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.
Am Abend des Epiphanienfestes war ich zu Gast bei Initiative 27. Januar. Im neuen, modernen Talkformat bei Instagram durfte ich mit Herrn Matthias Böhning meine biografischen und theologischen Zugänge zu Friedens- und Versöhnungsarbeit, Rassismus und Antisemitismus in Übersee und Deutschland sprechen. Es war eine spannende Unterhaltung, die mir sehr viel Spaß gemacht hat. Ich danke Herrn Böhning sehr für diese Einladung und lege die Initiative allen Leserinnen und Lesern ans Herz! Mitmachen könnt ihr bereits jetzt ganz konkret durch die Unterstützung des Projekts „Weiße Rosen und Briefe für Holocaustüberlebende“ (Link).
Hier ist der Zugang zum Video, der auf IGTV gepostet wurde:
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.
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!