Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas and Forgiveness

I recently gave a talk about my parents and their experiences with the Nazis to Narci Drossos’s class at Valdosta High School in Georgia. I talked about my father who spent 4 years in Buchenwald and other camps around Buchenwald, and I talked about my mother who spent 2 and half years in various slave labor camps in Germany.

During the discussion after my talk, a young man asked me a question. I’m sure it was in part sparked by the Christmas season, the talk that you hear at this time of year about “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men.” He asked me whether or not I forgave the Germans for what they did to my parents.

The question stopped me. I haven’t thought about it before.

Of course, I had thought about whether or not my parents forgave the Germans. My father never met a guard he would forgive. They were brutal men who beat him and killed his friends for no reason. One sub-zero winter night, these guards ran roll calls over and over. Hundreds of prisoners in pajama thin clothes stood outside in the cold and snow. By morning, about a hundred prisoners were dead.

He felt anger toward all the Germans.
My mother seldom talked about her experiences during the war. If you asked her what they were like, most of the time she would just say, "If they give you bread, you eat it. If they beat you, you run away."

A lot of people say, forget it; it was all a long time ago. For my parents, it was never a long time ago.
My parents carried the pain and nightmares with them every day.

When my father was dying in a hospice, there were times when he was sure that the doctors and the nurses were the guards who beat him when he was a prisoner in the concentration camp. There were also times when he couldn’t recognize me. He looked at me and was frightened, as if I were one of the guards.

I don’t think he ever forgave the guards for what they did to him.

I remember asking my mom once toward the end of her life if she forgave the Germans. She thought for a while. I’m sure she was thinking about her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. They were killed by Germans who came to her farm house in eastern Poland. My mother saw this and escaped, at least for a while, by jumping through a broken window and making her way to a forest.

What my mother finally said surprised me. I thought she was going to say what I had heard my father say over and over that all the Germans were evil. But that’s not what she said. She told me a story about when she first was brought to Germany. She was taken to a camp where they worked the women just like they were men, making the women work sixteen, eighteen, twenty hour shifts, six days a week. She said that she knew she couldn’t survive that for long, maybe a week, maybe two.

She was saved by a German, a guard in a concentration camp.

For some reason, this German guard took pity on her. Who knows what his motives were? My mother often said that Germans thought she looked like a German, a niemka in Polish. Maybe this was what got her saved. Maybe not. Whatever it was that motivated this guard, he succeeded in getting her transferred to a different work area where the work was not killing work. She survived the war.

After telling me this story, she said, “Some Germans were good. Some bad. I forgive the good ones.”
All of this went through my head when the student asked me if I forgave the Germans, and here’s what I said to him, “I don’t forgive the stupid ones, the ones who think that what happened to my parents didn’t happen or it wasn’t as bad as people say.”
And I told this student why I was saying this. I told him how I had gone to an academic conference in Paderborn, Germany, in 1989, and I met a woman, a professor, there. We were chatting, and she asked me if I had ever been in Germany before. I said, “Yes, I have. I was born in Germany in fact, in Vinnenberg.”

She was surprised and asked me about this. I told her my parents had been kidnapped by the Germans and brought to work in the slave labor and concentration camps in Germany, and that I was born in a refugee camp after the war.

She said, “Your parents were lucky they were brought to Germany during the war. It was better for them here than in Poland. Here they got good food, shelter. Here they got to escape the chaos of the war.”

I looked at her and couldn’t believe that she could say such a thing. I thought about my father and mother and what they lost and suffered during the war, and I thought about how their lives after the war never shook the scars of the war. I thought about my father’s nightmares and his dead eye, the one blinded by a guard; and I thought about my mother’s coldness, her inability to feel much beyond grief and anger and hatred. I thought about how she directed that coldness and anger and hatred toward my father, my sister, and me.

I didn’t know what to say to this German professor, and didn’t say anything.

She was not the kind of person I could forgive. She was one of the stupid ones.

This is what I told the student who asked if I forgave the Germans. Some I forgave, the smart ones who recognized what had happened during the war. Some I didn't forgive, the ones who didn't recognize what had happened.

But later as I kept thinking about what the student had asked and what I had answered, I started thinking more and more about my mother. With all she had experienced in the war and with all of her coldness, anger, and hate, she was still able to find some human warmth in her heart. She was still able to forgive some Germans.
This makes me think that I should be able to do more than condemn the stupid ones and forgive the smart ones, that I should be able to feel more of the good will toward all of them than I do.

(The photo of the Buchenwald prisoners above was taken by Margaret Bourke-White, one of the first photographers to come to this concentration camp after the liberation.)


myshkin2 said...

Great post. It leaves me speechless.

Urkat said...

This is a really difficult subject to approach because my mother is German and had her own narrow escapes during the war and then married my Army soldier Dad and came here. She is the kindest person I know, so it's understandably hard for me to condemn all Germans, but neither do I forgive those who were intentionally and knowingly cruel, and there were many.

My Dad told me a story the other day about Mom's brother Dieter, how he served during the war and was captured by the Russians, and how the Russians used to make them pile out of the barracks in the freezing cold, in the early morning hours and stand naked waiting to be given a change of shabby clothing. The Russians amused themselves by firing shots over their heads. It was too cold outside to bury the prisoners who died, so they were piled in a corner of the barracks, and my German Uncle slept there night after night with his dead comrades piled in a corner of the room.

