In a DER SPIEGEL interview, Charlotte Knobloch, 85, speaks of the fears Jews in Germany have of growing right-wing populism in the country. The former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany is also sharply critical of U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell.
Charlotte Knobloch, former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Knobloch, 73 years after the end of the Holocaust, right-wing extremists in Germany are once again stretching out their right arms in the Hitler salute. Jews are being threatened in public while parliamentary opposition leader Alexander Gauland, of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, recently said that the Nazi period was nothing but a “speck of bird shit” on German history. What is your reaction to the last several months?
Knobloch: These events weigh on us heavily. By “us” I mean the members of all Jewish communities in Germany. I am actually an optimist, something I inherited from my devout father. After the Holocaust, he was convinced Germany would once again have a future. I have thought a lot about my father recently. And I hope the alarming spectacle of the last few months will somehow come to an end like many others have before.
DER SPIEGEL: You don’t sound terribly optimistic.
Knobloch: I never thought it could get so bad again. Recently, I was at a high school with 300 students and told them: Take the responsibility we hand down to you. Be proud of your country. It has achieved a lot and is continuing to achieve. And as I was speaking, I was thinking: What are you even saying? Is it true at all?
DER SPIEGEL: You have your doubts?
Knobloch: There have been worrisome developments earlier. A few years ago, for example, there was a right-wing extremist demonstration in Munich where marchers shouted, “Jews in the gas, Jews out,” and the police didn’t intervene. But it has never been as bad as it is today. For the first time, a party has made it into national parliament whose program can be summarized with the words: Jews Out.
DER SPIEGEL: You are referring to the AfD.
Knobloch: I don’t actually want to even say their name. “Alternative for Germany,” what impudence. But yes, I am referring to the AfD.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you view the AfD as a Nazi party?
Knobloch: What else are you supposed to call a party that disseminates a platform that makes Jewish life impossible? This party is opposed to ritual circumcision and seeks to ban the shechita of animals, through which meat becomes kosher for practicing Jews
DER SPIEGEL: There are more than a few Jews involved in the AfD. How can the party be anti-Semitic?
Knobloch: Just like a person with Jewish friends can still be an anti-Semite, Jewish party members are in no way a guarantee that a party doesn’t have anti-Semitic tendencies. The simple presence of Jews, in any case, isn’t enough and a group like the one calling itself “Jews in the AfD” is no proof of the lack of anti-Semitism. Particularly since the group isn’t just made up of Jews.
DER SPIEGEL: Among the established parties in Germany, there is a significant degree of uncertainty about how they should confront the AfD. Should they go on the attack? Ignore them? Try to expose them with arguments? They are trying everything and nothing seems to be working.
Knobloch: I like how the single neo-Nazi in the Munich city council is being dealt with. He is simply completely ignored by the other parties. He files inquiries and they simply go unanswered.
DER SPIEGEL: But in Germany’s federal parliament, the Bundestag, every deputy has rights. And with 92 members of parliament, the AfD is the largest opposition party. How can they be ignored?
Knobloch: There needs to be a consensus among all the other parties. The AfD has positioned itself outside of our liberal values. Period. It bothers me that there isn’t even consensus on this point at the moment. What other viewpoint can there possibly be?
DER SPIEGEL: The debate surrounding how to deal with the AfD recently intensified after an extremely emotional plenary speech by former Social Democrat leader Martin Schulz, who linked the right-wing populists with fascism.
Knobloch: I thought Schulz’s reaction was absolutely the correct one. Everybody needs to know who they are voting for when they cast their ballot for the AfD. Our task is to clearly draw the line. If we don’t, we are merely helping normalize the right-wing populists. I wanted to write Martin Schulz a letter, but I never got around to it because of the Jewish holidays. His dedication is admirable.
DER SPIEGEL: Among other things, Schulz said that AfD co-leader Gauland belongs on the “manure heap of history.” Should he be stooping to the level of the right-wing populists?
Knobloch: We can’t always obey the rules of politesse when dealing with a Nazi party. When politicians from the AfD refer to the Nazi period as “a speck of bird shit” in German history and refer to the Holocaust memorial as a monument to shame, then we need to strike back rhetorically. We are facing a monster. We have to fight it before it becomes stronger.
