Thursday, February 26, 2015

Agency in Matters of Crime and Sin

The Talmud on five different occasions repeats what eventually becomes a recurring refrain in later Jewish books:  ein shali·aḥ li-d’var aveirah, the concept of agency does not apply in criminal matters. It sounds like a dry point of law, the kind of legal adage only a lawyer could love (and, at that, only a certain kind of lawyer!), yet just behind its dry exterior lurks a deeply engaging concept that, were it only phrased more invitingly, would beckon to most as something very well worth their time to consider.

Maybe I should start with a different principle. Sh’luḥo shel adam kamohu, the Talmud also declares, meaning simply that individuals’ legally-appointed agents are “like” them, that among the rights Jewish law finds basic to the human condition (or at least to the Jewish version of the human condition) is the right to appoint a stand-in to act legally on one’s behalf, to bear one’s power of attorney. Therefore, whatever legal action an individual can undertake on his or her own, that person has the right to appoint another to undertake as his or her agent…and this right extends even to intimate areas like marriage and divorce. Nor does the agent have to be a lawyer or even someone particularly knowledgeable about the law—it merely suffices for the agent to be someone that an individual wishes to act on his or her behalf. So the principle merely encapsulates what you would probably have supposed to be the case anyway: what you instruct your agent to do and that agent does, it is as if you yourself had done that thing

But there’s an exception…and that brings us back to the first principle I cited: if you tell your valet—I’ve been catching up on Downton Abbey since we’re back from London, regarding the recent bizarre Jewish plot twist in which I may eventually write —if you tell your valet to steal a chicken and he successfully manages to purloin the desired bird, then you yourself should be responsible because, as noted, the agents of individuals are “like” those individuals and act successfully “as” them by virtue of their formal appointment to do so. But that is not the case at all with the chicken…because ein shali·aḥ li-d’var aveirah, because there simply is no concept of agency in the context of criminal or sinful behavior. Thus the valet ends up stuck holding the bag (or, in this case, the chicken) and, if apprehended, will then be obliged to answer for his own behavior without having the right to blame the whole sorry episode on you (or on Lord Grantham). Indeed, the Talmud even formulates a famous rhetorical question to sharpen its point with respect to the agent’s culpability: divrei ha-rav v’divrei ha-talmid, divrei mi shom·in, the text asks: if someone were to get contradictory instructions from a wise sage and that sage’s lowly disciple, whom would the clever individual choose to obey?  The answer should be obvious: if the valet has to choose between listening to his crooked master’s corrupt order to filch a fowl and eternal God’s sacred injunction never to steal anything at all, his obligation is to ignore his master and follow the command of his heavenly Parent.

These are the thoughts that I bring to the news of earlier this week that a federal jury has found the Palestinian Authority and the PLO liable for supporting six specific terror attacks against American citizens and ordered those groups to pay to those victims or their estates $218.5 million…or rather $655.5 million, since the U.S. Antiterrorism Act of 1992 automatically triples whatever damages a jury awards to victims of terror when those victims or their families seek remedy in federal court. That’s a lot of money, closer to a billion than to a penny! But it still took the jury less than two days to come to its verdict.

The original incidents that prompted the suit, particularly the 2002 bombing of the student cafeteria at the Hebrew University (where I personally ate more times than I can recall during my post-doc year in Jerusalem), stand out as particularly terrible instances of violence aimed solely at civilians. The 2004 bus bombing by a suicide bomber, also in Jerusalem, will be less easily recalled because it took place among so many similar events. Yet, for the families of the thirty-three people killed and the more than 400 wounded in the six specific events the court considered, these attacks will neither fade away nor ever be forgotten.  The victims of these attacks were not exclusively Americans, of course. But the Americans among them had the ability to respond in a way that others did not. Their lawyer, Kent A. Yalowitz, summed things up neatly enough: “If you kill or injure Americans,” he said unambiguously, “the long arm of the American law will come after you.”

And now we come to the point. The Palestinians, naturally enough, tried vigorously to have the suit dismissed. But U.S. District Court judge George Daniels denied their bid last November, finding that the plaintiffs had enough evidence that the PLO and the Palestinian Authority supported the groups whose members carried out these attacks to the extent necessary to warrant trying them in a court of law. And so the trial proceeded, and ended last Monday with the verdict cited above. Something one of the lawyers representing the defendants, however, gave me pause for thought. Why, he asked, should the defendants be asked to pay compensation for deeds they did not personally commit? Even if some of the perpetrators were definitely shown to have had personal ties to either organization, how would or could that make the organizations themselves responsible? Shouldn’t we apply our own adage to the situation and consider liable the bombers who murdered all those people in cold blood but specifically not those who sent them into the fray even if they did provide them with funds, weapons, and encouragement? What about there being no concept of agency in the context of criminal behavior? Surely one could make at least some bricks from that straw!

