Wednesday, 7 August 2019

A Garland for Ashes

Truth, even painful hard-to-deal with truth, can facilitate healing in unexpected ways.

What a blessing to be with Sheba's sister Daisy, her husband Ramesh and their children Frankie and Shofar here in Phoenix, Arizona.  We are living out our jubilee year - and we are so grateful to be on this journey to the United States - a kind of a trip lifetime as our daughter Asha starts college in 2 weeks from now.

Being in Arizona for over a week gave me an opportunity to write some of the thoughts that were haunting me about my family's involvement with the holocaust.   I finally wrote them down, prayed about what was written and pushed the 'publish' button on the blogger site.  I felt a certain relief in doing so.  In getting things out.

The post was actually a kind of an open prayer.  A small act of public confession and a modest step on my desire to keep walking the road of repentance and restoration.

And within 2 days I have been blessed beyond belief.

My dear Auntie Hanna Zack Miley - who had worked along with her husband George with my parents from the early halcyon days of their visionary volunteer movement - read what I had put on this blog and wrote a very gracious comment on our Facebook account.

Hanna Zack Miley is a holocaust survivor - who was spared the terrible murder that her parents went through as she was sent by her parents through the Kindertransport to Britain before the war began.

I had an inkling that she and her husband would be in the US and so I clicked onto her facebook page... and what do I see as her home-town? Phoenix, Arizona.

Wow.  I shot off a quick note to her... wondering if she and her husband would be in town....

The next morning Uncle George calls us.  They are very much in town.  And further we find out that they worship at the same Anglican church where Daisy and Ramesh's Asian Indian fellowship meets.  Of all the churches in Phoenix - Uncle George and Auntie Hanna attend the morning service while Daisy and Ramesh are part of the Indian group that meets just before noon in the same premises!  We had been within minutes of each other last week.

On the phone Uncle George invites us for lunch with him and Auntie Hanna.


What an amazing experience we had yesterday.

We are here as a family in the scenic beauty of Phoenix, at a lovely restaurant at noon, and were bathed with a beauty of a very different kind.

We met two people whose lives are and continue to be a fragrance.

Auntie Hanna (short for Hannalore) left her parents on the fateful day of Monday July 24th 1939 at Koln railway station.  She did not know at the time what the parting fully meant - but her crying parents had sent her away in the hopes that she would survive the murder that was sweeping away so many sons of Abraham and daughters of Sarah.  Less than three years later Hanna's parents Markus and Amalie Schneider Zack were murdered in Kulmhof, (now Poland) in May 1942.

We were with a daughter of miracle.  She is 87 years old now.  A small petite woman framed with snow-white hair and with so much love in her that it literally hurts.  And her amazing husband who has walked a lifetime of faith together.  Auntie Hanna reminds me so much of my own mother and has aged with much grace punctured with a sharpness of wit and insight.

As we settled down for the meal, Uncle George and Auntie Hannah first asked us to tell them about our lives.  I had not seen them since... when?  Perhaps when I was 4 years old?  Almost a half century ago they had lived with my parents and others in a small shared (and fairly shabby) apartment in down-town Bombay.  So we filled in what we could.

The delicious meal meandered in its own beautiful, lazy way.  Then it was our time to hear a bit of their story.

Uncle George and Auntie Hanna told us that they now live half the year in the US - and half the year in Germany.

Auntie Hanna shared how growing up in England as an alien child, that she had hated the Germans so much, but how Jesus has been helping her over the years to reach out and walk a journey of forgiveness and restoration.

A journey which has included her taking up residence in her home-town of Gemünd which is today on the border of France, the place where she and her parents had been driven out by their fellow villagers 80 years ago.

She told us about how she was able to slowly make connections with people, to slowly address the sorrow of her past and gingerly find out about what happened to her parents.   About how she had been welcomed by people who had been children when she was a child there.  And how gradually, over invitations to coffee and cake (a noble German tradition) walls had come down.

In the short time we had, we could obviously not hear all the levels of discovery, but were enthralled to hear about how Auntie Hanna has been reaching out to her fellow villagers both past and present.

In 2012 she was invited to be the official Patron of Gemünd for the town's 800th year celebrations!

Part of the letter she received reads as follows:

we want to thank you for your efforts toward reconciliation.  We are thankful that you have come back to Gemünd and offered us the hand of forgiveness - in this country and town where your parents and family were murdered.  We want to honor the Jewusih citizens of Gemünd, and we want to honor you as a Jewish citizen of Gemünd and as a woman who is seeking peace and blessing.

