By Rachael Jennings
On Wednesday, April 27th, H. Martin Rumscheidt visited Dublin’s campus for Morning Meeting and three open class sessions. Rumscheidt is a German-born theologian whose father was a participant in the Holocaust as a leader of an industrial site for IG Farben. He has spent his life working on the legacy of this participation for himself, for his countries (he is a Canadian citizen), and for Christianity.
Rumscheidt grew up in relative ignorance, absorbing the xenophobia, hate, and antisemitism that was passed down through his family, neighbors, school, and church. He does not remember ever meeting a Jewish person until his time at university, wherein he did not even know his friend’s identity. He told us about how he used to sit next to this fellow in class at McGill University, and they would play pool together after class. During a game of pool, his friend uttered something, and Rumscheidt exclaimed, “I didn’t know you knew German!”
“That wasn’t German,” his friend replied. “It was Yiddish!”
Rumscheidt paused as he told the story, then said, “He leaned in towards me, then, and said, ‘What are you going to do now, Martin?’”
What are you going to do now?
Rumscheidt pursued this question with us with incredible candor, humility, and attentiveness. The question is one that vaulted toward him once he uncovered his family’s legacy and involvement in the Holocaust? The question and its answers are ones with which he must wrestle, confront, see, and carry.
As he details in an address that he gave at the University of New Hampshire, “[My father] was a mid-range executive in the huge industrial conglomerate known as ‘IG Farben,’ at first in research and then, from 1941 until 1945, responsible for the industry in Belgium, Holland and France to assure that they produced at maximum capacity for the German war effort.”
Carrying this legacy brings complexity and shame to Rumscheidt. When he was young, he did not know about his father’s actions and role in the Holocaust. Once he started to catch on, he started to ask questions.
At first, he asked about where his father went on his business trips; then he asked about what he did. Then he asked if his father had ever been to Auschwitz. His father said that he had never been there.
Rumscheidt’s questions persisted, and, eventually, his father grew angry. He told his son that if he asked any more questions on the matter, their relationship would be over.
Rumscheidt did not want to end his relationship with his father. He promised that he would stop probing into the past. And he kept that promise—for thirty years.
What his father didn’t know was that his son began researching extensively. He began exploring. He began to put the pieces together—began to put the truth together. And he kept his realizations from his father for as long as his father lived. But he carried those secrets.
After his father’s passing, Rumscheidt’s stepmother gave him a little black notebook that had been his father’s. On the last page was a list of places he had travelled and dates. Rumscheidt remembers following his finger down the page until he got to that terrible last line: Auschwitz.
Rumscheidt spoke about one of his favorite remarks that Marx made—“among many remarks with which I disagree,” he adds—and that comment is that shame can be a constructive emotion. Some of Rumscheidt’s Jewish friends have since told him, “You can wallow in your guilt. Or you can do something. We can talk about this.”
Rumscheidt has learned to feel shame but to look at what is difficult to see. He has done more than look; he has pored through some of the most difficult realities, atrocities, horrors of his people, his faith, his country, his family. In that, he stresses the importance of what he calls himself: “an anti-semite in remission.”
“There is so much I had to unlearn,” he admits. “I had to unlearn nearly everything.”
He gave the anecdote of meeting and speaking with two accomplished, high-powered individuals who happened to be Polish, Jewish women. He had been taught that Poles were the scum of the earth but that Jewish Poles were even worse and that Polish Jewish women were worst of all, the lowest of the low. When he met these two individuals in his adulthood, he remembers feelings surprised and pleased that they were doing so well professionally.
“That’s the ingrained anti semitism,” he said. “It comes back in flashes. And in the moment, do you know what else I realized? I’m also still a chauvinistic pig. Thank God that I can see that in myself. Because then I can deal with it.”
He focuses on seeing the humanity in all people while simultaneously allowing himself to see the destructive socialization and biases that have become a part of who he is. Now, he calls his parents something else rather than “bystanders” to the terror of the Holocaust. He calls them “away-lookers.”
“[I call them this] because they looked away,” said Rumscheidt. “We can’t look away. I don’t want to look away. And I don’t want you to, either. [...] As long as there are people among us who remember that we looked away, there will be no rest. We will not rest.”
