Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Crows, Quakers and compassion

Two mornings ago, I heard a racket outside. Looking out the south-facing picture window in the living room, I saw crows circling overhead, cawing loudly. On the ground, a crow lay flopping, beating its wings, but unable to fly. Two crows stood beside it. One or the other occasionally nudged the injured comrade. The hurt crow flopped over, beat its wings loudly, failed to rise. The  crows overhead circled and cawed. The two sentry crows flew away. I expected all the crows would fly off, leaving their dying peer to his fate.

But they didn't. Two crows--whether the same or different, who could tell?--flew down and continued to stand sentry over the flapping friend. The other crows continued to circle. The crows above, I decided, were guarding the air against predators. Of the crows on the ground, I thought of the angels in Jesus's tomb, one at his head and one at his feet. They hopped beside the anguished crow as he flopped and flailed.

After a few more minutes, the downed crow managed to right himself, and he lifted off into the air. The two sentries--or angels--rose with him. The crows as a group left. Silence after all that cawing.

What had happened? Had the sick crow flown into the trunk of the nearby tree and become momentarily stunned and disoriented? I don't know, but clearly the story of the animal kingdom as a dog-eat-dog Darwinist universe is not entirely correct, for the crows practiced what looked like compassion. I was reminded of years ago, when our former cat, a self-possessed orange tabby, killed a baby crow one spring. Dozens of crows landed on trees and bushes around our small yard and set up an incessant cawing. When the poor cat finally went out, one crow swooped down and pecked him hard on the head, leaving a little hole in his fur. The cat streaked back inside. Eventually the crows, having made their statement, left. There was no mistaking that they were outraged, and, in a sense, though I anthropomorphize, grieving.

This morning, I read in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/science/ancient-bones-that-tell-a-story-of-compassion.html?pagewanted=2 of archeological excavations showing that, around the globe, prehistoric people cared for at least a few of the people who could not care for themselves--the sick, the paralyzed, the malformed. Perhaps these were rare cases or perhaps these particular individuals had powerful parents or were assigned godlike status. On the other hand, perhaps many more sick people were cared for then we know or can know, because their skeletons leave no signs. Whatever the case, despite a story we tell of marginal societies abandoning the sick, weak and  elderly, this was not universally true.

Religion tells a story that compassion weaves through the universe, holding it together. As the early Quakers understood, that agape--that Christ, that Light--was and is available to all people, whether or not they've heard of the historical Jesus. It extends to the animals and no doubt to the plants. It led the early Quakers to what we call social justice on behalf of the poor because such compassion enacted the way God meant his people to live--the shalom way, not the earthly way. No"veil" separates matter and spirit, nor are the two "one." They coexist, laced together. Jesus did not use the language of ripping away a veil to describe entering the kingdom--though the poetry of the veil ripping in the temple was used about him--but the language of hearing and sight. Living in alignment with the shalom kingdom first means being able to rightly see and rightly hear what is all around us.

But if the divine surrounds us, infusing nature, then what of all the harrowing examples of savagery we see in the animal kingdom?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A modern Quaker cookbook

I've been pondering the thoughtfulness Mr. Clayton put into his 1883 Quaker cookbook. I also have been appreciating his mindfulness in offering recipes that are--or were-- simple and accessible to ordinary people, and his care for using wholesome--what we would probably call organic--food.

Our ideas of diet have changed since 1883, though almost all of us would recognize such staples as scrambled eggs and baked beans. We eat less meat and dairy today and don't exclusively rely on a Northern and Western European cuisine. We also don't eat the range of meats that were apparently considered normal 125 years ago--few of us, even among the carnivores, would probably savor pig's knuckles or calf brain.

Do we have staples that are distinctly Quaker in this day and age, recipes comparable to Clayton's "Quaker Cake?" I can't think of any, though I imagine Quaker foods still run to the simple and "wholesome." What would you include in a modern Quaker cookbook?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Quakers: Cooking ... and boozing

I came across a most delightful cookbook, called Clayton's Quaker Cookbook: Being a Practical Treatise on the Culinary Art adapted to the Taste and Want of All Classes, by H.J. Clayton, published in 1883 by the San Francisco Women's Cooperative.

 In his introduction, H.J. Clayton puts a moral--and democratic-- spin on his culinary enterprise: 

"While carefully catering to the varied tastes of the mass, everything of an unhealthful, deleterious or even doubtful character has been carefully excluded; and all directions are given in the plainest style, so as to be readily understood, and fully comprehended, by all classes of citizens."

