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!

Though I walk through the valley of death

Voices rose around me. Grieving people from all walks of life spoke in one voice. Jews, Protestants, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Roman Catholics joined in the ancient Psalm 23 and filled the dense air of the meeting room with hope beyond grief.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me besides the still waters.

In the midst of preparations for the high holidays of Pesach and Easter, members of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Consuls from numerous countries, clergy, and friends had gathered in Midtown Manhattan to show solidarity with the Jewish Community by sharing the grief about the assassination of Mireille Knoll. The French Holocaust survivor had been brutally murdered on March 23rd in her apartment in Paris and is the newest victim of antisemitism.

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The 85-year old, who suffered Parkinson’s disease, was stabbed to death by two Jihadists. A senseless and brutal end to a life that had been ever so burdensome through the suffering of the Holocaust. Mrs. Mireille Knoll had barely escaped with her life as a ten year old in the Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris in July 1942. Thousands of Jewish women, men, and children had been locked into the Vélodrome d’Hiver to be deported to concentration camps in the East. She returned to France after its liberation and married Mr. Knoll, a Auschwitz survivor. The couple was blessed with two sons. But after the nightmares of the Holocaust she had not been granted a peaceful death, but violence and hatred ended a life too quickly.

He restoreth my soul; he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name´s sake.

Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

My heart sank as I spoke the old biblical words, which are my Baptismal verses. Yes, Europe is facing one of the greatest challenges since World War II. Antisemitism, racism, exclusion of those, who are different is on the rise. This senseless and brutal death was its newest expression.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

In their history Jews had to face uncounted enemies. It is like a red thread woven through the countless centuries of the ancient nation. Prosecution, death and murder accompanied their struggle for freedom. In many ways their history and the way they are treated is like a litmus test showing the state of nations and societies. “We have been dealt with like the bird in the cage of a mine. As soon as the bird stopped singing, the miner knew he would need to leave it to safe his life. We are done with being the bird”, David Harris, the AJC Chief Executive Officer, emphasized at the commemoration. What a powerful picture to choose.

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As a Lutheran growing up in the safety of a small, closely knit community in Germany, I never had to suffer abuse or prosecution. I had never been excluded due to skin color, religion, or heritage. I can’t grasp, how terrible it might feel having to endure this generation after generation. Or being forced to grapple with the murder of loved ones. But as a German, bearing the weight of my ancestors and my nations crimes, I am committed to stand up against antisemitism, race, and hate. And many others partaking in the commemoration and beyond are as well, emphasizing the common ground of “Loving neighbor and self”. A glimpse of hope in times of trouble.

It is my constant prayer that these signs of hope will develop into a shield against the evil forces of hatred as more and more pull together as they feel their responsibility for peace. Governments and religions. Representatives and individuals.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

May the memory of Mireille Knoll forever be a blessing.

May Europe wake up through her senseless murder before it is too late.