05 August 2016

History and Reconciliation: A Path Forward

Berlin, Bronze Markers Where Jews Lived
In Germany, as one can imagine, the national project of historical remembrance is quite intense. Growing up in Milwaukee with a deep sense of Jewishness, with an acute awareness of my grandmother's immigration to the United States, of my father's pride in serving in the Army to fight fascism and Nazism, and of being that generation which defines its Jewishness in large measure by never forgetting the evil that had been done to us, I never really wanted to visit Germany.  The thought frightened me.  Germany was, in my young mind, the land that had perpetrated the greatest evil in human civilization.  I wanted to remain morally pure.

But of course, as one grows, learns, develops and evolves, one understands, however painfully, that evil is all around us.  That few of us, even if not perpetrators ourselves, are somehow, in some way, inheritors of, if not responsible for, systems of oppression.

The easiest examples in the American context can be found in what has been done to the Native American and African American populations as a result of establishing, building and developing the United States of America.  Surely it is axiomatic that Native Americans were victims of genocide and as a result of their encounter with Europeans, have experienced a near total erasure of their existence on the North American continent.  It is also axiomatic that Blacks, through the Middle Passage and the institution of slavery, experienced a near total destruction of family, faith, language and identity of origin that still, to this day, has had a devastating effect on contemporary Black life.

And while we may educate our young through history and social studies courses that have curricular units dedicated to a cursory examination of the American confrontation with Native populations and Black Africans brought here as slaves, we have yet to confront our moral and civic duty to remember and repent on anything of the scale approaching what I saw in Germany this summer.

I visited Munich and Berlin this summer before heading to Minsk, met with community leaders there and was able to see, in just a few short days, what an extraordinarily complex, dynamic, soul-searching place is Germany.  My host in both cities was the Janusz Korczak Akademie, an educational and community institution dedicated to the principles of learning and reconciliation among Jews and Germans, as well as the revitalization of a Jewish life that has historical antecedents dating back centuries.  Janusz Korczak was a Polish-Jewish pediatrician and educator who established an orphanage in the early decades of the twentieth century, which was eventually taken over by the Wehrmacht and Korczak died in Treblinka alongside his 196 children.  EJKA is run by a team of extraordinary young people, Jews from all over Europe who are committed to education, culture, memory and new Jewish life.

It's important to remember of course that Germany's Jewish population is comprised of nearly 300,000 people claiming some Jewish origin, the vast majority of Jews today come from outside Germany.  This means, of course that while German Jewish life was decimated by the Holocaust, the reclamation there is a complex melding of old and new, a familiar Jewish trope.  Russians, Israelis, Americans, Hungarians, Swiss, and others, as well as a remnant of the few thousand that proud and battered came back to Germany after the war.  This is not a new story, mind you.  Scholars and journalists have been writing about it for years.  But what most impressed me during my own experiences in both places was the deep commitment to what I'll call "moral remembrance," a broadly shared civic commitment to reconciliation.

A few examples immediately come to mind.  Within minutes of arriving at the Janusz Korczak Akademie in Munich, were given a stiff shot of coffee and handed a set of tickets to visit the NS Documentation Centre, which traces the founding and development of Nazi Party.  It's a stunning achievement of truth-telling and accountability, constructed among the Neo-Classical buildings of the Königsplatz where the Nazis held their first rallies.  From the graveyard of murderous National Socialism is a museum, crowded with tourists and, perhaps most important, German student groups, being led through the exhibits on in-depth seminars of confrontation with the brutal scars of German history.

This picture doesn't quite capture the drama of the museum's moving architecture but nevertheless I share it with you.  An archival photo of the crowded square in Nazi times, as viewed through the contemporary, documentary lens.

It allows an active engagement with the layering of history, a necessary maneuver for our understanding and evolution as human beings.

I saw and experienced this kind of layering over and over again:  in Dachau, with German college students talking to American college students about their family's sense of shame for their complicity in National Socialism along with the astounding statistic that more than one million people visit Dachau each year and thousands of those visitors are required lessons as part of school curricula; in Berlin, one can't walk down streets without stepping over bronze tiles that mark places where Jews had lived and what happened to them; or piles of stone, rubble, enclosed and marked, remnants of synagogues destroyed in Kristallnacht; or the German Resistance Memorial Center, which tells the story of numerous plots, however futile, to resist or even attempt to overthrow Hitler.  Stunning architecture and a fierce commitment to memory creating space for acts of reconciliation.  While we cannot reverse time and alleviate the senseless suffering of the past, there is, however humbly we choose to strive, a path forward.

Ovens.  Dachau
Deutschland Über Alles, Kurt Tucholsky from the Resistance Museum
All that remains of Rabbi Leo Baeck's Berlin Synagogue

Remains of Synagogue Destroyed in Kristallnacht
A path forward.  Forgiveness is really not possible for such crimes against humanity.  It's just not the appropriate word.  It doesn't really get at what needs to be done.  But to remember, to know our history, to reconcile ourselves to it, this seems possible.  And it's what I continually saw, over and over again.

In my next post, I'll pivot back to Belarus, where the commitment to remembrance and reconciliation is much more fraught.  Belarusian society, afterall, is not German society.  There are vast differences. And the effects of Sovietization and therefore how a society remembers and takes responsibility for the devastation of the Holocaust is a stunning, confusing, maddening, even infuriating encounter.  Suffice it to say that there is not a single building that was once occupied by Jews before the war:  synagogues, yeshivas, taverns, workshops, homes (and homes and homes and homes) that are marked as such.  Even the cemeteries, places of sacred memory, lie neglected and in ruins.  But for the saving grace of a few American philanthropists who are erecting markers in towns where Jews lives and were murdered--of the one million Jews who lives in Belarus before the war, more than 800,000 were killed, 80% of Belarusian Jewry--and committed educators, librarians and tour guides who heroically are trying to tell the story, one would never know that Jews lived there.

In the meantime, where I find myself these days is asking, as an American, what my responsibility to bear witness to those cultures here in the United States that were utterly and totally devastated by our own actions.  A museum to African American history is soon to open on the Washington Mall in DC but have we really done enough to know about and understand what slavery and racism have done not only to Black Americans but to ourselves?  And further, with the exception of a couple units in a grade school study, what do we really know about the Natives who proceeded European settlement in North America?  To what extent are we obligated to tell and take responsibility for their story?

As I look at my life unfolding into this next phase of my work, this question animates me like no other question has in a long time.  

Stay tuned.


Old First said...

Excellent connections made herein.

Catherine Lloyd Burns said...

Bryan Stephenson is talking about this too! It is so important. Lynching in America: A community Remembrance Project, for example, is an attempt at just this. I really do feel that we are in the midst of second civil rights movement and I pray that we get the job done. We have got to own what we did, acknowledge how we created this country not ignore the price that Black and Brown and Native American's paid and continue paying to be citizens of the land of free and the home of the brave.