Tag Archives: Holocaust

Remembering Sophie: Reflections on Courage

This blog was (2015 post) and is dedicated to the memory of Sophie Scholl and all those who, along with her, harnessed the courage to stand against evil. I have a sense that it is time to urgently resurrect the spirit of what was known as the White Rose. May the people rise.

“Stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone!”

Sophie Scholl

If you take a stroll through beautiful Munich, Germany, it is hard to imagine that this place was once the official and ideological stronghold of the NAZI Party (NSDAP) leading up to World War II. For visitors who are aware of the historical shadows that the city holds, the reminders are never far away. On the pavement, outside the main building of the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, one of Germany’s oldest universities, is a strange memorial of what looks like the hasty scattering of papers inset into the pavement. When you walk inside the atrium you will find a statue of a girl: Sophie Scholl.
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Sophie, born on 9 May 1921, was the daughter of the mayor of Forchtenberg, Robert Scholl. She enjoyed a fairly carefree childhood, raised in a household that held to a Christian faith which recognised the dignity and equality of all people. Her father’s words would play an instrumental role in shaping who Sophie was becoming:What I want for you is to live in uprightness and freedom of spirit, no matter how difficult that proves to be. Her father and brothers were critical of Hitler and the regime. Nevertheless, Sophie joined a Nazi organisation, the League of German Girls, where she became a squad leader at the age of twelve. Her initial enthusiasm began to wane as she became more immersed in understanding the ideology and motivation of the Nazi party and as she began to observe the treatment of Jews.

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Sophie graduated from Secondary School in 1940 and worked as a kindergarten teacher at the Frobel Institute. In 1942, she enrolled in the University of Munich as a student of biology and philosophy. Undergirded by her studies and her faith, she joined her brother and his friends who held similar political views and who increasingly opposed the Nazi regime. Humanist and writer, Theodor Haecker, was a major influence on her resistance ideology.

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In 1942, she became part of the White Rose student resistance that was founded by her brother, Hans, along with Willi Graf and Christoph Probst. The group sought to awaken an apathetic Germany to the Nazi tyranny and its genocidal policies. The group wrote six anti-Nazi resistance leaflets and distributed them across Munich. Sophie played a key role in the distribution because as a woman she was less likely to be stopped by the SS. Using a hand-operated duplicating machine they produced between six to nine thousand copies of each pamphlet, which also appeared in Stuttgart, Cologne, Vienna, Freiburg, Chemnitz, Hamburg, and Berlin.

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Here are some excerpts from these pamphlets:

The first of the six leaflets produced by The White Rose movement opens, Nothing is so unworthy of a civilized nation as allowing itself to be ‘governed’ by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct. The White Rose became a relentless voice that endeavoured to awaken the apathy that had come over Germany in the face of such heinous governmental evil.

The second leaflet asked, Why do the German people behave so apathetically in the face of all these abominable crimes … so unworthy of the human race? And this: “Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered, a crime against human dignity … Germans encourage fascist criminals if no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds. An end in terror is preferable to terror without end.” The White Rose was desperately trying to incite people to action, to awaken a nation to realise that the combined collective of the German people was greater than the evil they faced.

The third leaflet boldly welcomed all to the movement, declaring that  “Everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system.” Please note, they never called for a violent rebellion, rather, for passive resistance, a peaceful sabotage. “Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”

The fourth leaflet appealed to the religious instincts of the German people with a defiant call to action: “I ask you as a Christian … Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler. The fourth pamphlet’s concluding paragraph also became the motto of the resistance: “We will not be silent. We are your bad conscience. The White Rose will not leave you in peace!

