Thursday, December 1, 2005

When a former member of the Hitler Youth spoke in a New York synagogue, a fractured family was reunited.

‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future’, go the words of a song by an Australian friend of mine, David Mills. None of us is excluded from a full part in God’s plan.

It would be easy to think that my German friend, Peter Petersen, might have excluded himself from participating in society. He joined the Hitler Youth at the age of seven, became a convinced Nazi and served as a soldier in the last year of World War II. But he became a bridge between the new Germany and the world Jewish community, and a much respected member of parliament.

On one occasion Peter was invited by an American Jewish Congressman to speak in a New York synagogue. Just before he spoke some of the Congressman’s party colleagues warned against having him speak. However it was too late to intervene and the Rabbi welcomed Peter warmly.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Peter told the four hundred Jews, ‘as a German, just about the right age, you will have a question that will drown out anything I would tell you about the German perspective on Israel. Permit me to answer that question.’

Peter told me that he could feel the tension in the hall. He persevered, ‘I grew up as an enthusiastic Hitler Youth boy.’ At the back of the hall a man jumped up. ‘So you admit it.’

Peter responded, ‘Would you rather have someone here who lied – who acted as if he had never heard of Hitler? I was seventeen years old when the war ended.’ Shaking, the man sat down.

Then Peter went on. At that time the war’s end and the collapse of the Third Reich meant only one thing for him and his parents: the Americans and the Russians had more planes and bombs. Many of his friends had been killed, his home city, Hamburg, had been turned into ruins, and Peter himself had been wounded when he had tried to knock out a Canadian tank. He had regarded the news of what had gone on in the concentration camps as Allied propaganda.

His father, however, had brought home a Jewish man who had been in a concentration camp for eight years. After learning what the man had lived through, Peter had a sleepless night. He wanted to run away – to emigrate, to get away from being a German. But his father helped him to see that he could not and must not run away from himself.

It took time, Peter said, to move beyond his self-pity and self-righteousness. The illumination came after he remembered an incident in 1944 when he had been a soldier in Silesia. There he had seen a group of people in terrible shape, guarded by the SS, being herded from one cattle car to another. He had asked his lieutenant who they were, and the officer replied, ‘Oh, don’t worry, they’re just Poles and Jews.’

‘The terrible thing was that I did not worry,’ said Peter. ‘I realized the moral insensitivity that had made Hitler possible was as much part of me as it was of these SS people. But for the grace of God I could have been in the SS.’ After a private talk with a friend, he found forgiveness and became free, as he told his Jewish audience, to speak to them. ‘So, I am now ready for your questions.’

At that moment another man stood up. He was older than Peter, and his wife sat beside him, crying. ‘We have a son in Peru,’ he told the congregation. ‘Six months ago he wrote to us that he was going to marry a German girl.’ Turning directly to Peter, he went on, ‘You must understand,’ he said, ‘I got out of Germany in the nick of time in 1938. I sent my son extracts from my diary, but to no avail. So I told him that if he did not part from this woman, he would no longer be our son. But now – I have just spoken to my wife – we are going to phone and invite him and his fiancé to our home.’

Peter died this year. At a memorial occasion this story was recalled, and his dedicated work for reconciliation with the Poles and then with the Jewish community. It demonstrated, one speaker said, how a change in his life opened closed doors; a special charisma of friendship grew out of such openness of heart and mind.

All our pasts, unfaced, can trip us up. Most of us can think of political figures for whom this has happened. But, as Peter’s life tells us, our past, faced, can become a precious asset.

This is the chorus of my Australian friend’s song:

‘Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future
Every day has a night but with morning comes the light
Let the darkness pass away, here comes another day,
Humbler and wiser, not forgetting yesterday
‘Cos the sinner’s there in me but the saint I choose to be, I pray.’