Yet, curiously, I don’t feel that way at all. Instead, it seems to me that the concept of being held legally liable to make compensation to the victims of crimes one indirectly caused or sponsored is nothing at all like being found guilty of murder in a criminal court. Nor should it be!  Neither the current leadership of the PA or the PLO, nor any of their members, was found guilty this week of murder, after all. Instead, those organizations were found sufficiently responsible for the terror attacks that took the lives of the plaintiffs’ relatives or seriously harmed them physically or mentally to make it reasonable to oblige them financially to compensate the victims of those attacks. And that concept—that an individual responsible for causing harm to others bears responsibility for that harm even if he or she did not inflict it personally on anyone at all—that too is a well-enshrined principle of Jewish law with unimpeachable scriptural bona fides.

Legal culpability and moral responsibility are related concepts, of course…but they are surely more of cousins than siblings, let alone twins. To say that murderers are guilty of murder, not those who encourage them to kill, sounds rational enough. But to extrapolate from that thought the notion that people who are materially responsible for terror attacks—by promoting violence, by paying the perpetrators, and by encouraging those perpetrators to feel justified in murdering innocents—to argue that such people should not bear any responsibility for those attacks merely because they didn’t carry them out personally seems, at least to me personally, an unarguable assertion.

Two weeks ago, Herr X, an as-yet-unnamed ninety-three-year-old citizen of Germany was charged with 170,000 counts of accessory to murder, crimes he allegedly committed when he was an SS guard at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944 and participated in the killing of that many people.  (He should not be confused with a different unnamed man, also ninety-three, whom German prosecutors charged last September with being an accessory to 300,000 murders at Auschwitz.) But these two are charged with actually being part of a killing machine, actually being present and actively involved in the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish people. They didn’t personally operate the gas chambers. But they were part of the team that worked to murder the large majority of prisoners who arrived in that place for as long as it existed. They are therefore facing criminal proceedings, as well they should. (I find the argument that they should be spared prosecution because of their age laughable. How many of the people who argue in that vein would stick to their guns if the defendant stood accused of playing a role not in the deaths of European Jews but of their own children? Let me answer that for you: not a single one.)

The principle that there can be no concept of agency in matters of crime or sin seems noble to me. In a just society people should and must bear responsibility for their own actions, for their deeds and misdeeds. The person who murders deserves to be punished as a murderer and no one other…but that thought certainly should not absolve those who foster violence, who condone terrorism, or who send suicide bombers to their deaths with words of encouragement and bizarre promises about the rewards terrorists can expect to reap in the next world. To say with Scripture that each of us must bear the consequences of his or her own actions is a kind of a no-brainer in my mind. But to reach out, as our American justice system did this week, to inflict severe penalties on those who foster violence directed specifically against civilians is in my mind not only rational and reasonable but fully just. To speak openly and proudly about suicide bombers as heroes and national champions is grotesque. To abet such acts precisely in the way the Palestinian leadership has over the years is wholly irresponsible and reckless, and it is morally wrong as well.

Whether the plaintiffs will find a way to acquire the monies awarded them this week is, obviously, a different question than whether those awards were justly made. But that those plaintiffs are entitled to be compensated for the wrongs perpetrated against them or their late relations by those who actively abetted those wrongs—that seems as obvious to me as it is rational and reasonable.  The Federal District Court in Manhattan acted wisely last week in taking a decisive stand against two organizations that have long lionized terrorism and encouraged terrorists to feel reasonable about attacks against unarmed innocents whose sole “crime” is their presence as Jews on the territory of the Jewish state.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Da Li-f'nei Mi Atah Omeid

In the chapel at Shelter Rock, there is a piece of framed Hebrew calligraphy hanging on the eastern wall that reads da li-f‘nei mi atah omeid, “know before Whom you are standing.” The expression goes back to a story in the Talmud featuring Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the most famous sages of his day, who was lying on his death bed when his disciples came to visit to ask for some final bits of his wisdom, for some final advice regarding the best way to be sure of a portion in the World to Come. There were several, it turned out. And one was to be certain, when turning to heaven in prayer, “that you know before Whom you are standing.” Those words grace the eastern walls of countless synagogues and sanctuaries. But they don’t only constitute sage advice when applied to someone standing in prayer before the Almighty. Indeed, they can constitute sage advice in a fully secular context as well. And that is how I have been thinking of them just lately as I attempt to know before whom, not I personally, but our nation and its allies are standing.

