Pastor Armandus J. Derr, Saint Peter’s Church | April 18, 2012
In the presence of eyes
which witnessed the slaughter
which saw the oppression
the heart could not bear,
and as witness the heart
that once taught compassion
until the day it came to pass
that crushed human feeling,
I have taken an oath: To remember it all,
to remember, not once to forget!
Forget not one thing to the last generation
when degradation shall cease,
to the last, to its ending,
when the rod of instruction
shall have come to conclusion.
An oath: Not in vain passed over
the night of terror.
An oath, no morning shall see me at flesh-pots again.
An oath: lest from this, we learned nothing.
Abraham Shlonsky, “A Vow,” translated by Herbert Bronstein
“How very good and how very pleasant it is for sisters and brothers to live together in unity.” That was the psalm that Christians sang in our sanctuaries last Sunday. But those words are never truer than when Jews and Christians are gathered together as we are this night.
It is always good and pleasant for us to be together and personally speaking, it’s always a privilege to speak from this bimah. Good and pleasant and a privilege, to be sure.
But when it comes to this service, on this day, a bit uncomfortable, too. This day, we remember unmitigated horror, and while we do this together, as we are on this day, we Christians come to this service with an almost unbearable burden. For on this day, Christians must always remember this horror’s perpetrators and that they were our ancestors. And they were our coreligionists. In an earlier time and in another place, they were us.
And so on this day, this is how we Christians pray: “Oh mighty God, in penitence we come before You, acknowledging the sin that is within us. We share the guilt of all those who, bearing the name Christian,’ slay their fellow human beings because of race or faith or nation. Forgive us and change us by Your love, that Your word of hope may be clearly heard throughout the world.”
In remembering the Shoah, Jews remember how close you came to total extermination. In remembering the Shoah, Christians must remember how close we came to total moral collapse. It is these parallel, though very different, rememberings that bring us together this night, and that compel us to say together over and over again: “Never again.”
It is painful to do this remembering, harder still to do it together. As times move on, as survivors become fewer, and as the Shoah fades into mere history, it will become easier and easier to forget. And forgetting is always the prelude to repeating. And when horror is repeated, many become victims.
Horror is repeated when few people remember. We call these few people heroes.
I want to remember a hero tonight. One of the few who saved lives precisely because he remembered. Many know his name, Raoul Wallenberg, but few know his story. Had he lived, he would have been one hundred years this year.
A Swedish diplomat, son of a prominent family, grandson of a Lutheran bishop, in six short months, from July 9, 1944, through February 1945, Wallenberg and his Swedish and Swiss counterparts rescued up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazis and from their Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross partisans.
Hungary had been an ally of Germany. A German defeat and mounting Hungarian losses led Hungary to seek an armistice with the Western allies. To forestall this, German forces occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. And began to round up immediately Hungarian Jews and to transfer them into German custody.
By July of 1944, nearly 400,000 Jews had been deported from Hungary, almost all of them Auschwitz, Birkenau, where the S.S. killed approximately 320,000 upon arrival, and deployed the rest as forced labor in Auschwitz and in other camps. At the same time, nearly 200,000 Jews remained in Budapest, but the Hungarian authorities intended to deport them, too.
With authorization from the Swedish government, Wallenberg arrived in Budapest and began distributing certificates of protection, issued by the Swedish Legation, to Jews in Budapest shortly after his arrival on July 9, 1944. He established hospitals, nurseries, and a soup kitchen and designated more than thirty safe houses, that together formed the core of the international setup, reserved for those Jews and their families holding certificates of protection from the neutral country in Budapest.
On October 15, 1944, Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists seized power and resumed the deportation of Jews. By now the Soviet Union was winning in the Eastern Front, and the Soviet troops had already cut off rail transport routes to Auschwitz. Hungarian authorities forced tens of thousands of Budapest Jews to march on foot west to the Hungarian border with Austria.
During the autumn of 1944, Wallenberg repeatedly and often personally intervened to secure the release of bearers of certificates of protection and those with forged papers from these columns of marching people, saving as many as possible.
As Soviet forces liberated Budapest in February of 1945, six months after he started, more than 100,000 Jews—or only 100,000 Jews—remained, mostly because of the efforts of Wallenberg and his colleagues.
Wallenberg was last seen in the company of Soviet officials. In mid-January of 1945. He died in a Soviet prison, reportedly on the 17th of July, 1947.
Raoul Wallenberg was a hero. A righteous gentile. One of the many, but all too few, who acted for Jews while the majority of Christians in Europe either acted against Jews, or were silent. You see, when all forget, many are silent. More become victims. Few become heroes. And that my friends, is why we must remember. That’s why we and our children and our children’s children must always remember together. So that there will always be many, so that there will never be just a few.
Sisters and brothers who remember together, live together in unity. That’s what the psalm is prayed for and the song is called that: “Good and Pleasant.” And so the way to be good and pleasant and live together is to always remember together. Amen.
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