For the first time the German Bundestag chose to mark the "forgotten Holocaust" of the Roma and Sinti on the day that commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.
Zoni Weisz, the sole survivor of his family, addressed the German parliament on Thursday, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and chose to highlight not just the murder of half a million Roma and Sinti in the Nazi-run death camps but also the continuing plight of Europe's most marginalized people.
Dutch-born Weisz, now 73 years old, survived as a seven-year-old boy in 1944 because a policeman took pity on him as his family was being deported and let him escape. He spent the rest of the war in hiding. His parents, sisters and younger brother were all murdered in Auschwitz.
Weisz told the gathered German politicians that the fate of the Roma had important lessons for today, when many members of Europe's largest minority, thought to number between 10 million and 12 million, continue to face discrimination. "We are Europeans, let me remind you, and must have the same rights as any other resident, with the same opportunities available to every European," he said. "It is unacceptable that a people that has been discriminated against and oppressed for centuries is today, in the 21st century, still shut out and robbed of any honest chance of a better future."
Last year, France and Italy deported Roma migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, while Berlin has sent Roma refugees from Kosovo, including children born in Germany, back home. Roma suffer from high unemployment, and are discriminated against in housing and education. In many countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, far-right groups have targeted the Roma.
'We Must Never Again Allow Such Crimes'
The Roma Holocaust was only officially recognized in Germany in 1982 and there is still no memorial to the victims, two decades after the first plans were drawn up for one. However, later this year a memorial in the shape of a fountain is finally to be unveiled in central Berlin.
On Thursday, a Berlin street was renamed after "Ede and Unku" a book banned by the Nazis that described the love story between a German boy and a Sinti girl. And a school is to be named after Johann Trollmann, the Sinti boxing champion who had his title stripped by the Nazis in 1933 and was later murdered in a concentration camp.
Meanwhile, on Thursday German President Christian Wulff attended a ceremony at the former Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, situated in present-day Poland, to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jan. 27 was established as a global day of commemoration by the United Nations in 2005, marking the day that Soviet troops liberated the camp.
"The name Auschwitz stands unlike anything else for the crimes perpetuated by Germans against millions of human beings," Wulff said in a speech. "They fill us with disgust and shame. They lay upon us a historical responsibility that is independent of individual guilt. We must never again allow such crimes. And we must keep the memories alive."
The German press on Friday emphasizes the importance of remembrance in Germany, with most papers welcoming the recognition of the crimes perpetrated against the Roma.
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Christian Wulff is the first German president who was born after 1945. He only knows the Nazi barbarism and World War II from stories and history lessons. That leads to a particular relationship to memory and to the Germans' historic guilt: It is authentically inauthentic. That is why even closer attention is paid to how he lives up to this responsibility, which the Germans bear because of their past."
"His speech at Auschwitz yesterday struck the right tone: He convincingly pleaded for a culture of remembrance, while also making a gesture of thanks for the fact that the victims of the Nazi terror and their descendents were prepared to work toward reconciliation."
"Remembering is constantly changing. The Germans are always learning more. That is why it was fitting that a representative of the Roma and Sinti people gave the keynote speech marking Holocaust Remembrance Day to the Bundestag. His speech was so moving and haunting that Wulff's and younger generations will remember it in the future."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"The responsibility for German remembrance will continue even when the former perpetrators and their accomplices are all dead. The president, the Bundestag, the chancellor, both as institutions and as individuals, will be serving not just the past but also the political future. The repetition of history is not the most pressing danger, rather the fallacy that history has nothing to say to us or to future generations."
"Zoni Weisz, the first Auschwitz survivor from the Roma and Sinti minority to address the Bundestag on this day, spoke charitably about a 'forgotten Holocaust.' He did not want to make the accusation that the murder of 500,000 members of his ethnic minority was a concealed Holocaust. Of course it wasn't an official concealment by the authorities, but in the case of the Roma and Sinti there was a broad public silence."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"The elderly man did not complain that Roma are being deported from Germany as well as from France. He did not demand that refugees who fled Kosovo for Germany in the 1990s be allowed to stay. Of course he could have spoken about the Roma children who were born and raised in Germany and have roots there -- but who were still deported."
"The elderly man could have complained that the German politicians did not soften their stance despite the historic guilt that they bear: The Nazis murdered half a million Roma and Sinti."
"Zoni Weisz … gave a moving, touching speech in the Bundestag about the suffering of his people, a suffering that has not ended. … And then he outlined the wretched daily lives of the Sinti and Roma in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Italy and France. He complained of discrimination, harassment and displacement in so many countries. But he did not mention Germany. … Perhaps this restraint can achieve more than a complaint would have done -- because it could force the German politicians to reflect themselves on their guilt regarding the Sinti and Roma."