On the 18th February 1943, the Scholls distributed leaflets in the Munich University, leaving them in empty corridors and lecture rooms. Sophie stood on the top level of the atrium and threw handfuls into the hall below. They were immediately arrested and after a three day trial with no jury, found guilty of treason. On the 22nd February, Sophie, her brother Hans and their friend, Christoph Probst, were condemned to death and beheaded in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

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Sophie’s last words were to declare that God was her eternal refuge and, “Die Sonne scheint noch”“The sun still shines”. Hans Scholl was remembered as saying, “Es lebe die Freiheit” – “Long live Freedom”.

The final White Rose leaflet was smuggled out of Germany and intercepted by Allied forces, with the result that, in the autumn of 1943, millions of copies were dropped over Germany by Allied aircraft. I wonder what a defeated Germany thought as these papers rained from the sky, the voice of prophets and martyrs, begging them to take courage? I can only imagine the regret as they realised that they would be remembered as a generation that remained quiet in one of the darkest moments of history.

I wonder what our generation will be remembered for? Locking kids in cages? Concentration camps for the most vulnerable? Fear and slander against marginalised communities? The destruction of our planet by greedy governments and corporations?

May the White Rose rise … may courage win the day. 

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The real damage is done by those millions who want to ‘survive.’ The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves — or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature.”
– Sophie Scholl

Maybe You Are Asking The Wrong Questions?

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
– Primo Levi (Holocaust Survivor) –

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Primo Levi did not consider himself a hero for surviving Auschwitz. Like other survivors, he had seen and experienced too much. He was one of only 700 survivors of more than 7,000 Italian Jews who had been deported to concentration camps during the Nazi regime. Upon his release in 1945, he began writing about his experiences. In a heartbreaking interview he reflects on the cost of not asking questions and of doing as you are told without really understanding. In Nazi Germany, the cost was millions of lives. Shutting his mouth, his eyes, and his ears, the typical German citizen built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence of not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”

Questions are dangerous things. To question means that we are prepared to engage in the risky task of letting go of what we thought we knew and to admit not knowing. Perhaps that’s why ego is one of the great barriers to questions. In a society that often prides itself in the pretense of knowledge, questioning has fallen out of favour. We no longer see the value of questions or we have been told to avoid them (such as in some cult or extremist religions). Yet questions are the key to innovation and growth. Questions can change our world. Never stop asking questions.

Not only do we need to learn to question again, we also need to consider changing our questions. If our life decisions and choices are consistently detrimental to our well-being, then perhaps the problem is the lack of questions prior to making these decisions? Or maybe we are asking the wrong questions? This was the advice from one of my favourite high school teachers. He seldom provided answers when I was stuck in the complexity of learning. Rather, he would challenge me to ask different questions. Most of the time it was the uncomfortable process of stepping out of a pre-set paradigm in order to ask those questions that then provided brilliant answers. Claude Levi-Strauss says, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he is the one who asks the right questions.

Social change, transformation, innovation and the growth of companies and industry has often been the result of a single question. For example, “Why can’t I have the photo immediately,” was the question of a 3-year-old to her father, Edwin Land. The result of that question was the invention of the polaroid camera. “A beautiful question is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something – and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change,” writes Warren Berger in his excellent book, “A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.” But like Primo Levi points out, often we are conditioned not to question – and that has to do with power.

Berger writes, “To encourage or even allow questions is to cede power.” If you take a look around you at social, religious or political settings that are dying and filled with fear you will find a common denominator – they have shut down questions a long time ago! If you are employed in a workspace or living in some form of community that treats questions with fear and paranoia, you will be unable to live authentically and you will stop growing. Questions are the fertiliser for the seeds that lie dormant in your heart.

So, friend, what are you facing right now that needs a new set of questions? What are you afraid of right now that needs you to let go of the safe harbour of certainty so you can go into the uncharted waters of questions? Where are you gagged right now from asking questions? Why are you allowing that setting to silence you? Not to question preserves the status quo. It is time for beautiful questions and to allow your inquiry to unsettle assumptions, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and of fear … it is time to grow! Ask!

