Über das Leben einer lutherischen Pfarrerin und Mutter von vier Kindern in New York
Author: German Pastor
As a German Lutheran Pastor Miriam Groß writes about her life and ministry in one of the largest cities of the earth. This is a private blog, which reflects her opinion as theologian and mother. The reflected opinion might defer at certain extent to the official opinion of the present church she serves in.
Ausdauernd prasselte Regen auf die Dachfenster des Pfarrhauses während sich der Rhythmus der Regenbänder immer schneller wurde. Ich starrte nachdenklich aus dem Fenster und sah den ersten Ausläufern des tropischen Sturmtiefs zu, das im Laufe des Tages in rotierenden Regenbändern eine signifikante Menge an Niederschlag und bis zu 50 miles/h an Winden mit sich bringen sollte.
Seit Monaten fühle ich mich wie von einem großen, andauernden Sturm erfasst. Corona, Rassenunruhen, Polizeigewalt, Kampf gegen Armut und Hunger… Wie in einem immer währenden Zyklus kreisen diese Traumata wie gegenwärtig der tropische Sturm Fay über der Metropolregion New York und der gesamten USA. Es gibt Phasen, an denen meine Nerven sehr strapaziert sind. Nicht selten frage ich mich, ob meine Schlechtwetterkleidung als Pfarrerin, die vor allem aus einer tiefen Verwurzelung im Glauben besteht, ausreichend ist.
Søren Kierkegaard wies in seiner Auslegung von Mt 11,30 auf die besondere Kraft des Glaubens hin, der in angeblich unmöglichen und aussichtslosen Situationen die Perspektive nicht verliert. In der Bibelstelle betont Jesus, dass sein Joch sanft ist und seine Last leicht. Während viele diese Aussage als ein Paradoxon bezeichnen würden, weißt Kierkegaard auf das Vorbild des Kreuzes hin, die alle menschliche Logik auf den Kopf stellt und aus dem angeblichen Scheitern den Sieg Gottes macht.
Klugheit erreicht oft in Zeiten der Not ihre Grenzen. In diesem Moment sehe ich aus meiner eigenen Erfahrung, dass die Kraft des Glaubens beginnt. Kierkegaard schreibt:
Wenn die Klugheit in der dunklen Nacht des Leidens keine Handbreit vor sich sehen kann, da kann der Glaube auf Gott sehen; denn der Glaube sieht am besten im Dunkeln.
Søren Kierkegaard, Zwölf Reden, Halle 1886.
Gerade in dieser dichten und schwierigen Zeit des Auslandspfarramtes erlebe ich genau dies: Ich spüre die richtungsweisende Kraft des Glaubens in dieser dunklen Zeit, die mir andauernd zuspricht, die Hoffnung nicht zu verlieren und weiter in dem voranzuschreiten, was für uns Christen zentral ist: Unseren Nächsten zu lieben wie uns selbst.
Dies bedeutet in stürmischen Zeiten wie diesen im Auslandspfarramt neben den klassischen Tätigkeiten wie Gottesdienst, Seelsorge und Gemeindearbeit mich noch stärker für die Speisung einer stetig wachsenden Zahl von Bedürftigen zu widmen, einem deutlichen Aussprechen gegen Rassismus und Antisemitismus, aber auch der Polizeiseelsorge zu engagieren. Und hätte ich, mit Paulus gesprochen, meinen Glauben nicht, so wäre ich nichts.
Stürmische Zeiten bringen uns an die Grenzen unserer Kräfte, aber sie zeigen uns auch in bewegender Weise die Wichtigkeit des Glaubens auf, der im Dunkeln am besten sieht.
The meeting room filled quickly as members of the American Jewish Committee and Interfaith Partners gathered on the cold Sunday afternoon. Rabbi Noam Marans, AJC’s Director of Interreligious and Intergroup Relations, had summoned this meeting of the AJC Interreligious Affairs Commission on “Christian Responses to the Antisemitism Epidemic.”
As all attending made themselves comfortable, helping themselves to some refreshments and looking through the well prepared material supplied, the room buzzed with warm welcomes and kind introductions. As Rabbi Marans began the meeting, the buzzing group transformed into a quickly concentrating diverse group of Jewish and Interfaith friends, who had gathered to discuss the unsettling rise of Antisemitism and how Christians could respond to this terrible development.
The Rev. Dr. Lee Spitzer, General Secretary of the American Baptist Churches USA, and author of the book Baptists, Jews, and the Holocaust, spoke about the topic how is own denomination had dealt with Antisemitism and Holocaust through the centuries sharing the experience of persecution in Europe. He talked about the significance of friendship, sacrificial solidarity, and how important it was to learn from missed opportunities for future actions.
