Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the head of the Central Council of Jews said the agreement should also underpin the fight against anti-Semitism and racism in modern Germany that Jewish leaders fear is becoming bolder. "This is a truly historic day for Jews in Germany," Paul Spiegel, the head of the Central Council of Jews, said at the signing ceremony. "No one, but no one, would have believed in 1945 that there could ever be Jewish life in Germany again."
"Today, we are even tempted to speak of a coming renaissance of Jewry in Germany. No one could have imagined that a few years ago," he added.
Germany's once-strong Jewish community of 500,000 was decimated in the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews were murdered. From some 15,000 Jews living in Germany after World War II, the community grew to 30,000 a decade ago, but has since swelled to 100,000 with Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
The agreement recognizes the growing importance of Jewish life and triples the Jewish council's annual government funding to $3.2 million. It also establishes the first legal partnership between the Jewish community and the government since the war, in the spirit of similar agreements with the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches under which the state finances the costs of schools and other institutions.
The additional resources will help the community train more rabbis and introduce Jewish rites to immigrants who grew up under communism without a religious education. The government is supporting the Central Council's efforts to integrate those newcomers into German society, also with the aim of combating anti-Semitism and far-right violence.
Schroeder said that signing the accord on the Auschwitz anniversary underlined the importance of the civil rights and religious freedoms written into the constitution of democratic Germany. "Remembering the Holocaust is thus bound up with a declaration in favor of a good and secure future for Jews in Germany," Schroeder said.
Jewish leaders complain that, while regular violent attacks by neo-Nazis and skinheads on Jews and immigrants are roundly condemned by mainstream politicians, latent anti-Semitism and resentment against foreigners remains widespread. "Germany is without doubt a stable democracy," Spiegel said. "But this society unfortunately doesn't understand that ... for the sake of its own dignity, it cannot allow this kind of inhumanity to grow in its midst."
More than a million people, 90 percent of them Jewish, perished in gas chambers or died of starvation and disease at the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in southern Poland. It was liberated by advancing Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945, a date marked in Germany with a day of national remembrance since 1996.
At the site of the former camp Monday, some 200 survivors, war veterans and Polish officials laid flowers at a monument in the Birkenau part of the complex. During the ceremony, Israeli Ambassador Shevach Weiss presented to the state-run Auschwitz Museum a ring made in the camp by an unidentified Jewish jeweler from France, who later died there.
At the former Buchenwald camp in eastern Germany, Hungarian author and Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz read Monday from his novel "Fateless," a tale of surviving Nazi internment as a young Jew that mirrored his own experience in Buchenwald and Auschwitz.
Germany's parliament heard Spanish author and screenwriter Jorge Semprun, who joined the anti-Nazi underground in France and was imprisoned for two years at Buchenwald, recall the reaction of German civilians ordered to view the camp by liberating U.S. troops. "We didn't want this, we didn't know it," he remembered German women saying. A U.S. lieutenant replied: "It's possible you didn't know, but you didn't want to know."
"The rebels and the courageous who resisted were a minority" in Nazi Germany, Parliament President Wolfgang Thierse told lawmakers at the somber session to mark Monday's anniversary.
Commemorations were scheduled elsewhere in Europe, with Denmark marking the anniversary for the first time and other ceremonies in countries including Norway and Britain.