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.

Standing in Solidarity as One

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.

No!

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.

The Sound of Broken Glas under my feet

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.”

2018-11-04 09.05.22

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.

(2) Ibid., p. 469.