I stared at the old picture in awe. Six men and a women were gathered around an embroidered table and deliciously filled beer steins. In the center of the picture was a gentleman with a hat and beard, who clearly looked Jewish. He proudly glanced back at me. As my gaze wandered over the details of this special snap shot in time I spotted two police officers to the left and right. They were a natural part of this cheerful and positive happening.
Uffenheim in the 1890s or 1900s. A window into the life of my hometown before Hitlers murderous thoughts, his evil making and hating ideology took grip of Franconia and the place I grew up.
The picture you see on the bottom is from my friend Rick Landman. By G´d´s providence we met years ago in New York. Who would have ever dreamed that the friendship, which once flourished before the disaster of the Nazi-Regime, would be reinstated by two Uffenheimer finding each other amongst millions of people in one of the busiest cities of this world?
The proud Jewish gentleman in the middle is Ricks great-grandfather Gabriel Oettinger (1862-1903). He was able to experience as Jewish people became full citizens in Germany 1871. To me he looks happy and proud – along with all the other people. I can fully understand, as I’ve experienced how enriching, enlightening and heart-warming diverse and welcoming societies can be, if they dare to. The New York experience of diversity has changed my heart and soul forever.
Nonetheless, with emancipation having blossomed in Germany within years the pendulum swung back under the Nazi regime to an even more disastrous state than ever before. My hometown Uffenheim prided itself to be „judenfrei“ before everyone else and adhering to the Nazi regime more than other places. Martin Oettinger (Ricks grandfather), who was a proud born Uffenheimer, had to flee for his life.
The old picture is a proof that a different kind of society is possible- even in Uffenheim, which has once adhered so eagerly to a murderous regime and is presently very conservative. As I am now not only carrying the weight of my ancestors doings, the guilt of my Lutheran church body, but by wearing a Police uniform as a chaplain I am responsible to embrace the complicitness of this institution during Hitler as well. I hope that the picture of friendship, joy and happiness once taken in Uffenheim will foreshadow what can be in the presence and future: By reinstating a friendship amongst those, who once shared the same table, there is hope beyond time through those embracing each other in love and commitment.
May this new picture be a hopeful beginning of what once was possible in the small Franconia town of Uffenheim.
Information about Rick Landman and his family’s story, please visit his website.
I carefully placed the large candles on both sides of the table, then arranged the white framed picture, book and the program in the center. As the candles burned I waited in the quietness of the morning for my colleagues for the briefing and the following holocaust remembrance. For me it was a tripple commitment as a German citizen, Christian pastor, and now working for the Federal Police since almost a year. The epaulet with a golden cross on my shoulder visiualized my double responsibility for the church and the Federal Police.
When I broke the news to you over a year ago that I would be leaving New York to be called to the Federal Police we shed tears. We instantly knew that something special would very soon be no longer part of our routine: the strolls in our neighbourhood chatting about our lives, working together in your food pantry for the poor, and sharing joy, laughter, and tears.
Even though I still can’t get used to be so far away – to be exact 3.923 miles – this January morning gave me the feeling that our pain of distance at least makes some sense as I remembered with other leading police officers the crimes of the Holocaust. When the Police director spoke of the responsibility remembering and committing to never forget what had happened to your people and so many others during the Nazi horrors, my heartbeat increased. I was proud to hear that the German Police, which was complicit like many other institutions including my Bavarian Lutheran Church, commits to securing human rights and the German constitution.
This commitment is central as I teach young police trainees in ethical decision making. But let me try to briefly recall what happened back then with policing making the Police force a significant element of the muderous Nazi-regime. (For further information follow the link to the German article about Policing during the Third Reich)
The rise of the Hitler movement began against the background of economic and political crisis of the Weimar Republic. The brutal regime took advantage of the difficult situation of million Germans. Hitler and others in power legally created system of injustice that was aimed at installing a National Socialist-oriented community, which was „liberated“ from any „un-German spirit“.
Essential feature was the so-called „Verreichlichung“, in which the Police force was centralised by the Nazi rulers and became its outward appearance through the „Reichssicherheitshauptamtes“ (Reich Security Main Office) in 1939. From spring 1933 until the end of the war in 1945 the police apparatus received extensive new possibilities to intervene and monitor. In addition, the boundary between „law enforcement“ and „security police“ become blurred in favour of the SS, which ultimately held all powers. To make things worse, the population supported the daily terror of the Secret State Police by willingly denunciating their fellow citizens.
Police battalions and task forces not only took part in the organisation of the Holocaust in the Germany and occupied areas, but were involved in mass shootings in East Europe and therefore directly took part in the Nazi genocide.
After celebrating six very meaningful Holocaust Remembrance Days in New York, it was this day that added an important mew layer to my commitment as a German citizen, and a pastor working in and for the German Federal Police. May we learn from the disaster of the Holocaust to never make it happen again to anyone, no matter what religion, nationality, or skin color the person might have.
