31 Jan 2018 13:57 IST

Anguished Germany raises anti-Semitism alarm

Germany is marking the 1945 liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz

German leaders are increasingly alarmed about a resurgence of anti-Semitism 73 years after the Holocaust, stemming from an emboldened far right and an influx of refugees from countries hostile to Israel.

Germany is marking the 1945 liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz with solemn ceremonies, but also warnings of the need for stronger vigilance.

On the anniversary on Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned revisionist forces seeking to call into question the country’s commitment to atoning for its Nazi past.

She said fighting anti-Semitism and racism must be a “daily task“.

“It is inconceivable and shameful that no Jewish institution can exist without police protection, whether it is a school, a kindergarten or a synagogue,” she said.

Merkel, who a decade ago became the first German chancellor to address the Israeli Knesset, has committed to creating a new position of commissioner on anti-Semitism under the new government she hopes to form by March.

The move was prompted in part by demonstrations in Berlin in December against the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital which saw some protesters chant anti-Semitic slogans and torch Israeli flags.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said at the time that although Berlin opposed the move by US President Donald Trump, it strongly condemned the aggressive rallies in German cities.

“One has to be ashamed when hatred of Jews is put on display so openly on the streets of German cities,” he said.

The demonstrations heightened a sense of anxiety expressed by the Germany’s Jewish community, now more than 200,000 strong, over the arrival since 2015 of more than one million predominantly Muslim asylum seekers.

The former head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch, spoke of a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic acts on German soil and said that Jews could no longer hold events “in public places without police protection“.

A series of incidents have unsettled German authorities and the Jewish community.

In Berlin in November, 16 Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) -- small brass memorial plaques outside the homes of Holocaust victims -- were dug out of the ground and stolen.

While perpetrators were never identified, the violation was unnerving, coming just days before commemorations of the Night of Broken Glass pogroms on November 9, 1938.

“It was the first time that so many Stolpersteine were taken in just a few days,” said Silvija Kavcic, the Berlin coordinator of the initiative that has laid more than 7,000 of the plaques in the German capital.

The head of the German chapter of Human Rights Watch, Wenzel Michalski, said that anti-Semitism in the country is growing “ever more virulent and more violent“.

The current director of the Central Council of Jews, Josef Schuster, shared his concern, saying that taboos that had held for decades after the war seemed to be crumbling.

“People dare to say much more today that they always thought but never would have expressed,” he told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

Germany’s post-war identity and acceptance in the community of nations has been built on its remembrance culture, including a full reckoning with the atrocities committed under Hitler.

But as the elderly survivors die off, fears are growing that the country’s collective memory will erode.

The rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which came in third in Germany’s general elections in September with nearly 13 per cent of the vote, has compounded tensions.