The Wellsprings of Violence – Part II
This is the second part of a Sermon delivered by Richard Wiener, who experienced the Holocaust first hand as a Jewish child in his native Germany. Richard is a Ritual Elder in the ManKind Project.
Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, Maryland
August 28, 2011
My reason for sharing this story with you is to show how it eventually led me to my life mission: to help create a world of peace and harmony, by advocating reconciliation among both individuals and nations.
This did not happen overnight. Decades had to pass before I understood that my childhood experiences had a silver lining — a gift of deepened insight . . . and a capacity for compassion . . . and ultimate forgiveness.
In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I returned for the first time to Wittenberg, the town I thought I had left forever 51 years earlier.
The town looked like a time capsule. Because it dates from the Middle Ages . . . founded in the 13th century . . . it had escaped bombing during the Second World War. We drove past the old market place, where the farmers still came twice a week to sell their produce . . . and it seemed like yesterday . . . nothing seemed to have changed . . . except that the houses looked rundown and shabby after 45 years of Soviet occupation.
We visited my old school, the Gymnasium . . . and in the school yard, with its tall chestnut trees, I told my son how I had always dreaded recess. “Come on, dad,” he replied. “Let’s take a memorial lap around the school yard.” And so we did, and that short run was transformational — one of those rare moments when the past becomes just that . . . the past.
Next day, the mayor of Wittenberg received us in the beautiful Renaissance town hall, and gave me a medal commemorating the fate of the Wittenberg Jews, many of whom had been murdered. And then we spent a few days with my childhood friend Wolfgang and his wife, and I began to learn what had become of my former classmates during World War II. Most of them had been drafted when they turned 15 . . . and many had been killed or permanently injured.
For the first time, I began to realize how much suffering the Nazis had inflicted not only on the Jews, but on the entire German population. And with that realization, I started to see my former persecutors not as evil, but as human beings, as individuals who had been swept up in mass hysteria . . . and who had acted out the script that had been provided for them. It was the start of my journey of reconciliation . . . but only the start.
In 1997 I returned to Wittenberg for an alumni reunion at my old school. This time, I would be meeting my former classmates, and that really scared me. How would they feel about seeing me again? Would they feel guilty about the way they had treated me way back then? Maybe some of them were still anti-Semites. I thought about all that, but in the end I decided to take the risk.
And this time, in the grand auditorium of the Gymnasium, I was seated in the front row with the honored guests. The principal introduced me, along with the Minister of Education and other dignitaries. She described me as a man who was forced to leave the school “long ago under difficult circumstances (everyone understood what that meant) . . . and who had come all the way from America to show that he still cared about the school. At the mention of my name, the entire audience burst into applause. I sat there, gripping the arms of my chair . . . and trying hard to hold back the tears.
That night, there was a class dinner. A couple of dozen of my former classmates showed up, most of them with their wives. Among them were professors, doctors, lawyers like myself. We took turns sharing what had become of us since we left school. When my turn came, I told them what it was like to be the only Jew in the Gymnasium during the Nazi years . . . and particularly about having been persecuted in the school yard. Everyone fell silent. I saw a few tears in men’s eyes.
At the end of the evening, as we were putting on our coats, one of the men – a short fellow named Horst — came up to me. He seemed acutely embarrassed. And then he blurted out, “Richard, I need to tell you something . . . I was one of the ringleaders . . . and I want to ask for your forgiveness.”
I had waited all my life for these words. And when they came, I burst into tears, and so did Horst. We embraced, and all that had passed between us so many years before melted away in an instant.
The moment was so healing for me – for both of us – that it remains one of the turning points of my life. After I returned to America, I decided to pass on to others the gift I had received. And so began my workshop, The Power of Forgiveness, in which I share how healing it is for us – for all of us — to let go of our hatred and resentment of others. No matter how terrible were the things that were done to us, it is within our power to forgive and to let go of the burden of resentment and anger we have been carrying.
I have returned to Wittenberg every year or two since then. It now feels safe for me to do so. I have been repeatedly interviewed by the German press, and have had several articles published in an historical annual. Several years ago, my name was entered in the Golden Book of the city, and last October, on the 20th anniversary of German reunification, the citizenship which I lost as a child was restored to me before hundreds of guests . . . I became the only living honorary citizen of my old hometown. The wheel had come full circle.
The Journal will publish the second part of Richard’s Sermon on Sept. 6, 2011, the third part on Sept 11, 2011.