Thursday, June 23, 2011

Catching a glimpse of history

Walter Benjamin wrote that the “past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.” I imagine a Lutheran who was arrested by the Nazis and put into a holding cell with a bunch of Jews headed for Auschwitz. The man protested that he was not a Jew, he hated Jews, in fact. He was a Lutheran. He was born a Lutheran. The Nazis replied that his mother was a Jew and so he was a Jew. No, he replied with passion, my mother converted to Christianity long before I was born and she married a Lutheran and she raised me a Lutheran and she was a Lutheran. No, the Nazis replied, she was a Jew. And so the man found himself in a chamber load of Jews as the gas was being dropped. As he drew his last breath it finally dawned on him, "oh, my God, I'm a Jew!" All his life he thought that he knew who he was. He was a German and a Lutheran and he hated Jews. At the very last moment of his life he discovers that he is a Jew. He realizes that on some level this fact was fundamental to who he was and what his destiny was to be, but what purpose does his final insight serve?

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