Nazis and forgiveness

My family, friends, and colleagues know I speak out or act up when I see something I think is wrong. When asked why, my usual answer is that I was raised to examine and question things, to seek information, to make up my own mind, and to always behave in a way that is true to my values.

This explanation is true but incomplete, as it fails to convey my belief that silence is a form of acceptance and can be tantamount to endorsement.  I offer an anecdote from my childhood as an illustration of what I mean.  

My 8th grade history class (back when it was still called social studies) was learning about World War II. The day we talked about anti-Semitism, concentration camps like Auschwitz, and The Holocaust I volunteered during our discussion that my father had fled Vienna in 1938 because his father was Jewish. Our teacher asked if my father would be willing to talk to our class about his experience.

That night over dinner I asked him and he said yes. I was surprised. He had always been reticent about this era of his life. My sisters and I knew that he (and his sister) had been University students when they left because of the Nazis, but we knew little more than that.

He came on a Thursday morning the next week and spoke about the growing anti-Semitism he had experienced as a teen, manifest by comments about ‘the Jews’ and the problems they caused, made by teachers, local business people, neighbors, classmates, and politicians. He described how, as a first year University student after the Anschluss, he was barred from the University of Vienna where he had been enrolled and had to pay an Aryan student to retrieve his books from his locker. Despair about the future became fear for his life. At that time, the United States was not taking Jewish refugees: anti-Semitism was prevalent in the US and there was talk about the risk of admitting immigrants who were spies. He was fortunate enough to have a connection and be able to afford a bribe and was able to safely escape, first to England and in November 1938 he arrived in NYC with $55 and a suitcase. He attended college (Southwestern in Memphis, now Rhodes College) and then medical school, married and started a family,  served in the US Army, and now worked as a physician in the Bronx.  He explained that many of his friends from Vienna were not so lucky and illustrated this with a large picture of his Gymnasium (high school) graduating class and pointed out those who died in one or another concentration camp, one family that simply disappeared one night, and several who died trying to escape over the border. He showed pictures of two family members who had committed suicide because they could not escape and could not live with what was happening.

Most of this was new to me. And very upsetting.

After perhaps an hour, our teacher asked the class if anyone had any questions. There were several questions about details of his voyage, what Ellis Island was like, and how he was treated in the Army. Then my good friend Barbara Jo asked him if he had ever forgiven the Nazis for what they had done and the pain and fear they had caused him.  His answer forever changed my life.

He paused a moment and then said that he couldn’t answer her question because it was the wrong question. He explained, one would never consider forgiving a rattlesnake for being venomous, as that is simply the nature of rattlesnakes. He said it is pointless to talk about forgiving the Nazis for doing evil because that was their nature. Rattlesnakes are venomous. The Nazis were simply evil. Then he paused again, longer this time. When he resumed, his voice was low enough that we had to lean forward and strain to be sure we heard it. The people he had not forgiven and would never forget were the people who saw and heard both small and large bad things happening but did nothing and said nothing. H was clear about this. Among his neighbors, teachers, his dancing instructors, shop keepers, several of his fellow Boy Scouts were many individuals who were not Nazis. They could have been good people, he said. But, instead, they were silent in the face of evil. Their silence had made it possible and he could never forgive them for that.

I can’t overstate the incredible impact this had on me. In that moment, I understood why he had always supported and encouraged me to step up and speak out. Long before the turmoil of the ‘60s I internalized the belief that if you aren’t part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

Since that time, I consider it a moral imperative to speak and act my truth.