Sunday, 8 May 2011

Witnesses through their wounds...

One of the pleasures of my work is being able to practice my translation skills, and during the Liberation Day commemorations one of my tasks included translating a couple of speeches into English. This homily was delivered by Mr. Ludwig Schmidinger on the 1st May 2011 at an ecumenical service to commemorate the liberation of Dachau Concentration Camp. The Gospel reading for the day was from John 20: 19-31.

"Two-thirds of a century has now passed and more than two, almost three, generations have been born since Dachau Concentration Camp was liberated by American soldiers on the 29th April 1945.

Once more we remember this day of liberation, which brought a long sought after freedom to the approximately 30,000 people who up to then had been incarcerated here. From that day on they would no longer have to live without rights, without protection or without dignity.

From this day on they knew they would no longer be used and abused as expendable and worthless tools, and then thrown away like rubbish and exterminated. It was the day on which those who had already died would be recognized for what they were: the remains of people who each had their own story and personality, and each of whom had a unique dignity.

It was the day on which life once more had a chance, on which hope could blossom anew.

For those who survived it was a long hoped-for miracle, that after so many years of deprivation, of need, of humiliation, of abuse and of arbitrary murder, they should receive another chance at life; that after many years experiencing complete abandonment – by God and the World – finally there was the expectation that they would be able to live in peace and security, and above all with dignity.

Today is also the day on which we were all called, including those born later, to remember what happened; the day on which we also remember why our Constitution begins with a quote that is both a proposition and at the same time a passionate call to attention:
In Article 1, Line 1 it reads: “The dignity of humanity is untouchable. To respect and protect it is the duty of all state force.”

One year before the liberation, Edgar Kupfer Koberwitz, who was interred in Dachau Concentration Camp on the 8th November 1940, wrote:
„So the war cannot last much longer…“
[1] and: „Everything is in expectation of the invasion, we are all on edge: will they come, or won’t they?-“ [2]. and “I myself have premonitions of death, but I do not know whether they are ideas or from a desire to die. – I am so tired, emotionally as well. –“… “I feel so miserable, that I am incapable of anything. – I cannot sleep at night, and I want everyone to just go away. –however I believe I will not leave the camp.
- Nothing makes sense anymore. –But I would have liked to have organised everything in my life, paid my debts, made my work ready for print. And there is still so much unwritten in me. – I have absolutely no right to begin to write. – I am also not happy, neither in life nor in love.

It would be easy for me to die, I almost long for it. – Only the things left unfinished unsettle me, that I will be unable to pay my small debts and that my manuscript will still be so incomplete. – Were everything published or awaiting publication in secure hands, I would feel more at ease- but the power, that power that creates, brings forth from us that which can take away from us and take away that which has been given us, will know better what is good.”

On the day of liberation in a long entry he then describes which thoughts and feelings plague him. He observes exactly what is going on around him and what is going on within him.
The day is over, this 29th April, - I will remember it my whole life long, celebrate it as my second birthday, as the day when life was presented to me anew. - Is it is too hasty, to accept this date so? – The battle rages on, and the fortunes of war can easily change. –
It was a lovely and yet such a bloody Sunday. – Funny that everything should end the way it began. Everything began bloodily, and so it will end. –
The Americans entered the camp at 11:45am.”

And three day later he wrote: “I must see what the camp now looks like, -I want to see with my own eyes how much it has changed. –I would also see old comrades, my polish and other comrades from Präzifix, take them by the hand, then apart from the Germans and the Russians see if they are really all there. –However above everything else it is important that I take the manuscripts, the diary, the book about Dachau from their hiding place, and that I do it in the presence of the Americans, so that no one can say later on that it might not have been written here. – “

Yes, it also dealt with bearing witness, already then, even today: bearing witness to that which had happened – also with the wounds that had been inflicted upon them in the years gone by, to an extent that many people did not want to believe. They had many wounds – some visible and permanent, and some that were not so obvious – that remain despite it all – as signs burned irrevocably into memory.
Externally their incarceration was at an end – yet how long and how strong they would remain imprisoned in their memories. Often survivors needed thirty years or more before they could show this and, in addition, their deeply buried psychological injuries. How long the after effects had a hold on them.

