One of the most profoundly moving experiences I had at the Shoah fellowship had little to do with history or politics or even disturbing images of Holocaust victims. It had to do with a connection I felt to a man I’d only seen once before in my life, but who resonates on almost the same frequency I do about something difficult and heartbreaking.
I saw this man at a symposium at Local U. a few years ago, when he came to talk about the experiences of someone growing up on the “German” side of the “German/Jewish” experience in Nazi Germany. I remember being intrigued by him, and I was both surprised and delighted to see that he’d come to speak to the fellows at this conference.
This man, Martin, grew up in Germany during the second world war and came to find out that his father was a Nazi. Not only was his father a Nazi, but he was an active member of the party to the extent that he participated in the establishment and maintenance of a concentration camp.
He utilized slave labor.
He enabled atrocities.
Though Martin doesn’t know for sure that his father was directly responsible for anyone’s death – he never indicated that he knew his father pulled a trigger – he does know for certain that his father was complicit in the suffering of concentration camp prisoners, and this is a burden that he’s carried with him, in an almost palpable way, for a great many years.
During a conversation that was had as part of a workshop, Martin admitted, baldly and with a tortured feeling of uncertainty, that he’s never told his now-grown children about what their grandfather did. He says that every time he talks about his family publicly, he moves a little closer to finding whatever strength he requires to be able to have this conversation with his kids, but he’s not quite there yet. He suspects that his three adult children already know – or, at least, suspect – that their grandfather had an unseemly past, but Martin hasn’t worked up whatever it would take for him to speak of it out loud and, perhaps, to be responsible for the dashing of whatever happy memories the kids have of their grandfather.
It tore my heart out.
It was just about here that someone stood up and had the unmitigated gall to berate Martin for this choice. “What right,” she actually said that – what RIGHT – “do you have to keep the truth from your children? They need to know the truth, and it is wrong for you to keep it from them.”
I was appalled. First of all, there was NO need for this kind of disrespect. Martin was entirely vulnerable, and it was clear to everyone in the room that this is something that keeps him up at night (well, perhaps it wasn’t obvious to the boor who stood up to pass judgment, but whatever). He was offering us a gift in his story, and we had an obligation to respect and honor that.
Second, no one – NO ONE – has ANY right to judge another’s decisions when it comes to something like this. Unless we’ve walked in similar shoes, we ought to be mindful that we don’t know the whole story and that this kind of condemnation isn’t going to serve anyone.
I fumed about this for a while, then went to bed. As I was lying there, I was trying to figure out what it was about Martin that resonated with me so strongly.
Then it hit me.
I saw him the next morning, sitting off to the side of the circle the fellows had made in preparation for the day’s workshops in the common room of the dorm. I knelt down next to him, put my hands over his in his lap, and apologized for the way he was treated the day before. “I think I understand, in a small way, the way you feel about telling your children about what your father did,” I told him. “I was abused as a child. As a result, I have no contact whatsoever with my biological parents; I’m not even sure where they are. I made the choice to keep my children from my parents, and people have come to me to tell me, blatantly and to my face, that I have no right to do that – that it’s wrong of me to keep my children and their grandparents apart because their relationship has nothing to do with me. People say that it’s likely that my parents would be just fine with my children, and that I’m selfish and petty to keep them from exploring that relationship. I, however, have no regrets about my decision, but I understand how difficult your position is. You’re trapped in an impossible place – either way, someone loses.”
He looked down at me with such kindness in his eyes and said “Yes, you do understand. We are approaching the same problem from opposite sides.” Then he thanked me for telling him my story (imagine! My story is nothing!) and squeezed my hand. I got up and found my place at the workshop feeling like I’d done something important – that we’d connected in a real and meaningful way. It was the most important moment of the entire week for me.
It turns out that Martin lives in my general neighborhood. I’m going to try to spend some time with him. I want to get to know him better; his work in theology the burden of memory intrigues me, and I genuinely like him. Though we’re generations apart, we have something very important in common.