Where your treasure is…

It’s been more than fifty years since der Kniefall von Warschau, Willy Brandt’s spontaneous embodiment of German remorse and responsibility for the annihilation of Poland’s Jews. When asked after the event why he knelt, he said, “Unter der Last der jüngsten Geschichte tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Worte versagen. So gedachte ich Millionen Ermordeter.” (“Under the burden of recent history, I did what people do if words fail. That is how I remembered (the) murdered millions.”) Guy Raz recently recalled the moment on a Facebook post, placing it in a contemporary American context. I quote it here in full:

Whenever I hear white Americans say “my family had nothing to do with slavery so why should I apologize” I think of Willy Brandt.

Willy Brandt was Germany’s Chancellor from 1969 to 1974. In 1970, he made an historic visit to Poland. Brandt came to the site of the Warsaw Ghetto—an open-air walled prison where the Nazis forced Jews to live before “liquidating” it in 1943. Brandt came to acknowledge Germany’s culpability in the murder of 3 million Polish Jews—90% of the country’s Jewish population and nearly half of the 6 million Jews killed and burned to ash by the Nazis.

Brandt was there to lay a wreath. But as he approached the memorial, he fell to his knees in anguish. It was an act of deep humility and courage. At the time, there were older Germans who hated it. Who saw it as a sign of weakness. Brandt’s gesture could not bring back 6 million murdered Jews or the millions of European civilians also murdered. But it was the beginning of Germany’s true reckoning with the past.

It’s important to add that Willy Brandt fled Nazi Germany as a young man and survived the war in hiding as a dissident. He was a marked man by the Nazis often escaping capture and death. So if anyone had an excuse to say “I’m not responsible for what my country did”—it was him. But Brandt understood that he was part of a society that committed mass murder on an unimaginable scale. And he had to act.

Brandt knelt in Warsaw a few years before I was born. But as a descendant of victims, I remember learning about what he did—even as a child. It wasn’t going to erase the past…but it was a start toward reconciliation and building a more just society

As a boy in the early 1980s, I remember my parents had friends in their 40s (close to my age today) who had numbers tattooed on their arms. Holocaust survivors. They were young and vibrant. I remember that. And by that time, their trauma had been recognized by much of the world. It didn’t change their pain and the nightmares of their lived experiences but also they knew that their suffering had been acknowledged. That matters.

Germany is an imperfect country. I know. I lived there. But the average German knows and understands the details and legacy of the mass murder and persecution their forbears committed. German schoolchildren visit the remains of death camps. There are monuments to the murdered Jews of Europe across the country. There are national days of mourning. You’d be hard pressed to find a public monument to any Nazi. In fact you won’t because they are not allowed.

Now imagine in the US, we have monuments to men who fought a war to preserve the institutionalized terrorization and enslavement of African Americans. Every day, millions of African Americans in cities throughout the US pass those statues. It’s not just a reminder of their oppression. But a reminder of their country’s failure to reckon with the past.

In Germany, there are still racist and anti-Semitic people. That exists around the world. No society is immune. But expressing pro-Nazi views or denying the cruelty of their Nazi past is culturally unacceptable—and in some cases, illegal. It means that—as a general rule—German society has been able to develop into a healthier and more just society.

Does every German like it? No. There are plenty who bitterly resent the fact that their national institutions memorialize the murdered Jews of Europe. But they are a distinct minority of people whose voices are roundly condemned and quashed. Because Germany knows that hatred—at the end of the day—is self corroding. It is bad for Germany.

Most schoolchildren in the United States still do not learn that “plantations” were concentration
camps where terror, rape, assault and brutal family separation took place. They do not learn about the generations of families ripped apart at the snap of a finger. Or the immense wealth that was created and passed on (to this day) by people who benefited from the free labor of enslaved humans. And that for more than 100 years after the civil war, African Americans continued to be terrorized by the state apparatus.

I believe if more white Americans understood these and so many other horrors of the black experience in America—and truly committed ourselves to a reckoning—with both real and symbolic reparations—our country would become stronger, more just, healthier and prouder.

Some readers will, no doubt, bristle at likening post-war Germany’s reckoning with its Nazi past to any future US reckoning with the still festering wounds of race-based chattel slavery. Others may find Mr. Raz’s hopes for a robust American reckoning overly optimistic. I, being a hopeful pessimist, tend toward the latter opinion, but we – by whom I mean all people of good will – owe it to past, present, and future generations to commit to such an effort.

At a time when politically slanted news industry outlets and dubious internet information sources make it possible to live without one’s assumptions and resentments ever seriously questioned, even the past becomes balkanized into competing and highly selective versions. (For the record, I believe Mr. Raz’s thoughtful and pertinent remembrance is presented as a personal statement rather than in his capacity as a National Public Radio journalist. Do with that as you will.) My point is twofold.

First, words and actions can harm or heal. It is better to speak, write, and act as if other people mattered than to “own” those with whom one disagrees. To do that, we must first listen, trusting that even one’s enemy has a fragment of the whole truth all need to hear. It helps to remember that most people most of the time do what they imagine to be right, however mistaken they may appear. It also may help to remember that while suffering is never equally distributed, it is universal. When your enemy suffers, do you choose Schadenfreude or compassion?

Second, there is no “we” without a shared past. As the Dene leader and First Nations activist, George Erasmus, said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.”

Neither patiently listening for the other’s hidden fragment of truth nor building common memory comes easily. They are difficult habits that can only be learned through persistent effort. The beginner’s experience will likely include humiliating failures, bitter responses, and occasions for apology. Some of those apologies, like Willy Brandt’s unplanned genuflection, will be public and painful, demanding not just words, but material restitution. That’s no reason not to begin.

It’s ultimately a question of courage, a word that comes from the Latin cor, meaning “heart.” What do we love more: our individual grievances, fears, and certainties or our shared humanity? Hard work becomes impossible if our affections are directed elsewhere. However trite, simplistic, or sentimental it may sound, the necessary work of reconciliation can only be undertaken as a labor of love – not the treacly, feeling-driven love of rom-coms and celebrity marriages but the harsh and dreadful love of Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima. Women and men will not defend what they do not love. As Margaret Schlegel says to the unsentimental Henry Wilcox in Howard’s End, “’It all turns on affection now,’ said Margaret. ‘Affection. Don’t you see?’”

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