Welcome to Maastricht and Limburg, I also have the privilege to welcome you to this fantastic city on behalf of the Mayor and Governor. And I also have to thank Benoit Wesly for the invitation to speak here today. Benoit is someone who speaks his mind, who does not remain silent when he thinks someone needs to speak up, who does not remain silent when he sees injustice, who is courageous and has showed that courage in the past year for the community of Maastricht and Limburg. I am honoured that he let me wear a kippah from his son’s bar mitzvah at this ceremony.
In our midst we have Chief Rabbi Jacobs who is one of the most important builders of bridges between communities and creeds in the Netherlands. He speaks courageously about the necessity of talking with each other, of meeting one another. Earlier he used a word from Latin, a ‘crucial’ role, and I want to add another Latin word to that; he is a genuine pontifex, a builder of bridges between our communities.
Today is an important day because the Jewish community of Limburg regains the mortar between the bricks of its community. The Rabbi and Rebbetzin have a role in connecting people, in providing solutions in the face of problems, in offering counsel when needed, supporting people when they need to, but mostly in connecting people. I am honoured and delighted to frequently meet people in Brussels at the European Synagogue. The conversations I have with the people there are of great value to me; value that exceeds religion and touches the core of personal interactions. Celebrating our differences, not hiding our differences but relishing in them and deeming them valuable to learn from in our community.
As we all know, the times are not easy today. All around us, in many countries, we see hate and exclusion spreading. This is nothing new; evil hides in all of us, there is no man free of evil. Moral behaviour does not entail the denial of evil but its curtailment. To recognize evil for what it is and to curtail evil to ensure it will not dominate and win. Hate is an important factor in this process. Martin Luther King once wrote that hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. That is something I think we should realize and contemplate more often.
I want to share two stories about my Province with you, about my house and family in Heerlen. In that house, in the room which is now my daughter’s, lived a German from Hamburg from 1940 to 1946, his name was Rudolf Jacob Zeller. A German from Hamburg who was also Jewish, who earned his living as a portrait artist. He visited rich Hamburg families and offered his services to them, which offered him a stable income. He was educated at multiple art academies throughout Germany. He was almost oblivious to the fact that he was Jewish. Until, one day in 1935, his wife received a letter addressed to him stating that he was not allowed to work as a painter and teacher anymore because he was Jewish. His wife did not dare to tell him. Her mental distress became so pressing that she took her own life, leaving Rudolf behind in despair. Subsequently, in 1938, he fled to the Netherlands. There, like many other artists, he moved to Zandvoort. After the German invasion in May 1945 Jews were not allowed to live in the coastal region anymore, so they had to find their refuge elsewhere, in this case in Limburg, in Heerlen. He was offered a hiding place by the family that lived in the house where my family lives today. Rudolf survived the war, albeit barely. The stress was so enormous that, not long after the liberation, heart failure took his life. But the love with which he reacted to repression, the openness he offered to people, the portraits he made of the American soldiers who had liberated Heerlen, the way he chose to be a Dutchman because he felt at home here, are a testimony of the endurance of hope when confronted with hate. He only spoke a bit of Dutch, with a thick German accent, so children would say, ‘That is uncle Rudi, he is a bit daft, a bit stupid.’ But across the street lived the most notorious so-called ‘jew-hunters’ of Heerlen, who were responsible for the death of many. Can you imagine the pressure of this situation. We feel connected with him despite the decades that passed. Uncle Rudi lives on in our house because my daughter knows that her room was once his. We managed to obtain a portrait he once painted and hung it on our wall.
The second anecdote is about a completely different boy who is buried not far from here. When he was 19 years old he perished just across the border as an American soldier. He was born in Manhattan, New York. He was the son of two people who fled pogroms in the area which today would be on the border between Ukraine and Poland. They met each other in New York and had two children. Their oldest son, Leo Lichten, a brilliant boy from a poor family, was able to study thanks to an army grant. But he barely finished his first year of studies when he was called up as the American army lacked soldiers for the invasion of Europe. He wrote to one of his best friends: ‘I will not survive this because I have not been trained adequately; there is no time for that. But I will give my life for the greater good, the fight against barbarism. I know that it will be hard to survive but my choice is deliberate and I accept my fate because, in doing this, I fight for the greater good.’ A boy of only 19 years of age wrote this to his best friend! I invited his best friend to Limburg and visited the grave of Leo in Margraten, a grave which I adopted.
