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Posts Tagged ‘Just war’

The Other Side of Victory

            On Kol Nidrei of 5765 (2004), I gave a sermon against the Iraq war.  It was a very political sermon.  Yes, I couched it in terms of Jewish teaching, in particular the teaching about a king having to write a Torah scroll before going to war, implying that the deliberation might change the king’s mind about the necessity for the war.  But it was a political sermon.  I was against a war the Bush administration chose to wage.  It was an election year.  Even though I pointed out that Bush’s opponent in the election, John Kerry, was also wrong in his support for the Iraq war, thus trying to be non-partisan in my critique, a lot of people here were upset by that sermon.

One of you even came into my office to talk about the sermon, and explain why it was NOT the sermon she needed to hear on Kol Nidrei – how that sermon did not fill the spiritual need of that moment.  She was right.  It was a bad sermon.  I admit to you now, almost 9 years later, it was a lousy sermon. Oh, I still agree with the politics of the sermon, but it was not the right sermon for that moment.  Why?  Well, in addition to being a bit too long (it remains the longest sermon I have ever delivered), my whole approach was just plain wrong.  I was opposed to the politics of a particular war.  I had nothing to say about the notion of war itself.

Now I will speak about war.  Not born of any particular war, but born of my experiences this past summer.  As many of you know, I spent the summer travelling this country and Germany, interviewing family members that a little over 2 years ago I did not know even existed.  Those in the United States are all Jewish.  Those in Germany are the products of marriages between Jewish men from my family and a Catholic bride.  That means they are not Jewish.  They suffered, however, from the fact they had a Jewish parent.  The stories of the oppression they witnessed are moving – for sure.  But I found that the stories having the most profound impact on me are their accounts of what it is like to actually live through a war.  America and its allies triumphed in World War II.  But there is another side to victory – a side that I never could begin to understand until now.

For those suffering the consequences of war, its end brings emotional if not physical relief.  When the fighting finally ends, they must feel that better times are about to come; and even if they are not immediate, there is at least a moment of celebration that a period of fear has passed.  So one would think.

It was the end of World War II.  My aunt Charlotte, her mother and her siblings were living in the Sudetenland, having been evacuated to there from their home in Cologne.  This became part of the Russian zone of occupation, so the Red Army moved into the area.  This only triggered a round of atrocities, especially the first day they arrived.  Women were raped.  People were abused.  The conquering victors had arrived.  Margarethe, Charlotte’s mother, had her daughters lay down on the top level of a bunk bed, curl themselves in a small fetal position, and put their thumbs in their mouths to appear as childlike as possible.  The Russian soldiers came into their room, shone their flashlights, saw the children lying there and left.  It was a close call.

There was a song the family knew from the Karnival celebrations in Cologne.  Karnival is a winter festival celebration held every year in Cologne, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  The lyrics said, “when you are homesick, you should travel on foot back to Cologne.”  The family was homesick, so in early summer of 1945 they began a journey on foot back to Cologne.  This part of the Romberg family travelled with another young woman and her two children.  At age 13, Charlotte was the eldest of the children.  Every day they walked.  At night they slept in a different place; sometimes a barn, sometimes a school, sometimes the ground.  They foraged the fields for food or depended on the kindness of strangers they met along the way.

At last they came upon a farmhouse and the farmer’s wife was outside churning butter.  They asked if they could spend the night in the barn and the woman told them “no.”  As they were leaving they met up with a Red Army officer, as the farmhouse had been commandeered to house a group of army officers.  He spoke German and asked them what they wanted.  They told him they just wanted to sleep in the barn for the night, but the farmer’s wife had told them no.  He then forced the farmer’s wife to give them a bedroom in the farmhouse.  One reserved for a Red Army officer.  For the first time in weeks, they slept in a real bed, were able to wash, and to have real meals.  They stayed there for several days.

Charlotte and her family were able to hitch a ride on a Red Army truck headed for Carlsbad.  The driver let them off a bit before there and when he said goodbye, gave them some tins of food for their journey.  They made their way to the border of the American section near the Eger River, but the border was closed and they could not pass.  So they took shelter in a kind of makeshift refugee camp in the ballroom of a guesthouse near the border.  Every day brought the possibility of starvation unless they could successfully forage for food from the farmers’ fields in the vicinity.

One time, Charlotte’s brother Norbert found a farmer’s cellar filled high with potatoes.  They formed a plan to steal potatoes in which the brothers crept into the cellar with a bag while Charlotte kept watch.  Back in the ball room there was a small oven with a rough surface.  They scratched the potatoes and put them onto the oven to make them more edible.