Reckoning with the past is a important task we need to actively embrace. As a German citizen I am entitled to say this, because my nation’s past has led to so much death and suffering. This should never ever happen again. As Antisemitism is on the rise, it is urgently time to account for these deadly actions of Nazi Germany and to fulfill our obligations arising from them for the whole world community. In my opinion, we Germans have the holy duty to warn others about the lessons we have learned through the broken history of Nazi Germany. Any kind of slight beginning, any historical analogy needs to be outlined and first steps towards such destruction quickly hindered.
As Rabbi Marans kindly invited me to share a small statement on how Christians may respond to the rise of Antisemitism, I took a leap of faith in those present as I spoke about the broken past of my nation, family, and fears for the presence and future. I am sharing it here in my blog laying my trust in you, dear reader, that we may become partners in remembrance and reconciliation.
Reckoning with the past is the hurtful and necessary step to lead into a just future without Antisemitism, Racism, and Hate. It deeply hurt me on that Sunday afternoon and I had to hold myself together as the words poured out of my heart:
It is a great honor for me to speak today. In full disclosure: I am a German. My grandfather served under Hitler in the Nazi navy. He was half Sinti. I still can´t understand, why he supported and glorified this murderous regime. I remember countless discussions as I challenged his idealization of the Nazi era, which he painted in glorious colors over family gatherings. As I held strong against his words, my reaction was met with anger and emotional coldness as you can well imagine.
It is my holy duty as a descendant of those, who committed crimes under Hitler, and as a Christian through the Gospel to warn about the dangers of right-winged thoughts and antisemitism. Reliving the nightmares of Germany passed is one of my greatest fears…
But this passed Wednesday, Feb 5, we all held our breath as analogies to the beginning of a destructive regime resurfaced in Thuringia, Germany. Thomas Kemmerich was elected as the new prime minister of the free state of Thuringia. His own party FDP barely made it into the state parliament. Through the help of the rightist party AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) and Merkel´s CDU he surprisingly came into this high office. It was as if a breath of Weimar was taking its grip of Germany.
In 1932, Adolf Hitler and his murderous regime came to power through the help of Hindenburg and numerous parties taking down the Weimar Republic. We do not have 1932, but the analogies are frightening: A antidemocratic party is trying to take a grip of the free state of Thuringia, with Weimar at its center. Yesterday, the newly elected prime minister stepped down due to pressure from numerous parties, protestant churches and public protests.
We need swift and courageous actions, because Weimar can be everywhere! Back then, almost unnoticeable hate crawled into everyday life through phrases and small actions of exclusion. As people got used to the dose of hate as part of the daily grind, the intensity increased numbing the human capacity to empathy and solidarity.
“Weimar can be everywhere!” is a warning we need to take seriously. The Jewish Bible calls us to love our neighbor and self. For Christians this is a fundamental principle we are called to. Wherever there are tendencies of right-winged ideology, antisemitism or racism, we have to stand strong and boldly with those, who need our help.
To combat this kind of hate, education is one of the most important keys. As a pastor teaching at the German School I educate the next generation about the holocaust. You may ask my son later, who attends my class together with eight other students. Education is the best antidote we have.
In addition, vital friendships across faiths play a important role. As a small German speaking congregation in New York resembling the larger German Protestant Churches, we reach out to other faith communities and we are blessed to have AJC as an important partner.
“Weimar can be everywhere!” might be true, but as we are setting signs of peace as the beloved community God, we are hindering history to repeat itself.
Thank you for AJC for calling us as the beloved community together that we may be a glimpse of hope for those targeted by antisemitism, racism and hate, those on the margin of our society!
Every morning the newspaper is delivered to our drive way. It is the same procedure every day. I wait until the yellow school bus swallows our children and the door close with the same squeaking noise. Then I bend down and pick up my daily portion of news wrapped in a dark blue plastic bag.
As I opened todays paper and flipped through the pages a almost silent thought crept into my mind getting louder and louder with every new page I turned. A campus shooting in Texas, that had been a rather casual side note in TV last night, was not even worth a mention in todays edition. I couldn’t believe, how quickly one gets used to certain kinds of news.
This kind lack of information mirrors human behavior: The human mind gets quickly used to certain occurrences. In January 2020 there were 28 mass shootings costing 38 lives. Only few nowadays make it to the headlines. That was different, when I was a child. I still vividly remember the first mass school shooting in Germany.
