The long, complicated and tragic relationship between Jews and Germany was front and center last week. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid made a brief but intense 24-hour visit to Germany as part of an effort to present Israel’s case against a renewed nuclear deal with Iran.
But it was the symbolic messages baked into the visit that attracted the most attention and shined a light on just how complicated today’s Germany-Israel relationship is nearly 80 years after the Holocaust.
Lapid’s connection to the Holocaust is personal. His paternal grandfather, Bela Lampel, was murdered by the Nazis in the Austrian camp of Mauthausen in April 1945. Lapid’s grandmother and his father witnessed the abduction from their home in March 1944, and were later saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. So, this visit by Lapid as prime minister of Israel was particularly poignant for him. And he brought reinforcements — he was accompanied by five Holocaust survivors and their families who joined his delegation, and he pointedly elevated the survivors to prominence during the visit. Indeed, as he exited his plane upon arrival, he walked arm-in-arm with Shoshana Trister, one of the survivors, who froze at the sight of the German military honor guard. “I said to the prime minister, ‘Look at their hats,’” Trister reported. She then relayed Lapid’s response: “And he said to me, ‘I’m holding you. You will go down with me. You are not alone.’”
That’s powerful stuff.
Lapid met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other senior officials in an effort to coordinate a common position on Iran. He also signed a Germany-Israel security, strategic and cooperation agreement, in which Germany committed to Israel’s security and Israel committed to play a role in building Germany’s new air defense force. The agreement also comes with economic and security benefits.
Lapid and his delegation visited Wannsee Villa, just outside Berlin, where Nazi leaders met in 1942 to adopt the “Final Solution,” and they held meetings in Munich. At each stop, Lapid’s theme was consistent: He repeatedly touched upon the impact of Holocaust deaths while noting that time can heal some wounds, and asserted that the deep ties between Germany and Israel “are proof that humanity always has a choice. Evil can be replaced by friendship.”
Later that day, Lapid met with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. He thanked the German leader for supporting Israel in the battle against antisemitism and for his efforts to negotiate a compensation agreement for the families of the 1972 Olympics victims. This was particularly timely since the 50th anniversary of the Munich massacre, where six Israeli coaches and five Israeli athletes were murdered by the Palestinian Black September terrorists, was observed just days earlier.
The message from Lapid’s visit was clear: While we dare not forget the past, we can learn from it and make ourselves better. And without apology for his cautionary reminders, he acknowledged Germany’s outstretched hand.