Uncomfortable Memories

I live in a town haunted by memories. That no-one talks about. At least to me.

Sulzburg was once the center of Jewish culture in southern Germany. In the middle of the 19th century, a third of the town of 1,200 was Jewish.

There was a synagogue, a rabbinical school, a choral society, a cemetery. But over time most of the city’s Jewish population moved to bigger centers such as nearby Freiburg.

The last Jews to leave did not do so voluntarily, rounded up by the Nazi regime in October 1940. Only eight survived the Holocaust, and none returned to the town after the war.

Their memories remain. Their houses are still there (and I gather their families, what were left of them, did receive compensation after the war for the seizure of their property). The synagogue has been restored, after years of use as a storehouse. It is now used as a cultural center.

And the cemetery is still there, many of the gravestones covered in moss. You can’t read most of the stones anymore. Only one person has been buried there since 1940, the man who spearheaded the restoration of the synagogue. i understand his family had to get special permission.

On my desk for more than a year has been a white stone. Not sure where I picked it up, but I remember thinking I needed to take it with me on my next visit to the cemetery. There is a tradition in Judaism of bring a stone to the cemetery, placing it on the gravestone of a loved one and saying a prayer.

Wednesday i remembered to take the stone with me when I went out for a walk. I went into the cemetery, found a grave with no remembrance stones and placed it on it while saying a prayer. I couldn’t read the inscription, but that didn’t matter.

Fifty years ago there was a memorial erected to the memory of those Jews from Sulzburg who were placed into camps and died during the Holocaust. The names now are increasingly hard to read. Memory is fading.

I haven’t asked anyone about those years and how they felt when their neighbors were carted away to the death camps. Certainly there is no-one here who is old enough to have been part of the decision making process. Maybe those who were children in 1940 remember, but how much would they have known or understood at the time?

How long does guilt remain for historical injustices? Am I responsible for the sins of my grandparent’s generation?

That is something I wrestle with in Canada when our treatment of the indigenous population comes up for discussion. I am white, but that doesn’t mean my family was part of the oppressors.

My ancestors were serfs, scaping to make a living. They had no authority anywhere in the system. That may absolve me from guilt – but it does not allow me to accept modern injustice.

Too often though it would be easier to not have to think about these things. I’m sure many Germans feel the same way.

As I prayed in the cemetery I was reflecting on the nature of evil. Eighty years ago the people of Sulzburg (and Germany) made some horrific choices.

There are still ramifications for German society today. The national atonement continues. I think one of the reasons the country opened its doors to a million Syrian refugees in 2015 was due to the legacy of the Holocaust.

What are you doing today to protect the poor and oppressed, to stand up for justice? You are probably aware of inequalities where you live. Are you willing to take a risk and speak out?

If you remain silent, will you lose your soul?


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