As quickly as life and routines change, the way we see the world and what we perceive as dangerous, just or unjust seems to shift. Victor Klemperer (9 October 1881 – 11 February 1960), a German native and language scholar, experienced this shift of conscience in a very personal way. His diary tells us in details about his life under the Nazi dictatorship and is a frightening documentation of a shift in mind and ethics enabling the most destructive regime ever haunting the face of our earth.
These shifts never come abruptly. More so, they quietly make their way into society. Changing habits, thoughts, and mind-sets in small steps. Almost unnoticeable. They crawl into news, everyday life, conversations, and increasingly change how we perceive things. What formerly was branded as unjust, is after a while met with indifference, and later will even be seen as a just decision.
It was February 21, 1935. Victor Klemperer awaited the visit of two students. As a son of a Jewish parent he had lost his call as a University professor due to Adolf Hitler´s racial laws. Now he was forced into retirement and isolated from his highly active life as a renown scholar and teacher. Any kind of normality was happily welcomed by him and his wife reminding them of the life they had before the Nazi regime took its deadly grip of Germany. But the normality that entered his quiet, isolated home through two former students opened his eyes to the gradual disappearance of what he once called normality:
“The girls are completely anti-Nazi. But when it came to talking about two young noble women who had just been executed in Berlin for espionage (for Poland, the friend!), they thought it was all right. They did not ask about the difference between peace and martial law, security through public negotiations, etc. The sense of justice is lost everywhere in Germany, is systematically destroyed.“
Miss Winkler and Miss Hildebrandt had been two average young students, who hadn’t supported the Nazi regime. Nonetheless, they too were changed gradually with what they perceived as just or unjust. They stand for millions of average Germans, who had not enthusiastically embraced Hitlers thoughts, but opened the gates to destruction through their increasing shift in the sense of justice. A bitter warning, Victor Klemperer left behind through a small remark in one of eight diaries describing the year 1935.
What was unjust yesterday, is perceived as normal and soon will be deemed just. Harsh sentences, brute words tweeted quickly without thinking sow the seeds of indifference and later hatred. Back then during the Nazi regime it started of with the normalization of violent slurs against Jews. And then escalated into the murder of millions of innocent people.
We should stay woke! Victor Klemperer´s diary is a important warning. May our sense for justice never again be lost. May it not be systematically destroyed as once in Germany.
I am afraid, this will take the courage of many to speak up and show that they are not indifferent towards any kind of totalitarianism. It will come at a high personal cost, but so be it.
As we are facing horrific antisemitic violence in New York I am increasingly worried. As a German I not only know where this form of hate can lead through history, but my own family’s history is embedded in this murderous act of Hitler´s National Socialism and Antisemitism. It is therefore one of my greatest responsibilities to warn about these murderous dangers and bring up the next generation to commit to this important task. As we marched yesterday in solidarity across the Brooklyn bridge to set a sign against hate, my eleven year old daughter walked at my side. It was her first demonstration ever and I am sure that it will be printed into her mind.
I may not be able to embrace January 6 as the “Jewish and Proud” day in the same manner as my Jewish friends, but in honor of all my Jewish friends I chose to make soup with matzoh balls for my family. Not only do we Germans say: “Liebe geht durch den Magen” (Love makes its way to a person through the stomach) as we are trying to bring up our children in respect for the Jewish communities and other faith communities, but matzoh resemble an important link to the broken past of my home town:
Uffenheim is a small town of now 5.000 in middle Franconia. It once had a famous matzoh factory, which was known for its delicious bakery from Berlin to Munich. Interestingly, one of their products was named “Frankenperle”. Gerson Landmann, the great-grandfather of my friend Rick Landman, whose family has originated as well from Uffenheim and lives in New York, has sold their products in Munich. It is unbelievable, how many interlinkages the two of us discover: Not only did our families originate from the same town, but I ministered in Munich for a number of years as well!
Unfortunately, the small factory disappeared with its significant Jewish population before World War II. Uffenheim had “prouded” itself being “judenfrei” before the 1938 and was one of the “brown” centers of Hitler´s Nazi regime with the famous propagandist Julius Streicher roaming the area and “brainwashing” all its population. My German grandfather had eagerly joined in this very dark chapter of human history, which brought death and destruction over uncounted lives, families, and whole continents. I recall many discussions and fights between us as I reacted very emotional as he had prided himself to have fought as a marine in Hitler´s army and painted these days in a glorious fashion. One can easily imagine that I was not his favorite grandchild.
As I travelled back to Bavaria this passed November, I visited my parents-in-law in Uffenheim and was able to track down the old Matzoh factory, which is now a shed for fire wood. Its owner allowed me to take a closer look and even promised that he would unearth the old oven, which is presently “buried” under piles of wood.