Clayton also uses the introduction to explain his entrance into a field so unlikely as cooking. Being of a delicate constitution, instead of  "rugged work" in the fields on the family farm, he was left in the kitchen, "to assist his mother in the culinary labors of the household."

In case we are in doubt, he defines cooking as "the art of dressing, compounding and preparing food by the aid of heat."

His recipes are heavily oriented to meat and fish, and given the ubiquity of butter to Clayton's cooking regime, vegans would starve. In fact, Clayton can scarcely imagine a world without butter.

"With the exception of bread ... there  is, perhaps, no article of food  more universally used by mankind than butter." 

For the best butter, an old style spring house is "essentially requisite" for "Who that has ever visited one of these clean, cool and inviting appendages of a well-conducted farm and a well- ordered household, at some old farm of the olden time, does not recall it in the mind's eye as vividly as did the poet Woodworth when he penned that undying poem of ancient home life, "The Old Oaken Bucket that Hung in the Well."

But much butter in 1883 was  of inferior quality, mostly due to the "ignorance" and "slovenliness"  of churners. Quakers, exemplars of the buttermaking art, could offer guidance in the art of producing a superior product, for they, as he put it, finding cleanliness close to Godliness,  kept all their utensils "scrupulously clean" and never added too much salt to their cream.

The cookbook's many recipes include Calf's-Head and Ox-Tail soup, "Clayton's Mode of Cooking Canvas-back Ducks" and "Boiled pig's-feet and Hocks,"  as well as Terrapin soup,  Boiled celery and Boiled eggs.  "Eggs Ought Never to be Poached," declares one entry, for the process renders them "tasteless and also unhealthy ... Indigestible, and of course, unwholesome." Desserts include "A Nice Cake" and "Apple snow."

Some things never change, and then as now, the unhealthy state of food comes  under fire:

"In these degenerate days of wholesale adulteration of almost every article of food and drink," Clayton declares, "it is eminently just and proper that the public should be advised where the genuine is to be procured."

The book also offers household hints. Under "Roaches, Flies and Ants--How to Destroy," Clayton advises mixing powdered borax with "Persian Insect Powder" and using a turkey or goose quill to fling the poison about the kitchen. 

Clayton's work challenges the idea that 19th century Quakers kept far away from alcohol.  His recipe for Egg Nog includes "two pints cognac brandy or Santa Cruz rum." His "Omelet for Dessert," made with eggs, "a teacup of rich milk or cream" a tablespoon of "fine white sugar" and "a very little salt," ends with instructions to pour "a wine glass of good California brandy" over the omelet "and set on fire."  If  testing the quality of coffee required  the thinnest china or "delf-ware cup by which the lips are brought close together,"  so for wine "the thinnest quality of glass is for the same reason requisite."  Lest  we think this penchant for alcohol represents Clayton's fall from the faith, we  have his recipe for "Quaker Cake," which includes, along with butter, flour, ginger, eggs and "saleratus" --baking soda--  "a half cup cider or any spirit."


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sachenshausen IV: the Aftermath

In some ways, Sachsenhausen, if you saw only the barracks, long wooden camp houses arranged in a semi-circle, could almost be your child's summer camp--except for the high walls, the barbed wire, and the machine guns in watchtowers. Even without those physical reminders of imprisonment and violence, more subtle absences--again it's the absences--on the ground clue you in that something is not right. What kind of summer camp is this without a tree or a bush, without a picnic table? The sense of evil quickly oppresses you, even without the prior knowledge we all bring with us to the camps.

Sachsenhausen is a geography of evil (I'm sure I'm borrowing that term), meant to subdue and destroy human life rather than enhance it. As I left with my group, the rain started to retreat to a drizzle, I felt a dissatisfaction, again a sense of something lacking. I had seen much but was missing the crucial piece of the puzzle that would explain all of this. What is it? Why would anybody want to create such an excessively cruel culture?

I walked out of the camp with my new friend from Edinburgh. We went past a street named for Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. As we made our way back past the roads surrounding the camp, with their rows of quaint houses, I wondered, could I live in a home next to a concentration camp, a house built expressly for an SS officer and his family? Not easily. But somebody does. After all, these are shelters and people must live somewhere. But here? Ingrid, our tour guide, told us that the owners of theses houses sometimes get annoyed at all the tourists who stop and take pictures of their homes. I wish I had taken a picture of one of them. When I got back to my host family in Berlin, they told me that neo-Nazis live--or are suspected to live-- in some of those houses.

