Ambassador Peter Ammon presented the Leo Baeck Medal to German filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta at the Leo Baeck Institute’s annual gala dinner in New York on November 28, 2012.
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Frau von Trotta,
We are meeting tonight in New York City in the year 2012, with the world around us looking dangerous again, where in many parts of the world trust and traditional truths are being replaced by uncertainty.
When I look ahead, as I must do as a professional diplomat, I worry about the threat from Iran, the humanitarian crisis in Syria and many other places, the inability to compromise, and the lack of tolerance that might fuel conflicts almost anytime anywhere.
I ask myself: Do the lessons of the last century still hold sway?
Are we as societies, are we as individuals able to do what it takes?
For me as a German, I know that the 20th century is far from over.
This is not an abstract thought that could be left to arm-chair intellectuals in some arcane circles.
Fifty years ago, at a war crimes trial in Jerusalem, the world was stunned to see that an organizer of history’s most terrible crime did not look like a monster, but like someone right in our midst.
What does that tell us about the future?
When we are struggling today to follow the complexity of human behavior, obviously we cannot rely on reason alone.
Where reason fails to explain the human condition, maybe artistic expression can step in.
Diplomats and artists are not living in two separate worlds, we need each other to understand what’s happening around us.
And we need the lessons from the past to provide us with some sort of a compass.
We have to preserve the evidence of what was possible as proof so history will not repeat itself again.
We have to acknowledge the obligations that fall to us, as well as to future generations.
You, Carol Kahn-Strauss, have worked tirelessly to preserve the account of 500 years of Jewish history in Germany, which in itself had become a pillar of German culture.
Under your leadership, this evidence was made accessible to everyone everywhere.
But there is more to it.
Please allow me a very personal remark:
I felt, of course, very honored when you asked me, Carol, to speak here tonight.
And I always have been moved and full of admiration when I see you, a petite woman with eyes sparkling with intelligence, working relentlessly to preserve the history of German Jewry for posterity.
You helped to ensure that the evidence was not lost forever but found refuge here in America.
So in particular for a German national, the Leo Baeck Medal is one of the most prestigious awards one can receive.
It is awarded to those who have fought to promote tolerance and justice.
This year, the recipient of the Leo Baeck Medal will be Margarethe von Trotta, one of Germany’s best film directors of our time.
Please accept my heartfelt congratulations.
Your films, Frau von Trotta, gave us insight into the characters of people acting at a pivotal point in their time.
Those of you who – like me – grew up in postwar Germany will never forget the painful intergenerational conflict in a country that had just overcome the physical wounds of war, but was still trying to come to grips with its past.
You gave us a look into the soul of Gudrun Ensslin and others who drifted towards terror, and you have shown us the face of Rosa Luxemburg, who was fighting for social justice at a time when women were expected to stay at home and keep quiet.
Your protagonists most often are women who, at the risk of their own lives, go against the grain, who in their day and time rise above the ordinary and embody something special.
You, Frau von Trotta, did not shy away from going right to the heart of society’s most controversial debates.
But you seemed to draw only strength from the criticism you encountered.
In retrospect, you were always ahead of your times.
Your latest work, Frau von Trotta, is dedicated to Hannah Arendt.
Fifty years ago, Hanna Arendt went to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann trial as a reporter for the New Yorker.
The trial stirred global awareness of the horrific crimes committed against Jews by Nazi Germany.
But beyond that, it was the “banality of evil” that was most shocking.
I am delighted that Mrs. Barbara Sukowa, who plays Hannah Arendt and many other protagonists in your other films, is with us today.
Dear Frau von Trotta, it would be an impossible task for me to give a full and fair account of all your work.
Be it Die bleierne Zeit, Rosenstraße, or Vision – Aus dem Leben von Hildegard von Bingen, you made the characters accessible to us.
Sometimes they look familiar, sometimes they rob us of sleep.
Your films, Frau von Trotta, never give easy answers, but you made us see more clearly that, in an uncertain world, we need tolerance and respect, paired with firm judgment and the will to continue the struggle.
Frau von Trotta, I have the honor to present you with the Medal that reflects the ideals of tolerance and respect for human dignity as embodied by Rabbi Leo Baeck.