German President Joachim Gauck marveled at the fact that Jews want to live in his country, in a recent address to a Jewish community conference in Berlin.
Gauck’s participation Sunday marked the first time a German president attended the annual conference hosted by the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the main umbrella organization representing some 105,000 official members of Jewish communities throughout the country.
The group is headed by Dieter Graumann, a 63-year old businessman from Frankfurt.
Speaking to some 600 community members and guests at Berlin’s Intercontinental Hotel, Gauck also defended his choice to sign the Prague Declaration in 2008, which called the Nazi and Communist regimes twin disasters of the 20th century.
“We should avoid competition between victims,” Gauck said, adding that as a German he felt a unique obligation to warn against genocides.
Called “One People, One Community,” the three-day conference drew rabbis, communal leaders, representatives of Jewish NGOs and community members for workshops, meetings, Sabbath services and a gala party.
Gauck, who grew up in the former East Germany, said he had never thought as a youth that Jews would want to live in Germany again.
He later met with six young Jewish professionals, and asked how their families had come to the country and how they felt about living in Germany.
“All of us answered that the decision to come to Germany of all places was difficult, particularly for the first generation,” Roy Naor, 27, told JTA. “But now with the third generation, it is a different story.”
Naor, a fledgling attorney who was recently elected to the board of the Jewish community of Hamburg, said he was moved by Gauck’s response.
“He said that often grandparents did not talk to their own children about their issues, but that grandchildren can now ask the questions … with a different sense of self confidence,” Naor said. “He said, ‘Maybe we see it as our mission.’”
Though some in the audience bristled at Gauck’s remarks on genocide, Naor did not think the president had tried to establish a moral equivalency between tragedies. Rather, the message was “don’t sit back and think that something like this won’t happen again.”
At the council meeting on Sunday, Graumann said one of his main items to discuss was how to ensure that survivors of Nazi-era ghettos receive the pensions promised to them by the German government.
“There are 21,500 survivors who are at least 85 years old who are eligible,” he said, adding that he hoped the government was not just waiting for them to die.
Gauck also reiterated his support for Israel and his commitment to Jewish life in Germany.