Marching for life

German pastor heals wounds by confronting Nazi past

German town of Tübingen_521 (photo credit: Courtesy March for Life)
German town of Tübingen_521
(photo credit: Courtesy March for Life)
For years, German pastor Jobst Bittner and his wife Charlotte had led their congregation in an effort to intercede for their small town of Tübingen through prayer and fasting. But no real changes occurred in the spiritual atmosphere of their community. Then, early in the year 2000, Pastor Bittner and his church began to research the history of Tübingen.
Step by step, they uncovered a strong Nazi link to Tübingen which included discomforting stories about their own forefathers. Interestingly enough, the city’s dark past was being exposed by others at the very same time. The town’s Nazi past was laid bare, a memorial for the razed Jewish synagogue was erected, and a Jewish association was founded. The city’s prized University of Tübingen also launched a review of its own disturbing record during the time of Hitler’s despotic rule.
In his recent book Breaking the Veil of Silence, Bittner describes how the university was found to be a key wellspring of the Nazis’ racist ideology. Researchers and professors gave this ideology a veneer of scientific legitimacy, especially among the school’s medical and theological faculties.
During the 1930s, the university developed into a center of theoretical and practical rassenkunde (ethnogeny). Numerous people died through its scientific experiments on humans.
Shortly after the Nazis seized power in 1933, two well-known theologians from Tübingen made a great stir with their anti-Semitic publications. Catholic dogmatist Karl Adam (1876-1966) declared that the goals of Christianity and National Socialism largely coincided with each other. Protestant New Testament scholar Gerhard Knittel (1888-1948) was an active supporter of the Endlösung (Final Solution) and demanded a racial separation. If this were not successful, all Jews had to be killed, Knittel declared.
It was disheartening for Bittner to discover that many leading National Socialists from Tübingen came from strong Christian backgrounds. In his book, he states that the deep roots of anti-Semitism existed long before the rise of the Third Reich.
“Anti-Semitism is like a negative seed hidden in our Western culture and planted in our thinking, so that it is possible to break loose again at all times,” Bittner warned.
“Anti-Semitism is not necessarily an active undertaking against the Jewish people or Israel,” he said in a recent interview with The Christian Edition. “The main characteristic of anti-Semitism is, rather, indifference and inactivity, which is expressed in being silent and not speaking out against the denial of the Holocaust, the denial of Israel’s right to exist or an anti-Jewish attitude. It is the same silence as of the silent majority at the time of National Socialism.”
According to Bittner, latent anti- Semitism has existed for centuries within Christianity. It is a result of the separation of the early Church from its Jewish roots since at least the fourth century. He thus believes the “Christian gene defect” already existed when the Early Church Fathers wrote their first anti-Jewish works espousing Replacement theology and calling for the murder of Jews as the killers of Christ.
Perhaps the most chilling discovery Bittner made about the University of Tübingen was that it produced not only some of the most fanatic proponents of the Nazi genocide but also many of its most efficient practitioners. Tübingen alumni were to be found throughout the ranks of the Waffen-SS and the Einsatzgruppen, the roving Nazi death squads which summarily executed over 1.5 million Jews, communists, partisans and other “undesirables” in occupied Eastern Europe. In fact, some 80 percent of the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen studied at the university level, and half of them completed their doctorates.
It turns out that the Tübingen executioners were killers by conviction.
They murdered out of ideological and racist motivations, while loyalty to the political theories of the Third Reich were a less compelling factor.
The Einsatzgruppen had already wiped out entire Jewish communities well before the infamous Wannsee conference on January 20, 1942 set the German bureaucracy in motion to implement the Final Solution and the Nazi gas chambers were built. At the beginning of the German military campaign in Poland in 1939 and also with the outset of hostilities against Russia in 1941, the Einsatzgruppen immediately followed the Wehrmacht (the regular German army) into the conquered areas to carry out their cruel task.
Usually they cordoned off whole villages which often had Jewish concentrations of up to 90%, searched from door to door, and brought their mostly Jewish victims to mass grave sites, where they were systematically shot dead at close range. Often the victims had to dig their own graves beforehand. In some cases, the Jews had to lie down on the dead or dying bodies of those just shot, before they were all hastily buried in long trenches.
The Einsatzgruppen had about 3,000 troops operating in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, where they killed more than one million people, most of them Jews, mainly through execution by shooting. Soldiers of the Wehrmacht often took part in the killing sprees by standing guard and cordoning off the execution grounds.
The death squads also tried to incite local populations into “spontaneous” pogroms against Jews. For example, in the Baltic states the Einsatzgruppen exploited anti-Jewish attitudes among the local population, and in one incident alone anti-Communist rebels in the Lithuanian town of Kauna slew 3,800 Jews in the open streets.
