When Broken Silence Leads to Hugs

Last Saturday folks from 8 Baytown congregations and beyond gathered for the Southeast version of the Holocaust March of Remembrance.  We at Faith Presbyterian were privileged to host it, but we were joined by folks from Baker Road Baptist, Church on the Rock, Knesseth Israel, St. John the Evangelist Catholic,  St. Mark’s United Methodist, St. Paul’s Lutheran, and Trinity Episcopal.  It took a lot of planning.  It wasn’t planned as well as it could have been. There was still some things we to adjust on the fly.  For me, the most touching moment was totally unplanned.  It was… the hugs.

We began with a song from Isaiah 64, a prayer asking God to change our hearts.  The Mayor of Baytown, Steve DonCarlos presented a Proclamation and stayed for the whole service.  My experience in other towns is that many times city officials have someone else read the proclamation or if the Mayor comes, the Mayor leaves after the Proclamation is read–but not our mayor.

We were blessed with a liturgical dance from one of the members of the Ad Deum Dance company.  We sang familiar hymns.  We prayed prayers.  We were led in prayer.

Karen Aarons, the Vice President of Knesseth Israel led us in the Mourner’s Kaddish, a memorial prayer in Aramaic and English.  As a group we recited names of victims from Hungary who lost their lives in the Holocaust.  Then we heard Al.

Al Marks, a holocaust survivor of four different Concentration Camps, spoke of  the historical events that led up to the Holocaust.  He spoke of his reluctance to speak of his experience for decades.  He shared what led him to finally break his silence, and what now, at age 81, continues to move him to catch a plane the next day to fly to Seattle to keep on breaking it.

After Al finished speaking he sat in the front pew with his wife and his daughter Karen Aarons.

Then we heard from Thomas Waldert whose father was a Nazi soldier.  He came with his son, Jan and another young man Markus Kalb, from Germany for the purpose of asking forgiveness on behalf of their family members who carried out the  atrocities of the Holocaust.  Thomas spoke in German and Markus translated.   Then Markus spoke of his own experience, asking forgiveness for the actions of his grandfather who was an SS officer.  Then Jan Waldert, Thomas’ son, spoke and asked for forgiveness for the actions of his  grandfather.  All three of them spoke that for so many years their family members kept silent and that they came to Baytown from Germany to break the silence.

My father was in the Army Air Corp.  He was a radio operator.  But he never spoke to me of his experience in the war.  He never broke his silence.  I never asked.

After our guests from Germany finished speaking the plan was for Al and Thomas to light candles and then together light a Unity Candle, as a symbolic act of reconciliation. When the time came for the candle lighting ceremony though, I went down and spoke to Al’s wife and daughter who were sitting with him if they would come forward as well.  I said, “Since there are three of them and there are three of you…” They agreed and stood. Before we could begin the candle lighting something unplanned happened.  There was a hug. Then another..then another…then another. First generation and second generation Jews hugging 2nd and 3rd generation descendants of Nazis in our sanctuary. Then, as best as I can remember through the haze of my tears I believe, the whole congregation stood.  and time stood ..still.

when silence is broken it can’t help but be followed by… hugs.

Jim Gill
Faith Presbyterian Church