We all chatted on the tram ride back to Berlin. Ingrid and I share an interest in literature; she had even thought she might specialize in 18th-century British literature until she tried to read Clarissa. We discussed Bonhoeffer's literary tastes. We exchanged e-mails.

Back in downtown Berlin, my Edinburgh friend and I clung together. We toured a wall that had been part of the Prinz Albrechtstrasse gestapo prison, and now has been turned into an exhibit about the excesses of Nazi and Communist rule. Larson, in his book In The Garden of the Beasts, characterizes this wall as a place where he could feel evil. All things being comparative, having just come from a concentration camp, the wall felt bright and benign to me.

A day or so later, when I arrived in the Harz mountains, a place on the edge of the former East Germany, the delayed reaction to Sachsenhausen set in. While Berlin is a highly international city, Thale, where I stayed, and Friedsrichbrunn, site of the Bonhoeffer summer home, are strictly German backwaters. Few people speak English. The resorts are too faded to attract an international clientele. A place that sold gelato was popular, despite the cold weather. Otherwise, I saw many German beer gardens, the kind of places with round tables in the courtyard covered in dusty metal yellow and white striped umbrellas that serve a meat-based diet not amenable to a vegetarian. The 19th century Gothic church made of stone in the large town green was forbidding. On the green, I looked at the many chain-sawed wooden sculptures of folkluric creatures, as the Harz mountains are the home of legends of witches and Wotan. As I strolled about,  I started to see blond haired, blue eyed people everywhere. (There literally were quite a few blond-haired, blue eyed people in Germany.)  I started to see the grandchildren of Nazis everywhere!  I started to see the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of SS officers everywhere! You have to get a grip, I thought. (Though not German, I too have blue eyes and was once a natural blond.) These are just people.

This world of Aryans, which seems so archaic and even creepy to us now, would have been what Bonhoeffer knew. These were his people; this, especially the Harz mountains, his beloved homeland. He was cosmopolitan, well traveled and had lived in other cultures, but this culture of his youth drew him back, over and over, even to Nazi Germany, because his heart was tied to this place. He was an Aryan, much as that distinction distressed him. I keep thinking of how confusing it would have been to have been someone like Bonhoeffer, alive at the period and watching your culture, your tradition, even, to an extent, your values, twisted and  hijacked in support  of unprecedented evil and barbarism. Fortunately for Bonhoeffer, he was grounded not in nationalism, but in an international and ecumenical Christianity that allowed him to see clearly what was going on. Yet he continued to live and reap the benefits of his culture. He looked backwards at the end of his life, finding a sense of identity and continuity in 19th century bourgeois (ie, wealthy) German culture. Why did he (at least in some ways)--and we too today-- look back and cling to periods that have come and gone, when it would make sense to let the past go and look towards the future?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sachsenhausen III: theological musings

The hardest part of the Sachsenhausen tour was visiting the warehouse where approximately 10,000 Soviet POWs were systematically exterminated. They were brought into a room for a purported physical exam and then shot from behind by a rifle hidden behind a concrete wall, the sound muffled by music playing in the background. The executions were consistent with  Nazi ideology, always predicated on the assumption that in the (to them) ceaseless struggle for existence there were not enough resources for everyone, so some had to die. The method chosen was consistent with Nazi practice of cruelly deceiving people.

I left the camp feeling sobered.  What I felt inside at that point was not so much the horror of the camp as a blank emptiness, a coldness.  I felt the absence of humanity. This led me to think of Augustine, who defined evil not as a presence but as an absence, the absence of good, the absence of God. While a sense of evil and foreboding permeated Sachenshausen, along, paradoxically, with the sense of holy space in the suffering of those imprisoned, the evil was most pronounced in the emptiness. The camp tried to take away from people what made them human, what made and makes life good: friendship, family, freedom, individual identity, safety, food, warmth, community, the ethic at the heart of all religions of "do unto others" and the spiritual ethic that all humans, if not entirely equal, share a baseline selfhood that is sacred. Sachsenhausen was a place officially devoid of religion as we would understand it, barren. The worst, of course, was the above-mentioned "Station Z,"  where people came to die alone, yet,  ironically, en masse, as thousands could be killed in a day.

