Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Confronting the Evidence for the Holocaust: Seeing, Believing, and Moral Conversion

I keep thinking of Bishop Richard Williamson’s recent statement to the German media that, as he studies the evidence for the Holocaust, he will not visit Auschwitz (www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,606323,00.html). I think I understand his refusal.

When we engage in dangerous arm-chair dissection of bogus “evidence” proving that a major historical atrocity did not happen, seeing the real evidence for that atrocity—the artifacts of torture and murder, starkly displayed in the light of day—shatters our illusions. It forces us to see ourselves in the stark light of day. And to understand the twisted motives that lead us to deny plain sense and the evidence of our own eyes, as our need to hate drives everything we do. And as we cling to arcane conspiracy theories that feed the ravenous area inside us from which our hate springs, despite abundant clear evidence demonstrating that we are wrong.

I can understand, because I have visited places in Germany in which violence—real violence, undismissable violence—took place against the Jewish population in the Nazi period. Those places have a resonance about them. The evil done at these sites hangs in the air about them, a sour tang of mob violence and ethnic hatred still perceptible to anyone with eyes to see, a nose to smell, ears to hear.

As I’ve noted on this blog several times, my life partner, Steve, is German-American. Though quite a few branches of his family were in the United States prior to the Civil War, the majority of his ancestors came to this country in the period after that war and even up to the early part of the 20th century. Those who had arrived “early” continued their use of German language in ethnic enclaves in the Midwest, where it was possible to go on speaking German as the mother tongue and language of home (and church and school) even beyond the first world war.

Steve’s grandparents all spoke German as their first language. His two grandmothers both had mothers from the German areas of the present Czech Republic, from Bohemia and Moravia in what later came to be called the Sudetenland. Steve’s family stopped speaking German only in the World War II period, as prejudice against German-speaking Americans mounted and caused families that had clung to their mother tongue for generations in a dominant Anglo cultural world to abandon it and to use English in their homes.

Because of his cultural heritage, Steve feels the Holocaust as a personal burden, as an act of incommensurable and inexplicable evil for which he himself is in some way responsible. He has spent years trying to understand how it is that people—his people—could do something like this to another people. He has worked hard to read every scrap of history he can find about the Holocaust, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the theological roots of anti-Semitism, and so on.

Because I share my life with him, I have had a broad, vicarious education in these subjects, merely by listening to him process what he is reading and learning, and then by reading what he recommends to me. Our education has also included travel—primarily, to places in Germany in which he still has cousins, to reconnect to those cousins, and to hear from them what they remember or have been told about the Nazi period.

We have not visited a concentration camp. I am not sure I am ready yet to see one. We have, though, visited other sites that bring us face to face with the history of Nazi Germany’s murder of the Jews. Those visits have been, for me, spiritual moments, gifts in my own pilgrimage towards transformative truth. I have come away from each of these encounters changed. And I am remembering those encounters lately, as I think about Richard Williamson’s refusal to visit Auschwitz.

I’ve written elsewhere about one of these sites—a Jewish cemetery in the Kraichgau area of Baden (http://neverinparadise.blogspot.com/2008/10/weingarten-baden-171998-dead-cemeteries.html). Steve and I were in that area visiting cousins of his in 1998. We’ve gone back once with Steve’s parents.

On both visits, the cousins took us to the Jewish cemetery of the community in which they live. The cemetery is a “dead” cemetery. The last stones in it are dated 1936. Standing in it, one is confronted with astonishing, deeply troubling evidence of the eradication of an entire group of people in this community (and in community after community across Germany).

People who had lived side by side with their Christian neighbors in this Rhineland area from the early Middle Ages. People who considered themselves German, since they had, after all, built Germany and lived in the area that became Germany for almost a millennium and a half before they were expelled and murdered.

In the same town is a plaque stating that the synagogue had stood on this spot, and that it was torn down on 10 November 1938. Kristallnacht: the same night on which synagogues across Germany were decimated in an organized act of mass violence engineered by the Nazis. The night on which Jewish citizens who had lived among the Christian population of Germany for centuries found their shops and houses attacked, their belongings pulled into the streets, by neighbors whom they never suspected of harboring such hate. A prelude to murder.

Steve’s Badish cousins are Catholic, as Steve is and his ancestors were. In addition to showing us these places, they have shared with us photo albums documenting their family history and the history of the community in these years. One of these shows several smiling village girls of the 1930s underneath a sign reading, in bold letters, Die Juden sind under Unglück: the Jews are our misfortune. A prelude to murder.

