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Take a stance. Speak out. Against hate and discrimination

Interview with Marian Turski and Dalia Grinfeld

On the occasion of this year’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Volkswagen Heritage spoke to two representatives of the Jewish community in Europe. Marian Turski (born in 1926) is a survivor of Auschwitz Concentration Camp and Chairman of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Dalia Grinfeld is a representative of contemporary Jewish life in Germany. She lives in Berlin and is the Assistant Director European Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The interview was conducted by Dieter Landenberger.

In Germany, Jewish organizations and synagogues are often under police protection. What does that say about our society and its problems?

Turski: It is difficult for me to say, because I live in Poland. Here too, we suffer from a mood of antisemitism but our synagogues are not guarded. I cannot explain why that is the case in Germany. Whenever I meet Germans or German politicians, I always experience people with values and attitudes that I can accept. However, I also see that there is a transformation in progress. In the 1960s, there was a movement in favor of reconciliation in Germany, driven by a generation of young people who had been able to speak to their parents or grandparents about their experiences. One manifestation that remains unforgotten was Willy Brandt’s gesture of falling to his knees. Nowadays, there are no personalities like Willy Brandt in Germany who express this conviction in the way he did. Perhaps there will be a new movement that once again takes up this conviction. It may be that we need to find a new way of speaking to the young generation.

Grinfeld: There is still antisemitism in Germany. It stretches from antisemitic hate speech all to the point of antisemitic violence. Over the past few years, we have seen a rise in violence. The attack on 52 people praying in the synagogue in Halle on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is only one of several tragic examples. Jewish life is often not seen as part of German society but always from the perspective of a spectator as a result i.a. of ignorance concerning Jewish culture, tradition and history. Many people only view Jewish life in the context of the Holocaust, the Middle East conflict and antisemitism. There is scarcely any understanding of true Jewish life and the associated living situation in Germany. “Global 100”, a survey conducted by the Anti-Defamation League throughout the world, was concerned with antisemitic stereotypes. In Germany, 31% of respondents agreed with the statement that they disliked Jews because of their behavior. This says a lot about our society and our behavior towards each other in Germany. For many people, Jewish life is too alien, too different, too unfamiliar. This is part of the problem. Another part is the opportunity to express this rejection online on a variety of platforms and to find groups of people sharing similar views. On the Internet, hatred and violence are boosted.

Turski: Do mosques in Germany need similar protection to synagogues?

Grinfeld: Personally, I only know a few mosques that get such protection at the moment. Whether they need such protection you´d have to ask persons within that community. However, the situation is different in the case of refugee accommodation with many Moslem inhabitants. The reason for this violence is the same; many people think that the refugees are not part of our society.

Dalia Grinfeld
Assistant Director European Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)

Looking back on the history of the last century, you could sometimes think that certain circumstances are repeating themselves. Do you think the people do not learn anything from history?

Turski: Sometimes, people learn from history, sometimes they don’t. Looking back at the Weimar Republic, I can understand why it was possible for a populist movement to achieve success. At that time, Germany was suffering severely from the consequences of World War I. This is not the case today. Germany is successful. However, how can we be sure that the generation now growing up really understands how such a regime could arise? Do we teach them enough about the steps that led to this situation?

Grinfeld: The Holocaust is generally dealt with in detail in German schools. However, the question is whether people really learn any lessons from this. I think that the generation now growing up does not have a full understanding of what we should learn from the Holocaust and the Shoa. I think that that is a lack of individual understanding. Everyone in Germany should integrate the lessons to be learnt from the Holocaust in their own lives. One of the main problems was highlighted by last year’s “Global 100” study. One of the statements used in the survey was: “Jews in Germany talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust”. In Germany, 42 percent of respondents agreed with this statement. Almost half of the people interviewed evidently did not understand what the Holocaust meant for their own lives, for freedom, for democracy, for all minorities or even for their friends and neighbors. That also applies to people in Germany who do not have German roots. Even if you do not have German ancestors, there are many lessons for your own lives to be learnt from the Holocaust.

Turski: We talk about antisemitism and the Holocaust as Jewish problems. The Holocaust is always seen as a tragedy for the Jews, but it was also a tragedy for Europe as a whole. The crimes of the Nazis clearly show what damage dictatorships can do – they ignore human rights. Nowadays, it is not sufficient to take young people through former concentration camps like Auschwitz. You need to speak to them. They must understand what happened in Germany at that time, how something like that could happen and how the Holocaust came about.

No, it really is a European problem. When will Europeans realize how dangerous discrimination can be for them themselves? Not only for Jews, Muslims or other minorities. Discrimination is a danger – it paves the way for dictatorships.

In many cases, antisemitism is manifested online nowadays. What is the significance of the Internet in this context?

Grinfeld: For example, I am horrified by the gaming scene of which the attacker of Halle also formed part. The perpetrator was part of an online community of right-wing extremists who all had no problem with violence – violence against Jews, women, LGBTIQ people or people of color. These online extremists are globally networked, reinforce each other’s views, and even exchange information on planned attacks or the production of bombs. There is also a rise in the frequency of conspiracy myths on the Internet. QAnon is a good example; there are online channels with 150,000 followers. QAnon is full of hatred for Jews, Muslims, immigrants and other minorities, indeed everything that is in any way seen as alien. If it is so easy to disseminate hatred, we can and must do something about it. We must combat this hatred.