Matzoh will be forever connected to the broken history of my home town as I am continuously committed to remembrance, reconciliation and peace. I may not be able to “undo” the crimes of my forefathers and -mothers, but I can warn others and encourage the next generation to seek peace and love their neighbor.
Therefore, in honor of today’s “Jewish and Proud” day, as an ally I will make matzoh ball soup for our family. They will quickly understand this symbol of our past and present. May many more allies come from our small parsonage and the ministry I am embarking in New York.
“YES!” The small piece made a clicking sound as it found its place in the new jigsaw puzzle. It continuously took shape on the table of our sitting room leaving only a small space for other objects like a cup of milky tea. The fire was crackling in the back ground as I crouched over the mysterious picture slowly taking shape in front of me. The colorful and comic like drawing amused me as one piece after the other found its place. The displayed humor fit perfectly to the memories rising up from the depth of my soul like warm bubbles as every new puzzle piece clicked into its place.
Puzzling accompanies me and my family now almost a year. Presently, it is a sign of grief and remembrance as I feel drawn closer to one of the dearest people in my life, who I had lost too early and too quickly almost a year ago.
Just three weeks before his sudden passing away, we had spend a lovely holiday together. As we puzzled hours after hours, we talked a lot and just marveled at the gift of time, friendship and the deep connection we felt. Each time a puzzle piece found its place, he smiled accompanying it with a loud “YES!!!”. His voice still rings in my ears. As I repeated this gesture many times, yes thousands of times over the last year, it makes me feel closer to him. The memories give me strength. Life is different. It is lonely at times. His passing away has left a hole in my heart. But I have to honor his memories and his life as he is and will be an inspiration: No other person have I ever met was grounded so deeply in faith and loved so kindly beyond boundaries.
Grief is a difficult thing. I know that as a pastor as I have accompanied so many. I know it personally as I have lost numerous people dear to me. Grief needs different expressions. Mine is puzzling and evoking precious memories piece by piece.
If you out there are grieving, please be reminded that God loves you. May the memories of the loved one fill your heart and being with joy until you once meet again in God´s eternity.
My heart stopped a beat as news poured into my busy day. A synagogue attacked in my home country Germany. The Holocaust memorial I know well desecrated by anti-Semitic hate symbols. Fear poured over me like waves of hurtful remembrance of times we thought were long gone. The nightmare of history repeating itself increasingly haunts my mind.
As I shared this anxiety with a friend, she politely wanted to diffuse my fears through words ascribed to Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rimes.” No matter, if it rhymes or repeats in a new version – the reality is a increase of anti-Semitic and racist hate crimes. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups across the U.S. has climbed from 954 in the year 2017 to staggering 1,020 in the subsequent year. In Germany the rise of right-winged extremism and hate has significantly risen from 2017 to 2018: a sum of 25.250 citizens have been involved in hate groups, right-winged political institutions and structures. This sum has risen by 100 in the following year according to the governmental organization protecting the German constitution (Verfassungsschutz) .
When I received the invitation to a Interfaith vigil in White Plains, Westchester on short notice, there was no holding back. As a descendant of a Nazi perpetrator and a German citizen I am committed to not hide in fear, but to stand strong against anti-Semitism, racism and other hateful actions against minorities. Yes, my grandfather fought as a marine in Hitler´s army. Yes, my home town had welcomed Julius Streicher and send innocent Jews into the Holocaust. Those opposing these hateful actions, went into hiding or out of fear. Numerous in contrary became part of a cheering crowd welcoming Hitler.
It is this legacy of remembrance, which drives me as I will not be silenced, driven into hiding because of fear or even changed to join a criminal group, which does not see all humans as the images of God.
The German Lutheran Theologian Martin Niemöller once put it into fitting words:
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” (1)
His question is vital and real for anyone of us. Systems of hate gradually and first silently build up. As they do not face backlash, they will spread their evil influence in a increasing manner. As the US is becoming a Nation, where minorities are becoming the majority (2), numerous Jews came up to thank me for my participation. This gratitude moved me to tears as I as a descendant of a Nazi grandfather shook hand after hand.
After the Interfaith Vigil, I stood at the Holocaust memorial with my colleague Jim O´Hanlon explaining the different mentioned places of horror, which are located in Germany. A lady interrupted our thoughtful exchange and shook our hands in gratitude while explaining that her grandfather had fled Germany due to the Nazi crimes. Her hand was warm and soft as she embraced mine for what felt like a long time. It felt as if she wanted to warm me through her friendly embrace.