“Are we too enthralled with answers? Are we afraid of questions, especially those that linger too long?”
– Stuart Firestein –

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Remember with Purpose

You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.
– Exodus 22:21 –
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Part of the problem in reading an ancient sacred text with modern minds is that there is a disconnect and dissonance in context, culture and thought. When reading the Bible, for example, it is easy to revert to a form of fundamentalist literalism that leaves us with naive absolutism. Some may miss the point that in the Hebrew culture “deed was always more important than creed” (Wilson).  For example, when Habakkuk speaks of the just living by ‘faith’ (emunah), it implies an unwavering hope or trust that is backed through deed and action, not just an intellectual acceptance of a set of doctrines!

The idea of remembering or to remember (zakar) in the Bible and/or Torah, has to do with far more than just a simple retention of information. Rather, remembering is always accompanied by action. For example, Shabbat, returns every week. She reminds devout Jews that Yahweh is their Creator and Redeemer. Shabbat calls to action and repetitive observance enforces remembrance. There is an emphasis made throughout this sacred text that purposeful remembrance is very important in everyday life, in the nurture of tradition, and in the shaping of worldview. Why this emphasis?

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People, or people groups, who forget or deny their past, their story or their language, forget who they really are. Our society’s infatuation with wealth, power and dominion keeps us hyper-active, anxious, and hurriedly forgetful. We, like Gollum in Lord of the Rings, obsessed with the ring of power, forget our name and our story, and with the forgetting we loose all connection with our past and our belonging in this world.  We forget that societies that focus on the ‘ring’ seldom find their way back to the ‘Shire’.

The study of history is an exercise in remembering. In the collection of our past narratives, we inform, guide, assist and shape our present and future. To forget history, or deny it, is to cut off our belonging through the corridors of time. All over the world today we find people remembering with purpose: through festivals, marches, holidays and holy days, memorials and solemn ceremonies, traditions and habits … We are made to remember.

Yet to remember is not always an easy task. Looking back we discover that the ancient paths did not just lead through green pastures and beautiful scenery, but there are also times of walking through deserts, storms, and very dark and treacherous moments. It is tempting to remember the good and forget the bad. Many Australian history books have done just that for decades – seeking to sanitise the past and educate another generation in a more palatable rendition of the atrocities committed under Colonial rule. My hope is that we will become far more active in recording an accurate version of what transpires on our fair isle. Our children’s children have a right to remember and lament these current days – where we house refugees in concentration camps and where we have allowed the fear, racism and propaganda spread by those in politics to shape our world.

Revising history in order to remember is one thing. Denying it takes us to a whole new level. It is heartbreaking to actively remember the holocaust. For many this path is shut. The grief is too overwhelming. For others the enormity of a horrible event in history can be so unpleasant that denial is preferable. It is much easier to ignore, rationalise or deny what has happened. There is a comfort in numbers and often people find each other and feed the denial. It is easy to pass harsh judgement on those who deny the holocaust, for example, yet many of us stand guilty of historical denial in some manner or other. Sometimes it is the denial of our own personal story.

So as the end of the year approaches, it is often a good time to spend some moments in reflection … to remember. Zakar, to actively remember, helps us to change our ways. The very action requires a transformation. It brings purpose both into our past, present and future. What are some things that happened this year that you would like to remember? In what active way will you do that? How about starting a journal? Begin to actively write down events, people, or circumstances that have made you who you are and that you want to remember. It takes courage to remember. At times there is much pain before there is any healing. May you be brave, dear friend. May you remember.

Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.” –Elie Wiesel

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A Tribute to Elie Wiesel

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On Sunday, I woke up to several unpleasant realities: Australian politics was in chaos, Pauline Hanson had been returned to power, just like Voldemort, and the world has lost one of its most profound voices of conscience – Elie Wiesel.