It was in that exact spirit that I finally forced myself—and “forced myself” is saying the very least—to watch the 22-minute-long video of the execution of  First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot who was burned to death by his ISIS captors on January 3. (He was promoted posthumously to the rank of captain, but was a first lieutenant at the time of his death.) I didn’t want to watch. What normal person would? Still, I asked myself, should I not want to know before whom we are standing, whom we have engaged in what could easily turn into a “real” war and not just an extended series of air attacks? And so I did watch, finding myself both unable to look directly at the screen yet also unable to look away. (If any readers find it hard to understand how it could be possible to feel both ways at once, you can find the video easily enough with a very simple Google search. I won’t provide the precise URL, but I will tell you that it shouldn’t take more than a few seconds to find it if you wish. If you do watch, you can trust me that you will understand instantly just how it can be possible to be utterly repulsed and fully arrested by the same set of images at the same time.)

He’s a handsome young man. He looks like the twenty-six-year old that he was. The video begins with a long harangue directed against Kasasbeh’s country, Jordan, and showing pictures of the Jordanian leadership palling around with President Obama. Then, clearly speaking under duress, the prisoner starts by berating the Hashemite kingdom for its participation in the war against ISIS. He is seated at a table and clearly trembling as he goes on to talk quietly about his mission, the one that ended with his plane, an F-16 fighter jet, crashing near Raqqa, Syria. Kasasbeh, bruised but relatively hale, is shown next walking amidst rubble at the scene of an apparent Western coalition air raid. And then we get down to it as Kasasbeh now appears confined in a black steel cage wearing a day-glo orange jump suit and watched over by nine of his captors. A backtrack plays rhythmic Middle-Eastern-style music. An ISIS assassin lights a long fuse that leads directly into the cage. And then we watch on—we the viewers and we the world—as this poor soul is set on fire and, fully engulfed in flames, collapses to the ground. A group of armed militants wearing beige balaclavas and camouflage-style fatigues too watch on, their demeanor grim and calm as their prey is mercilessly murdered before their own eyes. At the end of the video, a reward is offered for the murder of other coalition pilots. And then, to make that last point just a bit sharper, the video actually names several high-profile figures within the Jordanian Air Force and displays the words “Wanted Dead” next to their names and faces in English and Arabic. This is ISIS. These are the people before whom our nation now stands.

This is not my normal behavior.  I, who can’t read enough about the Shoah, somehow shy away from viewing actual horror footage. When it was announced that Alfred Hitchcock’s long-supressed and apparently intensely graphic documentary about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops in 1945 had been restored and that it was going to be made available this year for viewing along with a new documentary by Andre Singer about the making of the original one, for example, I found myself strangely uneager to see either. The older one, saddled by its producer Sidney Bernstein (Hitchcock was technically Bernstein’s advisor) with the bizarre name German Concentration Camp Factual Survey, was left unfinished for seventy years and only finally restored last year by film scholars at England’s Imperial War Museum, then screened for the first time at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival. (It’s easy to joke about the irony of such a movie having its premiere in such a venue, but it was also brave and honest for the festival leadership to allow it to be shown. It can’t have been an easy decision.) German Concentration Camp Factual Survey is seventy-two minutes long, but only twelve minutes of actual footage from that original film made it into Singer’s documentary, called Night Will Fall and widely broadcast in commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in the U.K., Sweden, Norway, and the U.S. (It was broadcast here on HBO and remains available to HBO GO subscribers for free.) I could watch it this weekend! Maybe even I will…but also maybe I won’t. It’s hard to explain why I feel so reticent about seeing graphically portrayed what I read about almost obsessively. It feels that way even to me. I feel that I should see it…and, eventually, I know that I will. Just maybe not this weekend.