DER SPIEGEL: Following the recent riotsin Chemnitz, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier harkened to the collapse of the Weimar Republic
Knobloch: That wasn’t an exaggeration. Weimar collapsed because the democrats, who were actually supposed to be the pillars of the system, ducked responsibility. I find it extremely troubling that people today aren’t taking to the streets in large numbers to demonstrate. There are distressing parallels between then and now. You just have to listen to the things politicians from this party say without facing repercussions. It is reminiscent of the rise of the NSDAP (Nazi party). Personally, I feel like it is 1928 again.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the AfD should be monitored by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency?
Knobloch: I find it completely incomprehensible as to why that wasn’t started long ago. I am stunned. If the AfD was being monitored, their representative would perhaps tone themselves down in public instead of inciting the population. Instead, there are rumors that Mr. Maassen …
DER SPIEGEL: … the former head of the BfV Hans-Georg Maassen, who wasrelieved of his duties recently for allegedly pandering to the far right …
Knobloch: … may have given tips to AfD members on how to avoid monitoring from the BfV. If that is true, that would be a catastrophe from my point of view.
DER SPIEGEL: Maassen expressed doubt about the authenticity of a video from Chemnitz that showed migrants being chased down.
Knobloch: Someone in his position should not just say something like that without presenting proof. That is a break with our political culture.
DER SPIEGEL: The rise of the AfD is inseparably connected with the refugee policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Do you think it was the correct decision to not seal off the German border in September 2015?
Knobloch: I view the issue through the lens of my own biography. If the U.S. immigration authorities in the late 1930s had approved the visas that my uncle applied for on behalf of his brother, his mother and me, my grandmother would not have had to suffer such a horrific death. She was too old to be accepted into the U.S. There were similar fates people faced that I heard about at the time. That is why I was very much in favor of Germany taking in the people who were living in horrific conditions in the Budapest train station in September 2015. After all, we became a humane country after 1945.
DER SPIEGEL: The Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel’s Christian Democrats, believes the chancellor’s refugee policies are misguided.
Knobloch: We can’t take on more than we can handle, I agree with that. First and foremost, we have to help those who have had to leave their homes to escape war. When I see the terrible images from Syria, then we can’t hesitate for a moment. But we need a migration law to decide who fits, who can be integrated, who we need on the job market.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you see a connection between Merkel’s refugee policies and increasing anti-Semitism?
Knobloch: I’m wary on that issue. We don’t have an anti-Semitism problem because people from other cultures are coming to us. That would be an extremely simplistic view.
DER SPIEGEL: You don’t see a qualitative difference between European anti-Semitism from the Christian West and Muslim anti-Semitism?
Knobloch: I didn’t say that. Muslim anti-Semitism works primarily by way of the delegitimization of Israel. And there is a specific form of anti-Semitism that has its roots in the Koran. That also has an influence over how anti-Semitism develops in this country.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean?
Knobloch: Anti-Semitism used to be the rejection of a certain group of people. Today, it is simply hatred of the Jews.
DER SPIEGEL: Anti-Semitism has radicalized?
DER SPIEGEL: Is there a recipe for fighting it?
Knobloch: Not enough is being done, that is the frightening thing. We have been calling attention to the problem for years. And there are actually institutions that should be taking action. Political leaders, for example. Security authorities. Educational institutions. All of them should focus on fighting anti-Semitism, especially given our history. But not nearly enough is being done. Those who are blaming the refugees exclusively for anti-Semitism are making it too easy on themselves. These people, if you will, can’t help it. That’s how they were raised.
DER SPIEGEL: Where do you think the largest shortcomings are to be found?
Knobloch: In education. We are way behind there. You can’t fight anti-Semitism by simply talking about anti-Semitism. You fight it by learning to love your own country and by defending its values
DER SPIEGEL: In a recent op-ed for the Israeli daily Haaretz, you sharply criticized Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, saying that he has positioned himself as an ally to right-wing populists in Europe. Why did you get involved?
