NEW YORK — At a candlelight vigil for the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting victims last year after a gunman slaughtered 11 Jews in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in United States history, German-born Claudia Kiesinger stood in solidarity with others voicing outrage over the massacre.
As she took in the scene around her, Kiesinger couldn’t help but ask herself: what would have happened if the Germans — especially after Kristallnacht in November, 1938 — had stood together in similar protest?
“Kristallnacht was the door-opener for all that happened during the Holocaust,” said Kiesinger, the US coordinator for the March of Life, a grassroots movement launched under the auspices of the Evangelical TOS Church in Tubingen, Germany.
The organization reaches out to Holocaust survivors to express remorse over Nazi crimes, and many of its members are descendants of Nazis. In the United States, the group is known as March of Remembrance. (It is not connected to the March of the Living educational program, which was established in 1988.)
“Could things have been different?” Kiesinger told The Times of Israel. “If the German people had gone out onto the streets the day after Kristallnacht and said, ‘We don’t want this to happen, this is outrageous,’ and protested against it, maybe something would have changed, or maybe Hitler even wouldn’t have dared to do it.”
“Of course, this is just speculation,” she said. “But for me, I realized that it is so important to raise your voice and not be silent — not to look away.”
In an email to The Times of Israel, Pastor Jobst Bittner said that he founded March of Life because he wanted to pierce what he described as the “veil of silence” that surrounded so much of Holocaust history in Germany.
“Tubingen is a university town that became the training ground for numerous Nazi war criminals during World War II, who were personally responsible for the deaths of at least 700,000 Jews,” he said.
“The majority of the population simply watched and remained silent. Recognizing that today’s silence regarding anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews has the same dimension as the silence of our German ancestors that encouraged the Holocaust, we started teaching the members of our church to look into the truth of their family history,” Bittner said.
Bittner, who also founded the TOS Church, defines the mission of the March of Life, or Marsch des Lebens, as it is known in Germany, as focusing on three issues: remembering the past and giving Holocaust survivors a voice; reconciliation, which involves healing and restoration between descendants of victims and perpetrators; and finally, taking a stand for Israel and against anti-Semitism.
What did you do in the war, Grandpa?
Kiesinger, now 53, said the silence surrounding the Holocaust was pervasive while she was growing up in Germany during the 1960s and ’70s. The little she knew, she learned in a haphazard way at school and from her grandfather, a still unrepentant Nazi whose stories about his experiences in the army made it all seem like “one big entertaining lark” she recalled.
“He would talk about Hitler being a good guy or question the dimensions of the Holocaust, or he would share stories like making fried eggs on the tanks in Africa — that was basically it,” Kiesinger said.
A religious awakening transformed Kiesinger’s life and made her hungry to learn more about her own family’s role in the war. The journey to that knowledge for so many in her religious community began finally with a single sentence: “The silence of our forefathers is in you.”
“That became the springboard for the questioning process for so many in the movement,” Kiesinger said.
“From learning German history — and it was terrible — and that step to know that my grandfathers were part of it, that they were part of the army, that was the step that led me to go and do the research,” she said.
“We saw that silence in our grandfathers and those of others from our group — they asked their grandparents, who would say, ‘We didn’t know anything,’ or, ‘We only shot in the air’ — downplaying their own part during the Holocaust and the war. So we then saw the necessity to say, ‘Hey, we need to find out what really happened,’” Kiesinger said.
In their search for answers, Kiesinger and her colleagues scoured through local German and military archives, as well as the Landesarchive, where state-level records about denazification are stored. Kiesinger says she also used the state archive in Ludwigsburg for her research.
Secrets and lies
“We have all these myths that grow in families that make their involvement [in the Holocaust] seem much nicer,” Kiesinger said. But information the group members uncovered in the archives told different and devastating stories of relatives involved in mass killings and membership in SS killing squads.
One member, said Kiesinger, discovered that her grandfather helped build Auschwitz. The tragic nature of these discoveries can be hard to process, she said.
“It’s totally devastating to find that out,” Kiesinger said. “My other grandfather was involved in the siege of Saint Petersburg, when they besieged the city for three years — 871 days, just waiting for people to starve. It was shocking to face the truth that my grandfather was involved in a terrible crime.”
Like many in the March of Life movement, she has sought answers in her religious faith.
“I had to draw on my beliefs and going to the cross and asking for forgiveness. The silence, the justification and the denial in my family struck me personally. I know that I can never undo; I can never repay; there is nothing practical I can do,” Kiesinger said.
