On Preventing Future Holocausts

By Gene Knudsen Hoffman
A talk given at the Karpeles Museum Santa Barbara in 1997

[About the author: 1997] Gene Knudsen Hoffman is a Quaker peace activist, poet, teacher, pastoral counselor and writer.  She has made many journeys to the Middle East to open her heart to the sufferings of all sides, and to embody and encourage the practice of compassionate listening.

     Writing about the World War II Holocaust is dangerous for one who was not a part of it, for I still have not fathomed its depths and breadth.  But I have been immersed in it so long through my work in the Middle East, I will dare the risk.  First, a definition: In the Old Testament a holocaust is defined as mass murder.  I believe this to be true.  In discussing it with a friend, he announced that “The Life of Compassion does not admit of distinctions between victims.”  I believe this also.

     So, in addressing this question I need to say I have experienced many holocausts in my lifetime.  Among the gravest was the one the Nazis perpetrated upon the Jews.  Many of us still suffer nightmare grief over this.  Another was the relentless fire-bombing of the citizens of Dresden.  Yet another was our incineration of the people of Hiroshima by dropping the first atomic bomb, thus forcing the world into the Nuclear Age.  And then there were El Salvador, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Iraq…  The list, alas, goes on.  Perhaps all acts of violence can lead to holocausts – at least every war becomes one.

     Perhaps holocausts are wake-up calls for us to examine the seeds of violence in our own lives, to examine ourselves – not one another.  Perhaps we are called to look at what we, in our personal and national lives have done to destroy precious human beings, and the one-time sweet earth.

     To learn what we might do to prevent other holocausts, I want to examine what we have done about the holocaust against the Jews.  For over fifty years we have hunted Nazis and described in harrowing terms how ghastly they were.  (And their acts were ghastly   beyond belief).  It almost seems as though the concentration camps have become horrible fascinations for us.  I’ve wondered about this.  Is it because we think of this as the only holocaust?  Are we in denial about the killer within us, our own evil genius, our own cruelties?

     Is it because we want to hide from ourselves the deeds we have committed that we focus so intensely upon the Nazis?  And what do we ask former Nazis to perform before we again admit them to the human race?  Is it not to confess to their deeds, to repent, to turn away from such actions forever, to make amends, to ask for forgiveness?

     What is it we have condemned them for?  Is it not that they seem to have totally erased from their minds and hearts the sacredness of human life in their terrible orgy of killings?  Do we ask them questions to learn why?  Can we trust them if they don’t answer us?

     And if we Americans ask this of others, should we ask less of ourselves for permitting the first atom bomb to fall on civilians?  For threatening to ‘erase the world’ if we become too frightened?  Can we assure the people of the world that we will never initiate another nuclear war if we won’t destroy the bombs we have and agree never to build another?  Can they trust us if we don’t express remorse, repentance, and seek to compensate in some meaningful way for the harm we have done?  And how might we do so if we wanted to?

     Here are a few examples of what can and is being done today.  We might begin with efforts to recover our sense of the sacred.  We might study the wonder of creation, marvel at the mystery of living creatures.  The marvel of blood and bone and tissue.  We might reflect on the billions and billions of atoms which cooperate to create them.  We might look at all these facets through a microscope and reflect on the beauty, the symmetry, the harmony required to keep the earth alive…

     When we rediscover our awe and gratitude for life, we might be able to have spread before us whole new perceptions of the suffering at the heard of every act of violence.

     To encourage such actions, Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, writes in his book Jewish Renewal: “Listen to the stories of those you might be tempted to demean.  Listen to their stories about their childhoods, and what they went through.  Allow yourself to imagine yourself in their shoes.  …the more we hear the stories, the more we see that those who are our enemies are themselves fully human and fully deserving of respect.”

     With this attitude, we might begin a creative dialogue with one another, leading to what we think we can do together to prevent future holocausts.  We might even invite terrorists to speak to us and tell their stories.  What might we learn about healings they need from lives full of terrors?

     What might we do then?  For one answer, I return to Germany.  In 1958 at the Synod of the Evangelical Church, Chairman Lother Kreyssig issued a call for the founding of Aktion Sunezeichen   Action Reconciliation Sign of Atonement.  He said “We Germans killed millions of Jews in an outrageous rebellion against God.  Those among us who survived…did not do enough to prevent it.  As a sign of this, we ask the people who suffered most from our violence to allow us to do something good in their lands with our hands and our resources as a sign of atonement…”

     “The purpose of Aktion Sunezeichen is not to ‘make good’ wrong which has been done   that is impossible, rather it is an attempt to atone for those wrongs.”