Knobloch: When Mr. Grenell welcomes the rise of anti-establishment populists in a country where the extreme right has won seats in parliament, we Jews feel threatened. The fact that he apparently doesn’t see this connection is appalling. Mr. Grenell uses the same language as the AfD. This cycle of mutual encouragement is a danger to our liberal democracy. In such a situation, I don’t care if he is the U.S. ambassador or whatever else.
DER SPIEGEL: Has Mr. Grenell contacted you at all?
DER SPIEGEL: Would you like to meet with him?
Knobloch: It would depend on the subject matter. I am happy to talk at any time with young people who have adopted different ideas and to try and convince them.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Grenell claims to be a great friend of Israel’s.
Knobloch: Friendship is a rather broad term. Many people use it to put themselves in the center of attention because they think it looks good.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you think of the Israel policies of U.S. President Donald Trump?
Knobloch: I have family in Israel: a daughter, several grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. I have a special relationship to the country and advocate for its security wherever I can. The Israeli people want nothing more than peace, I am 100 percent convinced of that. That is why I welcome the fundamental tenets of Trump’s Middle East policy. I wouldn’t, however, have moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. That is such a sensitive issue that doing so merely makes in more difficult to find the solutions to problems.
DER SPIEGEL: You belong to the last generation of Holocaust survivors. How should the memory be kept alive once all those who witnessed it firsthand are gone.
Knobloch: My hopes are very much pinned on young people who are more interested in the history of their own country than was the case 10 or 15 years ago.
DER SPIEGEL: The Berlin municipal official Sawsan Chebli has proposed making it a requirement for young people to visit a concentration camp memorial. What do you think of the idea?
Knobloch: The only camp where it is still possible to really get a sense for the tragedy is Auschwitz. Such visits, though, can only take place if there has been sufficient preparation. Young people have to know what they are visiting. And if one of them doesn’t want to, you can’t force them.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you have against the so-called “Stolpersteine,” the gold-colored paving stones placed in front of buildings in German cities to commemorate Jews who lived there until they were deported by the Nazis?
Knobloch: I find this type of commemoration to be a catastrophe. People trample on the names of those who were murdered and dogs pee on them. The Munich city council has resolved that commemoration must take place at eye level. I hope that our example is followed elsewhere.
DER SPIEGEL: Jews who live in Israel often can’t understand how Jews can continue to live in the diaspora.
Knobloch: In the diaspora or in Germany?
DER SPIEGEL: Does it make a difference?
Knobloch: Of course it does. Given recent developments, I am being asked such questions more often.
DER SPIEGEL: By whom?
Knobloch: The part of my family that lives in Israel has already come to terms with it. My granddaughter is now grown up, but when she was in the ninth grade, she visited Auschwitz with her class. In Israel, it is a visit everybody makes. Afterwards, she wrote me a six-page letter and asked me how I can live in Germany.
DER SPIEGEL: The attacks on Jews in France triggered something of an exodus of Jews fleeing the country to Israel. Do you think there is a danger of something similar occurring in Germany?
Knobloch: Yes, there is a danger. Members of the Jewish community come to me and tell me that they are afraid. It is equal parts irrational and understandable. I try to give them courage, despite everything. That is part of the optimism that I mentioned earlier.
DER SPIEGEL: Ignatz Bubis, one of your predecessors as president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said toward the end of his life that he accomplished “almost nothing.” What are your feelings when you look back on your own life?
Knobloch: He was already quite sick when he said that. I called him and said: How can you say such a thing? I know how much you have accomplished.
DER SPIEGEL: You have a more positive view than Bubis did at the end of his life?
Knobloch: It is a question I ask myself every day, when I see the terrible developments in Chemnitz and elsewhere. But then I always think: I did achieve something. It’s just a gut feeling I have.
DER SPIEGEL: Bubis never wanted to live in Israel, but he wanted to be laid to rest there.
Knobloch: He didn’t want his grave to be vandalized. And given the increasing anti-Semitism, that is a very real danger.
DER SPIEGEL: And where do you want to be buried?
Knobloch: I have our family plot here in Munich.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Knobloch, thank you very much for this interview.