Why am I telling you these stories? Because it is my biggest fear that we stop telling each other these stories, that we do not meet each other again. We live in a time of selfies, as Chief Rabbi Jacobs mentioned before. If we do not tell stories about the past, we are doomed to repeat past mistakes. He who does not know his past is doomed to repeat it. I know that today people often say, ‘do not talk about the 1930s or the War, it kills every debate’. I know that this is often the case. But to be blind to the parallels between those who spread hate or those who want to divide communities would be equally wrong. Those people think that others are responsible for their negative position. We must not allow ourselves to be blind to the fact that anti-Semitism in Europe is experiencing a considerable revival. New anti-Semitism is strongly connected to people who have been raised in other countries with hatred for Jews. When they arrive here they need time to rid themselves of that poison. A time of transition we need to experience with them. We must not push them aside but give them a chance to get rid of the poison and understand that anti-Semitism is wrong. Unfortunately, the old anti-Semitism which has plagued Europe throughout the ages has not disappeared. Recently, a German politician has criticized the German culture of War Remembrance and one of the most impressive, emotional, beautiful places that commemorates the results of the Holocaust. Online some groups deny the holocaust happened, small groups luckily, but groups consisting of young people nonetheless. Some traditional holocaust-deniers are cheering that they are ‘finally right’. We cannot allow this to happen. It is our shared responsibility, not just that of the Jewish community. Humanity as a whole has to grab this ancient beast which is anti-Semitism by the throat in order not to let it spread its poison. It always starts with small things, ‘I do not hate Jews, but..’ , we all recognize this, right? ‘Of course I am not an anti-Semite, but..’. Someone who always inspires me is the British Rabbi Sacks, who said beautifully that, ‘Anti-Semitism is not about Jews. Anti-Semitism is about tolerating hate towards people who are different’. Wherever there is anti-Semitism, a metaphor can be made with the canary in the coal mines where my grandfathers worked; if the canary drops in its cage we know the gas is coming. We need to be aware of this at any time.
There is an ideological confrontation going on in Western society. Too many people have been left behind in this crisis, too many people did not profit from economic development, too many people feel left out these days. Those people are being offered a solution, which is the idea that their problems are somebody else’s fault and if we reject, exclude or repress them things will get better for ‘us’. People derive hope from that idea. People who derive hope from this idea are not bad people. They are people in need of protection. They are looking for a future in which they can still recognize themselves. The people who sell them cheap tricks and stories about things getting better if they get worse for others are the people who cause harm, not the people who are tricked. People are tricked because we are unable to offer them an alternative perspective in which exclusion and humiliation of others, racial hate or hate toward religious minorities are not necessary. It is our task to show that our society works best if everyone has the right to be part of it. I find it awful to see that Jews in many Member States think they do not have a future in Europe. A Europe without Jews is not Europe. The Jewish community belongs to Europe just as much as Catholics or other communities belong to Europe. We can only reach our full potential as a society when everyone is allowed to be part of it. We cannot be satisfied until the day no Jew feels like they are forced to leave Europe. People are free to choose to go wherever they please; if it is a matter of free choice I agree with that. But if it is a choice based on the feeling of insecurity in the area where one belongs, we should never accept that and keep on fighting it.
I believe in an open society which is open to everyone. I believe in a society where Jews, if they please, can show their identity without fear of slurs or threats. I believe in a society where Jewish men can wear their Kippah in the streets without thinking, ‘can I do this, will I be safe?’. Just as much as I believe in a society where young women can wear headscarves in the streets. It is worth fighting for this society, talking about it and exchanging ideas with each other. It is worth approaching someone with a different opinion or cultural background to start a dialogue instead of deeming them enemies and excluding them.
This is something I notice too often in politics. An opponent has transformed from an adversary with whom one has a discussion to an enemy which has to be ousted. That, ladies and gentlemen, is my main concern for our society. Meanwhile, I look at our children, at their power, their health; they are the healthiest generation we ever raised. I look at the connections they have with other youngsters, across the continent and sometimes the globe. I see their inherent idealism to make society a better place. Then I look at us and think, ‘Should we not help our children to reach a position in which they can really change something? Is it not our duty, as parents, as a society, to let their inherent power blossom? Is it not our task to mobilize the large, silent majority of good-willing people to create a society where difference is heralded as a source of power and not a threat?’
I believe in that society. I believe in that power. It is my duty toward my children. Just as much as I am obliged to do this for Leo Lichten, who gave his life for our freedom, just as much as I am obliged to do this for Rudi Zeller who had to flee because of his identity. Let us take this duty seriously. I am optimistic, but not naïve. My optimism is based on the power of people I see around me. Power which has not been mobilized enough yet but which will help us to banish the power of darkness, which propagates hate and discord. Evil will never be removed completely because it is part of all of us. But we can control it. Together, we can ensure that optimism and good will, a better future, prevails. And I am sure that the Jewish community of Limburg, under the passionate leadership of Benoit Wesly and Rabbi Cohen will form the mortar of this society.
Thank you very much.