November 16, 2016 by

Jesus tells us to forgive, not once, not twice, but seventy times seven. That’s a lot of hurts to be forgiven. Sometimes deep hurts, sometimes small insults – like what my dearest friend said unwittingly which bent my feelers just because – or perceived injustices. Often the forgiveness is spoken, and as often, at least for me, unspoken: open my hands and let it go.

But I know a woman, two women really, for whom forgiveness was the watershed event in their lives. The first was my mother. The other is a woman my mother led me to after she died.

A German Jew born in 1925, my mother grew up in a comfortable middle-class home, religious to the extent of observing the Sabbath and the high holidays, yet completely assimilated. Part of a close-knit circle of friends, both classmates and family friends, she certainly never imagined that the life she knew could be torn out from under her.

But by the age of twelve she was barred from attending her school, and her father’s business, a high-end men’s apparel store, had been vandalized. She found herself on a boat to England to enroll in a boarding school for two more years. During those years her family (father and mother, a sister and twin brothers) took what minimal currency they were allowed and fled to Uruguay, settling in Montevideo, where she joined them two years later. Not long after her arrival, her forty-two-year old father died of a heart attack. Being businessman-turned-farmer (a small agricultural venture outside the city) proved too much for him; and on top of that, his “partner” had swindled him out of his savings.

the author’s mother with some school friends
The author’s mother (L) with some boarding school friends in England

Dark years followed, during which my grandmother was scarcely able to care for her four children. My mother had to work, eventually saving enough to allow her to return to night school while continuing day-time employment in an office. But this regimen undermined her health, and formal education had to go by the wayside. When the curtain lifted over post-World War II Germany and newsreels revealed the horror that had taken life as she knew it – and the lives of her grandparents and every single one of her childhood friends – she turned her back on the God of her childhood.

Marriage to my father, also a Holocaust survivor, posed the doubled-edged question “Why were we saved when six million other Jews were not?” For many people, time softens heartache, but for my mother the opposite was happening. As they went through their own version of survivor’s guilt, her hurt turned to bitterness and pain into anger. She did not want to be either bitter or angry, but she did not know an alternative.

The birth of their first child brought joy, comfort, and hope, and not long after, their path crossed with that of the Bruderhof in Paraguay. Confronted with Christ’s message of peace and unity among all people, they found the answer they were looking for. It was only several years later, however, that the issue of forgiveness arose. One day it dawned on her: she would never be able to forgive her families’ executioners until she was able to see that despite their guilt they were nevertheless fellow human beings.

In her words: “Trembling, I looked into my own heart and found seeds of hatred there too. Arrogant thoughts, feelings of irritation toward others, coldness, anger, envy. And indifference. These are the roots of what happened in Nazi Germany. As I recognized, more clearly than ever before, that I myself stood in desperate need of forgiveness, I was able to forgive, and finally I felt completely free.” So I knew this about my mother, that she had “forgiven the Nazis.” And as every child takes her parents for granted, so I did, too.

My mother was a modest woman, and did not make any fanfare or crusade about this act of forgiveness. It was between her and her God, the God of her people, and she did not speak easily of her Jewish roots. Not out of shame, but rather from a deep reverence for the religious background which had laid the path to her own recognition of Christ as the Messiah, and from an affirmation of the Apostle Paul’s words, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Gal. 3:28). Then she died. Too soon for all of us, much too soon for me, something I was to find out the hard way years later.

This is just the beginning; check back in two weeks for the conclusion to Carmen’s story, and find out who her second example of hard-won forgiveness is.

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