And that is what she has been doing. Every year she and her husband George spend around 6 months with people of Gemünd. Part of their ministry has been to share about Auntie Hanna's past - some of it one-on-one, some in small groups or in meetings. Part of their work is spending time individually with people in the town. Part of it is hosting and faciliating visitors and groups who have come for peace and reconciliation, who are there to confess to each other and begin to look truth in the eye. Some of it has been to take groups for times of discovery and forgiveness at sites linked with the Holocaust.

Auntie Hanna has written about the process of discovering her past, addressing the perpetrators and building peace in an amazing book called: A Garland for Ashes.  She continues to meet people and speak out.  She is on instragram and meets with researchers, fellow survivors as well as anyone trying to take steps of real peace.  She and Uncle George are also part of the Eifel Fellowship a community for reconciliation.

As a family we were presented with a copy of A Garland for Ashes by Auntie Hanna, as well as one for Asha as she starts her new steps forward in life.  Having this book in my hand today, and reading it again having just met Auntie Hanna led to many tears flowing. Tears at the hopelessness of the little girl as the torrent of evil swept along.  Tears of sorrow at the horrors that happened to her family and so many other Jewish people.  Tears of hope as I read about the steps Auntie Hanna has taken to gain help from the Messiah Yeshua Himself.

So here we were outside the restaurant in the heat of the Arizona sun being given this precious book by Auntie Hanna. We found out later in the evening that at 115 F (46 C) this was the hottest 5th of August ever recorded for Phoenix.  What a strange beautiful world.  To have a worm-hole open up and meet Auntie Hanna here.  To get a glimpse of the extraordinary stories that she is involved with.  To talk about things that perhaps as young idealistic women, with the war still so raw and recent my mother and Auntie Hanna may not have been able to talk about at that time.

Auntie Hanna is one of the last survivors of the Holocaust.  She was just a small child when she was separated from her parents who were murdered three years later.  Very few of the survivors are still alive.  Meeting her is a deep link to the terrible past, and also to a glorious future.  Auntie Hanna believes that Yeshua has come and will come again.  There are still many things that we do not understand about this dark world, but we know that there will come a day when He Himself will wipe away every tear from the eyes of those in the New Jerusalem.

Thank you Auntie Hanna for sharing this precious part of your life with me.  And for accepting the small and feeble attempts to ask forgiveness for what my people have done to you and your family.

There are more tears ahead.  There have to be.  But we have a common joy in looking forward to Yeshua who has adopted us into His great and extended family.

L' Chaim!  To Life!

Saturday, 3 August 2019

In remembrance of things too horrible to speak out...

There are no words for horror.  True horror that is.  But words are what we have.

And so the Jewish Museum in Berlin ends its Axis of the Holocaust in darkness.  After walking along the long arrow of memories on display the viewer encounters a simple door.

The room into which the final door opens is a black, unheated space, spiraling up to undefined regions above.  You walk in and the door closes behind you and you are enveloped in darkness.  From high above, you hear muffled sounds drift in from the world outside, as you are enveloped by the pitch-black.

Now you know that you can walk back out the door.  You can be out in 5 seconds.  And then your mind goes to those who went before.  For those who were living through the holocaust, only the tiniest of minorities ever walked back out.  Over 6 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered by the Nazis.

No. Correct that. By the Germans.

No. Clarify that. By my relatives.

No. Look clearly and say it.  By my hands.

Why do I say these things?  Because for too long I have put the blame on others.

My mental model for many, many years was simple.  Though I would be loath to speak it out, this is the internal set of thoughts that I had:

The Germans were bad people.  They allowed Hitler and his henchmen to do very evil things.  My grandparents where 'good.'  During the war, they listened clandestinely to the BBC. My grandfather never took up a firearm and went to the front - he and my grandmother shifted coals in Leipzig.  Opa Fischer was a lay preacher.  He treated the Prisoners of War who were drafted to work in his coal business with a modicum of kindness. Hence: our family (nuclear that is) were 'good guys' and all the rest "bad."  The rest of my relatives?  well, I guess I just stopped at my grandparents.  Both dead.  Mum is a single child. No direct uncles, aunts, cousins...

Notice how neatly I cut myself out of the picture.  "The Germans"... "Others" … "Not me"

We all have things in our past that we are not proud about.  Most of us just don't know it - and certainly don't want to look for skeletons in the closet.

A year and a half ago we decided to do a Germany trip as a family.  My mother is not getting younger (she is almost 82 as we type this in) and seeing that Dad died 3 years ago, we wanted to help her meet her relatives (notice I did not write 'our' - that was the first word that came to my mind). And since I had not visited since 1990 and Sheba and the kids had never gone, we thought this would be a good opportunity.  Winter of 2017-18 was an amazing experience for us.