And then, on a kind of a roll, I watched the short video, only sixty-seven seconds long, about the January 30 beheading of Japanese journalist Kenji Goto. It begins with a black screen on which appear the words in English: “A Message to the Government of Japan.” We then see an ISIS man, the man called Jihadi John by the press, speaking English with what British listeners seem unanimously to agree is a strong London accent as he berates the West for daring to go to war with ISIS, which he references as the Islamic caliphate, and threatens Japan with further reprisals.  Goto is wearing the same day-glo orange outfit that the other prisoners in these videos wear. He is kneeling during the opening harangue and appears strangely calm. Probably, he was drugged. He is clearly conscious, though, and he closes his eyes when his captor grabs at his collar and pulls the fabric tight. We then see him, the captor, raise his knife and press it to Goto’s neck, but then the screen fades and the next thing we see is Goto’s body lying on the ground with his severed head perched grotesquely atop his chest.

That was enough for me. More than enough, actually. I got the idea.  I hate looking at things like this. I don’t even like make-believe horror movies, let alone real ones. And yet I felt that I wanted to see these videos, that I for some reason needed to see them. It’s easy to talk about barbarism, easy to reference the actions of hostile nations and entities as brutal or ruthless or inhumane. In short, it’s easy to insult…and particularly when those insults serve not truly to harm those against whom they are hurled but, more profoundly, to insulate us from having to look at reality directly and squarely in the eye. The world was once filled with reports about the brutal treatment to which were subjected the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe. I mentioned just a few weeks ago Jacob Apensziak’s horrific Black Book of Polish Jewry, a book published at the end of 1943 which recounted in excruciating detail how a full million Polish Jews had already been slaughtered. The world was unconcerned. Or perhaps that is too harsh: the world was concerned…but without actual footage not to dare look away from it was possible for the world, and by “the world” I certainly include FDR and the rest of our American political leadership, to convince themselves that the annihilation of European Jewry was not their problem. Would they have had the nerve to look away if they had actual footage of the camps to not dare look away from, if they had seen with their own eyes the execution ditches, the selection ramp, the gas chambers, the crematoria? It’s hard to say, of course. But in my heart I think that images speak to us differently than do words…and I also believe that the absence of that kind of graphic evidence of the Nazis’ crimes is what made it possible for so many to make hard their hearts and, in the end, to do nothing to save the Jews of Europe other than to struggle to win the war before the last one among them was finally murdered.

The king of Jordan knew what to do. He was in Washington when the video depicting Captain al-Kasasbeh’s execution was released, but he flew home immediately and began his response by ordering the execution of two al-Qaeda prisoners whose release had earlier been demanded by ISIS, and regarding whose release he had previously authorized negotiations aimed at bringing Captain al-Kasasbeh home safely. Then he sent dozens of fighter jets into the sky to hit ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq. And then he announced that this was the beginning, not the end, of his response to the pilot’s murder. That kind of forceful, instant response aimed at fighting fire with fire was, I believe, entirely justified. King Abdullah felt personally challenged to respond, and respond he did. We are slowly turning the tide against ISIS say the pundits who analyze such things and of that we Americans should surely be proud. But refusing to look at the actual images presented in those videos will end up weakening, not strengthening, our resolve to act vigorously and decisively in a war that feels different in many ways from other conflicts in which our nation has engaged over the last decades. We need to force ourselves not only to know, but actually to see, whom it is we are facing, who is standing before us.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Losing Richard von Weizsäcker

At first blush, there don’t appear to be many reasons for me to have been an admirer of Richard von Weizsäcker, the first democratically elected president of a united Germany since Paul von Hindenberg in the 1930s.  Born in 1920, von Weizsäcker served in the German Army during the Second World War, eventually attaining the rank of Captain and personally participating in the invasion of Poland that began the war. (Nor was he one of “those” Germans who later claimed that they had no idea that European Jewry was being annihilated on his watch. Instead, von Weizsäcker freely admitted that he was reliably told by a comrade-in-arms about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity in 1943 and knew from then on that the rumors he had earlier heard about Hitler’s war against the Jews were true.) Nor do the reasons I should not be one of his admirers end on V-E Day: in 1947, he had it in him to serve as assistant defense counsel when his father, formerly an SS-Brigadeführer, was put on trial for his role in the deportation of French Jewry. And then, when it was all over, von Weizsäcker went to law school, got married, produced a family…and put the war and its horrors behind him as he made his way forward in the world. Eventually, he went into politics, winning a seat in the Bundestag in 1969.

So for all those reasons I really should not admire President Von Weizsäcker, who died few days ago, or hold his legacy in regard. But that is not at all how I feel, and I feel challenged by my own sentiments to explain (to you, possibly a bit to myself) why that is.