The history of the Nazi gas chambers and crematoria is more widely known, accounting for around four million Jewish deaths. But a later method of exterminating Jews is also a less covered aspect of the Holocaust.
Toward the end of the Second World War, when the Wehrmacht was in full retreat, prisoners in German concentration and death camps were sent on cruel death marches, in part so that approaching Allied forces would not find evidence of the Nazi genocide. But many of those who were not able to march were shot dead. In 1944, there were 714,000 registered prisoners in German internment camps. At least one third of them died during the brutal death marches. Often, these death marches went through German towns and villages in plain sight of the local civilians.
After unearthing the sinister ties between the University of Tübingen and the Einsatzgruppen, Bittner and his congregation started to track their own family histories and discovered that the routes of some of the death marches also led through their region.
In the process of unveiling Tübingen’s past, Bittner’s church decided to publicly acknowledge the community’s troubling history, confess the sins of their ancestors, and seek forgiveness. To accomplish this, they first began to welcome Jewish life back into their town by celebrating a public Hanukka event in 2006.
“We want blessing to come forth blessing from Tübingen. When we bless the Jewish people and Israel, the floodgates of heaven open and the church will be blessed also,” Bittner told his parishioners. “In the German public, in its politics, media and society, a lot of accounting for the past took place. But in many churches and congregations, a lot of catching-up has to be done still; likewise at the level of families. When the truth comes out, that is a painful process. But only if it happens is healing possible.”
The next year, Bittner and his fellowship went further by organizing a “March of Life” along the route of a Nazi death march leading from their region to the Dachau concentration camp in Bavaria.
Held from April 11 to 15, 2007, that first March of Life led to a breakthrough in Bittner’s ministry. Numerous Christians from all over Germany symbolically followed in the footsteps of the historic death marches from the Swabian Alb to Dachau. The 320 participants included Jewish Holocaust survivors Peter Loth and Rose Price, Rabbi Boris Grisenko from Kiev, as well as more than 20 American Jewish guests.
“Healing and reconciliation can only occur when we have a personal inner concernment and as a consequence do penance,” Bittner explained. “We must be active, set a sign for the Jewish people and bless Israel.”
The following year, the March of Life quickly grew in size. Over the span of nine days, about 900 participants from nine different nations, including Israel, attended 22 events in 18 locations. The marches involved 1,485 miles of walking.
By April 2009, the first March of Remembrance was hosted in the US, taking place in nine American cities on Holocaust Remembrance Day. The American marches were initiated by musician Ted Pearce, who was inspired by his impressions from attending the marches in Germany.
The year 2010 marked another leap forward, as the March of Life arrived in the Ukraine. A total of 1.5 million Jews perished in the Ukraine during the Holocaust. In the entire country, it would be hard to find even one town or village in which the Jewish population was not fully or nearly decimated. Apart from the special SS killing squads, regular units of the Wehrmacht were involved in these meticulously planned massacres. Ukrainian auxiliary troops also proved to be particularly cruel and eager in carrying out the mass killings, a fact most Ukrainians have yet to come to terms with.
Between 1941 and 1944, almost the entire Jewish population of the Ukraine was killed in mass shootings and massacres. Of these, Babi Yar stands out as the largest massacre ever committed by German forces. On September 29-30, 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were systematically shot dead within a 36- hour period by machine gun fire in a ravine outside Kiev. Today, 70 years later, the air of silence over that horrific episode is finally being broken, as the descendants of local accomplices and their victims seek reconciliation.
The commemorations at Babi Yar have begun a process of healing and restoration for many, while also taking aim at anti-Semitism in our day. Israel’s ambassador to the Ukraine, Ms. Kalay Kleitmann, called the March of Life a “historic” event for the Ukrainian people.
Ukrainian church leaders also have come to hold the local March of Life in high regard, as it has brought together Christians from Pentecostal, Baptist, Charismatic, Ukrainian-Orthodox, Greek-Catholic, Messianic and other backgrounds.
“This is the first time that different denominations, Jews and Christians, have ever worked together in such unity,” one church leader stated.
After the memorial event at Babi Yar, the participants divided into several teams and walked the outline of a Star of David around Kiev. The descendants of both victims and perpetrators, Ukrainians and Germans, Jews and non- Jews, united to walk the 10-15 km. sections in joint prayer.
“Jewish roots are a source of blessing for any nation. When Jews and Christians start reviving them in a spirit of reconciliation and welcoming them afresh, the heavens over this nation will open up and release uprecendented blessing, ” said Bittner after the moving experience at Babi Yar.
And so the unique initiative continues. Jobst Bittner and his team are cooperating with local Christian and Jewish communities around the world to bring healing in place of division and enmity. In the coming year, more events are being planned for New York, a number of cities around South America, as well as Poland. And as people come together to confront anti-Semitism and its bitter legacy, new generations will be able to live without the heavy burden of their own families’ past.