Finally there was a train organized to take refugees back to their homes in western Germany.  After an overnight in Braunschweig, then another in Hanover, they finally arrived in Cologne in December of 1945. They were home at last in their beloved city – after 6 months of travelling – only to find it almost completely destroyed by allied bombing.  They were placed in a bomb shelter near the Great Cathedral of Cologne.  But in a devastated city there was no work or housing for a widow with 4 children.  They were evacuated to Pivitsheide, where Charlotte stayed for the rest of her childhood.

When a war ends the soldiers look forward to a homecoming.  The victorious side has parades to celebrate the heroics of the young soldiers.  Families are reunited.  Tears of joy are wept.  Old romances are rekindled, new romances are found.  An exciting new life begins for the returnees from the front.  But for Charlotte and her family, there was no homecoming.  There was only a long journey, mostly on foot, the worry of starvation, and the sorrow of seeing the home that that they loved in ruins.

Now a second story.  Doris, age 12 and Ilse, age 10 were not Jewish.  They were technically Catholic.  But because their father, Oskar, was Jewish, their priest, father Vorspel, feared for their safety.  He approached their mother and told her the girls must leave Essen and be hidden.  He had connections to a nunnery in South Germany.  When their mom objected she did not have the money for this, Father Vorspel told her not to worry, he would take care of everything.  So in March of 1943 they went to live with nuns in south Germany.

But after a year and a half, someone travelling from Essen recognized the girls.  Their mother had to fetch them home.  It was not, however, an easy journey.  Fist of all, she was pregnant once again.  Second, a lot of the trip had to be done on foot.  Finally, Doris fell ill with appendicitis and was hospitalized for two weeks.  By the time she was able to travel and they all arrived home, their father Oskar had disappeared.  Although they would not know this for several months, he had been taken to Theresienstadt.

That left a pregnant mother alone in Essen with two young daughters.  Every week mom would inquire after her husband’s whereabouts, but no answers were found.  It was clear, even to German civilians, that the allies were winning the war.  But what this meant was an enduring of ever increasingly brazen bombings of German civilian areas.  In the early morning of March 13, 1945, Essen suffered a heavy bombing by the allies.  The house where Doris, Ilse, and their mom lived was destroyed.  The family made it to the bomb shelter in the basement, but got trapped under the rubble of the building.  There they remained trapped until around 3 in the afternoon.  Of course this meant their house was gone and they had no place to life.  It was fortunate that a theology student gave them space in his apartment.

And finally, a third story.  Maria Jagode was a Catholic orphan raised by nuns in a small convent in a village on the banks of the Rhine River.  As a young woman she became the governess to the two young boys of a Jewish family, Manfred and Ralph.  Their father, Karl, was a quite successful importer of English wool into Germany.  Because his suppliers were English, and the commodity was much sought after in Germany, Karl’s business prospered through the 1930’s long after the Nazis had choked off other Jewish businesses.  But all of that came to an end on Kristalnacht.

Karl was tipped off that the Gestapo was after him, so he left his home in Essen and went into hiding, leaving his wife, two children and Maria Jagode in their living quarters above his business offices.  The only way to the living quarters was a stairway that led from a garden in the back to the second floor.

Kristalnact arrived and the boys, their mother and Maria hid upstairs while listening to the SS destroy the offices below.  They heard the sounds of sledge hammers being taken to desks and type writers.  Then, horrified, they heard the sound of boots tromping up the stairs from the garden to their living quarters.  The Nazis were on the way to destroy the apartment and do who knows what to the inhabitants.  Maria Jagode met them at the door.  She told them she was a Catholic and that the family was to leave Germany shortly, leaving all of the contents of the apartment to her.  She asked them to please leave things alone, so that her property would not be destroyed.  The Nazis turned and left.

The family eventually made it to America.  They tried to keep in contact with the governess who saved them, but it was sporadic.  The boys grew up safely in Chicago.  After serving a tour of duty in the Korean War, Ralph was posted in Germany and found Maria Jagode.  As a small token of thanks, he wanted to go with her to give some help to the nuns who raised her.  She told him that the nuns who raised her used their facilities to hide and transfer Allied pilots who were shot down during the war – a kind of underground railroad.  Ralph went to the town where the convent was to give them some help as well – but it was completely gone.  He went to question the mayor of the village who was reluctant to tell him anything.  Being an American soldier Ralph was required to always be in full uniform, so when he began to press the mayor and put on an official “air,” the mayor caved and told the tale.  The Nazis had found out how the nuns were aiding Allied soldiers, locked all of them in one of the convent buildings and burned it to the ground.