After the war, my Uncle had to sleep on the floor because he was used to sleeping on concrete and the bed was too soft.

My point is that suffering makes all men and women brothers and sisters.

Urkat said...

Let me just add John, that my mother and her relatives hailed from the same border region of Germany/Poland as your relatives, so geographically, we are closely related.

John Guzlowski said...

Manfred, thanks for telling me that story.

Suffering does make us brothers. I believe that.

My dad talked about the men he was with in the camps as his brothers--even when they stole his bread from him. They were still his brothers.

Maybe God or the forces in the universe visit us with suffering to remind us to be good, charitable, thoughtful of others. Maybe suffering is supposed to remind us to be good to others even when being good doesn't really make much difference, doesn't save the person we are trying to help.

D Goska said...

Hi, John.

A couple of thoughts.

First, about Germans.

As you know, John, I was born in the US of parents who had been in the US for a long time.

One of my earliest memories -- I was around kingergarten age -- was my mother putting me and my brother -- we were wearing matching nightgowns that my mother had sewn for both of us out of the same pattern -- on the couch and making us watch film footage of concetration camps.

"This is what the Germans did in our countries."

"Our countries" -- hers and my father's.

I was in no way "ready" for those images, so they affected me deeply.

Another memory -- going to Poland and being told, in church after church, museum after museum, "We used to have stained glass windows ... this or that work of art ... and then the Germans came, and destroyed ... stole ... smashed ... transported to Germany."

Another memory -- visiting with my relatives in Slovakia and seeing a look of overwhelming terror and defeat on their faces when they talked about the occupation.

A child never forgets that -- seeing adults looking so afraid.

So, yes, I had a problem with Germans.

Just one example -- I like opera, listen to it a lot, and when there is recitative -- conversation -- and it's a German opera, I have to get off and turn down the sound. I just don't like to hear German spoken.

Years ago I was dating a German man.

I said to him, and this was all I said, something like, "I have to talk to you about something,"

And he shot back, "I wasn't even born yet."

And he was right. He hadn't even been born yet.

I realized then that it was MY problem. I was prejudiced. I was manufacturing images in my mind of an entire nation. I had to dismantle those images.

About forgiveness --

I can forgive for two reasons:

I have been very bad. Not a lot; I'm not a death row serial killer with buckets of blood on my hands.

But I've done a few, specific, very bad things that damaged other people.

When I am judgmental of others, when I can't forgive, I re-inhabit those memories of the bad things I did to others. I look out through the eyes of someone who caused others pain. I animate those muscles.

And I can forgive.

A tougher case -- someone damaged me for life. A very long story.

I was able to forgive this person exactly because I prayed to Jesus, "I don't want to forgive this person. I am not interested in forgiving this person. I've been taught that you want me to forgive this person. If you want, I am opening a door right now in my soul. I am inviting in your gift of forgiveness, if that is what you want from me. I will do it for you, if you enter through that door."

And that is exactly what happened, within hours, in fact.

This was not an "abstract" forgiveness; this was not a small thing to forgive. Again, this person damaged me for life, and I was with that person, in the flesh, within hours of my praying that prayer, and I was able to inhabit Christ's desire for forgiveness in a way that had an impact, at a key moment, on the wrongdoer's life.

My forgiveness is not about me. It is about me making myself disappear so that Jesus may act through me.

My forgiveness, then, is about the choice to allow Jesus to inhabit me.

Urkat said...

Danusha, The things I have done in the past that were less than exemplary have made me more tolerant of others. Freud was right, events in childhood often have profound and far-reaching consequences. It still makes me sad, makes me want to lead a monastic life of prayer when I read of things some people inflict on others. I'm not what you'd call a religious person, but I believe in the power of prayer. Thanks for sharing.

D Goska said...


"It still makes me sad, makes me want to lead a monastic life of prayer when I read of things some people inflict on others"

You can make a retreat to a monastery. To give the monastic life a test drive, as it were.

Urkat said...

If they would let me play my trumpet in there, I might do it--haha

Tbart said...

I don't believe in condemning an entire nation or people, and I reject notions that there are things about the German character or personality that can account for what happened. German people of the WWII generation had various degrees of responsibility and guilt. But some level of responsibility was very widespread in German Society in light of the facts. I also don't believe that the "sins of the father's are visited upon the sons". I have nothing at all against Germans of following generations. They are only responsible for their own belief's and actions, and I have my attitude and opinion about them much as I do anyone else. In 2002 I had the opportunity to accompany a group of young Germans on a tour of my families "shtetl" in Eastern Poland. It was among the more profound experiences of my life. This entire question in many ways is about much more than just Germans, Poles, or Jews. It's about what it means to be human, and what we need to survive as beings created in the image of god.

Unknown said...

This is a very good article with a compelling argument for a difficult situation. My thoughts go back to what Jesus said about forgiveness in Luke 23:34 when he was being crucified:
I'm also reminded that Jesus took Paul, who had persecuted people to their deaths, as his disciple after he repented.

Unknown said...

There is so much that I cannot really understand or even "absorb" about the experiences discussed here. I do want to say that I especially appreciated Danusha's comments.

Sari Friedman said...

Thank you for a truly meaningful post.