Cologne’s mayor categorically rejected allegations that city residents opposed building a Jewish museum for anti-Semitic reasons, saying that opposition to the museum and to archaeological digs in the German city’s ancient Jewish quarter stemmed from budgetary and administrative concerns.
In an interview with Haaretz, Mayor Jürgen Roters said that now that he had transferred the archaeologist managing the project, Dr. Sven Schuette, different position, the excavations would be expedited and the museum would be established, funded by the city and state.
Earlier this month Haaretz reported that the archaeological work had generated public opposition. Speaking to Haaretz, Schuette said he believed that some who opposed the excavations − which have been criticized for their duration and cost − and the museum idea were driven by “latent anti-Semitism.”
In the interview with Haaretz, Schuette explained that not all the city’s residents were happy to discover that Jews had lived in their city since ancient times.
“We are basically showing that the Jews lived here continuously from as early as the first century C.E. What this means is that they were part of our people and an integral part of the history of this city, of Germany, and of Europe as a whole. They were not a separate people,” he said, and added: “What does that say about the Holocaust? That we killed our own people?”
Within days of the interview’s appearance on April 6, Schuette was transferred to a different post; as a civil servant, he could not be fired. Schuette denies having called Cologne residents anti-Semitic and says he is taking legal steps against his transfer.
Mayor Roters, why was Dr. Schuette removed from managing the archaeological excavations?
“I transferred Dr. Schuette to a different position because, for various reasons, I don’t have the necessary confidence in his management of the project. My decision was particularly based on the need to finish the project as quickly and smoothly as possible. Our objective is to open the archaeological site and the Jewish museum to the public as soon as possible. To do this requires trust and the close cooperation of everyone involved.”
Do you agree with his contention that some residents of Cologne opposed the museum for anti-Semitic reasons?
“No, I don’t agree. Cologne residents are socially involved and open to dialogue. The debate over the museum and the archaeological site was lively from the start and included budgetary, urban and administrative aspects − but it was not at all motivated by anti-Semitism. There are small extreme right-wing groups that try from time to time to exploit the project for their propaganda purposes, but they’ve failed.”
Still, is there anti-Semitism in Cologne?
“Cologne is proud of its thousands of years of tolerance and of its openness and liberalism, especially when it comes to issues of faith. It’s also proud of its historical awareness and its ability to learn from mistakes. The history of dispossession and persecution of the city’s Jews is a black mark on Cologne’s history.
“Today, the atmosphere in the city does not encourage the growth of anti-Semitic ideas, but as in other cities, there’s an extreme rightist fringe with anti-Semitic views. We work vigorously to make sure such extremist opinions have no place here.”
“Among other things, through the Documentation Center, which documents Nazi crimes, and by organizing visits by Jews who used to live here and bringing them to meet local youth, who learn what they can do so that such things do not happen.”
What will happen to the museum now?
“I’m convinced that now, following decisions we made in recent weeks and days, we have the optimal conditions for making sure the project is built as quickly as possible, completed and opened to the public. Not only do the overwhelming majority of Cologne municipal officials support the project, but a broad majority of city’s residents do as well. Cologne will fund the completion of the project with the support of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia [of which Cologne is the largest city].
“I am personally convinced that this is an authentic [archaeological] site that will bring history to life, and see this as an opportunity to experience history that’s 2,000 years old. We are certain that city residents and visitors from all over the world will come to see it.”