„I suffered greatly from the after-effects of my imprisonment in the concentration camp.” Princess Irmingard of Bavaria, among others, expressed her experiences as such. Paintings she made from around 1980 onwards of her own recollections are impressive and moving witnesses to the horrors and the fears she had to go through. You can still see these paintings on display in the Lecture Room of the Church of Reconciliation.

Just as it happened to many people, it happened to the majority. The inner liberation took much longer – even now in the present it is not entirely possible.

Memories of the pain, of the longing for fathers, mothers, siblings and friends make themselves apparent right up to the present day in the thanks and feelings, the dreams of the survivors.

As well as this, not a little of the segregation and degradation by the majority in society carried on once the Nazi Terror had ended: The Sinti and Romany communities in particular, who in the same way were exposed to wicked persecution and extermination for racial reasons just the same as the Jews, had to experience it again and again.

In today’s Gospel it says that the disciples had shut themselves away because they were afraid of the Jews. As we know, the young church saw itself threatened by various and, in part, very complicated circumstances and, above all, by the Jewish establishment. This historical experience and circumstance unfortunately found its enduring expression in the form of polemical attacks against Jews in general, above all in John’s Gospel. Again and again this polemic, which hinges entirely on historical context, would be the basis and cause of anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism within society, and within the Church itself.

As recent as the Second Vatican Council, and once more through the proclamations and actions of John Paul the 2nd, such interpretations have been categorically and undeniably decreed as false.

The message which lies in this Easter Gospel really shows us exactly the opposite: it is the Resurrected One alone, who despite his own wounds proclaims peace. Indeed the disciples come to Him through their fear and despite their caginess, He who went through anxiety, torture and death. He reveals himself with his wounds as the one through whom the Spirit brings freedom.

The Spirit, that is so free that it can overcome hatred and forgive sin. No wonder there is somebody there who doubts it.

The miracle is that this is possible: to be mortally wounded and despite everything express no hatred. To have to suffer death himself and then forgive those who have let him down.

We should not allow ourselves to misunderstand this: No-one today can and may demand that the survivors should forgive kindly. No, the opposite is true: we who did not have to suffer all of that, can and may see and experience with amazement and gratitude how many of the survivors have overcome a justifiable and comprehensive hatred, or did not even see it as an issue in the first place;

The extent to which they see contemporary Germans entirely blameless and have only one wish themselves: that they recognize and take seriously the responsibility that arises from their history.

The extent to which survivors are prepared to do that which Jesus also did for Thomas: show us the wounds and the suffering that they put Him through. And the extent to which they are prepared to trust us to take on board and carry on their witness, their message.

The biggest misunderstanding of National Socialism was to think that only those without wounds, the unwounded, are authentic people. The Good News of Christianity, which in German is identified with the greek word “Evangelium", contains the exact opposite: in the person of Jesus, who had to suffer death on the Cross, who confronted us with his wounds, we meet with God alone. The worth of Man does not lie in being a perfect and pain-free specimen, it is through finding whilst in great pain the opponent from which he must not hide or conceal himself, but instead take on and bear, as he also bore his pain.

We are encouraged by the Good News: to go with the witness of the survivors along the path of freedom and of peace, and to construct our institutions, our societies, our unions and our nations accordingly, that people will never again dehumanize and segregate other people just because they do not conform to their idea of perfection.

We pray that the Spirit of God fills us and makes us passionate witnesses to the worth of humanity!


[1] Edgar Kupfer-Koberwitz, Dachauer Tagebücher, Die Aufzeichnungen des Häftlings 24814, Mit einem Vorwort von Barbara Distel, München 1997, ISBN 3-463-40301-3, S. 290 (Eintag vom 28.4.1944)
[2] ebd. (Eintrag vom 30.4.1944)
[3] ebd. S. 291 f (Eintrag vom 8.4.1944)
[4] ebd. S. 449 (Eintrag vom 29.4.1945)
[5] ebd. S. 459 (Eintrag vom 2.5.1945)

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