Forgiveness

by Lois Vetvick

Before going on a trip, many people read up on the area they are going to visit. I prefer reading fiction. As I was preparing for a trip to Germany, I perused my Book Club offerings. One book stood out, The Last Survivor by Timothy Ryback. What caught my eye was Dachau. I knew we were going to that camp and I thought the book would give me some insight.

As a teenager and young adult, I was fascinated with the horrible situation of the WWII death camps. I had read everything I could about it and now it would be meaningful to see the reality of what I'd read.

On a sunny July day, I approached the ovens where Jews were murdered. I listened for a moment to a guide addressing a group of tourists and took a picture of the ovens. As I walked out, I saw an old man waiting outside. I knew who he was—Martin Zaidenstadt, the survivor in The Last Survivor! You see, I was not sure if the book was fiction or nonfiction. I did not speak to him. "What if he hated how he was portrayed in this book?" I thought. I went back to the bus, read the preface and the author's note, and confirmed that this was a true story.

Martin Zaidenstadt, a Polish Jew, was shipped to Dachau in 1942. He was 29; now he is 88. After the war, he settled in the City of Dachau, an unusual thing for a Jew from the camps to do.

Martin is a witness—fifty-five years after the fact. Each day he stands outside the ovens witness-ing to what he knows. He knows because he was there, because he lost a wife and daughter in this camp, and because he still wakes up screaming. He knows because he never left Dachau.

Martin's reasons for not leaving Dachau are complex, just as we have complex reasons for the things we do. About eight years ago he decided to come to the camp to tell what he knows. He can greet people in ten languages. The young are absolutely in awe of him, his life, and his stories.

For reasons that are not completely clear to him now, he is drawn to this place every day. It was not always so. For years he did not come. The memories of the place never left him. I think it was courageous of him to come back and tell his story. Maybe he knew he needed to come back for his sanity and for healing to take place.

There is an old story, the source unknown, which tells of Jacob, a tailor. Jacob felt he had been mistreated in the synagogue. And so he withdrew from the community and isolated himself. Weeks went by. Finally, the rabbi called on him. After a polite greeting, there was a heavy silence. Then the rabbi said, "Let's sit in front of the fire." So the two men sat in silence. An hour or so later the rabbi picked up the fireplace tongs, pulled out a coal and placed it on the hearth away from the fire. Still no word was spoken. The two men just sat and watched the glowing, burning piece of coal become darker and darker, until it was black and cold and dusty with ashes. A few moments later, Jacob spoke. "I understand," he said. "I'll come back to the synagogue." Not a word had been spoken, but the point had been made. When we withdraw from the community, we isolate ourselves from our neighbors, and we die. We need one another.

Maybe the ghosts or the tourists or maybe even the chance meeting of another survivor drew Martin back to the camp. Whatever it was, it brought Martin back into a community that gave more meaning to his life.

For some people it takes a lifetime to forgive, for others it can be a matter of days. This is what Martin says on forgiveness: "When people see that I have made a life in the place where I was brought to die, they understand that they too must learn to forgive, that if I can forgive the Ger-mans for what they tried to do to me, they can forgive as well."

As children, we've been told the stories of the Hebrew Bible. As adults we are expected to learn their meanings. The story of Joseph, for example, is more than a story of forgiveness. It is the story of Joseph seeing God's purpose at work through all the tribulations he experienced. Does this sound similar to Martin's story? Martin, a Jew oppressed by the Germans, understood deeply the story of Joseph and how he forgave his brothers. Through his experiences, his knowledge of himself and of others, and his depth of understanding of Joseph's story as well as other Bible stories, he was able to change his life. He saw God's work in the world and in himself. After surviving the camp, Martin struggled with his anger and he saw the damage that inability to forgive did to him and to others.

Martin knew that by coming every day, by telling his story, and by knowing God's love in his live he would begin to heal. Is it the process of forgiveness that heals? Yes! If you believe God is in that process, you wrestle with forgiveness. You tell your story to others. Martin has survived the gas chamber today as he did 50 years ago, as he has done for the past four years, as he has done, so he believes, for the last half-century. The watchtowers are vacant, the electrified fences idle, the gas ovens cold—Martin stands triumphant in Dachau. The story of death and rebirth is reenacted day in and day out within this walled compound. Once again, Martin has entered the gas chambers and come out alive—once again, forgiving those who tried to kill him.

We need to dig for the truth and we find it in Luke's Gospel (6:27-38)—resist the way of retaliation and vengeance, walk in the path of love. Luke spoke to those who were persecuted reminding them that loving meant not responding to violence with violence.

Lois Vetvick is an Interim Pastor for the Minnesota-Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ.

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