But what I did not realise was just how much we would be coming up face-to-face with history.

I expected us to delve into the Reformation history.  We were in the fag-end of the 500th year of Martin Luther's posting his 95 thesis on the door of the Wittenburg Church.  But what we found was the other big question. The big German question.  One that snaked back in time.  And which kept popping up on our travels.

For instance: we were visiting the Marienkapelle  a vast ornate medieval church in Wurzburg - which had been heavily damaged by the rain of Allied bombs in the 2nd World War. There mounted to the right of one of the huge main doors is a small oval plaque. It states that 500 Jews were killed in a pogrom at this place in 1349. That's 650+ years ago.

Two things stand out. The depth of human hatred and depravity. And the fact that there is a sign board. Would we see something similar in India? I think not.

And so it goes.

As we wandered through the festively decorated German towns - each one seemed to have a Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) more elaborate than the former - we saw the lovingly restored ancient homes and taverns and churches.  But we also kept coming across reminders of the horrors that my people (yes, I am being deliberate here - I used the word my) have poured out - especially during the dark days of the Third Reich.

We were visiting a dear friend and mentor of ours, a retired saint who had spent his whole working life as a medical missionary / administrator in India.  As we drove through a picturesque town in Southern Germany he tells us with sorrow that it was one of the first which had been declared "Juden-rein" - cleansed of Jews.  All the Jews had been deported - and the inhabitants had rejoiced that they had achieved such a terrible act.

So what does it mean to be German?  Obviously we have no pat answers.

Though there have been speakers of various German dialects for hundreds of years, and Luther translated the Bible into German a good half-millennium ago, Germany is not even 150 years old as a nation-state. In the heady days of German yearning for a national identity, people latched onto the words of Wolfgang Menzel who in 1828 helped spin the well-known phrase:
  • Die Deutschen sind ein Volk der Dichter und Denker  
  • (The Germans are a people of Poets and Philosophers)
As a people steeped in culture, the new nation reveled in the past histories of music and poetry.  But the shadow was there.  Even at the turn of the last century the Austrian writer Karl Kraus (1909) had put a more sinister rhyming spin on that popular slogan:
  • Die Deutschen sind ein Volk der Richter und Henker 
  • (The Germans are a people of Judges and Hangmen)
We went on our Germany visit mainly as tourists, but saw many reminders of the shadow.  As a family we walked through beautifully renovated historic inner cities - usually with a church (or three) in the centre, their spires pointing to the sky.  Some towns had gorgeous walking zones.  But every now and then, we would come across small square brass plaques embedded in the side-walks.

These are Stolpersteine.  Stumbling stones.

The Stolpersteine are made in the shape and size of the cobble stones that used to pave the streets of every good German city in days of old.  But these cobble stones were not hand crafted street paving to allow horse buggies and later motor vehicles to travel.  They were brass plaques - each with a specific name on it.

The name of a Jewish man, woman or child who had lived in the house near that spot.  A Jewish person who had been taken away during the 'ethnic cleansing' that my people carried out.  

On the Stolperstein was the date on which the terrible deed was carried out.  And where the person was taken.  And what happened to them.  

And it was not:  "Heinrich Fuchs ... Passed away in Hartheim on 27.6.1941" 

It is:  "Heinrich Fuchs … murdered 27.6.1941 in 'Aktion T4''

Ermordet. Murdered.  The word crystal-clear. 

In this case this Jewish man from the city of Wurzburg had been admitted to a healing asylum in 1924, but on 27 of June 1941 he was murdered under the infamous Aktion T4 where Hitler authorized "involuntary euthanasia" of people who were sick and infirm.  

This man would have been transferred to the notorious Schloss Hartheim in Austria where over 18,000 precious people were murdered by gassing them. Mostly shortly after arriving - often accompanied by SS men in white coats to give the impression of being sent for further cure.  

Murdered. A kick in my gut everytime I saw those emblems embedded into the sidewalks.  

Here are the Stolpersteine of a whole family in Heidelberg.  The father Hermann Durlacher arrested in 1938 and taken first to the concentration camp of Dachau, then to Gurs and finally murdered in Auchwitz.   

The children Walther (15 yrs) and Ludwig (12 yrs) were deported to England through the "Kindertransport" in 1939 and survived.

Their mother Marta Durlacher was born with the same family name as my mother's family:  Fischer.  She was deported to Gurs in 1940 and was murdered in Auchwitz.


But what does this have to do with my family?  After all, my grand-parents were the 'good guys' in my small mental image.  Surely they were not involved?