He advanced in politics with the years, serving as the Vice President of the Bundestag, then as the Mayor of West Berlin, then as President of all Germany, which office he assumed in 1984, the same year I myself moved to Germany to take up a teaching position at the Institute for Jewish Studies attached to the University of Heidelberg. So we started new jobs the same year and in the same country…but at the time I had no sense of the role that he would eventually play in the history of my personal relationship to Germany and to its history of ruthless brutality and aggression against the Jewish people.

As readers of these letters know, I am as deeply involved with the legacy of the Shoah as any non-survivor possibly could be. This is the soil in which my beliefs, theological and moral, have grown for decades; just last week I wrote to you about the seminal experience of my adolescence being the reading of books of eye-witness testimony regarding the efforts fully to exterminate the Jewish population of occupied Europe. So it may seem odd to some of you to imagine someone such as myself willingly choosing to move—and with a wife and a five-month-old baby, no less—to the very country that even then served as the backdrop for more nightmares than I could write about in a thousand weekly letters. In retrospect, the decision surprises me as well. I could have stayed in Israel. (We had spent the previous year in Jerusalem, where I had a post-doctoral fellowship at the Hebrew University, and I had an offer to take up a lectureship at the University of Haifa.) I could have returned to New York and settled back into my career as a teacher at Hunter College or JTS. I could have done a lot of things…but somehow I ended up moving to Heidelberg.

This was, as noted, the mid-1980s. All those decommissioned Wehrmacht soldiers who were in the twenties when the war ended were still only in their sixties. Nor was the presence of former German combatants merely theory for me: I had one student who eventually revealed to me that his grandfather had been a guard at Majdanek. (He, the grandson, spoke Hebrew fluently, had studied for years in Israel, and eventually became a Lutheran pastor.) The place was filled with people like that, individuals trying to find a way to be German without turning away from the nation’s own history. Nor was this solely a story of individuals wrestling with their heritage: the nation itself was still very much in the throes of coming to terms with its past. It was both an exciting and an intimidating place for me to live as I took my place in the Jewish community and attempted to convince myself, mostly successfully, that the effort to restore Jewish learning to Germany was both a noble and a legitimate response to history and that I was lucky to be part of it.

And then it was suddenly 1985 and the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war, called V-E Day by ourselves and Stunde Null (“Zero Hour”) popularly by the Germans themselves, was almost upon us. Mostly, it was gratifying to see the Germans wrestling with the heritage bequeathed them by their forebears. 

But it was also creepy and weird being there, something like accidentally overhearing a discussion so intimate and so intense that you can’t stop listening even though you have no actual right to be present in the first place.

This was the context for two events that eventually dominated the anniversary itself, one upsetting and weird and the other intensely hopeful and encouraging.

The upsetting event was President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg. Mostly forgotten now, the controversy had to do with the president’s agreement to accompany West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to a German military cemetery (the president was going to be in Germany anyway for a G7 economic summit in Bonn) as a sign of the friendship between the United States and its former foe. The Germans suggested the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery, just ninety miles from Bonn, but somehow forgot to mention that among the buried in that place were forty-nine members of the Waffen-SS. President Reagan should have backed off right then, but instead made one error of judgment after another. First, he insisted that he would go despite the mounting protests at home. Then he made the almost unbelievable comment in a public speech that, in his considered opinion, the Nazi soldiers buried at Bitburg were, and I quote, “victims, just as surely as the victims in the concentration camps.” And then, for good measure, the president specifically declined to add a visit to a concentration camp to his itinerary as a way of offsetting his visit to Bitburg, a decision later reversed.

For me, living as I was in Germany, this whole controversy was upsetting. Did the President of the United States really think that members of the Waffen-SS, defined at Nuremberg as a criminal organization and thus specifically not merely as just another branch of the German military, did he really think that its members were somehow victims? Victims of whom? Were the rubrics I had come to see as self-evident: guilty and not guilty, perpetrator and victim, persecutor and persecuted—were these already becoming passé? I wasn’t a huge fan of President Reagan for other reasons, but I always considered him a moral, decent man. Was I all wrong…about him? Or was I wrong about the universe? I was unsettled and ill at ease throughout the whole incident, and found myself wishing for nothing more fervently than that he would just go and get it over with, then let the matter disappear into the mists of history.