That made me think that perhaps we cling to the stories of abuse in the camps not only because they are horrible and we don't want to forget them, but because they are also "something." Twisted as the abuse might be, it reflects some semblance of human relationship amid the void. We cling even more to the evidences that some people stuck together and helped each other within the camps, that humanity was not entirely snuffed out.

Sachsenhausen II: Inside

As our group entered the inner compound of Sachsenhausen, the wind began blowing harshly and black clouds rolled over the sky. We stood together in a central yard. Unlike Auschwitz, which was preserved as a national memorial the day after it was liberated, there was no sentiment in defeated Germany for memorializing a concentration camp. Desperate Germans, Ingrid told us, entered the camp and dismantled many of the barracks for firewood.

What is left, therefore, are a few barracks, which were used by the Soviets from 1945-1950 as prison quarters.  The pebble-filled foundations of the other barracks have been kept, as have the walls and the main watch tower. One could get a good sense of the camp's semi-circular layout from the pebbled outline of the barracks.

 Ingrid told us that Sachsenhausen never achieved the notoriety of an Auschwitz because it was primarily for political prisoners, not extermination, and because it spent so many years neglected in East German territory. She pointed out how the camp was built in a triangle, so that the main watchtower, with its guards and machine gun, could keep much of the 1,000 acre site under surveillance. As she talked, torrents of rain began to fall and huge gusts of wind threatened to pull our umbrellas from our hands. It was so cold and soaking wet that Ingrid took us into a barracks to finish her talk, even though it was not our "turn" to be there. We were collectively unwilling to complain, as we knew whatever we suffered in our warm clothes and well-fed bodies could be nothing compared to what the prisoners endured.

The barracks were plain and primitive, with peeling paint on the ceilings. A central washroom/bathroom area separated the two wings of the barracks we saw. Ingrid explained to us that the camp was designed as a completely insular society, with a hierarchy of prisoners--criminals on top, followed by communists, homosexuals and Jews. (This explains how Niemoller could survive there for seven years: as an Aryan and Hitler's "special" prisoner, he was top of the heap; the guards were careful that he didn't die, fearing Hitler's wrath.) Roma, artists and Jehovah's Witnesses also found themselves interned in the camp for refusing to "fit in" the Nazi social order. While the camp was not specifically a Jewish extermination center,  a number of Jews were sent there to be exterminated  and those interned in the camp suffered the worst abuse of all the prisoners.

People worked in the brickworks, brutally hard and dangerous work,  as well as making armaments, counterfeiting foreign currencies (a "good" use of artists' talents) or breaking in shoes, a cruel labor that involved endless jogging in stiff, ill-fitting foot ware that left prisoners exhausted and often with blisters or foot injuries that became lethal. Prisoners were subjected to random killings and tortures, especially when the SS guards got drunk and decided to have "fun." Most of the stories are sickening and probably well known.  Hunger and later, as the war progressed, starvation, became common. But prisoners also formed friendships and organized networks that could be lifesaving.

I have seen many, many photographs throughout my life of concentration camps and have also seen some filmed footage, but nothing can compare to actually being in a camp. For me, the camps have always had a foggy, phantasmorgic, nightmarish quality--and of course, were always black and white. Their literal physicality had eluded me. It was difficult to picture what they were really like; I had no context. Being at Sachenshausen, however,  I saw concrete geographies: Sachenshausen is a real dimensional space. It was the exact opposite of the sensation of visiting a film set, where you find out with disappointment that what seemed real was an illusion--three dimensions, for example, might be a painted backdrop. In contrast, at the camp the stuff of nightmares and seeming illusion was concretized in the space/time continuum.

At times, I considered taking pictures but the strong wind and the almost relentless rain made me reluctant to do so. But perhaps I really didn't want to reduce this place that felt, paradoxically, like a deeply holy ground because of all the suffering it held, to another consumable.

The rain died down near the end but a cold wind still blew, causing me to shiver even in July in my violet jacket. I found myself making friends with another tourist, a friendly woman from Edinburgh. Would we have made friends anyway or was there something that drew us together seeking comfort and safety in community?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sachenshausen I: The perimeter


Visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp focused me on the power of place and the ways a place can break your heart. I decided to visit this camp after my plans collapsed to tour Tegel prison, where Bonhoeffer composed what later became his Letters and Papers from Prison. I regretted not touring Tegel, but Sachsenhausen was almost as relevant to my Bonhoeffer studies, for fellow pastors Martin Neimoller and Werner Koch, and his brother-in-law,  Hans van Dohnanyi, ended up imprisoned in the camp. Bonhoeffer understood quite clearly that he too could find himself in Sachenshausen, which was so convenient to Berlin, and during a long car ride quizzed the newly released Koch at length about it. The car ride would have been necessary: discussing the camps was strictly forbidden, so the conversation would have had to have taken place in a private locale. (Part of the experience of researching Bonhoeffer is gradually sensitizing to the world of Nazi Germany, in which every action, including a car ride, is laden with multiple meaning. )

My host family found a free tour of  Sachenshausen for me. As long at least four people arrived at at certain spot in the Potsdammerplatz, a hub of downtown Berlin, the tour would go forward. I was there early, but already four people had congregated and many more came. It was still the monsoon period of my trip, so we all had our umbrellas open to protect ourselves from a steady downpour.

Our tour guide was Ingrid, a young graduate student, stocky and short with jet black hair and heavy, black-rimmed glasses. She was utterly a delight, informed, compassionate, intellectual, liberal, everything a Nazi was not, though, ironically, she spoke English with the shrill, harshly German-accented speech I connect, in stereotype, to Nazi concentration camp matrons.

She ushered us onto the tram for Orianienburg, the town just north of Berlin which is the site of the camp. We walked from the train station under drizzly skies past quaint homes built by the Nazis in the 1930s for the married SS officers who worked in the camps. The houses were designed, Ingrid said, according to the Nazi aesthetic, a folk architecture with steeply pitched roofs. They surrounded the camp on quiet residential streets, sweet little houses, on the surface.

As the rain came down harder, we were ushered into the visitors' center at the camp's perimeter, an area surrounded by high walls where the superindentent would have lived in his pleasant two-story house surrounded by meticulously kept lawns and gardens, with his goldfish pond and peacocks. SS troops in training were housed in pleasant two story barracks nearby. While I am working from memory, it seems to me this was the only area of the camp where visitors were allowed, and was used to highlight how fine conditions where in the camp. This leads me to believe there may have been some prisoner housing in this section, but of that I am not sure.

Ingrid said that this high-walled perimeter surrounding the camp proper helped isolate the grim central area from the townspeople, who had  initially been horrified at the beatings and torture they could see from their second story house windows in the original "wild" camp that sprang up in the town after the Nazis first seized power. 

While standing in the high walled outer perimetter area, we looked at the SS barracks and heard the following from Ingrid: Sachenshausen was built as the "model" camp where SS officers were trained and then sent to other camps, such as Auschwitz. The officers were primarily young men, and individuals could opt out of participating in atrocities without penalty if they chose, such as by claiming a headache. Most did not. They were supposed to be an elite force, but apparently recruitment standards were not very high. 

Most did not walk away from the camps, saying "no, this is not for me." Perhaps this is because they had been brainwashed into a belief in Aryan superiority and then given absolute power over the lives of inmates. According to Ingrid, as part of a new guard's initiation, an experienced guard would bring the new recruit inside the camp, randomly choose a prisoner and then beat him to death to demonstrate the lack of consequences. Guards had godlike power, as well as warm, sturdy well-made clothes, boots, whips, guns, comfortable lodgings, warmth and plenty of food. The contrast between their lives and that of the inmates was almost absolute.  They were told they were superior to other human beings,  part of a vanguard creating a new and better world. They learned they were the lords of the universe and that this situation would never change. What young man would not be tempted by this giddy offering of power and privilege? 

Sadism was an everyday part of the social order. Ingrid told us that prisoners were brought into the perimeter to cut the potatoes for SS dinners  into the perfect circles that were the preferred Nazi aesthetic. Any imperfectly cut potato was thrown away and could not be eaten by the starving prisoners. 

By this time the rain was pouring down furiously and the wind blowing, and we huddled together as a group, too sobered to complain of the cold as we crossed under the sign that said "Work will make you free" in German and into the camp itself. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Berlin, now and then

It rained and galed for about half my trip to Germany, and, after drought and temperatures that had topped 100 in Ohio, it sometimes felt bone chillingly cold in summery Europe. However, I decided not to be the kind of person who can't function if it's not 70 with clear skies, and so I plunged on, trying to enjoy rain and "cool breezes" after the roasting heat at home.

