“This is a story and a history that has to be told time and again, to ensure that we remain vigilant,” she said. “To ensure that these crimes are not repeated, to ensure that we fight anti-Semitism.”
Nazi Germany executed more than 1.1 million people at Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust, the vast majority of whom were Jews. The gas chambers at the site near Krakow, Poland, were key in the Nazi campaign to wipe out Europe’s Jewish population. More than 6 million Jews were killed.
Merkel’s trip, the first by a German chancellor in almost a quarter-century, comes just two months after a deadly shooting at a synagogue in Halle, and as Germany once again grapples with rising anti-Semitism. In the attack on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, a 27-year-old far-right gunman fatally shot two people near the synagogue after failing to break inside, police said.
Josef Schuster, president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, described Merkel’s visit as “extremely positive.” Given the chancellor’s “very clear attitude” toward the crimes of the Nazis, it should not be a cause for criticism that she has not made an official visit to the site until now, he told the Zeit newspaper.
Merkel has visited other concentration camps, including Dachau and Buchenwald in Germany. She is the third German chancellor to visit Auschwitz. Helmut Schmidt visited in 1977, and Helmut Kohl in 1989 and 1995.
Remko Leemhuis, acting director of the American Jewish Committee in Berlin, said it was “striking” that Merkel was only the third chancellor to visit, but he suggested that it was significant that she had done so and had taken the opportunity to speak out against anti-Semitism.
“Symbolism is always very important in politics,” he said. “It’s not an end in itself, but it’s important. Almost 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the German responsibility doesn’t cease.”
The chancellor was invited to attend the ceremony for the 10th anniversary of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation, which oversees the site. The German government announced that it would donate 60 million euros, or about $66 million, to the foundation.
Larger commemorations are planned for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz next month, but Merkel had been keen to ensure that she was able to visit before her term ends, according to German media reports. New leadership in her party’s coalition partner has added uncertainty to the future of her ruling alliance in recent weeks.
Merkel attended alongside Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and paused for a minute’s silence at the “Black Wall” where Nazi SS officers carried out executions by firing squad.
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.