Saturday, December 17, 2005

'Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future' go the words of a song written by an Australian friend of mine, David Mills. They underline the idea that none of us is excluded from a full part in God's plan.

'Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future' go the words of a song written by an Australian friend of mine, David Mills. They underline the idea that none of us is excluded from a full part in God's plan.

It would be easy to think that my friend, Peter Petersen, might have excluded himself from participating in society after joining the Hitler Youth at the age of seven, by being as a teenager a convinced Nazi and by serving in the last year of World War II as a dedicated German soldier. But because of his past rather than in spite of it he became a bridge between the new Germany and the world Jewish community, and a much respected member of parliament.

Let me illustrate. 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. Peter had expected his host to smooth the way for him, explain why he had been invited. But he got no such introduction.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,' he told the four hundred Jews, ‘if I appear before you today as a German and look as I do and have just about the right age, then you will have a question at the back of your minds that will drown out anything I would tell you about the German perspective on Israel. Therefore permit me to answer that question first.'

Peter told me that after these first words he could feel the tension in the hall. He persevered, ‘I grew up as an enthusiastic Hitler Youth your boy.' At the back of the hall a man jumped up and interrupted. ‘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 only two weeks before the end of the war 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; it was something he felt Germans would never do.

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. It was clear that this would always be on the country's conscience. 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 suddenly remembered an incident in 1944 when he had been a soldier in Silesia. There he had seen a group of people in terrible shape, heavily 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, ‘because that reason was good enough for me. And I realized the moral insensitivity in me 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 about this with a friend, he found forgiveness and became free, as he told his Jewish audience, to speak to them. ‘So, ladies and gentlemen, 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. ‘One moment,' he told the congregation, ‘before we talk about policies, I'd like to tell you a story. We have a son who lives in Peru. Six months ago he wrote to us that he was going to marry a girl from Cologne.' Turning directly to Peter, he went on, ‘You must understand,' he said. ‘I got out just in the nick of time in 1938 from Wuppertal. I sent the boy extracts from my diary, but to no avail, and I told him that if he did not part from this woman, if he did this to our family, he would no longer be our son. But now – I have just spoken to my wife – we are going to phone him right away and invite him and his fiancé to our home.'

Peter died earlier this year. At a memorial occasion for him this story was recalled and also his dedicated work for reconciliation with first the Poles and then with the Jewish community. It was a demonstration, one speaker said, how his own experience of a change in his life opened closed hearts and closed doors; of a special charisma of friendship which 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 also 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.