The former Jewish refugee from Germany turned American officer then returned to Essen to find his old home.  It was completely bombed out except for one thing.  The stairway from the garden to the second floor was still standing – a stairway to nowhere – a satiric monument to Maria Jagode and the nuns who raised her.

The receiving of these stories was accompanied by tears, sometimes by the giver, sometimes by me.  After hearing tale after tale of the unintended damage inflicted on the innocents on the other side of our victory, I can no longer accept the notion that there is in any way a thing called “a just war.”  Today we have a term for the experiences of Charlotte, Doris, and the nuns who raised Maria Jagode – collateral damage.  When we march to war drunk on our own self-righteousness,  we are incapable of being “just.”  All war does is inflict pain.  Perhaps there are wars forced upon us.  I am not necessarily an advocate for always “turning the other cheek,” although I believe the world would be a better place with a bit more cheek turning and a lot less knee jerk reacting.  Yes, perhaps there are some wars that are simply not avoidable.  But just?  I have to say no.  You cannot hear the stories from those on the other side of a victory and believe the war is just.

I think Mark Twain said it best when he said this about war: “Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, war.  He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and calm pulse to exterminate his kind.  He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out…and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.  And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for the “universal brotherhood of man,” – – with his mouth.”

How about our own tradition?  What does Judaism have to say about war?  We Jews are certainly experienced in having war and violence thrust upon us.  Yet our tradition casts our participation with a deep sense of regret.  In I Chronicles, these are King David’s deathbed words to his son, Solomon, “My son, I wanted to build a house for the name of the Adonai my God.  But the word of Adonai came to me saying, ‘You have shed much blood and fought great battles; you shall not build a house for My name, for you have shed much blood on the earth in My sight.”  No where does God criticize David’s wars as being unnecessary.  Even so, participation in war cannot help but taint the soul.  Why else would many of the fiercest advocates for peace in Israel have been the generals, military leaders.  Who else better understands the moral price paid by participation in war?

I know what many of you are thinking right now.  Our president is contemplating a strike against Syria because Bashar al-Assad has reportedly used chemical weapons against his own civilians.  I do not question that this would be an atrocity.  I do not question that Assad is a dictator slaughtering his own people in a desperate attempt to cling to power.  But I am tired of hearing about “targeted” strikes.  The situation on the ground in Syria is complex.  I have little confidence in our ability only strike a military target and not harm civilians.  And I cannot blithely dismiss those casualties as “collateral damage.”  “But,” you might object, “Do we not have a moral obligation to oppose the use of weapons of mass destruction?”

Indeed, if we were looking for a Jewish text to guide us we might look to the law of din rodef drawn from the Talmud, Sanhedrin 73a.  This law tells us if we see one person pursuing another, threatening to kill them, we are obligated to use all force, including killing them, to prevent the murder.  By this measure we have already failed.  According to a report on Monday by McClatchy News Service, US government published as part of its evidence of Assad’s crime the revelation our intelligence had been monitoring preparations for a gas attack 3 days before it happened.  The questions must then be asked, why did the State Department not warn the rebels?  Why did the administration not do what it did late last year and raise a hue and cry over the possible impending attack?  It is important to know all of this as Maimonides points out that killing the pursuer who can be stopped with lesser means is tantamount to murder.

I simply cannot escape the feeling that launching cruise missile strikes would be an empty gesture to cover up or draw attention away from our failure to take proper measures to prevent this attack before it happened.  I cannot escape the feeling this is more about what policy “looks” good as opposed to real moral considerations.  I cannot escape the feeling of being fed another line about what is just.  All I ask is that before we do anything we consider the real consequences of our actions – not from a policy perspective, but a human perspective.  I want to know what is the next step.   How do we avoid the next trap of war?  And, by the way, we still have not even discussed how an American strike on Syria might pull Israel into greater harm’s way.

So today, on Rosh Hashanah I plead for a change of mindset, a change of heart.  It is time to recognize there is an industry that profits from the proliferation of war, and to pledge that we will no longer buy the weak arguments that have pushed us into constant warfare in the last 60 years.  For if we look at the history of the United States from 1950 until today, we have know more years participating in war than not (I have actually counted).  Even more, consider our millennial children.  They have not known one year without war.  I am tired of it, aren’t you?

Today is known as Yom Hadin, the day of judgment.  We believe this is the day God judges our actions from the past year.  We recite words of prayer saying that “repentance, prayer and charity” will affect God’s decree.  I would like to add one more action to that list.  I pray that we finally heed the words of the prophet Isaiah; that we embrace the day when “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they study war anymore.”  May that day speedily come.  Amen

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