Reckoning with the Past

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!

How Society gets used to Injustice

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.

Victor Klemperer, Tagebücher 1935-1936, Berlin, Germany 1998, p.15 (translation: Miriam Groß)

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.