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Gauck makes historic gesture of apology for WWII crimes in Ioannina

German President Joachim Gauck (right) leans in to embrace 90-year-old Esthir Cohen (left) during a visit to a synagogue in Ioannina on Friday. Cohen is one of just two Jews still alive in the northwestern town today who survived the Holocaust and made it back from Auschwitz.

While visiting a village in northwestern Greece, where Nazis executed 92 of its 96 residents, German President Joachim Gauck Friday became the first official from his country to apologize for his countrymen’s actions at the site, as well as in other parts of Greece.

Gauck visited the village of Ligiades in Epirus on the last day of his three-day visit to Greece with Greek President Karolos Papoulias, a resistance fighter during the Second World War. Nazi occupying forces shot 92 residents of the village as reprisals for the rebels’ actions.

“I wish to articulate what the perpetrators and those who were politically responsible for so many years in the postwar period did not do or were not able to utter,” Gauck said.

“What happened here was a brutal injustice, and it is with feelings of shame and pain that I beg forgiveness from the families of those who were murdered,” added the German president, who was the first official from his country to apologize for the Nazis’ actions while visiting one of the sites of their atrocities in Greece.

Gauck also said that he regretted the fact there had been no official apology before. “This creates a second form of guilt,” he said. He thanked Papoulias for organizing the trip, which he suggested would help reconciliation between the two countries.

During his visit to Greece, however, Gauck rebuffed calls from Papoulias and Foreign Minister Evangelos Venizelos for Germany to examine Greek claims for war reparations, particularly the repayment of a large loan the Bank of Greece was forced to provide the Nazi regime.

At Ligiades, members of the local committee for war reparations unfurled a banner demanding “Justice and reparations.”

Gauck also visited the Ioannina synagogue, where he again expressed regret about the way the local Jewish community suffered at the hands of Nazi occupiers. A total of 1,725 men, women and children were sent to concentration camps in March 1944. Hardly any of them returned. “I came to pay my respects,” said a tearful Gauck, a former Lutheran pastor. “Germany acknowledges its crimes and we will never let this be forgotten so it does not happen again.”

The German president met the only two surviving members of the Jewish community from 1944, Esthir Cohen and Janet Sevi, at the synagogue. “What happened must not be forgotten. It has to be taught to the next generations,” said Cohen, who spoke for the first time about her experiences to Kathimerini earlier this week.

“We are prepared to forgive but not to forget,” said Moses Elisaf, a professor at the local university.

Earlier, at a lunch held in honor of the German president, Gauck told members of the Jewish community that his visit had been a “lifetime goal.”

“When I meet the Lord up there, I will tell him that I asked for forgiveness at the place where the suffering took place,” Gauck is reported to have said.

ekathimerini.com , Friday March 7, 2014 (20:38)  
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