In this week of Armistice commemorations I feel saddened, touched, bewildered and concerned.
Last week I walked slowly past the sixty thousand poppies in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, so many young lives calling to the heart:
Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world… (Wilfred Owen: Strange Meeting)
I hear in my mind how Helen recalled her final parting from her husband, the poet Edward Thomas, when he climbed the country path away from their house, calling out to her as he always did ‘coo-ee; coo-ee’ through the thickening mist. Her searing account formed part of the ceremony in Glasgow Cathedral to mark a hundred years since the outbreak of the war.
I see my English teacher looking over our class and saying: ‘If this was 1910, half of you would die in the trenches’.
Then yesterday I stood at the graves of the Jewish soldiers of Frankfurt am Main and lit the memorial lamp for the 447 Jewish sons of the city who died for their Fatherland. The shadow of my grandfather stood beside me, – except that I felt that he was truly present, and I was the shadow. I imagined him, a chaplain for the duration with the 5th German Army, speaking at the dedication of this site in 1923. I opened my address with his words:
‘Kameraden!’ Heute begruessen uns die Tote: ‘Comrades!’ Today the dead hail us: ‘Do not abandon us to the grave. Let us live in your hearts…’
The old Jewish cemetery was beautiful. All around among the tall trees were graves with familiar family names. I felt I stood among my people. In 1932 Nazi threats forced an end to all official commemorations. Until 2008 the soldiers lay forgotten by the country for which they had died.
I was asked to speak afterwards at the general military cemetery. ‘Accept’, my Jewish contact advised me, but know that some SS may be buried there too. In that vast arena level grey gravestones stretched away, row after row.
The General who spoke before me was frank about the past, and forthright about the rise of race-hate today. I was blunt about the bitter, murderous fate meted out with merciless thoroughness to Germany’s Jews, and the return of race hatred once again stalking the streets of the cities of so many states.
But I also remembered how the English war poet Keith Douglas, himself killed soon afterwards in Normandy, had looked with pity at the body of a Wehrmacht soldier in whose he found a tattered note from his girlfriend: ‘Steffi; Vergissmeinnicht’.
What a waste and destruction of life.
That evening after I’d spoken about my grandfather’s life a kind elderly gentleman took me aside. He’d grown up in the post-war ruins of the city. His father, a survivor, dealt in groceries. ‘Father’, he’d asked him one day, ‘Why do you buy your potatoes from that miserable small store? Why not get them somewhere decent?’ ‘No’, his father had replied. ‘That man threw potatoes over the fence when we were rounded up for deportation. The others from whom I buy gave us bread in those terrible times. Now it’s my turn to help them.’
‘My father’, he explained further, ‘Ran a soup kitchen for destitute Jews in the 30s. Your grandfather gave him money. An SS man used to come secretly, after dark, bringing food. When the war began, he brought all his money, then shot himself. I found the man’s SS insignia in a box my father bequeathed me’…
Why did he join the SS in the first place? – My new friend had no answer…
Why do so many succumb to hatred? Why do we surrender our conscience to populists and hate-mongers? How is it that, despite everything, some still obey the heart’s law of loving kindness? Why do millions follow the madness fanned by the few? Why do millions more have to die, who had only wanted to live their peaceful lives, with their family, their farm, their walks across the hills?
I wish these questions belonged only to the past. I wish, preach and pray for us all to speak out, before we too are devoured in the horrors.