YOU HAVE STOLEN THEIR SOULS by Jean Peterson, 2nd installment
By the time we visited the cemetery in Herrnhut, we had already visited the White Rose memorial museum in Munich, and had spent a long morning the day before at the Flossenburg concentration camp, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed 9 April 1945.
When “new” prisoners were brought through the gates into Flossenburg concentration camp, if they asked when they would get out of this place, they were told frankly, “in about six weeks” … “You’ll be sent to the quarry to work, and in six weeks, you’ll be dead!”
At intake, the prisoners were herded into a large shower room, stripped of their clothing and any other personal possessions they had managed to retain until that time. They were stripped of their identity. They could no longer use their names. They were given numbers. At daily roll call, they had to answer immediately with that number. If they faltered, they had to start all over again. They were forced to stand at attention in all weather conditions. They were assigned ranks and a patch placed on their blue and white striped uniforms to identify them based on a hierarchical “caste system” classification, determined by who was considered most despicable or most to be degraded. There is now a sign at the shower room that says in essence, “You have stolen not only their clothes, but their souls.”
Professor em. Dan Olson writes about dehumanization: “The function of propaganda and spreading prejudice against groups of people is to dehumanize the ‘enemy,’ whoever that may be. Only when we look upon ‘the other’ as sub-human (as authorized by government propaganda or religious authorities), can ‘good’ people commit or tolerate such cruelties against the “inferior them” that we could not bring ourselves to do to other ‘human beings.’” (Dan Olson in “Evolution & Christian Understanding of Human Nature. 2002-2009 ) The groups of people who were dehumanized by the Nazis included not only prisoners of war (foreigners) but also Jews, the handicapped, homosexuals, “gypsies,’ and those of the “inner circle” who betrayed the Third Reich (“enemies of the State.”)
Children in U.S. schools during World War II were taught prejudice through government-authorized propaganda. We were taught that Germans and Japanese were evil – of the Devil. Posters caricaturized the enemy – particularly the “Japs” and Hitler. We were taught that Hitler was the most evil of men; but the “Japs” were far more dangerous. They were so “inhuman” that they glorified suicide and therefore were not afraid to go into combat to kill our men because they weren’t afraid to die in the process. They had no human feelings, or emotions, so they could tear us apart without giving it a second glance. We tend to overlook our inhumane treatment of the American Nisei in the containment camps in our Pacific Northwest and elsewhere in the United States.
In Neuendettelsau at the end of our trip, Sister Ruth spoke to us about the Deaconesses and teachers having been pressured by government (Third Reich) authorities into allowing their students to be loaded onto busses the government sent to take them away for “special education” or for “medical treatments” “for their good.” Martin Luther’s teaching that obeying the authority of government is a part of following the commandment to “Honor thy father and thy mother,” has been cited as a factor in their submission to government authority in this situation. Amidst tears of protest, children were torn away from those they trusted. One woman from town grabbed a child off the bus and kept him. I think they escaped or survived somehow, but I wondered what eventually became of them. The Sisters and teachers were deeply grieved later to learn that they had been betrayed, and that their wards had been tortured and executed in Holocaust.
Luther’s opinions on the Jews didn’t help. We Lutherans, collectively, still bear the guilt of believing what Luther wrote about the Jews. I came into the Lutheran Church as a young adult. I recall saying, “I’m not a genuine Lutheran, because I don’t agree with everything Luther wrote,” specifically, about the Jews. The ELCA recently issued an apology for Luther’s anti-Jewish remarks. Those apologies are words. How can simple words, much too late, salve or heal the wounds we (or our forebears) have inflicted on our neighbors for centuries?
German Resistance movements
Some of the German people did not sit passively by and accept Nazi Socialism and its atrocities. There was a resistance movement in Germany. This was the period of the emergence of the “Confessing Church.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer was prominent among these. Wartburg Seminary Professor Paul Leo belonged to the Confessing Church from the beginning. He was among those fortunate enough to escape the concentration camps and to have left Germany.
The young people, students in Germany did hear; did know what was happening. University students like White Rose martyrs in the German resistance movement risked their lives to spread the truth to the people who were being taken in by the Nazi propaganda. A young woman, Sophie Scholl, and her brother Hans Scholl gave their lives to the cause one Sunday afternoon by distributing leaflets to tell German citizens what was really happening. They were seized at the scene, “tried” on the spot, convicted, and executed within about two hours’ time, without even notification to their parents.
We worshipped at St. George Church in Eisenach on January 20 this year. An International Holocaust Remembrance Day is commemorated annually on January 27, not only in Germany and neighboring countries of Eastern Europe, but world-wide. January 27,1945, was the day that the Dachau camp was liberated. Both President Obama and Pope Benedict published remarks on this occasion in 2013. Some groups mark April 6-7 as a day of Remembrance for Holocaust victims.