“But what I learned is that we can speak out about it and show the victims the respect they deserve. I cannot expect the survivors to forgive. It is up to them to decide how they want to react. It is totally their choice,” she said.
The first March of Life took place in April of 2007 and followed the route of the death march from one of the camps near Tubingen to Dachau.
“By the end of the war,” Bittner said, “Tubingen was surrounded by eight concentration camps, the so-called Operation Desert, or Unternehmen Wuste, which was famous for its brutality and death rate.
“In April 1945 the surviving inmates were sent to Dachau on brutal death marches with thousands killed in plain sight of the civilian population… In that [first] march [in 2007], both Holocaust survivors and descendants of survivors walked together with the descendants of the perpetrators,” he said.
Since that time, there have been marches in over 400 cities and 22 nations, including Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, Finland, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, the United States and Israel.
For Bittner, the most memorable march was on the occasion of Israel’s 70th anniversary, on May 15, 2018.
“Our message was ‘Israel, we stand with you — you are not alone!’ I remember Israelis standing on the street or on the balconies waving to us with tears in their eyes. This led to the annual March of the Nations, which takes place around May 15 every year,” Bittner said.
This year, marches took place in three cities in Israel. Several more marches throughout the Jewish state are planned for this upcoming spring, May 10-17, 2020.
Please forgive me
It was on the march to Dachau that Kiesinger met her first Holocaust survivor.
“Her name was Rose Price, and she has a special place in my heart,” Kiesinger said. “She survived six camps, but Dachau was where she was liberated. When we arrived at Dachau, she said, ‘No German will walk ahead of me.’ So she was the first person to enter the camp.”
Kiesinger said that when she asks forgiveness from a Holocaust survivor, she doesn’t expect anything in return.
“Many say, ‘It’s not your fault,’ and ‘You didn’t do it.’ Many people embrace us. I think for many, just to have an actual person say what our grandfathers never said, that we are sorry for what happened to them, is so meaningful. But it’s up to them for how they react,” she said.
There is usually much embracing of each other, and crying together.
“Of course, for many of them it’s terrible to remember and talk about what they have been through,” Kiesinger said. “But in sharing, and in personal meetings with each other, and seeing how sorry we are, it’s like going from Holocaust to life. This is what we experience, because those survivors are so full of life.”
‘I would not leave their side’
Anti-Semitism is on the rise again in Germany, where about 150,000 Jews now live. According to a German government report released in May, anti-Semitic violence increased by 20 percent in 2018. A report from Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center said that in the first six months of 2019, anti-Semitic crimes rose by 10%.
In a deadly attack this Yom Kippur in Halle, Germany, a neo-Nazi gunman opened fire just outside a synagogue and tried to enter it by shooting through its door. The gunman, identified as Stephan Balliet, killed one person outside the synagogue and another at a nearby kebab shop while live-streaming the attack on social media.
“Anti-Semitism has become more vocal and vicious in Germany,” TOS Pastor Bittner said.
“Attacks on the open street, desecration of synagogues, burning of Israeli flags, granting public awards to hate rappers, the attack on the Jewish restaurant Shalom in Chemnitz, or anti-Jewish hostilities, bullying and vulgar abuse at school; anti-Semitism is once again alarmingly widespread in Germany,” Bittner said.
Bittner sees the increase in anti-Semitism as coming from both left- and right-wing extremism, as well as a new, contemporary anti-Semitism that masks itself behind sweeping criticism of Israel.
“If the Church were to truly face its history, it would be able to raise its voice against anti-Semitism and for Israel with renewed courage and determination, to shape society and politics, and create the conditions for a climate in which Jewish life would be welcomed with joy,” Bittner said.
Since she began reaching out to Holocaust survivors and working with the March of Life in Europe and the March of Remembrance in the United States, Kiesinger said she has made many close friends among the survivor community.
“For me, the most amazing thing is to get to know survivors and their stories of survival — what they went through and how they coped. Them sharing their stories with us is an honor,” Kiesinger said.
Both Kiesinger and her family remained close with Price, the first survivor Kisinger met at the march to Dachau. Price and Kiesinger’s mother would often spend time together.
“They would cook together, making things like applesauce or chopped liver, and just having a good time,” Kiesinger said. “One day I was with my parents, and Rose was there too. And out of the blue, she turned around to me and said, ‘I’m so glad I know you, because if it would happen again, I would not be alone.’”
It was a significant moment. “I knew that would be a decision I would have to make today,” Kiesinger said. “Would I be one of the many who just turned around when their neighbors would be deported, or would I stand with the Jewish people if it happens again? That’s when I made my decision. Yes, I would. And I would not leave their side.”