Jewish Museum in Berlin, Germany

The Jewish Museum of Berlin opened in 2001. Its exhibitions and permanent collection reflect on Jewish history and culture in Germany from the Middle Ages to the present.

Jewish Museum Berlin photo

The first picture I saw of the Charlottesville march and mayhem fought over the fate of a 93-year-old statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was almost three weeks ago. It was part of a full-page spread in the London Telegraph. I picked up a copy at Heathrow Airport on Sunday, Aug. 13, on our way home from a fascinating eight days in Berlin.

I instantly remembered one of the first columns I wrote for the Waco Trib last fall, telling the story of my teenage experience as a missionary kid in Nigeria, talking with a Nigerian friend about the full-page pictures in Nigerian papers of water hoses and dogs turned on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham. His question to me: “How can you missionaries be here when this is happening back in your country?”

Here I was again, coming back to America, asking the same question about how America can profess to lead the world when these kinds of things are happening in our own back yards.

Perhaps we can learn some things from the Germans, a people who in the last 80 years have dealt with both the rise and fall of a fascist movement and then a divided country.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin traces the history of Jews in Germany from the “Dark Ages” till modern times. It also recounts recurring periods of religious and political oppression of the Jews and their slow yet steady drive to attain rights as full and equal citizens.

The great irony in that history is that the first German constitution to give them full and equal rights was that of the Weimar Republic, right after World War I. You know what happened. In the period of depression, resentment and vulnerability that followed, they became targets once again — this time of a systematic and demonic attempt to rid them from German society.

Is there a parallel? Not long after African Americans and other minorities in America finally gained full legal and civil rights on paper, we too began moving into a period of both great uncertainty about identity in an increasingly diverse world as well as deep feelings of vulnerability in a global economy. Rather than blaming the “principalities and powers,” as the Apostle Paul might say, it’s much easier to turn “others” into scapegoats.

The Jewish Museum in Berlin is but one of an amazing collection of museums in Berlin. The city itself feels like a living museum, a history lesson in plain sight. You can see and hear the ongoing recovery from the destruction of World War II and fall of the Berlin Wall. There are memorials all around the city. But none honor the leadership of the Nazis or German Democratic Republic, the former East Germany.

I visited the site of the former offices of the SS and Gestapo. But there are no memorials to them, just a nondescript building with graphic displays of the rise, horrors and fall of the Third Reich inside. Outside, just below a remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall, is another long graphic display of Hitler’s rise and fall. The site’s name: Topographie des Terrors.

Other small pieces of the infamous wall dividing East and West Germany still stand around town, connected with a stone outline in the streets marking where the wall once stood. If you look down, as you walk Berlin neighborhoods, you also see small bronze squares embedded in the sidewalks with the names of individuals, mostly Jews, who were seized at that spot, the street on which they lived, the date and the concentration camp where their lives ended.

You can almost lose yourself in the undulating maze of the Holocaust Memorial, amongst rows of oppressive, solid, upright stones whose shadows on one another look like chimneys. It’s easy to feel swallowed up, in so deep you wonder how to get out. Now, compared to then, there is always a path and a light at the end.

The overwhelming message of the city: Remember, but never again.

Flash forward with me to the moving, nonpartisan Racial Unity event held at First Presbyterian Church of Waco last Thursday night, led by an impromptu local coalition. We heard short, time-limited statements (with boundaries upheld in good humor) by local leaders from multiple political, ethnic and religious backgrounds. In each talk, we got short flashes of light into the story of that speaker and why he or she felt the need to condemn white supremacy and address the less visible, but still pervasive, racism in our community and society.

The two most memorable to me were from very different parts of the diverse spectrum of speakers. Wesley Lloyd, a lawyer and president of the Republican Club of McLennan County, proclaimed himself the most conservative person in the hall — and then talked about his raising a black son: “I can show you racism. It still exists and is a big problem.” At the end, Dr. Peaches Henry, president of the Waco NAACP, confessed that she was not sure she wanted to come: “I am weary of flash-point unity events that happen after each crisis.” The question is what we do, day to day, and whether we can be curious about people from other backgrounds rather than defensive or afraid.

I sat in the pew thinking about Berlin. I wondered why there are not memorials of some kind next to, or near, every single Confederate memorial — memorials to slaves, their suffering and their fight for freedom. Why are there not memorials at the sites of over 4,000 lynchings across America with a name and a date, including one for Jesse Washington in downtown Waco, the infamous horror of 1916?

If Germany can both remember the victims and refuse to honor the perpetrators, how come we cannot? Even if all the monuments to Confederate officers stayed in place, I know which memorials would get the attention. Remember, but never again.

Why do it? The answer came Thursday night in the period of silence during the racial unity event. All you could hear was the tiny voice and murmurings of a small child. I have no idea whether he or she was red, yellow, black or white. It did not matter, but it is clear what we grown-ups need to do for them, if not ourselves, and their American future. Just as Berlin is doing for theirs.

Remember, but never again.

Bill Gaventa, a clergyman who has worked at the intersections of faith and disability, serves as director of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability. He is president of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. He served as director of Community and Congregational Supports at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities. He now lives in Woodway.