Building Hope on a Mound of Hate

MAURICE LAMM

November 16, 1991|By MAURICE LAMM

BERLIN — Berlin. -- I was vehement when a Jewish newspaper publisher called to invite me to go to Berlin to participate in dedicating a conference center. No, I don't want to hear that language. No, I don't want to walk the bloodied streets. And no, I don't want to breathe the air that has been spiritually fouled by the lingering stench of decomposing flesh.

But I did go to Berlin for a day of dedication, together with my wife, who had made a solemn vow not to step foot on German soil. What impelled me to go?

xTC The purpose of the visit was to design a program for a conference on the Holocaust that will take place every Kristallnacht. It was also to address Jews of East Berlin. But then came the clincher: the Holocaust Center was going to be built atop Hitler's bunker. I couldn't refuse.

There is a special trait which Jews have consistently demonstrated. We have a unique ability of plucking the good from the jaws of evil. In the Bible already, Job asked: ''Who can draw out the pure from the impure?''

From the tragedy of being forced to escape from shore to shore, we have extricated a considerable talent for flexibility and survival. From the furnace of Hitler's camps we have forged the iron wills that built the state of Israel. From repeated invasions by Arab countries we have learned that only might protects right.

Now I am standing at Hitler's bunker, where he planned the massacre of our people, discharging a torrent of hatred and causing the most excruciating suffering in history. I could hear, surrounded by the silence of some of the world's nicest people, nightmarish shrieks that have no consonants, howling from the unmarked graves of our people.

It is 50 years later, and they are asking me: ''What are you doing here? Leave this place. It is not for you. If the sound of the name, Adolf Hitler, is enough to make you tremble, why are you standing on his bunker?'' I try to tell them: ''Here we are meeting to understand and prevent hate, to conquer pain. Have we not come a long way in five decades?''

I hear the response from long-frozen skeletons: ''You think they will learn? You expect them to change? Don't you know that rabid anti-Semitism is not logical or reasonable and therefore cannot be unlearned? It is not an intellectual mistake, which you can correct. It is a potent toxin that drives people mad and stimulates the taste for blood. What will you accomplish?''

Perhaps in real terms, we cannot accomplish the awesome task. But on the other hand, we cannot do nothing. Indeed, perhaps the picture of building hope on a mound of hate will engrave a new image in young minds. It will etch into their memories a painting of the pursued standing triumphant on the heads of the pursuers; it will declare that there is no future to hatred, despite the fact that hatred has such a powerful present, that excites as it disgorges its venom.

Today hate is experiencing a new emergence. Nations that have been worse haters than the Nazis -- Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Austrians, Poles -- are free to ponder murder again. Their gangs lusted for Jewish blood then, and they are resuming that passion now. They have unlearned the lesson they were supposed to have absorbed. In Germany, anti-Semitism was a hideous ideology; in those countries, it is a visceral craving for Jewish blood.

And if today, German people with German funds on German initiative, are prepared to speak of love from the very tarpits of hate; and if they are now primed to proclaim peace from out of the killing fields themselves; on the very night when Nazis smashed the world's stupor with the explosion of glass; then I want to be witness to that declaration, and to thank God for this flicker of light.

Perhaps, at bottom, the meaning of standing on Hitler's bunker is a universal one: it is a symbol that people can grow as high as they can sink deep. Perhaps, this act contends that it is just not enough to triumph over evil, but that you need to look into the dark and foul bowels of the earth and then reach for the clear and sunny sky.

Rabbi Maurice Lamm, professor at Yeshiva University's rabbinical seminary, is the author of the forthcoming book, ''Becoming a Jew.''

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