Well, lets talk a bit.  

For one thing, way back in 1984, when I met my grand-mother's sister at her home in the Black Forest.  In a conversation she told me that "Hitler was not even German.  He was Austrian."    Even as a 15 year old I could tell that this was a white-wash pure and simple.  To self-justify the entire terror on the Jews as being the product of a 'foreigner' is self-delusion of a pretty high order.  One of the coping mechanisms many of us may use.

On this pilgrim trip to Germany we had the privilege of meeting Werner Fischer - the 91 year old cousin of my mother.  He is a frank and feisty man with a sharp mind.  And in his plain-talking he shared with us some bitter truths.

For one - according to Werner most of our relatives (including his father) were "Kaisers Maenner" - men loyal to the Emperor. Men (and women of course - but men made most of the decisions) who bowed their knees to the nationalism of the day.  Who saw love for God and love for country as one and the same. Sadly, it was the devotion of this generation that the National Socialists built their horror state on.   

Werner told us that at the height of WW2 his own father returned on a short leave from the Soviet Front and found out that the 17 year old Werner had  up filled in forms to serve in the navy (considered at that time the 'safest' option).  His father was enraged and furiously tore up the forms.  He then marched Werner off to the nearest army recruiting station. End result: young Werner joined his father on to the Eastern front.

Werner was particularly bitter on the conflation of religion and nationalism.  He told us about the failed assassination attempt on Hitler's life.  Count Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters had smuggled a bomb into the room where Hitler was.  But when the bomb was detonated most of the force was absorbed by the wood of a heavy oaken table it had been placed beneath. Hitler was injured but survived.  "On the next Sunday" Werner told us "prayers of thanksgiving to God were prayed in churches all over Germany, thanking God that the Fuehrer had been saved."  Needless to say, a number of our family members will have added their prayers to this chorus.  

Not surprisingly, Werner did not have much to do with organized Christianity post war - put off by our pious relatives. 

Lesson no. 1.  My mental image - my own coping mechanism (self delusion) of my relatives being pious good-guys is wrong.  They may have been pious in their own ways, but that does not absolve us.  Our flesh and blood were part of the terrible extermination of so many of Abraham's sons and Sarah's daughters.  Our participation, active and passive, has been recorded in the books that will be opened on the Final Day - the day of Judgement.  Kyrie Eleison.


The Jewish Museum in Berlin is a quiet masterpiece.

It opened in 2001.  With its Baroque building which had been the Berlin Museum for many years, and the new building 'Between the Lines' (2011) designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Museum walks you through the Jewish story in Germany.  Or better put, you walk through - and the jaggedness and unpredictability of the building helps give you glimpses into the jarring narrative of what took place.

The two main lines are the 'Axis of the Holocaust' which takes you along the line of terror, allowing you to look into small port-hole like exhibits which tell stories of what happened to some of the millions who were systematically murdered by my people.

And the other is the  'Axis of Exile' which tell the stories of some who managed to escape death, but who were transplanted into new and strange lands, far from their homes and many with the gaping wounds of losing relatives and friends to the terror.

As mentioned at the beginning.  The Axis of the holocaust ends in the darkness.  There are just no images, no amount of photographs can do justice to the horrors that took place.

In other parts of the museum there are art instillations.  

One in particular shook me to the core.  I have never experienced the power of art in this way.

We were moving through one of the galleries, with a variety of art-pieces being displayed, when I heard what sounded like porcelain being smashed.  The sound echoed down the hall, drawing us to itself.

"Its a video-art instillation" I thought to myself.  I expected to turn the corner and see some video screens with images on an infinite loop.  In my mind's eye I saw a blueish projection showing crockery being smashed on the ground, broken with sticks, thrown against a wall.   One another screen I expected to see archival pictures in black and white of Jewish men and women being taken away by the Nazi authorities.  Or perhaps pictures of Jewish shops being smashed on the infamous Krystallnacht.

Instead, when we turned the corner we saw this:

A large 'empty space' - similar to the darkness filled room at the end of the Axis of the Holocaust.

But this time, there was light coming from above, showing a large area covered with heavy metal plates, crudely cut into faces of children, each a bit different.  Most with mouths open, crying out.

The sound that I thought was "crashing porcelain", was actually the sound of people walking on these faces.  A jarring, clattering sound that echoed in the grey space.

I was horrified to see people walking on these faces.

The sign informed me that this installation was called 'Shalekhet" (Fallen Leaves) by Manashe Kadishman and that there were 10,000 faces with open mouths, carved out of iron plates.

