A friend of mine works in a hospice in New York. She told me that many of her patients are elderly Jews who have lived successful, busy lives in America, never once mentioning the horrors of the Holocaust they experienced as children and young people. However, as they approach death, scenes of their youth that they have long pushed down come back to haunt them. She has never seen such agony. Meanwhile, across the ocean in German nursing homes, many elderly face death haunted by memories of their participation in Nazi atrocities.
The generation of the Third Reich now goes through its death throes. What will bring these people peace before they die? And how can the future generations find redemption from these ghosts of history? I know two people, a German and a Jew, who discovered where healing can be found. Let me tell you about a “Hamburger” and a “Frankfurter” - my mother and father:
My father was born in 1929 in Frankfurt. His parents were Polish Jews who moved back to Poland in 1934 when they felt things were heating up in Germany. My father always finds it very difficult to talk about this time. He will often break down in tears when he shares how the Nazis drove his family and countless other Jews out of their town and how one soldier knocked his father senseless with a bayonet. After a stint in Siberia, his family landed in Uzbekistan, where the horrendous conditions among the swarms of refugees led to his mother’s death of typhus when he was twelve years old. This was a terrific blow for my dad, who blamed himself for his mother’s death because he felt she had starved herself to feed him and the rest of the family.
After that my father and his younger sister were taken in by an orphanage and eventually arrived in Palestine in 1943 with a group of a thousand Jewish orphans. Later, as a teenager, my father experienced the first survivors from the concentration camps arriving in Palestine, and heard from them what had happened to the millions of Jews under the Hitler Regime. He vowed “never again”, and from then on put his efforts into the fight for a Jewish homeland. As a soldier in the Israeli army in 1948, he found himself driving Palestinians out of their town in much the same way as he himself had been driven out of his town as a child. What could stop this cycle of hatred and violence? My dad started on a desperate and all-consuming life-quest: how can people in this world live in harmony together? This led him through years of torment, through many countries and “isms”, until he found the answer in the most unexpected place – forgiveness, the forgiveness that can be found at the cross at Golgotha. Since he has been forgiven much, he too must forgive. Through forgiveness the cycle of violence is broken and the whole world can find healing. As my father always says, “If it’s possible for me, it’s possible for anyone”. And he has spent the last fifty years living it out – forgiveness that creates more forgiveness and the “virus” spreads. For instance, several years ago he was able to go back to Israel and ask forgiveness of one of the inhabitants of the town that his army unit had driven out in 1948. To his joy it was unhesitatingly granted. (To read his full life story, get a copy of his autobiography, My Search.)
My mother meanwhile grew up in Hamburg, listening to Nazi propaganda at school during the day, and the allied bombers flattening the city at night. When she was thirteen the war ended and the atrocities Germany had committed came to light. People around her tried to deal with the terrible guilt that hung over the whole nation in different ways. Many thought the world would soon blow up in a nuclear war and they might just as well “eat, drink and be merry”. But my mother felt there must be a way to make a better society so the horrors of the Second World War could not be repeated and where people could find redemption from their guilt. Her parents went to church, but she did not feel she could join since she could not live out the words she heard on Sunday during the rest of the week. She also went on a search until she found a place where people of different nations and backgrounds could live together in peace through the forgiveness of God. My mother did not hesitate: she packed her bags and moved to England to live and work together with her former enemies, and it wasn’t too many years later that she met my father…
When I was born, I couldn’t be a German citizen because my father was not German. I couldn’t be Israeli either because being Jewish passes through your mother. That’s why I’m a citizen of the world. I’ve had the privilege of experiencing first hand from my parents that reconciliation and a freeing from the past is possible. The Nazi ghosts can be put to rout. From my parents I learned that all the peoples of the world have their own wonderful culture and heritage. We gain by learning from other people, rather than hating and killing each other. As children, my brothers and sisters and I would be dancing round the kitchen table with my father singing a Yiddish or Israeli song one moment, and the next we’d be doing the old German circle games. And there was rather a lot of daily forgiveness needed in our family just for the normal shoulder-rubbing of everyday life. But the message I got loud and clear from both my mother and father is that through Jesus forgiveness is possible, not only for the small things, but for even the foulest deeds of the past; and a true inner peace can be given to even the most wounded victim if he can forgive. The question is only now over to me: will my generation continue to spread this forgiveness?
See also A Traveler Comes Home.