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London , January 28, 2000  

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Mayor of Berlin snubs Holocaust ceremony


By Toby Helm in Berlin

A CEREMONY to dedicate land for Germany's first national Holocaust memorial was soured by controversy yesterday when the Mayor of Berlin boycotted the event because he fears that it will turn the capital into a "city of mourning".

After more than a decade of argument over how and where to commemorate the six million Jewish victims of the Third Reich, Jewish leaders and politicians gathered on their chosen site, a hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate. Designed by Peter Eisenman, an American architect, the memorial will, when completed in 2002, consist of 2,700 close set concrete pillars resembling gravestones.

But despite several moving speeches on what was the 55th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz death camp, the organisers were unable to hide the continuing squabbles. Eberhard Diepgen, the Mayor and Prime Minister of Berlin, had opposed the Bundestag's decision to go ahead last summer and he turned down an invitation to attend.

After the ceremony, Mrs Lea Rosh, initiator of the scheme, said she found it extraordinary that he could not bring himself to take part in an event to honour Holocaust victims. She said: "The decisions were taken by a democratic decision of the parliament. It is not very democratic of him to stay away. Does he not want to honour these people?"

Mr Diepgen, one of Germany's most senior politicians, believes that the design is too "monumental" and opposes placing a large memorial to the most painful chapter in Germany's history in the centre of a city that is trying to rejuvenate itself. Speaking recently, he said: "You cannot expect me to do a symbolic act and support a decision that I would have not taken myself. I do not belong to those politicians who say one thing one day and do another the next."

Some Berliners also feel it is inappropriate for the capital to be chosen for the national memorial, given that the city had a record of lukewarm support for National Socialism. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize-winning author, praised the German government for setting up a national memorial, but called on the country to go further and ask the Jews for forgiveness.

Warning against "indecent voices" that were telling Germans to outgrow shame for the Holocaust, Mr Wiesel, a Romanian-born Jew who survived the Auschwitz camp, said: "I speak to you as a witness. Politicians should, on behalf of the country, seek forgiveness for what the Third Reich has done in Germany's name."

He said that younger Germans need not carry the burden of guilt. Applauding the efforts of successive generations of Germans who were "honourably" trying build a new destiny, he said: "The children of killers are not killers."

Wolfgang Thierse, president of the Bundestag said Germany would not try to hide its past in the new century. He said: "Future generations must also be confronted with the traces of the past and the symbols of horror." And in an apparent challenge to Mr Diepgen, he said: "We wanted to honour those murdered. And not just anywhere, but in the heart of our capital city."

The memorial site lies next to that of Hitler's sealed bunker where he took refuge in the latter stages of the Second World War and eventually killed himself.

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