Der Spindel is a quaint café in the center of Bad Segeberg that used to house a wool-processing factory. Because it was an unseasonably warm and sunny late summer day, our host Pastor Martin Pommerening suggested we sit outside.
The setting was pleasant, the conversation was delightful, the food was delicious, and then I looked up and noticed the tall chimney attached to the old wool factory. I shuddered as Israel’s Nobel prize winning poet Nelly Sachs’ famous poem seeped into my brain:
O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel’s body drifted as smoke
Through the air …
The impulse to run out of the courtyard was strong, but the atmosphere of friendship and the goal of reconciliation, which brought me to Germany, were stronger. I will never be free of evocative stimuli that will bring Holocaust reflections in their wake.
And yet …
Germany as a nation has done so much to try to atone for the horrors of The Shoah. That does not mean—nor should it—that we shall ever be free of our memories. But can we be free of the anger and antipathy they evoke?
By coming to Germany to teach and speak in synagogues and churches for ten weeks Vickie and I testify that our answer is, “We will try!” It is not always easy, but the effort that has gone into preparing for our trip makes it easier. I can only imagine the hours of time and energy that Pastor Ursula Sieg has devoted to every detail of our visit. The hospitality of Ursula and her husband Martin is so kind and genuine that we shall win this struggle. We shall win it over and over again every time there is a reminder of the horrors of the past.
Each year during The Days of Awe we examine our actions of the past year with a close eye on our shortcomings and the things, which we have done that we regret.
A crucial part of the process is to go to the people we have wronged and ask for their forgiveness. Without these steps our prayers for forgiveness that we shall say on Yom Kippur are meaningless.
And, our tradition teaches, when we sincerely approach someone we have insulted or hurt and ask them to forgive us, they have an obligation to do so. If they refuse us more than twice, the burden of the sin transfers to them!
I cannot speak for other Jews, but I have made the decision to heed and apply this teaching to our people’s greatest horror. Germany has asked our forgiveness so many times and in so many ways! As I ask those I have wronged to forgive me, I feel the obligation—even in this case–to forgive as well!
We cannot undo the past, but the future is ours to shape!