And then the question came to me.  Should I also walk on these faces?  Just the thought of that question made me shudder.

But by being horrified and walking away, was I in anyway making the truth more palatable?  Could I watch others tread on the faces of these innocents, and me turn away and say I have nothing to do with it?  I know the innocents have been killed.  But deep down I don't want to know it.  These Fallen Leaves don't allow me bliss of ignorance.

I waited for some time.  Clothed in the grey gloom of the place.  Listening to the heavy clanking of the feet of others.  Finally, I had to do it.  These deeds were done by my people.  My feet must also take these terrible steps.

And so I walked on the faces.  Trying to make my steps a light as possible as I trampled on the faces of the innocent.  My eyes with tears and heart crying out to Jesus for forgiveness of what we have done.

The horrible sound that my feet made that day continue to echo in my mind, 18 months later.  Writing this.  Lord help us.  Lord have mercy.  Lord wash away these terrible deeds.


Our Germany trip had much joy.  But fittingly, our last full day was a day when we were brought face-to-face with the holocaust.

We were driving to Frankfurt and our hosts there mentioned that they would only be in after 4 PM.  Since we had a long drive, we had left early in the morning, and our friend suggested two places of historical interest we could stop off at on our drive to Frankfurt: Eisnach - where Martin Luther had lived and Buchenwald - the site of the terrible concentration camp.

We chose to go to Buchenwald.  

It was a cold, frosty day in January.  The trees were covered in ice.  The sun no where to be seen.

And so there we were - five small people walking through the place where over 200,000 people had been kept captive at some point in time. Countless cruelties were meted out on the so-called enemies of the state - Jews, Roma, Communists and others considered vermin by the German state - and my people who ran this 'camp' with such horrible efficiency.

It is estimated that more than 50,000 people were murdered at Buchenwald. 

The camp today keeps the main entry gate intact and a few buildings, including some restored guard towers and barbed wire.

The rest is a vast expanse of emptiness, and the actual stones and rubble of where the barracks were continue to lie under the pewter sky.  

The boundaries of the barracks are maintained to help remind us where people 'lived' in those dark years.

We could not speak much.  The horror of the place was ghastly.  To stand where so many had died.

The five of us split up.  Each going their own way in silence.

The small headset had numbered talks in various languages.  A number at each place we came to, allowed us to hear a short talk, explaining what had happened there.

I had never bothered to read about Buchenwald.  Now I knew what had taken place.

Standing in the cold, I could not falling down on my knees.  I was alone with the terrible memories of this place.  And with my Master and my God.

Our feeble voices went up to the Lord Jesus that grey, cold morning.

Jesus, friend of sinners,  

Jesus, wounded-Lord,  

Jesus, coming Judge.

Have mercy.   

I asked forgiveness for what my family had done during the terrible days of the Third Reich.  For all the sins of commission and omission.   For the cowardice and throttling of consciences.  For the willing participation in the murder of the very people of God.

I have blood on my hands.  But I place them in the nail-pierced hands of our Lord.

Forgive, dear Lord.  Forgive.

We left that grim place in silence.

On the flight back to India I read Elie Wiesel's book "Night" which told of a man lived out depths of horror in the very same concentration camp we had just come from.


It has taken me a long time to write these words.

I have not magic-wand solutions, no glib easy statements.

But I want to take the past seriously.  To acknowledge my family's involvement in the terrible pogrom on the Jewish people which took place in the terrible years of the National-Socialist reign.

I do believe in a coming Kingdom of Righteousness when all the wickedness of History will be set right.  The City of Peace (New Jerusalem) which the Bible tells us will descend on this earth will have trees whose leaves will be the healing of the nations.  We are told that our Lord Jesus Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes.

It seems such a pipe dream at times, especially when we see so much that is completely wrong.  But this is the truth and we can hold on to it, because He who reveals it to us is worthy of our trust.

 I also want to thank those in Germany who do not just "let bygones be bygones."

I do not know of any other nation which has such a self-critical posture to its past.  And where even as a casual tourist, we kept coming into contact with clear reminders of the past.

This sign in the ancient church in the city of Ohringen - for example - remembers the 42 Jewish men, women and children who were victims in the death camps between 1938 and 1945.

How much we need to be reminded.  It wounds our heart, it crops up in unexpected and awkward times, but we so need to 'never forget.'

To close with, the words from this sign in a church in the ancient town of Heidelberg.

Christ speaks:  "I live and you also will live" (John 14.19)

In memory of the Victims of the World War 1939-1945 and the Reign of Violence.

Let those who live take note [i.e. and learn].

Indeed.  In deed.