September 29, 2019: “Atonement / At-one-ment”


(Eva Mozes Kor on Forgiveness from “The Forgiveness Project:Stories for a Vengeful Age“, by Marina Cantacuzino)

[see photo of Eva Mozes Kor]

Eva Mozes Kor was 10 years old when she was pulled from her mother’s arms on the selection platform at Auschwitz. Because they were twins, Eva and her sister Miriam were saved. Their mother, father, and two older sisters were not.

Then, for more than a year, Eva and Miriam, along with hundreds of other twins, endured brutal “experiments” performed by Dr. Joseph Mengele, called the Angel of Death. Starved for food and human kindness, it took every ounce of strength for them just to stay alive. But they survived.

Eva eventually married a US citizen and settled in Indiana, where she founded a Holocaust museum.

Eva writes:

Echoes from Auschwitz were a part of my life but I did not speak publicly about my experiences until 1978, after the television series The Holocaust was aired. People would ask me about the experiments, but I couldn’t remember very much, so I wanted to find other twins who were liberated with me. I wrote to newspapers and sent out letters but no response. Finally I started an organization to find other twin survivors and exchange memories. It was an immensely healing experience.

In 1993 I was invited to lecture to some doctors in Boston and was asked if I could bring a Nazi doctor with me. I thought it was a mad request until I remembered that I’d once been in a documentary which had also featured a Dr Hans Munch from Auschwitz. I contacted him in Germany and he said he would meet with me for a videotaped interview to take to the conference.

In July 1993 I was on my way to meet this Nazi doctor. I was so scared but when I arrived at his home he treated me with the utmost respect. I asked him if he’d seen the gas chambers. He said this was a nightmare he dealt with every day of his life. I was surprised that Nazis had nightmares too and asked him if he would come with me to Auschwitz to sign a document at the ruins of the gas chambers. He said that he would love to do it.

In my desperate effort to find a meaningful ‘thank you’ gift for Dr Munch, I searched the stores, and my heart, for many months. Then the idea of a Forgiveness letter came to my mind. I knew it would be a meaningful gift, but it became a gift to myself as well, because I realized I was NOT a hopeless, powerless victim.

When I asked a friend to check my spelling, she challenged me to forgive Dr Mengele too. At first I was adamant that I could never forgive Dr Mengele but then I realized I had the power now… the power to forgive. It was my right to use it. No one could take it away.

On 27 January 1995, at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I stood by the ruins of the gas chambers with my children, with Dr Munch and his children and grandchild. Dr Munch signed his document about the operation of the gas chambers while I read my document of forgiveness and signed it.

As I did that, I felt a burden of pain was lifted from me. I was no longer in the grip of hate; I was finally free. The day I forgave the Nazis, privately I forgave my parents whom I hated all my life for not having saved me from Auschwitz. Children expect their parents to protect them; mine couldn’t. And then I forgave myself for hating my parents.

Forgiveness is really nothing more than an act of self-healing and self-empowerment. I call it a miracle medicine. It is free, it works and has no side effects.

I believe with every fibre of my being that every human being has the right to live without the pain of the past. For most people there is a big obstacle to forgiveness because society expects revenge. But I always wonder if my dead loved ones would want me to live with pain and anger until the end of my life. Some survivors do not want to let go of the pain. They call me a traitor and accuse me of talking in their name. I have never done this.

Forgiveness is as personal as chemotherapy – I do it for myself.

SERMON: “Atonement / At-one-ment”     (copyright Rev. Dr. Susanne Intrilligator)

Several times over the last year, when I’ve been in conversation with groups here in church, a person will bring up a conflict that happened here in this church, about 15 years ago. And someone else, almost like clockwork, will say, “That again? We’re talking about that again? Aren’t we over that yet?”

The last time it happened, I just had to smile inside, to myself. Because I realized, just the day before, that the very same thing had happened in my personal life. I had been talking with James, my husband, and something that happened to us, that hurt us both about 15 years ago, came up. And he gave me that look that said, “That again? We’re talking about that again? Aren’t we over that yet?”

And I realized that, church or home, friendship or marriage, we don’t just “get over” the painful stuff. It comes back and it comes back, until we process it. Until we learn its lessons, until we hear the words we need to hear, words of acknowledgement, regret, restitution. Until we “get” the part we played and see the humanity of the other person involved, we cannot let it go.

It’s not water under the bridge until we can release it and let it flow.

The other day James reminded me of a story about this. A couple weeks ago I told you about the house with the vertical driveway, the first house we lived in in Wales. Remember?

That house was owned by our next-door neighbors there, Gareth and Ella, who became our landlords that year and also our lifelong friends. They were an older couple, with children and grandchildren of their own, but they too had once been young academics like us, living abroad — the US in their case, strangely enough Southern California, from where we had just moved — so they took us in and cared for us and helped us adjust to life in a new country.