I wish, our grandparents would have met in this warm fashion. I wish, my grandfather would have never been part of a Nazi regime that killed millions. As she spoke about her fears pondering if she should go into hiding, I looked firmly into her eyes.
We will not be silenced by hate.
We will not hide driven by fear.
We will stand in solidarity as one with her and any other person, who is targeted by hate.
When they come for you, dear Jewish friend, we will stand strong and will speak justice in the name of the one God, in whose image we are made.
(1) Gerlach, Wolfgang. And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Jews . Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2000, p. 47.
(2) Jim Wallis. Christ in Crisis. Why we need to reclaim Jesus. New York 2018, p. 57.
It may be mentioned beforehand that the author is a animal friendly person. The cause of this blog post is to have a closer look at symbols, their manifestations and dangerous abuse in history to make the reader aware of epistemic dangers.
“… By the way, there is nothing better than a good old fashioned German Shepherd …”
My hands held the remote control in a tight grip as memories flooded into the dark living room as enthusiastically spoken words poured out of the TV.
Vivid memories took ahold of me and in an instance took me back to my ten-year-old self. The trembling of my hands extended into the living room many years later. As I wanted to open the dark and heavy metal garden gate to my late grandfathers house, I halted in an instance as I saw the aggressive German Shepherd speeding towards the gate like a gray-black-and brown lightening bolt. His massive body shook as he let out a deep barks gnashing his huge teeth. I retreated, clinging to my school bag as the German Shepherd rested his muscular paws as a additional sign of aggression on the dark fence while trying to get his teeth into what he perceived to be a dangerous enemy.
My grandfather came running out, calling his “good boy” back to him. The German Shepherds were Opas the whole pride. As they had served a full life in the German Police force, he made it his calling to give them a good retirement in his home. These dogs had many privileges. They sat at the table. Were fed high quality food. Took the best spot on the sofa. And they rewarded my grandfather with unconditional love combined with a aggressive form of protection towards anyone, who seemed to be an enemy.
Opa shook his head as he saw my ten-year-old self shaking heavily. Then he opened the gate while having a good grip on his dog. “He doesn’t mean it. Right, my boy? You are such a good boy!” Only slowly the adrenaline in my body subsided as I entered my grandparents´ home and the smell of homemade German food wove me into a blanket of sweet expectations for a good meal.
“… By the way, there is nothing better than a good old fashioned German Shepherd …”
Other memories flooded my mind as I sank deeper into the sofa. It was last summer, that the sight of German Shepherds at a memorial send shivers of fear down my spine combining the memories of my ten-year-old self with the experiences of those targeted in the protests of the Civil Rights Movement.
The Sculpture in Birmingham, AL, captured the horrible scene of suppression, brutality, and racism in a lively way – warning of instruments of hate. Durning the Birmingham campaign students flooded the prisons, causing the racist police commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor to turn to a very different tactic as prisons had to be shut down. He used fire hoses and sicced trained police dogs on the “Foot Soldiers” of the movement that had fought for equality and freedom in a world of separation and injustice.
The pictures of the aggressive German Shepherds went around the world. Setting a spotlight on the racial injustice and oppressive system, which could no longer be ignored or downsized. As the obedient dogs did their duties for their masters the heartbeat of the world skipped in grief as once again injustice showed its evil grimace.
“… By the way, there is nothing better than a good old fashioned German Shepherd …”
“The dogs are here at Dora, as in all camps. Held on leashes by their masters, they grow ferociously whenever a prisoner is near. One word or gesture from the SS and the dogs will tear the prisoner apart. They are really more efficient than their masters; a prisoner seeking death could cross the line without worrying too much about a bullet in the back or head, but the dogs are a terrifying, visceral fear.”
Yves Béon, Planet Dora, A Meomoir of the Holocaust and the Birth of the Space age, trans. Yves Béon and Richard Fache (Boulder, Colo.: Westvieew Press 1997), p. 43.
In German concentration camps the German Shepherd was widely used as a guard dog and instrument of horror. While the breed was a relatively recent creation accepted in 1899 by the German Kennel Club, it became the distinctive German breed very popular amongst the Nazi officials. Max von Stephanitz saw his breed as distinctly German. Breeders and owners in other countries venerated the dog for its purity of blood, bravery and loyalty, a dog soldier. This back then much admired breed soon became a symbol for its owners rootedness in Aryanism.
