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Reflections on a visit to Germany

30 September 2002
Reflections on a visit to Germany

Reflections on a visit to Germany from June 20 to June 30, 2002

Fr. Michael Lapsley, SSM

I was invited to speak at the annual mission festival of the Northelbian Evangelical Lutheran Church on June 22, 2002. On the theme of healing of memories as a contribution to overcoming violence. Barry Bekebeke accompanied me. The festival took place in the small village of Breklum about an hour's drive out of Hamburg.

I was the keynote speaker at the festival. Before I spoke I became aware that a number of people at the festival, particularly a group of women, had played a significant role in the boycott movement during the apartheid years. Also present was Bishop Barbel Wartenberg-Potter accompanied by her husband Dr Philip Potter, former general secretary of the World Council of Churches. Dr Potter had visited me in an Australian hospital when I was recovering from a letter bomb attack in 1990. I felt it important to acknowledge, during my opening remarks, the role the women and Dr Potter had played. From the outset and throughout the visit, I sought to draw the parallels between South Africans struggling to come to terms with their past and Germans doing the same.

Present at the festival was a significant number of people from churches in Asia and Africa. On the first evening there was a presentation from a group from Germany who had spent some weeks in Brazil. Clearly they had been changed and deeply affected by what they had experienced particularly around issues of justice.

In my own opening remarks. I was moved to recollect the poem of T.S.Eliot:

The Journey of the Magi. The wise men left their country, experienced the Christ child and were changed by that experience. On their return, because of how they had been changed, they saw their own country in a new light and sometimes felt like strangers in their own land.

I suggested that this was often the missionary experience and that perhaps people were not missionaries when they came to us but rather their mission work began on their return. In the course of the day a number of people came to say that they identified with those remarks.

In the afternoon there was an opportunity to take the discussion further. It was apparent that the  acknowledgment, which I had made to the women earlier in the day, had been appreciated. Some of the women who had ben involved in the boycott against South African goods spoke of their involvement as a way of dealing with the guilt and shame of what Germany did during the Second World War.

On the second evening of the festival we celebrated with Dube, a dynamic, gifted and vibrant group playing South African music. Dumisani is from South Africa and is married to Bettina from Germany. Together with teenage son Thando, Lebo from South Africa and Heinrich they had us all on our feet, not sure whether we were in Germany or Soweto.

On the Sunday afternoon we went with Wilfrid Knees to the island of Sylt which is only accessible by rail. I preached at a Taize evening service in the little village of Keitum characterised by its beautifully thatched roof houses.

During the week we travelled to Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart with public meetings in each place. In Hamburg my address was the last in a series at a one world educational centre all focussed on Southern Africa. We were taken care of by Adelheid Wiedenmann together with other women, who continue to do solidarity work for South Africa.

In Berlin Revd Gerd Decke and his colleagues of the Berliner Missionswerk hosted us. One meeting took place in a suburb of Berlin and the second in Dessau, a formerly East German city, which was razed to the ground during the second world war.

At the meeting in Dessau I asked people to talk about what healing of memories meant to them before I made my presentation. A great wealth of wisdom, faith and insight followed against the backdrop of much pain and suffering that had been experienced. I was touched by the widow of a former pastor for whom healing of memories meant that she was still acknowledged and remembered within the congregation. One woman spoke of a church, where a member of the congregation had the responsibility of informing on the pastor for the secret police and of the public process of confession, asking for forgiveness and reconciliation.

As well as personal issues of healing and forgiveness, the focus included the experience of bombing during the war, the Holocaust, Russian occupation, the experience of being s socialist country and what has happened since unification. Reference was made to Korea and Japan and to the example of Nelson Mandela.

It is always interesting to notice what people choose to take you to see, when you visit. Of course this is also shaped by the fact that we come from the Institute for Healing of Memories

In Berlin we were taken to visit the records of the State Security Service of the Former German Democratic Republic. By 1989, the State Security Service employed 91,000 full-time employees and approximately 175,000 "unofficial informers". For every thousand citizens there were were 5.5 security service personnel compared with 1.8 in the Soviet Union. It would be interesting to know how this compares with the US, West Germany and apartheid ruled South Africa. What were the key factors that lead to such a scale of surveillance? The "files" and what they contain continue to play a significant role in how Germany deals with its past. Perhaps not surprisingly West German intelligence tried to prevent the "files" going into the public domain.

We visited the Berlin-Hohenschonausen Memorial. This former prison was used as a detention centre by the Soviets at the end of the Second World War and later as an awaiting trial facility by the State Security Service. It is a memorial to those who suffered political persecution and under an arbitrary judicial system. Like Robben Island the two people who showed us around were prison guards. We were also shown methods of physical torture used by the Soviets and methods of psychological torture used by the German Democratic Republic.

In South African those with a leftist ideology were routinely detained and tortured. The German Democratic Republic was solidly in support of our liberation struggle. It made me reflect on what happens, when human beings are given unfettered power over others regardless of their ideology. In South Africa we fought what was a crime against humanity but the forces for liberation also committed human rights abuses.

Throughout our time in Germany we met many people whose own lives hav been intertwined with the people of South Africa. Personally I had the joy of reconnecting with a number of old friends and to be greatly enriched by new friends. We were also privileged to share a large number of stories of German people, who are struggling to come to terms with their past. More than one German person said they hoped Germany would not win the World Cup. Partly because of what they thought about the team, but more importantly because of what it feeds in the national psyche. As Gerd Decke put it "we have a broken national identity"

In Stuttgart we were hosted by the Association of Churches in South Western Germany, in particular Christoph Reichel. It also gave us the first opportunity to meet Tamara Appel and her colleagues of the Churches Helping Churches programme, EKD, that has funded our Healing of Memories programme since its inception.

After a meeting in Stuttgart, one man told me that he had come to learn about South Africa, but instead he had learnt something about Germany and that was ok.

I am particularly grateful to Pastor Joachim Wietzke, director of the Northelbian Centre for Worldmission and Church World Service and to Dr Dietrich Werner, who did a great deal to effectively organize our visit and make us feel welcome throughout our visit.

About Us

The Institute for the Healing of Memories seeks to contribute to the healing journey of individuals, communities and nations. Our work is grounded in the belief that we are all in need of healing, because of what we have done, what we have failed to do, and what has been done to us.

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