He elaborates in the aforementioned UNH speech in writing, “Indeed, I raised no hand myself in murder, my eyes did not watch the killing. But since I have come to know what I know, I feel on my body the glances of the dead. It is in their presence—the six million, especially the hundreds of thousands of children, whom I never knew but who are sopresent in the silence of my parents, of my people—it is in their presence that I seek to grasp whyit is the country, the people, the church that claim Luther, Bach, Goethe, Hegel, Dürer, that planned, built, paid for, manned and carried out the Holocaust.”
He encourages everyone he meets to shut out the silence, to speak, instead. Speaking is difficult, sometimes. Rumscheidt’s work is difficult and enormous, but he is tireless.
“What I have learned from Martin is incalculable,” says Sarah Doenmez, Academic Dean. “Above all, perhaps, it is the example of how a person can take deeply seriously the confrontation with the hardest of the historical legacies—I am tormented by those of my position of privilege in this nation—and devote one’s life to the ethical responsibilities they impose without giving up devotion to the individuals who created those legacies. Martin has chosen to live a life of conscience in a way most of us shy away from, cannot abide. He is also a model of the way the study of history helps accomplish this task, and that meticulous textual studies is also a creative discipline. He is now reading a new German translation of the gospel of St. John, which recovers and transmits the use of female pronouns and imagery as well as masculine for god. He wants to rewrite the Bible in a way that acknowledges Judaism and uses its theological methods rather than obscuring them or rejecting them, to try to recreate a Christianity that is not anti-semitic.”
Indeed, Rumscheidt took some of his time with Dublin’s community to discuss the issues on which we cannot be silent, the issues that pervade society today. “We cannot see these things repeat—with slavery by another name, with sex trafficking, with gender discrimination, with xenophobia. We cannot let this repeat,” he said. “And I am sad to say that that possibility is not off the table.”
As he shared, and as is evidenced by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research, there are 1,400 hate groups in the United States. There is not a single state in the United States where there is not an established hate group. There are four in the state of New Hampshire.
He touched on the topic of hate speech and on the topic of hateful jokes. “Every joke has an edge,” he explained. “And this isn’t just about anti Semitism. It’s racist language, it’s anti-gender language, it’s sexist language. When I hear people say this stuff, I say, ‘Why do you soil your humanity with this kind of stuff? How can you be so anti-human?’”
“I know I cannot convert every anti Semite, every racist, every sexist,” he said. “But I can remind the victim and the perpetrator of their shared humanity.”
When Doenmez describes part of the purpose of his visit, she expresses the want for students to walk away thinking about their humanity, responsibility, and potential to make change in the world. “At a time when our society is wrestling with acknowledging our legacies of racial discrimination, the on-going effects of genocide against indigenous peoples and slavery, Martin provides us a way forward,” she says. “I hope our community learns that we must face our painful historical legacies with truth and courage, with careful study and with unwavering devotion to the creation of greater justice.”
His visit to Dublin is so meaningful to him because he trusts Dublin students, faculty, and staff to prevent this terrible repetition, to work justly against the hate and xenophobia we see. He trusts our humanity. As Doenmez notes, “He has said to me that he feels Dublin is somehow different, that people are more open and ‘full of humanity.’ He made mention of how impressed he is with our diversity and how hopeful he finds that, but it is the spirit of engagement with one another that is most important.”
Early in his talk, he told a story about his attendance at a conference where he became so overcome with guilt that he did not want to speak. A Holocaust survivor approached him and showed him her arm, her tattoo. She then embraced him and said, “This is my commandment to you: ‘Speak. You must speak.’”
As Rumscheidt sat in the Project Room with groups of students for three class periods, he leaned closer and said, “When I look at your faces—your young, attentive, energetic faces, I trust you. I trust that you have solidarity, here. That years from now you might confront something and call up someone from Dublin School and say, ‘How can I figure this out?’ And I want you to know that I am here for you, too. You can call me up any time you want to talk something through. Because you can’t do this alone, and I can’t either. None of us can. We need to be here for each other.” As he said this, the image came to mind of one of his stories—his story of visiting Auschwitz with his Jewish friend, how he walked in with her, and how, in the end, she reached out and held his hand to lead him out.
“I am giving you a commandment,” he said, his eyes bright. “I am giving you a commandment like that Holocaust survivor gave to me when she showed me her arm and said, ‘Speak.’ Here is your commandment: You can make this world different.”