Eliezer Wiesel was born to Shlomo and Sara Wiesel, on the 30th September, 1928, in Sighet, Transylvania, now part of Romania. Elie’s life evolved around family, community and religious study. He had three sisters. His mother encouraged him to study the Torah and Kabbalah. Elie was deeply influenced by his father’s liberal expressions of Judaism. He spoke Yiddish at home, but also learnt Hungarian, Romanian and German.

When Hungary annexed Sighet in 1940, the Wiesels, like many other Jews, were herded to the ghettoes. Then in May, 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, by the Nazi Regime. Elie was 15. He ended up in a sub-camp, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, with this father. They worked at a nearby Buna rubber factory. The conditions were hellish – starvation, beatings and despair, were all part of the daily routine.

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In 1945, the Russian Army drew near and Elie and his father were hurriedly evacuated to Buchenwald. Three months before the camp was liberated, his father was beaten to death by German soldiers. His mother and younger sister, Tzipora, also lost their lives there. Buchenwald was liberated in 1945. Elie and his two sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, were the only survivors from his whole family.

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 – Victims of the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the American troops of the 80th Division. Amongst them is Elie Wiesel (7th from the left on the middle bunk next to the vertical post (Photo by H Miller/Getty Images) –

How do you begin to put the pieces of a life, gutted by violence and horror, together again? Very, very slowly. It took Elie ten years to begin to articulate some of his experiences in the death camps. Before that, he had studied in Paris and was a journalist for the French newspaper, L’arche. It was through the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, that Elie began to write about life in the death camps. His memoir and first book, Night (La Nuit), has become one of the most critically acclaimed of all Holocaust literature.

Night is the first in a trilogy – Night, Dawn, Day. The trilogy clearly illustrates Elie’s journey from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. “In Night,” he said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.” It is one of the most devastating accounts of the Holocaust. A young boy’s struggle for survival brings the senseless murder of millions shockingly close. Reflecting on his feelings upon arrival in Auschwitz he writes:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky … Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as God Himself. Never.”

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Elie became an American Citizen after an accident left him unable to renew his French documents – documents which previously had allowed him to travel as a ‘stateless’ person. He settled in New York and became an increasingly prolific writer, authoring over thirty books. In 1978, he was appointed chair of the Presidential Commission on the Holocaust. He dedicated his life to the plight of persecuted people groups and ensuring that no one would forget what happened to the Jews. He was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He was also honoured across the world with a number of awards which included the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honor’s Grand Croix.

Elie and his wife, Marion, founded the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice” throughout the world. They had one son, Elisha.

A timeline of Elie’s remarkable life can be viewed here. He died on July 2, 2016, in his home in Manhattan, at the age of 87.

Elie Wiesel had a profound influence on my life. His book, Night, shook me to the core and I would recommend it as a must read for all who are serious students of human rights and the Holocaust.

I will finish this tribute with an excerpt from another of Elie’s masterpieces: the speech he delivered for Bill Clinton’s Millennium Lecture Series at the White House on April 12, 1999, entitled “The Perils of Indifference”:

“Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the Other to an abstraction …
 
In a way, to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman. Indifference, after all, is more dangerous than anger and hatred. Anger can at times be creative. One writes a great poem, a great symphony. One does something special for the sake of humanity because one is angry at the injustice that one witnesses. But indifference is never creative. Even hatred at times may elicit a response. You fight it. You denounce it. You disarm it …
 
Indifference elicits no response. Indifference is not a response. Indifference is not a beginning; it is an end. And, therefore, indifference is always the friend of the enemy, for it benefits the aggressor — never his victim, whose pain is magnified when he or she feels forgotten. The political prisoner in his cell, the hungry children, the homeless refugees — not to respond to their plight, not to relieve their solitude by offering them a spark of hope is to exile them from human memory. And in denying their humanity, we betray our own. 
 
Indifference, then, is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”

May we take a moment to consider this dire warning from a man who has seen some of the greatest horrors that this world can hold.

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RIP Elie Wiesel – You have run a great race.