The afternoon I visited Bonhoeffer's childhood home in the Grunewald neighborhood of Berlin it poured rain in torrents, and I was soaked, a situation not helped by the tendency of wind gusts to flip my umbrella inside out into something resembling a large tulip that the wind tried to pull out of my hand. Then the rain stopped, and as I stood shivering at the bus stop under ominously gray skies, I decided I must find a heavier jacket than the lightweight hoodie I was wearing over a now soaked teeshirt. I happened to ask the elegantly dressed woman standing at the bus stop with me where I could buy a jacket, and she advised I get off at a certain stop on the Kurfurstendam, the grand shopping boulevard that runs east/west across the city.

I must have disembarked at the wrong place, for I found myself walking up the windy, on and off rainy Kurfurstendam looking into dress shops showing a few long wool coats, brocade cocktail dresses and silk blouses hanging in rooms decorated with Louis Quinze furniture, ornate crystal chandliers and plush Oriental carpets. How could I even dream of walking into such showrooms, for such they were, rain bedraggled, in jeans and a hoodie, carrying an oversized purse stuffed with now sodden city maps and a directionally confused umbrella? Instead, I decided to get back on the double decker bus and hop off when I saw an area of stores I could reasonably expect to afford. Soon enough, I found a sports store and in it a serviceable and warm violet jacket for 20 euros, on sale, amid all the 70, 80 and 100 euro and higher thinsulate hiking gear, most with American designer labels.

Later, I was told that the posh stores I eschewed on the Kurfurstendam are for the nouveau-rich wives of rich Russian industrialists and other wealthy foreigners, not ordinary Germans and such mere mortals. I thought of those shops as I read an account of an American, Katherine (Kay) Smith, the wife of an assistant military attache who came to Berlin after the first world war.

As recounted in Andrew Nagorski's Hitlerland, after arriving at the fashionable Adlon Hotel, Kay donned a beige coat with a beige fox collar, beige pumps, beige stockings and a dark blue hat in order to make a rakish entrance onto the streets of Berlin. However, Kay learned not to go out too stylishly dressed after a crowd of shabby Berliners gathered ominously around her and her new clothes, and only “made way for her” when they found out she was an American.

Kay had to deal with a flea-ridden apartment, a city problem, and was shocked when her maid wanted to eat the remains of her husband’s breakfast egg. The maid explained she had not tasted an egg since before the war. When Kay told her to eat all the eggs she wanted, the maid, in turn was shocked—in German households food would be kept under lock and key and the servants weren’t supposed to eat the same food as their employers. Foreigners lived well in Berlin; native Berliners not.

I wondered how the Bonhoeffer family fared in post-war Berlin. I know they suffered a hit during the inflation, though they were shielded from the worst effects by the fact that the father was paid by wealthy clients for psychological counseling in foreign currencies. None of the daughters, all married in the 1920s, set up housekeeping in their mother's prewar style, but at the same time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have been one of the fortunate few Germans traveling in the right circles and protected from the worst of the economic hardship facing many in his country. This was not lost on Bonhoeffer, who knew he was insulated from many of life's everyday problems by family money, but who knew too it was wise to finish his university degree and pursue the pastorate. Later, in the short period while he could before the Nazis took over, he worked with other rich Berliners to run programs for poor youth.

The well-heeled Grunewald I saw, row after row of stately houses in a quiet suburb, seemed not much different from what it must when the Bonhoeffers moved there in order to have yard space for a goat and chickens during the "starvation" times of World War I (the grounds surrounding the house were actually rather small). But what was it really like at a time when class divisions were so much sharper, the poor so much poorer, the rich so much richer? What of the threats on the street? I thought of the possible danger the crowd posed to the well-dressed Kay Smith and wondered if it a precursor to anger directed at the Jews. Did Bonhoeffer have to be careful venturing outdoors in his beloved Berlin?

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Friday, September 7, 2012

Pilgrimage to Germany: some Berlin and Bonhoeffer thoughts

I took this photo of a preserved remnant of the Berlin Wall.
As mentioned in the previous blog, I traveled to Germany this summer to visit Bonhoeffer sites and to try to come to terms with Germany's World War II legacy. I spent more of the trip in Berlin than any other place, and had begun to just barely know and fall in love with the city when it was time to leave.

