“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
Whenever we talk about healing, we are talking about how we process pain. It is the pain we experience that leads us to the desire to heal. And even though it seems counterintuitive, without the lessons we learn from both pain and healing, we would be shallow human beings. We would be unable to understand the pain that others experience and the paths we need to follow in order to heal.
I read two stories recently on pain and healing that inspired me; both were about pain caused during the Shoah (the Holocaust). Two Germans, a man and a woman discovered acts of evil perpetrated by a member of their family. Both of them had the courage to face the pain their family members caused and by talking about it openly, rather than hiding it, created healing for themselves and others. These two acts, feeling the truth and speaking the truth are the essential components in our healing journeys.
Just before Tisha B’Av this summer at the Shalom Torah Academy in Morganville, New Jersey, Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger spoke these words “I’m not a son of a [Holocaust] survivor. But I’m a son of a perpetrator. And I have to live with that, and I have an ongoing living and struggling with that issue. But today I’m also a Jew. I’m an Israeli citizen and serve proudly in the IDF as an officer.”
Wollschlaeger is the son of a highly-decorated World War II German tank commander in the elite SS killing squad, the Totenkopf (Deathhead Squad). When his father was arrested years after the war ended, Wollschlaeger learned what his father had done. Before learned the truth, he had been proud of his father’s war decorations. But while his father was in prison, Wollschlaeger would not visit him. Instead he took the time to learn about his father’s crimes.
This happened at the same time as the Eichmann trial in Israel. Wollschlaeger read as much as he could about what Eichmann, the Nazis, and, therefore, his father had done. He was afraid that his family was permanently tainted by his father’s evil.
Instead of putting this new information aside and going on with his life, Wollschlaeger traveled to Israel, worked on agricultural kibbutzim, studied at Hebrew University, all the while learning more about Judaism. He became an Israeli citizen, converted to Judaism, and married a German Christian woman who also converted. He does not think of his modern orthodox life today with his wife and three sons as making amends for his father’s actions, but as fulfilling his own Jewish destiny. His ability to speak to Jewish groups about his reality, his pain, and his healing, is an important model for us all.
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The second story is about Barbel Pfeiffer. Her grandfather not only helped to build the electrical system and gas chambers at the Auschwitz death camp, he also served as an SS guard who beat Jews and other prisoners as they worked to make tanks in a factory. On her latest trip to Auschwitz, Pfeiffer said, “I have been in Auschwitz five times already, but every time I go, it makes me cry again,” Her most recent visit was with a Christian-sponsored, interfaith group called March of Life, inspired by the March of the Living. Instead of going to camps in Europe and then to Israel, the March of Life visiting only concentration camps. On this trip there were 420 people, 50 of whom were descendants of Nazis and Nazi collaborators.
Barbel didn’t know her grandfather but was told he never talked about what he did during the war. It “came to light when my parents saw how much I researched my family history, and how badly I wanted to know what happened during that time,” she said. She was the first to delve into her family’s connection to the Holocaust. Her father didn’t know what his father had done but learned about it from a relative who assumed he knew.
Pfeiffer broke the chain of silence in her family. Her husband went on the latest trip with her to Auschwitz. While she was there, she called her sons and told them how she felt. “They asked me, ‘Mother, are you crying?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ I think it is very important to talk with them about it, and we do.”
At the end of that trip Pfeiffer’s final words to a reporter were “We have just come from Auschwitz. I told the Holocaust survivors, their children and their grandchildren, they are very precious people for me.”
These stories show us that it takes courage to experience our most profound pain and then heal ourselves from it. Once we heal ourselves, we can then help others to heal. It is said, we heal not only ourselves, but seven generations backward and seven generations forward. Imagine the children of Wollschlaeger and Pfeiffer. These children have parents who tell them the truth even when it is painful and show them how to experience thei pain and then heal from it. Their parents are role models for them and us about how to live a righteous life.
Both Wollschlaeger and Pfeiffer followed Rumi’s advice and saw the light in their families’ wounds. This light led to profound healing for them and others.
May the words and actions of these two brave and righteous Germans serve as our inspiration to spend time every day reflecting on the truth of our lives, facing the pain that we feel, and healing our bodies and souls.