“The German is a real dog-lover, for it is part of his nature … to enter into the spirit of the Aryan mysticism, which makes us feel at one, interiorly, with clouds, trees, lake and heath, and with all living creation…. This appears in his religious beliefs, for the eagle and the wolf were dedicated to All-Father Wotan, King of Battlefields, Bestower of Victory…. [H]is wolves … roam the battlefields, crouch at his feet, and are cared for by the Lord of the World himself…. [T]wo stones with bason-like hollows were erected to the right and the left of the ancient altars of sacrifice, from which poured the blood of the sacrifice which had been offered in honour of Wotan, so that his wolves could feast on the entrails of slaughtered enemies.”
Max von Stephanitz, The German Shepherd Dog in Word and Picture, 1923.
It must be pointed out, that the German Shepherd itself like most dog breeds follows his instincts of bonding to his owner. As one should maybe discuss at another point the underlying Nazi thoughts the proclaimed scientist and nobel prize winner Konrad Lorenz must have had, it is interesting to point towards the psychological mechanism in bonding between dog and master.
“Lorenz […] explains that a dogs youthful attachment is an important milestone in development, because “love for the mother is transformed into love for the human master. Their main focus was not to be a rampaging killer, but to please their master. By being trained and rewarded in a certain fashion, they became horrible instruments of destruction.”
Robert Tindol, Animals and War, BRILL, 01. Nov 2012, p. 111.
Their actions therefore reflected the intention of their Nazi-Masters, who dehumanized and killed Jews and other incarcerated. The German Shepherd therefore is a specialized example of human cruelty. A pars pro toto for a system of pure evil.
”… By the way, there is nothing better than a good old fashioned German Shepherd …”
Donald Trump spoke admirably of the German Shepherd in the context of the war on drugs. for him they seemed better weapons than any intelligent machinery. Cold flashes of fear and hot flashes of anger raced through my body as I tried to make sense of the most powerful man of the world talking admirably about a dog, who well through history had become a instrument of fear and destruction. A loyal, unreflected soldier, whose only target is to impress and please his owner, no matter whom might suffer.
The Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement, the many usages for suppression and domination, made the marveling words of Trump into a grotesque scene of simplistic thoughts or even worse: showed a vivid and very well alive expression of “fantastic hegemonic imagination”, which with the Nazi-regime become not only a imagination, but a manifested weapon made out of flesh and blood.
”… By the way, there is nothing better than a good old fashioned German Shepherd …”
In many respects, the German Shepherd is a living and breathing symbol of what Emilie M. Townes calls the “fantastic hegemonic imagination”. A manifested weapon of devoted hate and suppression.
In her book “Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil” Emilie M. Townes explores the creation and cultural reproduction of structural evil as it is manifested in public policies and public policy making by highlighting this fact through examples within the US.
“Exploring evil as a cultural production highlights the systemic construction of truncated narratives designed to support and perpetuate structural inequities and forms of social oppression.”
Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, New York 2006, p. 4.
Townes emphasizes that a passion for justice is not enough, but that we need to become aware of a system in which we all participate and therefore take in injustice through supposedly harmless appearing caricatures and images. She calls this “fantastic hegemonic imagination” (Ibid., p. 113.)
The German Shepherd was certainly for many Nazis a beautiful symbol of domination, superiority, and Aryan strength as we have seen above through the words of Max von Stephanitz. But while Townes refers to symbols like the Black Mammy woven into the conscience of society, this living and breathing symbol goes a step further: the imagination or Aryan-“dream” became a dangerous, complicit, and nightmarish reality for uncounted victims.
The dogs of the camps, after all, did not kill 6 million humans, or even a small fraction of those 6 million. Their handlers, even if they did nothing in the war but train animals, were not quite so innocent.
Robert Tindol, Animals and War, BRILL, 01. Nov 2012, p. 120.
The German Shepherds have been mirrors of their masters evil deeds, who themselves were bound into a demonic system of dominance and destruction.
Is there really nothing better than a good old fashioned German Shepherd? May the people in power choose their words and actions wisely while drawing on life giving imaginations, not manifested weapons of hate.
The engines of the small airplane rattled loudly as if they were exhausted from the quick climb through turbulent north sea weather. My eyes fixated the slowly disappearing islands as if they wanted to hold on to them as long as possible. As I admired the beauty of the Orkney islands glistering in the sun, memories of a lifechanging time in ministry flooded my thoughts. I could almost feel the warmth of a nice cup of tea and the overwhelming admiration of the spectacle evolving in front of my eyes as stormy waters crashed over the Churchill barriers. The view of the old Church of Scotland Manse was one of a kind and had left a lasting impression on my mind. Not only because of its unique and spectacular beauty, but more so for me as German minister. Eleven years ago I had been allowed to care for the people of the East Mainland Church of Scotland, over whom and uncounted others my German nation had brought terrible pain and suffering. I very soon in my call learned a very deep and moving lesson of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Almost every day as I was working in the study of the Manse, my eyes traced the tracks of the life destroying Nazi fleet as it sailed through Kirk sound into the natural harbor of Scapa flow killing brutally quick in an unexpected attack 883 men out of a crew of 1219. As my own German grandfather had served in the Nazi navy fleet, I over and over couldn’t believe that the very same people, who suffered under my nation had welcomed me and my family in such a heartfelt way into their daily life. They soon changed my life’s path forever as grace and forgiveness took hold of my calling as a woman of faith.