Just after we moved in, at one of many Sunday dinners at Gareth and Ella’s house next door, we confessed to them our near total ignorance, common among Americans, of anything to do with Wales as a country separate from England, a nation with its own language and history and culture. And Gareth and Ella, proud Welsh nationalists, set out to set us straight.

Ella told us of growing up in the countryside there, with Welsh as her first language, but being forbidden from — and shamed for — speaking it in schools. Children were caned for it, or made to report on each other or wear shaming signs around their necks.

And then Ella told us the story of Llanfaes, which had once been the most prosperous village in all of North Wales. But then the English came and wanted that spot for their big new fort, so they forcibly moved all the people 10 miles away and they lost all their buildings and farms.

Ella had such emotion in her voice, the story seemed close to her heart, so we assumed, James and I, that it was something that had happened to her or her own family, perhaps in her childhood or young adulthood. And we felt her loss deeply.

It wasn’t till a year later or so, when I picked up a book on Welsh history, that I realized something important. The depopulation of Llanfaes was in fact a true story, I learned. It definitely happened, but not 50 years ago, or even 100. The English took over that town in 1303, a mere 700 years earlier. . . . Talk about holding a grudge!

But that’s my point here. It’s not water under the bridge until you can release it and let it flow. And if the harm still continues, or if it’s never been acknowledged or repaid or made right in any way, how can you let it go?

On our own shores, we can consider African Americans, whose ancestors had their lives and work and dignity stolen from them more recently than 700 years. Have they seen restitution, acknowledgement, regret, on anything like the scale of their loss? Or more often, do they hear white Americans telling them to just “get over it,” let it go, move on and pull yourself up by your boot straps. But what if the boots themselves have been stolen?

The healing can’t start until there’s a true and wide acknowledgement of the theft.

For me, this brings up one of the many reasons I love Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Unlike in Christianity, in which all mistakes or sins are washed away for all time by a substitutionary sacrifice, Judaism holds each person accountable. And unlike the injunction to “turn the other cheek,” Judaism puts the onus on the wrongdoer, not the wronged.

In Jewish theology, someone who has been harmed can just stay harmed — it’s not their job to look the other way. It’s up to the one who harmed to fix things. The law says that person must admit what they did, ask for forgiveness, and crucially in my book, make it up to the person harmed, in whatever way that person chooses. And all that must happen before God gets involved. Humans have to fix things in their own dimension before they get access to ultimate forgiveness.

Under a Jewish worldview then, it’s not the Welsh that need to let go the past, but English who need to set it right. Not the black Americans who must “get over it,” but the white ones who must provide the path, especially those who still hold the fortunes and the privileges earned through stolen labor.

When I first started thinking about this sermon, I thought it would be hard to find stories of forgiveness like Eva Kor’s. I thought they were rare and precious. But then someone told me about The Forgiveness Project, a 2004 exhibit which became a 2015 book, that collected the stories of people around the world who decided on their own to practice radical forgiveness. That’s how I found out about Eva and about 20 others.

That led me to look into South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other restorative justice programs, such as the one I linked to in this week’s Midweek Updates, which connects Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.

More and more these days, individually and through growing social programs like these, people are finding their way toward a path of forgiveness and reconciliation, even after unthinkable crimes. It’s astounding to me. Truly astounding. And across these cases, there’s so much in common:

First an understanding that forgiveness, like grief, is a process. People involved can and do change their perspectives over time. It is an evolution that cannot be rushed.

Second, it only works when it’s consensual. The survivor, the one harmed, must have the power to decide what happens and when.

Third, forgiveness is separate from justice. It is personal.

Fourth, and most crucially, it always involves at least one huge leap of imagination, a feat of compassion, a willingness to let the other, or the self, out of the box called “criminal” or “enemy” or “victim.” Like when Eva learned that even Nazi doctors could have also nightmares. It opened a door in her mind, allowed her to see his regret and torment over what he’d done.

In the Forgiveness Project, we also hear the story of Marian Partington, whose sister Lucy was murdered by two serial killers. After Marian makes space for her own rage and pain, she is able, after some years, to hear about the tragic life of one of the killers, Rosemary West. Marian writes: “Her story seems to be about the impoverishment of a soul that knew no other way to live than through terrible cruelty.

For Marian, this understanding opened a door. She could see Rosemary’s humanity, twisted and broken as it was. And she could connect it to her own.

The English philosopher and poet David Whyte writes:

To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt, to mature and bring to fruition an identity that can put its arm, not only around the afflicted one within but also around the memories seared within us by the original blow and through a kind of psychological virtuosity, extend our understanding to one the who first delivered it. Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves.

How are you shaping your mind today? Around regret and bitterness or around sanity and generosity?

We know that forgiveness can’t be forced. It can’t be rushed or pushed or demanded. But forgiveness can be chosen. We can choose to see the brokenness in ourselves and each other as one and the same. Human frailty, human weakness. Humanity.

15 minutes ago or 15 years, the things that harm us harm us only as long as we give them that power.

We can choose differently. We can choose to ask forgiveness and we can choose to give it.

What is the future you want for yourself?