Berlin presents a paradox for the Bonhoeffer researcher. The city Bonhoeffer knew was largely obliterated during World War II. At the same time, today's reunited Berlin, vibrant, thriving, cosmopolitan and in the process of recreating itself, is probably more like the city as Bonhoeffer experienced it than at any time in the first fifty years after his death

The most awkward part of Berlin is the center, the former no-man's land by the River Spree. The Soviets built the Berlin Wall along the Spree, maintaining a dead space behind it. Today, the German government is reclaiming that dead center space, having built, among other public buildings, a huge modernistic glass and metal government office space (in a style of architecture the Nazi's would have abhorred). All the new buildings sit stiffly, as yet unintegrated into their sites. The bridges over the Spree look artificial as well, too new, like bridges over fake waterways in a Disney World. They lack the classical charm of old stone bridges I have seen in old Berlin pictures. But in time, the structures will meld gracefully into the landscape ...

The River Spree in downtown Berlin today. Internet file photo.
The Tiergarten, the park in the center of the city, which is much like Central Park in New York City, was devastated after the war, but now is back. I was able to walk there, to my delight. Bonhoeffer must have spent time there, too, but we have no concrete record of it. The home his family first occupied in Berlin, where he lived from age six until he was 10, was near the Tiergarten. And almost surely, like many others in Berlin during the Nazi era, he must have taken long walks with friends on isolated paths in the Tiergarten in order to have conversations away from eavesdroppers and spies.
I took this photo of the Tiergarten. I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think of how it looks today?

What struck me most about Berlin was my sense that it has come to grips with its past--and that this has given it both humility (I want to say peace, but that word carries implications of complacency that are not there) and new energy. World War II is energetically present as living history, as if it happened yesterday, not more than half a century ago. My host family talked about it in an everyday way. Though most Berliners were born after the war, it's part of the fabric of their city. Perhaps this is only natural for the city that was the capitol of the country that started World War II and which suffered an almost unfathomable degree of destruction during and after it.

The destroyed Tiergarten after the war: ''I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten--a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there ... and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you." Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit, quoted from Eric Larson, In the Garden of Beasts

Two ways the war--always "the war"-- lives on are through stars scattered in the pavements throughout the city indicating where Jewish families once lived and where they perished, be it Auschwitz, Dachau or elsewhere. Another reminder, built against a preserved portion of the Berlin Wall, is an exhibit about Nazism spread along the ruins of the Gestapo's (always prefaced with "notorious") Prinz Albrechtstrasse prison, Bonhoeffer's last stop en route to a concentration camp. The city appears to have accepted its responsibility for the horrors its government unleashed and to have recoiled from its former embrace of militarism and exceptionalism.

It seems to me that we in this country began a similar process of self-exploration and soul-searching after Viet Nam, a process that perhaps reached its culmination in our own Viet Nam wall memorial in Washington, a place that always seems to me drenched in sadness. Then we stopped, and some people have criticized the Viet Nam memorial for not glorifying the conflict. I believe that we have not yet come to grips with how Viet Nam tore at us a nation, and that, as result, we are still living out that ideological conflict in strange ways, especially in our politics. I sometimes wonder if we will have to be brought to the brink of destruction ourselves before we can come to terms with who we are: a nation that wants to go back to the country as it was before that war or a nation that wants to embrace the changes that the Vietnamese war helped to bring? In many ways, these competing worldviews mirror those of Germans in Weimar Germany of the 1920s--some (many) bitterly hated and resisted the new society ushered in after World War I, while some embraced it. The Bonhoeffer family seems to have accepted their country's new direction.

We have two surviving letters Bonhoeffer wrote from the (notorious) Prinz Albrechtstrasse prison to his parents, where he was transferred on Oct. 8, 1944. The first is a birthday (hers) letter he was allowed to send to his mother on December 28, 1944. He says nothing of his own situation, writing only in general, if heartfelt, terms: "Dear mother, I want you to know that I am constantly thinking of you and father every day, and that I thank God for all that you are to me and the whole family." His guards allowed him to write again on January 17, because of the "People's Sacrifice," a last ditch propaganda effort to gather supplies and rally the people to defend Berlin against the Soviets. He instructs his mother to give away any clothing of his without "another thought," mentions his pleasure at receiving a Christmas letter from Maria, his fiancee, and asks for some supplies, such as books and toothpaste, indicating he was still able to receive packages from the outside. After that, silence and a series of increasingly poignant and distressed notes from his parents, obviously desperate for some word about his fate.

As I have begun reading about pilgrimage, I realized that Bonhoeffer spent much of his life as a pilgrim, roaming the world. I will write more about that in a future post.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Guten Tag, Germany

On Monday, I head to Germany to do Bonhoeffer research. My research will be largely journalistic, putting my fingers in the nailholes of Bonhoeffer's life. I will be visiting places that were important to Bonhoeffer's development, including Berlin, Finkenwalde, the Harz Mountains and Tubingen.