As if to make it sink in, I looked at the view unfolding beneath the Manse over and over again. October 14, 1939 was according to a parishioner one of these rare very calm Orkney nights as captain Günther Prien sailed around Kirk Sound into Scapa Flow as “HMS Royal Oak” lay there on anchor. This well accomplished battleship had fought successfully at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, but by 1939 had not been as versatile as the modern warships of the Kriegsmarine, which were much smaller and faster battle cruisers. As war broke out, the “Royal Oak” had been stationed in Scapa Flow as part of a large naval fleet and it was presumed that it was perfectly safe from any foreign attack. But the starry and calm October night shattered this illusion as torpedoes fired by the German submarine ripped holes into the well accomplished battleship forcing it to sink very quickly. 883 men, amongst them many boy sailors, lost their lives. As disaster and devastation struck their families and Great Britain as a whole, this crime was celebrated as the first big success in Nazi Germany. Today it is one of the largest war graves, reminding everyone of a brutal and destructive Nazi dictatorship. As the commemoration of this brutal event will be marked for the 80thtime in October 2019, this large war grave may warn all nations about the brutality and destruction mankind can bring over one another.
It has been this exact spot that had filled my life and identity as a German with a unforgettable lesson of reconciliation and forgiveness as I was accepted as a human being beyond my national identity and once even asked to be part of a service commemorating the lost lives. As prayers and readings filled the small Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, it was a tender experience of grace that flooded my being and made me understand Paul´s words to the Ephesians in a deeper way (4:31-32):
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
A tender ripple shook the small plane as if to wake me out of my thoughts. I blinked as the beautiful Islands of Orkney disappeared completely under a soft, bright blanket of clouds surrounding me of a warm feeling of thankfulness. The privilege of ministering in Orkney had both gifted me with the beautiful gift grace and had put my determination as a minister on the path of bringing reconciliation and forgiveness into our broken world.
As my heels touched the sidewalk the sound of broken glas sent a cold shiver down my spine. The words of Ruth Zimbler, who had experienced Kristallnacht as a ten year old Jew in Vienna, Austria, echoed through my mind: “The sound of broken glas under my feet haunts me every day.”
Here I stood as a Lutheran pastor in front of our small German Lutheran Church in Chelsea and couldn’t move one bit as the nightmare of the Kristallnacht haunted me in a unexpected way on this bright and sunny Sunday morning. In not even a weeks time it would be 80 years since Germany exploded in an orgy of unbelievable violence. As businesses and synagogues were destroyed. “This night of horror, a retreat in a modern state to the savagery associated with bygone ages, laid bare to the world the barbarism of the Nazi regime. Within Germany, it brought immediate draconian measures to exclude Jews from the economy, accompanied by a restructuring of anti-Jewish policy […]” (1)
It took the Hitler´s regime over five years until it showed its ugly face of destruction and hate to the world. Up to this point hate crimes had been steadily on the rise. The acceptance of these incidences grew into the normality of a steadily increasing number of Nazi-supporters, who were numbed by Hitler´s words and perspectives of work and bread through a increasingly busy rearming economy.
The political underdog Hitler had at last succeeded. After Hindenburg had brought him into office in January 1933, he had steadily built up a system of expansion based on the suffering of millions. His speech in front of SS leaders in early November 1938 had sparked deep hate and named the blameworthy people: Jews, freemasons, Marxists, and the Churches of the world were the enemies of his system of expansion (and mass destruction). Hitler pointed towards the Jewry as the driving opponents against his plans of “German grandness”.
This speech unleashed the terrors of Kristallnacht over Germany and Austria, and marked the official begin of unprecedented suffering and terror. The SS, the fire services, the police and other instruments of law and order, looked the other way – becoming instruments of terror and murder themselves.
