Church of the Broken Cross: My Visit to a Church in Germany
“You must be joking,” I said to myself, when, shortly after we arrived in Germany, Pastorin Ursula Sieg informed me that she arranged for me to preach in a church whose pastor in those days was a Nazi and a murderer. She was not joking, but I had come to trust Pastor Sieg, who arranged every detail of our 10-week visit to Germany, implicitly – so I agreed.
Kaltenkirchen is a beautiful, picturesque village, but it is also the site of a former concentration camp where prisoners endured brutal, near-starvation conditions. Wealthy neighbors nearby lived their lives in comfort. After visiting the camp, I couldn’t I drive through the region without being flooded by images of Nazi soldiers hunting after me with snarling Rottweilers, marring the woods’ beauty.
The Michaeliskirche in Kaltenkirchen, just a few kilometers from the camp, is a magnificent, 16th-century structure that was once the pulpit of Ernst Szymanowski (who Germanized his Polish name to Biberstein). Biberstein was an ardent Hitler supporter who left the church to become a lieutenant colonel in the SS, supervising at least two mass murders that claimed at least 2000 lives. He was tried at Nuremberg for his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison. Through pressure exerted by the Lutheran Church, Biberstein was released from prison in 1958 and lived out his life in comfort until he died at age 85.
Pastorin Martina Dittkrist warmly introduced me as the first rabbi ever to preach in that church. My visit, she said, was part of the church’s ongoing process of atonement for the sins of its past. The text for that Sunday was the Exodus passage (Chapter 34) in which God commanded Moses to carve out two tablets of stone to replace those he smashed and, assured of God’s forgiveness, lead the people forward.
I referenced the Midrashic teaching that our ancestors not only carried the new tablets of the Covenant in the ark, but the smashed broken ones, as well. The lesson is that we learn as much or even more from our failures as we do from our successes.
I also emphasized the difference between the anger of God, which might endure up to four generations, and the love and mercy of God that extends to the thousandth. This was my message: Yes, you must always carry the broken stones that Biberstein represents with you, but you can go forward confident that your atonement is accepted and that your generation does not bear direct responsibility for the sins of the past.
And then I addressed the ghost of Biberstein: “Despite your sins, we Jews are still here! Where are you? Your evil has died and burns in hell, but Wir sind hier zusammen, we are here together! We cannot undo the past, and we must always carry its lessons with us. We do so not to wallow in pity but to shape a better a future.”
The symbol of Michaeliskirchen in Kaltenkirchen will always be the haunting painting of “The Broken Cross” by Hannelore Golberg, which hangs in its reception room as an acknowledgment of the sad chapter in the church’s history. As I sat beneath that painting, answering questions of a standing-room crowd about our visit and my sermon, the soldiers and Rottweilers were no longer looking for me. Instead, I imagined another cross in the painting, standing upright next to the broken one. With Pastorin Dittkrist’s loving guidance, may the lessons of both crosses lead the congregation forward on its journey of atonement, reconciliation and faithful service to God.