When entering our apartment, my hand softly touched the Hebrew letters of שלום. Shalom. Peace. Frieden. I sighed deeply as the well-known words of the Shema Israel came over my lips. Protected by a beautiful bright blue outside the small parchment scroll of the Mezuzah contained important parts of the Holy Scriptures (1) and was a precious memory of seven years in New York.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Shalom. Peace. Frieden.
Our world is struggling heavily to find peace. Despite a raging pandemic, a large portion of our world is still engulfed in different conflicts and wars. (2) What a terrible fact as Christianity is celebrating Christmastide and all nations are heading for the New Year!
Year after year I am hoping for peace to come. Even though you and I live in peaceful nations, many are not as fortunate. My own nation has not lived up to the basic religious principal engrained into Judaism and Christianity. During the Nazi dictatorship most Germans were official members of the Roman Catholic or Protestant Churches, but didn’t live up to the concept of shalom. Instead, they were eagerly part of a murderous, diabolical system. Large numbers did not simply forget the connections between Judaism and Christianity, but some very actively tried to destroy every trace of shared values.
When on a very cold night of November 9 the local Rabbi Dr. Salomon Almekias-Siegl came to our Christian home, it felt as if a tide of personal family history was turning in healing ways. It could have not been a more touching date for installing our Mezuzah at the apartment door of our German Christian family. On what is today known as „Kristallnacht“ (3), from November 9 to 10, 1938 when synagogues and Jewish property were burned and destroyed on a large scale, and hundreds Jews were killed or driven to commit suicide, it was this gesture of שלום that deeply moved us.
After checking that the small scroll was kosher, the Rabbi spoke the blessing hanging the mezuzah slanted on the right side of the door, facing inwards towards our apartment. My thoughts went to the biblical story of the Rabbi Jesus discussing religious matters with scribes where he referred to the Shema Israel and the commandment to love neighbour and self as the highest commandments of faith (Marc 12:28-31). If only the perpetrators of the Nazi dictatorship large and small would have lived up to this commandment instead of killing millions of Jews!
Now, day after day, as I pass through our door, the bright blue Mezuzah and its silver letters remind me that the way to שלום is adhering to these fundamental commandments, which bind Judaism and Christianity together. I am so thankful for this reminder, which was installed on one a night that reminds us of one of the darkest night in German history.
Shalom. Peace. Frieden.
With every new day rising and every passing through our doorway my hope grows that God´s kingdom will grow in our broken world by love we show God and our neighbour.
It was a crisp winter day with clear skies and the sun shining bright. A perfect day to stroll through my new home town Bamberg. As my eyes wandered from the old medieval buildings to the beautiful light blue sky my thoughts wandered to you, my dear Jewish friend. The color reminded me of the beautiful New York sky that accompanied us as we walked through our Westchester neighborhood and chatted about our lives, our faith communities, and our shared involvement at your lovely pantry.
As my glance wandered back from the New York colored sky I halted my steps in great astonishment. Right in front of me I could see a golden Star of David at the historic smoke beer brewery „Schlenkerla“. The brewery has a long and old tradition. It was first mentioned in 1387 and is in operation since 1405.
As a Franconias I really enjoy the name „Schlenkerla“. It roughly derives from the English verb „dangling“ or even better „swinging along“. The -la suffix is typical of the East Franconian dialect. The name reportedly comes from a brewer with a gait whose image as it can be seen on the „Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier“ bottle. This brewery is run by the Trum family since six generations. A real traditional family business, where tradition and passion for exquisite beers make it a unique place of hospitality.
The symbol displayed on the outside of the historical brewery and tavern is the guild emblem of brewers. This hexagram is the same as the Star of David, which is the most important symbol of Judaism I truly honour and cherish. How could this shared symbolism come about? Matthias Trum outlines in his final thesis at the Technical University Munich that symbol was used for the first time as explicitly Jewish sign in Prague in 1350 on the flag of the Jewish militia and then appears as brewing emblem for the first time in Nürnberg in 1425.
„… the hexagram was in those days in Franconia and northern Bavaria widely used symbol for protection and in this form used by everyone including both jews and brewers . The exiled jews of Nürnberg brought the star with them to Prague, where it became symbol of the jewish community and was then spread all over the world through letterpress. The brewing star remained however in south Germany and developed into a tapping sign.“
Matthias Trum, Historical depictions, guild signs and symbols of the brewing and malting handcraft, TU Munich, 2002.
My dear Jewish friend, what a fascinating interconnection and shared history of our forbearers! I wished my ancestors would have embraced these shared roots, and as I have discovered, shared symbols instead of committing the crimes of Hitlers Nationalism.
I dream of having a stroll like today with you while the blue Bamberg sky will guide us to the historical tavern and we will have a nice cold beer with delicious Franconian food. On the way home, I am sure we will be swinging like the gait on the „Schlenkerla“.
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.