(photo credit: Courtesy)
The small university town of Tubingen in Baden-Wrttemberg, Germany first expelled all of its Jewish residents in 1477. Since then it has historically also been the origin of various church doctrines directed against the Jews.
In the 1930s the town was among the first to again expel all of its Jewish residents, prompting the mayor to write a letter to Hitler proclaiming this news and asking him to become an honorary citizen of Tubingen, which he gladly accepted. Now, in addition to a tiny Jewish community that has returned to the town, the T bingen Offensive Stadtmission church, commonly known as TOS, has grown over the last 20 years to some 250 members who all have a special love for Israel and the Jewish people.
Most of the churches in Germany are either Protestant or Catholic and are managed by the state, so for an independent, Israel-loving church to survive and flourish is indeed something special. The TOS is a large tent built on top of railroad tracks that once deported Jews from the town to camps throughout Germany and Poland, but the spirit of the church is founded on acknowledgment and repentance for the sins of their forefathers.
Part of that repentance was the March of Life organized by the TOS last month around Holocaust Remembrance Day. The march by these German Christians was aimed at healing the wounds of the past in order to build relationships that will last into the future. The route followed that of a death march that took place in early 1945 just months before the end of World War II and covered some 350 kilometers from Bisingen to Dachau.
The area of the Swabian Alb in southwestern Germany had several concentration camps, mostly for labor. There were 10 such camps in the area around Bisingen, with 15,000 prisoners forced to dig for shale that would then be processed and made into oil for the Nazi regime. Uta Hentsch runs a small museum in Bisingen dedicated to remembering those prisoners who worked and died in the area camps and in the death marches that followed. She has also volunteered in Israel at a home for Holocaust survivors near Haifa and even spoke with me in Hebrew.
A group of more than 50 American Christians joined the more than 300 Germans in their march to proclaim healing and solidarity among the different groups - German, Christian and Jewish. One of the march organizers, Heinz Reuss, was very pleased with the turnout and said, "We expected 150 people to be on the march, but it turned out to be more than double." He also said that for him the purpose of the march was "to make a stand for Israel, for Jewish life and for the God of Israel here in southern Germany."
IN A SPECIAL meeting held the night before the start of the march, four TOS members stood before the assembly and told difficult and emotional stories of the Nazi past of their families. B rbel Pfieffer, who now sings as part of the church worship group known as Be'er Sheva, spoke of how she only recently discovered that her grandfather was a SS guard who beat Jews and other prisoners as they worked to make tanks in a factory. She and three others then followed the example of Jesus and humbly washed the feet of several of the Jewish guests, including some Holocaust survivors, many of them weeping. The Jewish guests then in turn washed the feet of their German hosts, signaling their forgiveness.
Also on the march was a man from Syria, who dared not give his name or hometown for fear of being killed upon returning home. He said that as a Christian from Syria he struggles with managing what he was taught about hating Israel and the Jews versus what Jesus taught about loving even your enemies. He felt that if Germans and Jews could be reconciled, the same model could also be applied between Arabs and Jews.
The 350 kilometers of the march were broken down into different segments. All of the marchers started together at Bisingen and ended together at Dachau, and in between smaller teams marched different segments of the route. The march began with a time of prayer and worship on the empty field at Bisingen where the camp once stood, and from there the different teams split off. Along the way each of the teams would stop at locations to hear what events had happened at that particular spot on the original death march and to pray for healing and forgiveness over those places.
The segment from Bad Waldsee to Schongau was done by the children of TOS. Thomas Waldhart, one of the march organizers and in charge of the children's ministry at TOS, said, "It's very important to teach them what happened here in our land, and what we can do for reconciliation." He also said that they begin talking with the children at a young age about the Holocaust, but spare them some of the more gruesome details until they are older.
The march concluded with a special ceremony at Dachau. While most of the march participants arrived on foot, some others rode by train from T bingen on a special train arranged by the Deutsche Bahn. As they marched into Dachau, many of the Germans wore yellow stars with "Jude" written on them, just as the Jews had been forced to wear by the Nazis. In fact, so many of the Germans wanted to wear the stars that the church ran out of them, after which many marchers picked the yellow flowers that were on the ground around them and carried or wore those instead. Flags from the different nations represented in the march were carried through the streets, with the Israeli flag featured prominently in the center and carried by one of the Israeli participants.
Several of the Americans brought with them pictures of their relatives who had been killed during the Holocaust to be presented as a memorial in Dachau. As the Americans and Germans presented the pictures of Holocaust victims jointly, many began crying and begging for forgiveness and healing.
Rose Price, survivor of six camps, including Dachau, embraced and comforted several of the Germans that had broken down into tears. One TOS leader, Stephan Ahrens of Hamburg, said that the march had achieved its goal "...to confront the memories of the past and talk about them, breaking the veil of silence."