Mr. Turski, in an open letter last year, you warned Mark Zuckerberg about the excessive hatred on his network. What do you think about the role of the social media?

Turski: Perhaps the impact of the Internet is similar to the invention of printing by Gutenberg. People back then simply could not imagine how effective this invention would be, how it would change their culture, their mentality and the way they learnt. I use the Internet myself, because it helps me. But I am not part of it, although my children are. To be honest, I feel a bit too old for social media and do not want to waste any time with Instagram, Facebook or TikTok. But friends, as well as my daughter and my grandchildren, have told me about the problem. In my open letter, I appealed, for the sake of democracy, for Holocaust deniers to be given no space on Facebook.

Grinfeld: The major technology companies have a special responsibility because their platforms have become part of our everyday lives. I think it is important for these companies to understand their responsibility. On the other hand, government has a responsibility to introduce appropriate regulations. In mid-2020, the ADL launched its campaign “Stop Hate for Profit”. Together with other NGOs, the ADL issued a call for no further advertising to be placed on Facebook until the platform had proceeded actively against hatred, fanaticism, racism, antisemitism and disinformation. As a result of this appeal, Holocaust denial and racism are now banned from Facebook. However, the progress being made is very slow. Facebook and the other platforms simply need to recognize their responsibility and have to change things as soon as possible. Nevertheless, these developments do show that companies and organizations can make a difference with their attitude and their approach against hate.

The memorial stone at Südstraße, entrance 2, was officially inaugurated on October 9, 1991 and commemorates forced labor at the Volkswagen plant from 1940 to 1945.

Volkswagen is a company with a special history which was closely connected with National Socialism in the early stages. Does it have a special responsibility against this background?

Grinfeld: Volkswagen acknowledges its history, which was certainly a long and painful path. There are many other companies in Germany that have not yet taken these steps. I wish that they would take responsibility. Nevertheless, I still see some challenges at Volkswagen. The company is a global brand and significance also entails responsibility. I think that VW needs to continually review its own position. What are our values? How do we see ourselves as a global player that has made considerable efforts to come to terms with its past? How can that be compatible with business relationships in regions where there is a lack of democracy and respect for human rights? People at Volkswagen must always be aware that they must send out a message which is combined with considerable responsibility, irrespective of what they say in public and how they act.

Mr. Turski, via the International Auschwitz Committee, you have been familiar with Volkswagen’s memorial site work for many years. What do you expect for the future of this cooperation?

Turski: I keep a very close eye on what Volkswagen is doing in the area of the culture of remembrance. I like what Volkswagen is doing. I expect Volkswagen to continue to sensitize young people to a humane approach and to support their commitment in this area. The young people from Volkswagen that I have met in Auschwitz have been very dedicated to their work. This makes me happy. I want these young people to speak out. They are multipliers for the work they are doing.

There is one thing I would like to recommend: please carry out a sociological study within your company to find out whether these committed apprentices are only a minority or whether they share their experiences, whether people listen to them and whether they pass on their important message to their colleagues. I would find the results most interesting and would be very happy if your answer was “yes”.

  • Info Dalia Grinfeld

    Dalia Grinfeld was born in Stuttgart in 1994 and grew up in Berlin, where she attended Jewish schools and the Jewish Youth Center. Her family history is a typical Jewish migration story, with an itinerary including the former Soviet Union, Argentina, Israel, New York and then Berlin again. Her commitment to Jewish life and culture started at an early stage as a student of political science and Jewish studies in Heidelberg, Buenos Aires and Herzliya. In 2017, Grinfeld was elected as the first president of Jüdische Studierendenunion Deutschland (JSUD – the Jewish Students’ Union of Germany), of which she was also a founding member.

    She is now living in Berlin again and is the Deputy Director for European Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). As a representative of contemporary Jewish life in Europe, she is committed to making Jewish life visible. In addition, she is active in various NGOs in the fields of women’s empowerment, LGBTIQ* rights and innovative democracy.

    Within the framework of the brand’s culture of remembrance, Volkswagen has worked together with the ADL since 2018.

  • Info Marian Turski

    Marian Turski, born in 1926, is a Polish journalist of Jewish ancestry. In August 1944, he was deported from the ghetto of Łódź (then known as Litzmannstadt) to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp. In the spring of 1945, he was sent on the death march to Wodzisław Śląski (then known as Loslau), which he survived. Following World War II, he settled in Warsaw. He has been head of the historical department of the “Polityka” news magazine since 1958. Despite his age, he is still active as a journalist.

    In connection with his untiring remembrance work, he has been appointed to a number of key functions. He is Vice-President of the International Auschwitz Committee, Chairman of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, member of the governing board of the Association of Jewish Veterans and Victims of the Second World War and a member of the International Auschwitz Council and the Council of the House of the Wannsee Conference. Since March 26, 2009, he has been Chairman of the Council of the Warsaw Museum of the History of the Polish Jews.

    For Volkswagen, he is a highly valued partner for discussions. At Auschwitz, he has spoken to Volkswagen apprentices working on the programs of Volkswagen and the IAC together with Christoph Heubner. In addition, he has spoken at a works meeting in Wolfsburg..

    On January 27, 2020, he held a highly respected speech under the title of “Auschwitz did not fall from the sky” on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz Concentration Camp. In his speech, he emphatically stated that the steps that had led to Auschwitz could take place again at any place and time. He therefore appealed to people to follow the “eleventh commandment”: “Do not be indifferent”

    The interview was conducted in accordance with his appeal.

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