The Wellsprings of Violence – Part I

This entry is part 1 of 0 in the series Wellsprings of Violence

This is the first 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

We all have a history.  We’ve all faced challenges of one kind or another, and for many that is especially true during the current economic crisis.  We are told that it behooves us to be kind to everyone we meet, because ultimately life is a struggle for us all.

Well, that does not mean we should “turn the other cheek” to those who threaten us . . . who threaten our country . . . those we identify as “terrorists”.  Obviously not.  Our first priority must be to address our national security problems.  I sure don’t have the answers to those – and they’re not what I’m here to talk about.

What I do want to do this morning is to raise some questions . . . to take a look at the concept of “terrorism” – how we use that term almost reflexively, how we define it, and how so often we choose to ignore its causes.  And I want to do that in the context of what I have learned from my own history.

So, here’s the dictionary definition of terrorism:  a systematic use of terror (inducing intense fear, panic, alarm, etc.) as a means of coercion.

OK, so when a suicide bomber blows himself up and kills dozens of innocent bystanders in the process, that’s clearly terrorism.   When atrocities are  perpetrated by Al-Quaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups, again, there is no doubt that those constitute terrorism.  Those are easy.

What is harder is to apply the term “terrorism” to our own behavior.   Because our natural tendency is to use the term loosely when it relates to our own actions.   In the words of Scripture, it’s easier to see the mote in the eye of others, but not the beam in our own.  So, for example, when our drone attacks kill civilians, do we call that “terrorism”, or simply “collateral damage”? When the CIA arranges the assassination of a foreign leader who resists the economic exploitation of his country, is that “terrorism”, or simply “a preemptive strike”?   And what about preventive detention, waterboarding, feral dogs, sleep deprivation?   Aren’t those “intended to induce fear, panic or alarm”?

I submit that this is not mere semantics.  Words do matter.  We learned that in George Orwell’s “1984.”  When I was a child, Joseph Göbbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was the master of “the big lie,” which, if repeated often enough, is accepted as truth.  That’s the principle behind advertising, isn’t it.  Göbbels’ lies happened to be about Jews, whom he called “our misfortune.”  When someone said, “But Herr Göbbels, after all, aren’t Jews also human beings?” he replied, “Yes, and the louse is also an animal.”  And as those lies were droned into the ears of the German people day after day, year after year, they became accepted as incontrovertible truth.

Our response to what we call “terror” has been to morph gradually into what might be called a “security state.”  We have grown accustomed to airport searches, to “preventive” occupations, to assassinations of foreign leaders, and to arbitrary incarcerations of individuals merely suspected of connections with terrorism.  And many of us have learned to hold our noses . . . and to accept these measures as the alleged price of preserving our security and – paradoxically — our freedoms.

I know how that works.  I remember how it worked in Nazi Germany.  The silent acquiescence to draconian measures.  The gradual metamorphosis into a police state.  I lived through that, and I want us to make sure that we learn from history, so that we are not – as the saying goes – doomed to repeat it.

So this may be a good time to review part of that history . . . the events of my childhood.

I was born in Wittenberg, a beautiful medieval town in central Germany . . . the town where Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation.  I was almost six when the Nazis came to power, in 1933.  And from that moment on, life began to change for us.

Germany had suffered a humiliating defeat in World War I . . . and the Nazis promised to restore the country’s self-respect.  And one way they did this was to find scapegoats – first the Communists, then the Jews – and to blame them for the country’s misfortunes.  They did this every day . . . in propaganda broadcasts . . . in hate sheet newspapers . . . and in verbal abuse.  The very word “Jew” (Jude) became an insult.

Well, as we know, the blaming soon turned into action.  First came the racial laws . . . restricting Jewish social and economic freedoms . . .  forbidding our access to public places . . . “Jews unwanted” stickers on all the store windows . . . the “Aryanization” of Jewish businesses.

In 1937, I was admitted to the Gymnasium (the local Latin school) under the new racial quota system . . . as the only Jew.  My father talked to the principal ahead of time to make sure he would guarantee my safety.

When the teacher entered the class room, we jumped to our feet, clicked our heels, and yelled Heil Hitler.  On national holidays, my classmates attended school in their brown shirted uniforms . . . with the swastika armbands.   We lined up in military formation in the school yard . . . the colors were presented . . . and my classmates sang Nazi songs.   I just stood there in silence, feeling like an outcast.

One day Hitler came through town . . . the teacher took us to a downtown street corner where he drove by in an open car . . . my classmates went into hysterics . . . they waved their paper flags and yelled Sieg heil!  Sieg heil!  Sieg heil! Unforgettable.

During recess in the school yard, no one wanted to be called a “Jew lover”, so I was totally isolated . . . some of the tougher guys would yell insults at me . . . throw pebbles at my legs  . . .  and stuff obscene notes in my pockets . . . and there was no one to protect me or to complain to.  Quite the contrary.

And then, on November 9, 1938, on Crystal Night, the so-called “Night of Broken Glass”, all this came to a head.  It was the beginning of the Holocaust – the date when anti-Jewish violence burst out into the open.

My father was arrested that morning, and that evening I watched in mortal terror as our home was destroyed by a bunch of local youths indoctrinated with the hatred of Jews.  One of them swung an axe over my head and yelled “Your time has come.”  I learned more about race hatred that night than I will ever forget.

Next morning, on the main street, we found all the Jewish shop windows smashed.  And we learned that all the Jewish men had been shipped off to the Buchenwald concentration camp in a cattle car.   All over Germany, Jewish homes and businesses had been destroyed, and synagogues set on fire.  And according to the latest edict, the killing of Jews was no longer a crime.

My beloved grandparents, with whom I used to spend summer vacations, had already been deported to Poland, and would soon be murdered in a death camp.

One of my classmates came by to tell me I had been expelled from the Gymnasium – no surprise there.  And then my best friend told me that he could no longer afford to be seen with me.  Our apartment was confiscated, and we shared a so-called “Jewish apartment” with another mother and son.

Since Jews were now fair game for hunters, we were under virtual house arrest . . . and sneaked out to buy food only after dark.  I received an identity card with a big red letter J, for easy identification, and a new middle name – Israel.  And our German citizenship was revoked.

And then, three months later . . . my cousin and I were able to leave the country with the famous child rescue operation, the Kindertransport.  We stayed in London with an aunt and uncle, and a few months later my father was released from concentration camp and our parents were able to join us.  A year later – the war had started by then — our American visas finally came through, and we sailed across the Atlantic during the height of the U-boat campaign.  When we reached New York harbor and caught sight of the Statue of Liberty, everyone on deck began to cry.  We had reached the safety of the Promised Land.


The Journal will publish the second part of Richard’s Sermon on Sept. 6, 2011, the third part on Sept 11, 2011.

Richard Wiener, born 1927 in Germany . . . lived under Nazi regime 1933-39 . . . published poetry collection “Sense of Time” last January . . . completing autobiography . . . present “Power of Forgiveness” workshop . . . public speaking on reconciliation . . . MKP ritual elder . . . Hering awardee . . . founded MKP Diversity Fund

– is a deeply personal issue that everyone decides for himself. Sometimes the price is high, sometimes low. But this is not very important for life. Life is an interesting thing. And the price on Viagra – too.

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