The signs had been there from the beginning as Hitler was instated as Reichskanzler bei Hindenburg. Back then, numerous politicians thought, they´d be able to contain him and influence his political actions through a strong system. On his sixth anniversary of his takeover of power, Hitler publicly announced his evil plans to the public, which were received with great joy. The derided prophet had at last succeeded: “I have very often in my lifetime been a prophet,” he declared, “and a mostly derided. In the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish people who received only with laughter my prophecies that I would some time take over the leadership of the state and of the entire people in Germany and then, among other things, also bring the Jewish problem to its solution. I believe that this once hollow laughter of Jewry in Germany has meanwhile already stuck in the throat. I want today to be a prophet again: if the international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!” (2)
This political speech soon became a bitter reality as slow beginnings and normalization of hate numbed a whole nation. The “derided” prophet had at last succeeded in his evil doings.
May we be warned by history about those, who draw their diabolical strength and dehumanizing power as they gather followers for their evil deeds around them. May we be “upstanders” and not “bystanders”, as Ruth Zimbler had urges us to.
I tried to rub the shattered glas from my heels on the Church entrance, but with every new twist and turn of my foot they had dug themselves deeper into the shoe sole. I halted in my movement. Maybe they would be a fitting reminder for me as a German speaking pastor reminding me of the necessary commitment to stand against any hate crime in action.
(1) Ian Kershaw, Hitler. A Biography, New York 2008, p. 449.
The silence was ear deafening. One by one candles were lit by the tender hands of the female Rabbi. As the mourners kaddish filled the room said by numerous Jewish and Interreligious voices the grief formed a strong bond of commitment binding together the gathered people of different walks of life and faith.
“The slippery slope starts with words.” David Harris, Chief Executive and CEO of AJC, reminded in a calm and even more so intense voice of how the path leading to the Holocaust began long before the Kristallnacht on Nov 9, 1938. The big auditorium of the German General Consulate was filled to the brink as AJC together with the German Consul General David Gill and Ruth Zimbler, a 90 year old Kristallnacht survivor, commemorated together this despicable and tragic moment in German history.
I shivered in my seat as the events past and present simultaneously went through my mind. Kristallnacht began way before 1938. But in my mind they suddenly appeared isochronal. Wiping away the 80 year divide with one blink of an eye and a simple, but ever so wise statement.
“The slippery slope starts with words.”
Most beginnings are quiet. Almost silent or with few words change will begin to unfold. No one back in the spring of 1912 as Hitler was stranded in a Men´s home in Vienna had ever thought this drop-out and postcard painter would later become the greatest criminal and murderer of over 6 million people. Back then, his audience was small as he voiced his thoughts about race and inferiority of the Jews. Hitler then was still the underestimated outsider. The underdog. A existence he later very successfully used to climb to the highest political ranks as he spread disaster of almost the whole world.
My eyes were fixated to the lit memorial candles as if I tried to hold on to hope despite disaster past and present. But the sentence had a tight grip to my thoughts as I could feel my heartbeat increase even though I was sitting.
“The slippery slope starts with words.”
As my head was spinning my thoughts were pulled to Germany of January 1933. It was in the office of the Reich President that Hindenburg expressed is great satisfaction that the political right had at last united against all the liberal and democratic forces. As Hitler himself swore he would act in the good of the whole nation, Hindenburg gave this political newcomer his blessings. In one voice, as it is stated through different sources, the call of Hitler as new Reichs Chancellor was underpinned with a single sentence: “And now, gentlemen, forward with God.”
As a woman of God, a faith leader and a German this heresy and abuse of faith is deeply hurtful. Even then, many, even Hindenburg, hadn’t suspected that they were already on a slippery slope leading to disaster, murder and destruction.
“The slippery slope starts with words.”
May this sentence remind us of the power of words, which can develop the beautiful and more so the disastrous. “The Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, compared to the previous year — including bomb threats, assaults, vandalism, and anti-Semitic posters and literature found on college campuses.” (1) Words of hate and anti-Semitism lead to the deadliest attack towards Jews in the US in Pittsburgh as eleven innocent believers were murdered by a white supremacist. We know by now that the perpetrator Robert Bowers was encouraged and fed by anti-Semitic words and thoughts expressed by numerous sources.
The dehumanizing words presently used in politics are leading to a never before experienced rise in hate crimes. Murders like the one of the Pittsburgh Eleven, the two African-American in Kentucky, and “smaller” despicable acts in numerous shapes and sizes against women, LGBTQ, and other marginalized people are changing the shape and form of a free and accepting US-society.
In Germany it once began with small words and ideas uttered in back yards, at ordinary tables and in small groups. They infected others and spread hate like a deadly cancer in German society.
I sighed as my eyes fixated the candles. Never again. If the world is again on the path of a slippery slope, it will be our responsibility to hold against this trend as courageous as we are able to. As God commands us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)