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!

Forgiveness beyond time and borders

The engines of the small airplane rattled loudly as if they were exhausted from the quick climb through turbulent north sea weather. My eyes fixated the slowly disappearing islands as if they wanted to hold on to them as long as possible. As I admired the beauty of the Orkney islands glistering in the sun, memories of a lifechanging time in ministry flooded my thoughts. I could almost feel the warmth of a nice cup of tea and the overwhelming admiration of the spectacle evolving in front of my eyes as stormy waters crashed over the Churchill barriers. The view of the old Church of Scotland Manse was one of a kind and had left a lasting impression on my mind. Not only because of its unique and spectacular beauty, but more so for me as German minister. Eleven years ago I had been allowed to care for the people of the East Mainland Church of Scotland, over whom and uncounted others my German nation had brought terrible pain and suffering. I very soon in my call learned a very deep and moving lesson of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Churchill Barriers with Kirk Sound and Italian Chapel

Almost every day as I was working in the study of the Manse, my eyes traced the tracks of the life destroying Nazi fleet as it sailed through Kirk sound into the natural harbor of Scapa flow killing brutally quick in an unexpected attack 883 men out of a crew of 1219. As my own German grandfather had served in the Nazi navy fleet, I over and over couldn’t believe that the very same people, who suffered under my nation had welcomed me and my family in such a heartfelt way into their daily life. They soon changed my life’s path forever as grace and forgiveness took hold of my calling as a woman of faith.

As if to make it sink in, I looked at the view unfolding beneath the Manse over and over again. October 14, 1939 was according to a parishioner one of these rare very calm Orkney nights as captain Günther Prien sailed around Kirk Sound into Scapa Flow  as “HMS Royal Oak” lay there on anchor. This well accomplished battleship had fought successfully at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, but by 1939 had not been as versatile as the modern warships of the Kriegsmarine, which were much smaller and faster battle cruisers. As war broke out, the “Royal Oak” had been stationed in Scapa Flow as part of a large naval fleet and it was presumed that it was perfectly safe from any foreign attack. But the starry and calm October night shattered this illusion as torpedoes fired by the German submarine ripped holes into the well accomplished battleship forcing it to sink very quickly. 883 men, amongst them many boy sailors, lost their lives. As disaster and devastation struck their families and Great Britain as a whole, this crime was celebrated as the first big success in Nazi Germany. Today it is one of the largest war graves, reminding everyone of a brutal and destructive Nazi dictatorship. As the commemoration of this brutal event will be marked for the 80thtime in October 2019, this large war grave may warn all nations about the brutality and destruction mankind can bring over one another.

Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Royal_Oak_(08)#/media/File:U-47_raid.svg

It has been this exact spot that had filled my life and identity as a German with a unforgettable lesson of reconciliation and forgiveness as I was accepted as a human being beyond my national identity and once even asked to be part of a service commemorating the lost lives. As prayers and readings filled the small Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm, it was a tender experience of grace that flooded my being and made me understand Paul´s words to the Ephesians in a deeper way (4:31-32):

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.

A tender ripple shook the small plane as if to wake me out of my thoughts. I blinked as the beautiful Islands of Orkney disappeared completely under a soft, bright blanket of clouds surrounding me of a warm feeling of thankfulness. The privilege of ministering in Orkney had both gifted me with the beautiful gift grace and had put my determination as a minister on the path of bringing reconciliation and forgiveness into our broken world.

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.