Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mission at Nuremberg

I have occasionally mentioned the concept to you in these letters of the reductio ad absurdum, the idea that the truth of a statement can be successfully challenged by showing that it leads—logically and inexorably—to the affirmation of absurdity. How it works is simple. You start with a statement that could or could not be true. You then make a logical inference from that statement, then move on to infer something—logically and unavoidably—from that second inference. And so you move forward, step by step, inference by inference. If you eventually get to an absurd statement that obviously and undeniably cannot be true, then there are only two possibilities: either your logic was flawed somewhere along the line or else your original premise was untrue. To determine which is correct, you simply check your logic over and over. If the logic behind the progression of ideas proves impeccable but the arrived-at statement is still ridiculous and obviously untrue, then your original thesis has to have been false.

When talking abstrusely about theories and ideas within the context of the study of logic, it all sounds like a reasonable way to approach reality. But what about when the context is theology, not philosophy…when the original premise is not a simple statement that either is or isn’t true, but a dogmatic principle that the faithful pride themselves in believing as an expression of their religious faith? If you imagine, as I so vocally and strongly do not, that religious truths are simply not discussable in the same way that “regular” truths are, then I suppose the whole concept has no meaning at all—if the “proof” of the truth of a dogmatic principle is that someone believes it, then there really is nothing to talk about. (Among many others, that is one of the reasons I consider fundamentalism more silly than wicked.) But what if someone—someone like myself, for example—were not to believe that religious truths are somehow qualitatively different from “regular” truths, that things in this world can be unproven or even unprovable…but not both untrue and true at the same time? Could such a person successfully apply the reductio ad absurdum concept to spiritual beliefs?

That is the specific question that I was prompted—and prompted mightily and forcefully—to ask myself in the wake of reading Tim Townsend’s new book, Mission at Nuremberg. Published earlier this year by William Morrow, Townsend’s book is the story of the Reverend Henry Gerecke (pronounced to rhyme with “Cherokee”) and, to a much lesser extent, the Reverend Sixtus O’Connor, a Catholic priest. Reverend Gerecke, a Lutheran pastor from Missouri, volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the U.S. Army in 1943 at age fifty. At first, he was sent to Great Britain, where he ministered to wounded and very sick American and Allied soldiers. After D-Day in 1944, he was promoted to captain and sent to Europe. He ended up in Munich and personally ministered to the dead and dying in Dachau. And then, after V-E Day in 1945, he was asked if he would agree to serve as chaplain to the fifteen nominally Protestant Nazi officials who were going to be tried for war crimes in Nuremberg. He was also made to understand that, should the defendants be sentenced to death, he would be asked to remain in place until their executions. With great trepidation, Reverend Gerecke agreed to take on this assignment

 Father O’Connor was in much the same boat. Present at the liberation of Matthausen, he had been obliged to bury almost 3,000 prisoners in the three weeks following liberation and to give last rites before they died to another 2,000. Before the war, he had been a professor of classical languages at Siena College, a Catholic school in Loudonville, New York, near Albany. Yet he proved up to the job and, by all accounts acquitted himself admirably. And then the army asked if he would agree to serve as the Catholic chaplain to the six nominally Catholic defendants at Nuremberg.

Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler were, of course, dead at their own hands by then. But the men to be tried at Nuremberg were still the worst of the worst, war criminals in a category that the world had not only never known but could not possibly even have conceived of prior to the Second World War. Among Reverend Gerecke’s new congregants, for example, were Hermann Göring, the founder of the Gestapo and Hitler’s designated successor; Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production; Wilhelm Keitel, the general field marshal who was second only to Hitler in the German military hierarchy; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s Foreign Minister. The others were no better, only, at least some of them, slightly less famous. That they were to be tried in a court of law rather than summarily executed merely for being who they were was itself a remarkable decision, one that, in my opinion, speaks highly both of American democratic values and commitment to fairness in justice above all: even these men were to be presumed innocent until they were proven guilty.

But Tim Townsend’s book is not about the propriety of the trials or the reasonableness of treating with fairness, equity, and justice men whose entire lives had been devoted to denying even the barest shred of fairness, equity, or justice to their own victims—and not just the six million martyrs of the House of Israel, but millions upon millions of others as well, each a victim in his or her own right of Nazi terror. On that specific topic, much has been written, most memorably (for me personally at least) Robert E. Conot’s 1993 book, Justice at Nuremberg. Many readers will surely recall seeing the 1961 movie, Judgment at Nuremberg, which starred Spencer Tracey, Burt Lancaster, and Judy Garland, and which was at the time a huge success—and not least of all because its release coincided with the execution in Israel of Adolph Eichmann. (Neither Reverend Gerecke nor Father O’Connor appears in the movie.) But the reasonableness or fairness of the Nuremberg trials—there were several different trials, all held in Nuremberg in 1945 and 1946—is not my topic for today.