President Reagan went to the Kolmeshöhe Cemetery on Sunday, May 5, 1985. The war in Europe ended at midnight on May 8, 1945, so the fortieth anniversary of Stunde Null was just three days in the future. I had many moments in Germany during which the pressure to explain why exactly I was there was crushing, but I can’t remember three more unpleasant, upsetting days than those three between Bitburg and V-E Day 1985. 

And then the day came…and President Von Weizsäcker spoke in the Bundestag. I remember this like it was yesterday; the entire country, certainly all of Heidelberg, was listening to the radio or watching this on TV. We were too. (The speech was carried live on the American Armed Forces Network, which we for some reason were able to access at home in Rohrbach, with subtitles for non-German speakers.)  And in his words, I found solace and a sense of hope restored that President Reagan’s visit to the graves of the Waffen-SS had almost entirely eroded.

He spoke slowly and in measured tones, using a kind of literary German that was somehow deeply impressive without sounding stodgy or old-fashioned. He spoke openly, and without shilly-shallying, about the responsibility all Germans bear for the sins of the Nazis and how this national burden cannot be sidestepped by individuals with reference to their own lack of indictable culpability. And, remarkably, he spoke about Stunde Null as a moment not of defeat or capitulation, but of liberation. This was not at all how Germans in the 1980s were used to thinking about their past.

Openly and calmly, he mocked those who, when the truth about the Shoah became known, hid behind a false veil of unknowing and claimed, because it so suited what they perceived to be their own best interests, that they knew nothing of it. I wish to quote his words directly because they meant so much to me then and remain resonant with me after all these years:

The perpetration of this crime was in the hands of a few people. It was concealed from the eyes of the public, but every German was able to experience what his Jewish compatriots had to suffer, ranging from plain apathy and hidden intolerance to outright hatred. Who could remain unsuspecting after the burning of the synagogues, the plundering, the stigmatization with the Star of David, the deprivation of rights, the ceaseless violation of human dignity? Whoever opened his eyes and ears and sought information could not fail to notice that Jews were being deported. The nature and scope of the destruction may have exceeded human imagination, but in reality there was, apart from the crime itself, the attempt by too many people, including those of my generation, who were young and were not involved in planning the events and carrying them out, not to take note of what was happening. There were many ways of not burdening one's conscience, of shunning responsibility, looking away, keeping mum. When the unspeakable truth of the Holocaust then became known at the end of the war, all too many of us claimed that they had not known anything about it or even suspected anything….

And then he turned to Bitburg and, without once mentioning it or President Reagan, he spoke about the difference between legal culpability and the burden of memory. “There is no such thing as the guilt or innocence of an entire nation,” the president said reasonably. But then he continued to observe that guilt, “like innocence, is not collective but personal. There is discovered or concealed individual guilt. There is guilt which people acknowledge or deny. . . . All of us, whether guilty or not, whether young or old, must accept the past. We are all affected by the consequences and liable for it. . . . We Germans must look truth straight in the eye – without embellishment and without distortion. . . . There can be no reconciliation without remembrance." Those are deeply wise words and they address what was then the major stumbling block in the path leading to Germany coming to terms with its past, the insistence that the individual who was not at Treblinka and who did not personally beat anybody to death should be free to forget the whole thing and leave it for those who did those things to work through. Yes, individuals—and particularly those born after the war—bear no personal responsibility for the Shoah or for the war if they themselves did nothing to be guilty of, just as none of us bears any legal responsibility for the deeds of others. But that, von Weizsäcker said clearly, is neither here nor there…and the real question is how a nation, acting in concert as a nation, can confront its own history and thus prevent that history from serving also as its destiny.

The death of Richard von Weizsäcker is a real loss to the world. Singlehandedly, he made me feel able to spend the rest of our time in Germany free (or almost free) of the sense of crippling absurdity that could otherwise have been my constant companion, able to function without crumbling under the weight of what I knew of Germany and its past. I came away from listening to that speech, which I then bought as a pamphlet a few days later and read and reread, with a sense of hope in the future. He was a truly good man, one who found the courage to face his own past and, in so doing, to invite his countrymen to follow his example. It is in no small part because of that speech that Germany has come as far as it has in confronting the legacy of Nazism. And that, particularly when compared to other countries that remain wedded even today to a fanciful, entirely self-serving, conception of themselves as victims of the Nazis rather than as their willing collaborators in the war against the House of Israel, is not something to move quickly past at all. May he rest in peace and may his memory inspire Germans to face their past and, in so doing, to seek a worthy future for their children honestly and without pretense!