Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
It was supposed to be just a pleasant walk through the woods by the picturesque River Trave in Bad Segeberg. The moss at river’s bottom gave the water a green hue I had never seen before. Tree branches with leaves still green despite the beginning of fall drooped over the bank. We rounded a bend and there it was: a crudely painted swastika scarring the trunk of a tree to our right.
I shuddered! I whirled around as for a fleeting second imagined Nazi soldiers hiding behind the trees waiting to drag me away. But the fear vanished as quickly as it came.
Our host, Pastor Martin Pommerening, apologized profusely that we had to see this sight. “But Martin,” I responded, “You have nothing to apologize for! You are the antithesis of this swastika. We bask in the warmth and love of your hospitality.” “Moreover,” I continued speaking silently to myself. “You and Ursula (his wife Pastorin Ursula Sieg) work tirelessly to learn about Judaism and to educate Germans about Jews. You both have spent countless hours over many months preparing every detail of our 10-week visit. We are partners in a sacred enterprise, and I will not let a random reminder that there are a few who wish to return to the past do anything but strengthen my resolve to work with you toward the goals we both cherish.”
Often people tell me, why don’t you just forget the past and look to a brighter future? There are two answers to that question.
First, my walk in the woods proved once again, as Dionne Warwick and others sang several years ago, “There Is Always Something There To Remind Me!” Even if I wanted to forget, I cannot.
More importantly, though, remembering the past is crucial if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. Several people, including George Santayana and Winston Churchill, have said, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it!”
No, forgetting the past is not desirable! Forgiveness without remembering is meaningless. Creating a better future is impossible if we fail to recall the things about the past we are trying to improve.
After we saw the swastika in the woods of Bad Segeberg, Pastor Pommerening immediately called the mayor of the town to tell him what we saw. I am very confident the swastika has already been painted over or will be soon. But I would not want the tree chopped down and its stump uprooted in order to pretend that it never happened.
Germany’s efforts to atone for the Holocaust and prevent its recurrence are more than admirable. They definitely deserve our forgiveness. But never, ever, ever should we forget!
Rabbi Fuchs is the author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He and his wife Vickie are spending 10 weeks in Germany. He is serving the Reform congregation in Kiel and also speaking in churches and schools to promote greater interfaith understanding and reconciliation.
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