Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

______________
The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

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