Jewish cemetery desecrations cast shadow in Germany

Last month at Sachsenhausen, a former Nazi concentration camp in Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schrder pledged, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, that Germany would combat anti-Semitism and racism. His speech underscored the importance of memory for modern Germany.

Two weeks later there was virtually no public response to the most extensive desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Germany since World War II. On the first weekend in October, vandals overturned 103 gravestones at Berlin's Weissensee cemetery, Europe's largest Jewish cemetery.

It was not front-page news in major newspapers, there was no immediate condemnation by a major government official, and there were no public demonstrations.

The Berlin police have designated the attack an ordinary incident of vandalism, not an act of anti-Semitism or right-wing extremism, simply because no relevant graffiti was found at the site.

One notable exception to this apparent lack of concern was a public reading of the names on the overturned tombstones, organized by the local Green Party and attended by several dozen local politicians and church leaders at the cemetery.

Perhaps in a country where desecrations of cemeteries, both Jewish and non-Jewish, occur with some regularity, the shock of such outrages has worn off. But one should not ignore the fact that in the country that planned and executed the Holocaust, any desecration of a Jewish cemetery is an act of overt anti-Semitism.

For Jews, cemeteries are sacred, and Jews are obligated to maintain their sanctity for all time.

The continuing pattern is disturbing. There were 32 Jewish cemetery desecrations in Germany in the first eight months of 1999. Between 1990 and 1998, German officials recorded yearly totals of between 26 and 111 incidents. In Berlin alone over the past 18 months, there were five desecrations, including a bomb attack on the grave of former German Jewish community leader Heinz Galinski. That attack led his successor, the late Ignatz Bubis, to declare he would prefer to be buried in Israel, where he now is buried.

As in the case of the Galinski grave attack, police have found no trace of the perpetrators of this month's massive grave desecration.

Because the Weissensee cemetery was closed for the Jewish holiday of Succoth when the graves were vandalized, the timing of the attack may never be known. But it occurred on the weekend of Austria's national elections, in which Joerg Haider's extremist Freedom Party rose to new electoral heights as it came in second.

There are close language and cultural ties between Germany and Austria. Therefore, it was particularly disturbing when the governor of the German state of Bavaria, following the Oct. 3 election, advised the Austrians to include the Freedom Party in the new government coalition. No right-wing party in Germany since World War II has gained a similar foothold to Haider's party, but there is reason to be concerned about a spillover effect on German politics.

While Jewish communal institutions are generally well-guarded in Germany, the number and size of the country's Jewish cemeteries make it nearly impossible to provide around-the-clock protection. The president of Berlin's Jewish community, Andreas Nachama, has called for video cameras to be installed in cemeteries to improve security conditions. The idea is an understandable attempt to reduce the number of attacks and increase the likelihood of finding the criminals. However, it will probably won't happen due to concerns about respecting the peace and dignity of a burial site. A more likely remedy will be increased police patrols and appeals to neighbors for more vigilance.

Even more fundamental in combating such shattering events would be encouraging - and expecting - public rejection of such behavior. As long as cemetery desecrations are greeted largely by silence, perpetrators feel emboldened to continue their attacks. The best defense is not more police and security but civil courage and public condemnation. Democracy has gained a foothold from the Atlantic to the Urals in Europe, but vigilance is necessary to prevent its destabilization.

This remains an essential lesson of memory from the Holocaust. As the Weissensee cemetery destruction reminds us, stones are silent. They can only bear witness. It is people who need to raise their voices.

*Deidre Berger is associate managing director of the American Jewish Committee's office in Berlin.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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