BERLIN — Invoking the ghosts of the Holocaust, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak toured the site of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp Wednesday and proclaimed that an Israel born from the ashes of genocide will forever protect Jews everywhere.
Barak's emotional walk through the World War II slave-labor camp ended a two-day visit to Berlin--the first by a foreign leader since the city was restored as the capital of a united Germany.
The visit of the head of the Jewish state to the onetime seat of Nazi power was charged with symbolism. The Germans were eager to host the Israeli leader as a sign of their ability to overcome the past and promote a new era of tolerance. Barak said his presence attested to a "historic closing of the circle."
To drive home the point, Barak brought a delegation that included three elderly survivors of Sachsenhausen, along with their grandchildren who serve in the Israeli military. About 130 Sachsenhausen survivors live in Israel today.
"Oh that you could see us now," Barak said, speaking of the dead as he stood a few feet from red-brick ovens used to cremate Jews, "the representatives of the state of Israel, the Holocaust survivors and the soldiers of Israel, here in Sachsenhausen, the killing camp next to Berlin--representatives of a strong, independent and flourishing country."
The three survivors, who said prayers for the dead and showed Barak the wooden barracks where they had been interned, took part in a solemn ceremony in which German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder donned a kippa, or skullcap, and Israelis sang their anthem, "Hatikva," or "Hope."
"When we were here, we were here as Jews, not as Israelis," said 77-year-old Yirak Bahir, who was confined in the camp in 1944 and 1945 and lost his entire family at the hands of the Nazis. "To be here now, with the prime minister of Israel, and with my grandchild as a soldier in the Israeli army, is a closing of the circle."
The grandson, 19-year-old Yoval Ronen, stood in his crisply pressed, olive green army uniform. Ronen said he made this first-time visit to Germany as both a grandson and a soldier.
"It's important for me to see where he was and how he suffered," Ronen said of his grandfather. "To come here as a soldier of Israel, representing the army, is to show that today it is not like then. There was no country for Jews, Jews were weak and spread all over the world. Today there is a country, it is strong. The Holocaust cannot be repeated."
White-haired Eli Carmel, a small, stooped man with playful eyes, also took pride in returning as an Israeli to a place where he suffered as a "homeless, stateless Jew."
Born in Vienna 82 years ago, Carmel was held at the camp for a year beginning in 1939, forced to lug bricks and dirt on days so cold he nearly froze. Jews and others died daily, he said; some were executed and some simply dropped dead from the horrid conditions.
The bodies would lie where they fell, often frozen stiff in the snow.
"You didn't touch, you didn't look, you just went on," he said.
The imprisoned workers retrieved the bodies after dark, carted them into the barracks where they slept, and stacked them overnight. In the morning, Carmel recalled, the workers went to roll call with the frozen corpses and the SS guards took count. "And only then were they carried to the crematorium," he said.
One day Carmel was beaten by the guards and fell unconscious in the snow, he said. He woke up in the middle of the night amid the frozen corpses where his fellow prisoners had placed him, assuming he was dead. He crawled out and rejoined the living prisoners.
These are the "impossible stories" that survivors have, said Carmel, who was later freed by the Nazis when he obtained a visa to Shanghai. "If you do not have an impossible story, you are among the 6 million who do not tell stories," he said, referring to Jews who did not survive the genocide.
From 1936 to 1945, Sachsenhausen held 200,000 slave laborers and functioned as the Third Reich's prototype for a network of concentration camps.
In the memorial service, Barak used his remarks to warn against the resurgence of anti-Semitic violence. He walked through Sachsenhausen's iron gates still emblazoned with the Nazi slogan, "Arbeit Macht Frei"--work will set you free--and then inspected a barracks that was set afire by neo-Nazis in 1992 after a visit by the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
"Here and on other battlefields," Barak said, his voice hoarse with emotion, "under the gray skies of Europe, of Kant, Goethe, Schiller, Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, Germany committed the greatest crimes in human history. . . . We swear that as long as we can still draw breath, there will be never be another Auschwitz, no Jews on death marches to the gas chambers, no mass graves."
Schroeder urged Germans not to forget "this unimaginable crime" even as they struggle to move beyond the past, adding there "must never be another Sachsenhausen, another Auschwitz, another Treblinka, in any place on Earth."
"We stand speechless before that which no language can express," he said.
Barak later flew to Paris from Berlin and met with French President Jacques Chirac to discuss ways to reopen peace talks with Syria. Barak's swing through continental Europe, his first since becoming prime minister in July, was designed in part to build support for his peace initiatives. Barak also wants to move closer to the European Union in the wake of testy relations between Europe and his predecessor.