My dear Jewish friend 12: hygiene, human dignity and daily reminders

My hand softly touched the thick glass of the exhibition. I swallowed deeply as a huge knot of grief and anger formed in my stomach. No, it couldn’t be … but deep in my heart I knew it had happened. The small safety razor and its blades in the small glass cabinet looked so innocent and ordinary. Nonetheless, it was a silent witness of crimes unimaginable and executed on innocent people. What had started as a trip with my police cadets to the memorial of the concentration camp of Flossenbürg, took an unforeseen personal turn that would from then onwards be a constant reminder in my daily routine.

Just a few weeks ago I had bought a safety razor. One of these „old style“ ones, where you could detach the double-edged blade while the rest would be reused. I wanted to preserve the environment and thought to myself: Why not first start with my daily routines? Small actions that cumulate make a big difference.

On that wintery October day it hit me directly into my face as I saw a double-edged razor with separate blades that almost looked identical to the one laying in my bath room. I couldn’t take my eyes of this device of daily hygiene, which once according to the description belonged an prisoner of the concentration camp Flossenbürg. It was taken away as an action of discrimination. Hygiene was not allowed in these death camps. What is natural to us – a nice shaved beard, neatly cut hair, hygiene of other body parts – was taken away from prisoners as an instrument of oppression and terror.

Hair is such an essential part of our human dignity. A part of our personal expression of self. The Nazi terror went further. It not only took away double-edged razors, which ensured a personal self-administered hygiene, like the one exhibited in Flossenbürg, but brutally stole human dignity by shaving the hair of every person entering with straight razors and replacing names by numbers. Those ensuring this terror were part of the „Schutzstaffel“, which in 1936 was united by Himmler with the police.

As I pointed my young police cadets to the small glass cabinet with the double-edged razor, they were equally astonished to see a hygienically product laying there, which is now very much in fashion. Many had bought one themselves to show that they would try to preserve the environment. Now it is an unforeseen reminder in their and my daily private routine. Every young police cadet, who is impacted by an encounter with the evil, murderous regime that took millions of innocent lives, is one ally more and a sign of hope in our broken world.

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!