     At first Aktion Sunezeichen was not permitted to work in Russia or Israel or Poland.  The wounds were too deep   there was no trust of the Germans.  So their volunteers built a center for International Reconciliation on the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in England which had been destroyed by German bombs.  They rebuilt a Synagogue in France, an orphanage in Norway, and finally, a home for the blind in Israel.

     Today Aktion Sunezeichen is one of the strong voices for peace in Germany.  Members work in Catholic Worker Houses throughout the United States, and it has an office in Washington, D.C.

     These, mostly young, people want to take responsibility for what their parents and country people did.  Many are conscientious objectors, performing alternative services.  All give 18 months of their lives to this work.  They receive room and board, modest pocket money, and travel expenses.

     To qualify, they spend four weeks learning about the work they will do and studying and discussing the Nazi period and its historic and moral effects on life today.  For the central part of their training they must live for ten days in either Auschwitz or Majdanak concentration camps.  The volunteers not only live in the camps, they meet and talk with survivors and work on documentation of atrocities.

* * * * * *

     In April, 1997, under the leadership of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in south Africa.  Its intent is to hear the confessions of all who committed human rights abuses in that Nation’s past.  All who confess are granted amnesty by the South African government, which means they are pardoned for their crimes and may live as free persons in the nation now governed by President Nelson Mandela.

     According to the U.S.  News and World Report of April 28, 1997, during that first year of “painful exorcism … grim faced brigadiers have confessed to their gruesome deeds.  Maimed activists have detailed their torture.  Sobbing widows have begged to bring home the hidden remains of their dead husbands.  More than 10,000 victims have recounted their ordeals.  An additional 6,000 perpetrators have requested amnesty for admitting their abuses.”

     “The acts many of them committed rival the German concentration camps in horror.”  But, continues the U.S. News and World Report: “More astounding than any of these revelations is the fact that the suffering [the confessions] recall has not stirred up wide-spread demands for vengeance.  The African National Party, now the ruling party of the nation’s first freely elected government, has given full support to the amnesty process, even as the killers of their comrades are freed from prison.  The hope for reconciliation through truth so far is working; many more victims strive to get answers than to get even.”

     An expected bloodbath was prevented   and out of these acts of mercy, another may not arise.

* * * * * *

     Some Americans are establishing a new precedent.  Some veterans who regret the terrible damage they wrought on Vietnamese civilians during that war decided to go back to Vietnam and acknowledge directly the harm they had done.  They offered active compensation in the very places they had fought by restoring what they had destroyed.  When they had finished, they asked forgiveness of their former enemies and their descendants.  Through these extraordinary spiritual and practical acts, each participating veteran gained a new understanding of peace.

     Vietnam Veterans(1) are still making these pilgrimages, healing old wounds through mutual forgiveness, and commitment to making new relationships work.  The Veterans’ Vietnam Restoration Project is accomplishing its goals, and some of the old hatred and fear has ceased.”

* * * * * *

     The last example comes from Australia where this practice is flourishing.  It’s called Restorative Justice.  It’s a radical and compassionate approach to conflict resolution and has been taken up by many courts in the United States as well.  Its primary focus is on the healing of all parties to any conflict: victims, offenders, and many others who are impacted by a conflict.  Society, in the vision of Restorative Justice advocates, has the task of creating those conditions in which both victims and offenders may accomplish their own healing.

     This healing is effected by an emphasis on restitution to the victim and accountability by the offender.  Punishment of an offender is unlikely to heal her or his wounds, does not address the underlying causes of the offense, and increases the likelihood of future offenses.

* * * * * *

     In conclusion I need to say I have personally felt the unremitting anger of painful loss and the passion for reprisal.  The unmanageable extent of cruelty in the world is beyond belief;  World War II’s Holocaust is almost beyond processing in any previously known way.  We have all seen and experienced examples of the generations of the incredibly destructive silence it produces.  And yet, I am compelled to resist your understandable resistance, your understanding of me, and urge you to consider these vastly simple and vastly difficult ideas.  I believe we need to begin practicing these processes today, even this evening.


1. No Royal Road to Reconciliation, Gene Knudsen Hoffman, Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Pendle Hill, Pa.


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