The cousins tell us that in this Catholic village, as in nearby Protestant villages, as in villages across Germany, there are families still living who took part in the events of Kristallnacht. Some of these families have held office in the community, since then. They are respected and well-regarded, at least by many of their neighbors.

As I think about our visits to Steve’s cousins, I remember, too, a visit to another Catholic Rhineland community in which some of Steve’s ancestors lived—this one north of Baden, just outside Köln, a little village called Stommeln. This village is unique in that its synagogue survived the Nazi years. It did so because a local farmer used it as a pigsty after the Jews of the area were expelled (http://neverinparadise.blogspot.com/2008/09/stommeln-7505-klsch-and-maibume.html).

Again, because this community is near the Rhine, which was a major route for migration of Jews into the German lands from early in the Christian era, its Jewish roots are ancient. In fact, as we did research there, Steve discovered that both of his great-great-grandparents who were born in the town and who emigrated to America in the pre-Civil War period had a Jewish grandmother. Both grandmothers has converted to Catholicism. This branch of Steve’s family—the one with roots in Stommeln—is among the most fiercely Catholic of all his family lines today.

Visiting the synagogue in Stommeln was one of the most moving experiences of my life. There was, first of all, the sense of continuity—of my own continuity with the community that had worshiped here for centuries and which was now gone. Of my continuity with Judaism as a Christian whose religion is the offspring of Judaism.

There was also a sense of inconsolable loss, of the absolute, definitive “removal” of an entire community of human beings who led lives here that contributed to their community for generations. Gone. All their contributions forgotten, denied, except for the synagogue, with its stark evidence of so much more that once flourished in Stommeln and other communities like it, through the Jewish presence.

As I think of Stommeln, I recall, too, our meeting with a local historian, a history teacher, who told us of his struggles to help his students remember what happened with the Holocaust—so that it may never happen again (http://neverinparadise.blogspot.com/2008/09/kln-10505-decentering-touches-and.html). Steve has remained in touch with this scholar. He continues to send Steve material about the history of the community, including its rich Jewish past.

I cannot forget, either, the monument of the Kneeling Jew that we came on entirely by accident on a visit to Vienna in 2003. It is in the Albertinaplatz, near the Albertina art museum. Immediately in front of this monument is a granite gateway called the Gateway of Violence, through which one passes to see the bronze monument of a Jew with barbed wire on his back, groveling as he is forced to scrub pro-Austrian slogans from the streets (http://neverinparadise.blogspot.com/2008/04/vienna-8703-heurigers-extra-early.html). The graphic at the head of this posting is a picture of this monument.

This monument by Alfred Hrdlicka commemorates actual events, the humiliation imposed on an entire population of people during the Nazi period. Also in a Catholic area. As a prelude to murder.

I remember, as well, a visit Steve and I made to a cousin of his who had been, like the current pope, a Nazi youth and a Nazi soldier. This was a cousin with whom Steve’s family had maintained contact over the years, someone who grew up in the same house in which his great-grandmother was born and lived in Moravia, in a Catholic German community, until she emigrated in the early 20th century. He had visited Steve's family several times in Minnesota. Because they are a large Catholic family with many far-flung branches, they hosted his visits in the local American Legion hall.

He was a . . . horrifying . . . man. He spoke of good S.S. officers, of the need for Germans to “cleanse” their land of the “filth” of African immigrants, who were taking over and stealing. He decried the willingness of the German Catholic church to support Bread for the World, using his money to allow the licentious Africans to continue breeding too many children, while the German population declined. He lamented the size of Poland—“all that land and so few people”—when Germany needed more room for its people.

He had, in short, learned nothing, nothing at all, from the defeat of Hitler. And he was Catholic—a point Steve insists on making when we talk about these issues. Because his struggle is to understand how a people born out of Judaism, who read the Jewish scriptures and have made those scriptures our own, who claim as Savior a Jewish man, how we can turn in hatred against the Jewish people.

He struggles to understand how his own people, Catholic Germans, a people committed by faith and baptism to healing the world, could have ripped the world apart by partaking in the mass murder of the Jewish people. And visiting those monuments close to his own history, memorials to the hatred that allowed this to happen, deepens rather than resolves these questions for him.

Just as visiting Auschwitz might trouble the certainty of Richard Williamson that no gas chambers were used to kill Jews in Nazi Germany, and that 300,000 and not 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis. As I say, I can understand Richard Williamson’s decision not to go to Auschwitz.

Having visited places—real places where real violence took place against real human beings—which document the history of Nazi Germany, but in which the level of violence was nowhere near so atrocious as that of Auschwitz, I can understand. If those places made such an impression on me, imagine what Auschwitz might do to Bishop Williamson.