Topography of Terror center at the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. And in October, a huge new exhibition opened at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. At the Dachau camp outside Munich, a new visitor center opens this summer. The city of Erfurt is planning a museum dedicated to the crematoriums. There are currently two competing exhibitions about the role of the German railroads in delivering millions to their deaths.
This Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party taking power in Germany, which remarkably has prompted yet a new round of soul-searching.
"Where in the world has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalize its own shame?" said Avi Primor, the former Israeli ambassador to Germany, at an event commemorating the Holocaust and the liberation of Auschwitz on Friday in Erfurt. "Only the Germans had the bravery and the humility."
It is not just in edifices and exhibits that the effort to come to terms with this history continues unabated. The Federal Crime Office last year began an investigation into itself: trying to shine a light on the Nazi past of its founders after the end of the war. And earlier this month the federal prosecutor overturned the guilty verdict of the communist Marinus van der Lubbe, the Dutchman executed for allegedly setting the Reichstag fire, the 75th anniversary of which is Feb. 27.
The experience of Nazism is actively alive in contemporary public debates over everything from the country's troops in Afghanistan to the low birth rate to the country's dealings with foreigners. Often it seems to stifle discussion that could proceed more openly in other countries with fewer taboos.
But the force of time also has brought about a necessary shift in Germany's relationship with its graying history of violence. According to government statistics, the average life expectancy of a German man born in 1930 is 64 and for a woman 72. Soon nearly all of the victims - and even sooner the perpetrators - will be dead.
Rudiger Nemitz first began welcoming back this city's exiled victims of Nazi tyranny, the overwhelming majority of them Jews, in 1969. Berlin flies its former citizens, mostly Jews, back for a week of fully expense-paid visits, complete with a reception by the mayor.
The Invitation Program for Former Persecuted Citizens of Berlin, which has brought roughly 33,000 people for visits to the city, once had 12 full-time staff members. Now it is just Nemitz and another half-time employee.
The program is not, however, winding down due to waning support for commemoration of Germany's difficult past. To the contrary, at a time when the nearly-broke Berlin city government has had to make deep cutbacks in other areas, Nemitz said that every single political party in the city Parliament supported the program and had not pared back its budget of ﾛ550,000, or about $815,000, for flights, hotels and tours since at least 2000.
"When it started, they were grown-ups. Now, it's people with hardly any memory of Berlin," said Nemitz, 61, from his office on the ground floor of the Berlin City Hall. "Those who come today were children then."
The visits will end in either 2010 or 2011, Nemitz estimated, because there are so few victims left.
Easily overlooked next to the poignant fact of the survivors dying out is that Nemitz's generation, those who faced these crimes intimately and were fighting to break the silence of their parents and teachers, is beginning to retire. When the last tour group leaves Berlin, Nemitz, who said he is afraid to take vacation and treats his position more like a mission than a job, will shut the door to his office and become a retiree.
As the contact to the events becomes more remote, less personal, it raises the question of how a society should enshrine its crimes and transgressions over the longer term.
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