Bonhoeffer moved to Berlin at age six. “The decisive influence,” wrote Bonhoeffer's biographer Eberhard Bethge “was Berlin and its complex diversity: the imperial and Republican city that slowly succumbed to Nazism, the liberal and ecclesiastical, the conservative and cosmopolitan Berlin, with its academic and working class sectors, its concert halls and museums; the Berlin of street brawls and political plots.”

In Berlin, the family first lived in Bruckenallee, near the Bellevue rail station, adjacent to Bellevue Park, a district north of the zoo. They had a view of Bellevue Castle.

In 1916, the family moved to Grunewald, living at 14 Wangenheimstrase from March 1916 to 1935. They moved there to grow food during WWII. This is the yellow house pictured to the left.

In 1935, the parents moved to Marienburger Allee 43, Charlottenburg.

Friedrichsbrunn in the Harz mountains, where the Bonhoeffer family had a summer home, will be another destination. In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote: "I live a good deal in nature, in the glades near Friedrichsbrunn, or on the slopes from which one can look beyond Treseberg to the Brocken. ..It is the Harz, the Thuringian forest, the Weser mountains, that to me represent nature, that belong to me and have fashioned me." Harz is as well the magical forestland of Grimm's fairytales.

Bonhoeffer studied for a year Tubingen, spending some of his time with his grandmother Julie Tafel at 38 Neckarhalde. Here Jukie had a balcony where she could lay in the sun.

As Director of the Finkenwalde Seminary, Bonhoeffer found his life's work. Finkenwalde is now part of Poland and called Zdroje. The seminary building, an old manor house, was destroyed at the end of World War II but a Bonhoeffer center now exists on the site.

As I planned the trip, the level of destruction wrought by World War II became more real. So many of the buildings where Bonhoeffer spent his time no longer exist. This makes Tubingen, which was spared bombing in World War II,, the Harz mountains and other natural terrain such as the Baltic Sea, all the more important.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Misuse of Religion

I recently read an article for my "Interfaith Dialogue" class that was simultaneously interesting and disturbing. Written by anthropologist Ian Hogbin in 1947, it was called “Pagan Religion in a New Guinea Village.” Among other things, it showed how cynically people can exploit religious fears to seize and maintain power.

The New Guinea men studied by Hogbin wanted separation from—and hence power over— the women in the tribe: They wished to exclude the women from their “cult.” Why? This detail Hogbin never explores--he apparently never raised the question. However, he explained that the men created a story of enormous crocodile spirit monsters that the women and children had to keep away from. He also explained how the men were able to make this utter fabrication credible.

A woman came home one day and freely shared with her husband her discovery of a whirring sound created by twirling a twisted piece of wood on a string. He told her to keep her discovery a secret and passed the information to his male cohorts. They decided to say it was the voice of a spirit that the women must stay away from. Of course, to carry out this fraud, they had to kill the woman who brought them the knowledge. As Hogbin puts it:

The husband was first reluctant but at length gave consent when promised a substitute. He sent a message to her to bring his supper and as soon as soon as she stepped on the ladder of the house the men”—in Hogbin’s polite term—“despatched her”—ie, murdered her—“with their spears.” The men told the rest of the women that “she had been eaten by a fearsome spirit monster which had come into the area”—a monster whose presence was heralded by the bullroarers. This falsehood in place, the men could easily keep the women intimidated.

For reasons he doesn’t explain, Hogbin rather quaintly makes the following inexplicable statement:

The story may perhaps give the impression that the hoaxing of the women was uppermost in the men’s mind when carrying out their ritual. … I am convinced that, although this aspect of the matter cannot be ignored, it would be a mistake to pay too much attention to it.

At this point, Hogbin dropped the subject and moved on.

I think Hogbin erred not to pay much more attention to why the women were hoaxed, why that was acceptable, why religion could be openly built on a fraud that used fear to exclude women from power and why the men feared sharing their power with women. Why was murdering an innocent woman acceptable? This is the kind of behavior we openly condemn when it’s practiced by Nazis. I am glad Hogbin did not suppress it, and hence romanticize “primitive” religion, but I also wish he'd spent more time exploring the issue.

The question I have is: Why did these men want to exclude the women? Why is that, across cultures, men seem to want to keep women out?