One of the cornerstone principle of our Jewish faith is the power of t’shuvah, of repentance. For readers who know the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur well, this will come as no surprise. Indeed, our classical sources include a passage in which Rabbi Samuel bar Naḥmani attempts to explicate the verse from Psalm 69 in which the poet expresses his hope that his prayers be spoken at an auspicious moment and concludes that although the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes shut (which is why there are both auspicious and inauspicious moments for prayer), “the gates of repentance are always open.” And, indeed, that idea percolates through the liturgy to the extent that it feels almost like a commonplace notion. Even, the prayerbook declares, if an individual should return to God in repentance a single hour before his or her death…that penitent would be received in heaven as one free of sin. And which of us does not know by heart the famous passage in the U-n’taneh Tokef that declares that, along with prayer and acts of charity, t’shuvah has the ability to alter even more severe decree that may be decreed against a sinner in the heavenly court…and that this is so even if that verdict has already been recorded in the great Book of Life. 

We say that. We mean it. Or perhaps I should speak for myself. I say it and I really do mean it. I preach it as well, arguing, I hope forcefully, from the bimah that no past deed can stand in the way of the human spirit when, for once divested of arrogance and the need to self-justify, it embodies an individual’s return to God and to the ways of God. Readers who daven at Shelter Rock on the High Holidays have heard me say this a thousand times from the pulpit. It sounds right. It sounds basic, like the kind of dogmatic truth no one would ever think to deny. But today I approach it from a different vantage point, the one prompted by reading Townsend’s book: can the notion stand the reductio ad absurdum test?

It is, after all, one thing to say that people who have wilfully eaten unkosher food or been uncareful with Shabbat or ungenerous with the poor can renounce their sins and move forward towards a life in God. But if it is true that even the monsters on trial at Nuremberg were, in addition to everything else they were, human beings created in God’s image—do I truly believe that the power of t’shuvah was granted to them as well. 

The story of Reverend Gerecke’s work at Nuremberg was, in parts, hard to read without turning away. Knowing that he could only hope to bring his charges to a state of grace before their trials and their probable deaths by being friendly and forgiving, that was precisely how he behaved. He shook their hands. He spoke with them gently and kindly. He may have had Dachau and its execution mounds before his eyes always, but he knew that to succeed with these men he would have to bring them around to accepting the enormity of their crimes not by yelling at them or insulting them, but by holding out the promise—even for such men—of return, of forgiveness, of repentance, and of faith. And so that is what he did, inviting them to prayer services, offering to study the Bible with them, bringing them different kinds of books and pamphlets written to encourage faith and piety, and also cultivating relationships with the prisoners’ wives and children whenever possible.

And so I am left on the horns of a mighty dilemma. When I think of the degree to which the Nazis denied their victims even the most elemental justice, even the most basic trappings of human dignity or normalcy…and then force myself to imagine the Reverend Gerecke encouraging those victims’ murderers to come to chapel and renounce their evil ways…and to do so by promising that a renunciation of evil, even at the very last minute (like the prayerbook says), can lead to forgiveness and reconciliation, to facing death secure in God’s mercy, to precisely the kind of inner peace that the Nazis labored to deny those whom they marked for destruction—I find myself nauseous with contempt for the whole tableau.  And yet, when I calm down, I find that I am able to ask myself the real question without flinching, or without flinching much: is the notion of treating the world’s greatest war criminals—the murderers of countless Jewish children—as potential penitents to whom the gates are never closed—is that the reductio ad absurdum that proves the ridiculousness of an idea that only sounds right when applied to fine and decent people such as ourselves who may have erred here and there in the course of a long year, but who are basically decent, good people in need of a bit of existential succor as a new year dawns and, with it, the prospect of starting fresh…if we can divest ourselves of the past year’s errors, sinful and otherwise.

Not being God, I do not have to decide how these things ultimately play out. I can’t imagine men like those executed at Nuremberg enjoying an eternity in paradise because they managed to renounce their sinful ways—as the Reverend O’Connor, by the way, specifically promised Hans Frank’s son Norman would be the case for his penitent father in a letter cited at length in the book—and yet it also seems impossible to imagine that the gates of t’shuvah aren’t really always open. Or that they are only open for some and not others. Or that different rules apply in this regard to Jews and non-Jews, all of whom bear God’s image and all of whom are God’s creatures. I suppose that if I force myself to take a stance, I would have to say that the Reverend Gerecke was right to do as he did, to encourage repentance and the renunciation of sin. How that eventually played out in the heavenly tribunal I think I also know…but whether that sense of the ultimate unforgiveability of unspeakable crimes against humanity makes it unreasonable to encourage even the most inveterate sinners to consider renouncing their evil ways, that is the part that remains unclear to me.  I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have had it in me to do as the reverend did. (I leave out the absurdity of imagining the US Army assigning a Jewish chaplain to the prisoners at Nuremberg, although that would have been a nice touch.)  But even though I know I couldn’t have done it…part of me is left admiring the man for his steadfastness, even as I am repulsed by the thought of these men knowing even a modicum of comfort as they made their way to the gallows.

I recommend Tim Townsend’s book to you all. The first few chapters—devoted to the history of the military chaplaincy and the story of the Reverend Gerecke’s pre-war life—are tedious and far too long. But once the story shifts to Nuremberg, the reading is riveting. I found myself challenged, and no less inspired than intensely irritated. What else could anyone ask for from a book about religion?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.