The modern mind has little use for the insights of the Bible, but there are times when its description of the human condition is accurate enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up straight. The author of Lamentations knew what he was talking about when he wrote "Our fathers sinned, and are no more; and we bear their iniquities. (Lamentations 5:7)"
Anyone who doubts the relevance of this passage to modern life should talk with Frank Pfeiffer, a German travel agent and pro-Israel activist whose grandfather murdered Jews throughout Europe while serving in a Death’s Head Brigade of the Waffen SS. A year after Pfeiffer filed a request with the German government for the paperwork related to his grandfather’s career as a sniper in the SS, he saw the ugly truth for the first time. There was no denying that he was involved in the murder of Jews.
“He was in Krakow. He was in Warsaw. He was in Estonia. He was all over Europe,” Pfeiffer said. “This is what my grandfather was part of. I can only imagine how much Jewish life he killed.”
The crimes Pfeiffer’s grandfather committed cast a deathly pall over the life of his family. “He was evil. He was a really evil man,” Pfeiffer said. Family reunions were filled with expression of hatred toward the Jewish people. “We’d talk about regular things and suddenly it came to the subject – ‘The Jews are guilty. The Jews are guilty. The Polish are guilty.”
Living in an environment like this stunts people emotionally and spiritually, Pfeiffer says and it wasn’t until he became an Evangelical Protestant in Germany and started to confront his family’s history was he able to get out from under the cloud of guilt that afflicted him and his family. It was like this in a lot of homes in Germany, Pfeiffer says.
“I speak for many homes in Germany,” he said. “The atmosphere is cold. There’s a coldness because they are not talking about the past.”
To get out from under the shadow of this generational guilt, Pfeiffer has become an ardent supporter of the Jewish state and participates in a growing “March of Life” movement, which seeks to console the victims of the Holocaust and to stand up against the rising tide of antisemitism in Europe. The organization held a rally at Gan Sacher in Jerusalem, which can be seen here.
Pfeiffer is part of a larger movement — a growing number of Germans who use their Christian faith to give them the strength and courage they need to confront their families’ historical involvement in the Holocaust.
Theologian Jobst Bittner has documented this reality in a book titled Breaking the Veil of Silence (TOS Publishing, 2013). In this book, Bitner describes how Germans born after the war suffered the consequences of unresolved guilt and shame over what their parents and grandparents did and that by confronting this history, they get out from under the twin shadows of denial and shame.
Once they do this, Bittner reports, they no longer have to embrace the hate and hostility used to justify the violence perpetrated by their ancestors, nor do they have to pretend that the genocide was perpetrated by a small number of bad actors and that Germans were the real victims of World War II.
“The more time is passing, the more the old distorted image of the oppressed German people is fading in the eyes of young people in the fourth generation,” Bittner writes. “They are able to identify with the victims without feeling betrayal or rebellion agains their own families.” And Christians who go through this process, he writes, can honor “the Jewish roots of their faith. They have a new spirit.”
Pfeiffer's transformation is proof positive that the sins of our fathers are not the last word about the world we live in and fashion for generations that follow.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). His opinions are his own.