Am I my brother’s keeper?

Thursday, November 30, in Riga was cold, wet and windy. In the evening my friend Bella and I went to the Freedom Monument to help light the candles and prepare the space for a special Holocaust memorial. The official start was to be an hour later and the volunteers were busy getting things organized. I said a quick ‘hello and thank you’ to Lolita Tomsone, one of the main organizers and the director of Žanis Lipke Memorial.

Later a group of us came back to light more candles and to support the message that this beautiful alley of small lights stood for. What did it stand for? That “we remember” and that “we mourn”. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, the people of Latvia experienced the biggest mass killings in our country’s history. 25,000 Jewish men, women and children from Riga ghetto were forced to walk miles to Rumbula forest just outside the city limits where they were brutally shot and buried in large pits, dug by Soviet prisoners-of-war. Another thousand of German Jews were sent to these graves straight from their train.

I stood at the Freedom Monument, reading its famous inscription “For fatherland and freedom”. These people who were murdered in 1941 had helped to build this monument. This was also the land of their fathers and this was also their freedom  but denied and destroyed. I tried to imagine that dreary day 76 years ago. November usually has the most miserable weather  and it makes life feel harsh and depressing. What would it feel like to walk those miles down the familiar and beloved streets? Through the city which is your home… watched by other people who are your neighbors and compatriots. Do you make eye-contact with them or not?

You may read my reflections and think, “Why is it so important to you, Latvians, now? This happened 76 years ago when most of you were not even born. Isn’t there already so much of Holocaust remembrance around the world?” See, the thing is that we have our own reckoning with the past. To many ‘outsiders’ or newcomers we may seem like a nation with more memorial days than celebration ones but we are still learning to grieve together.

What do I mean by grieving together? I mean the solidarity in grief that the loss of freedom and statehood of Latvia in 1940 (occupied by the USSR) and then in 1941 (occupied by Nazi Germany) destroyed our community and changed it completely. The solidarity in grief that all suffering counts the same. People sent to Siberian labor camps by the Soviets and people sent to their graves in Rumbula by the Nazis did not deserve any of it.

But there is another crucial element to this history lesson. Martin Niemöller (1892–1984), a German Lutheran pastor wrote a famous poem. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

There is an unforgettable conversation from the Hebrew Bible. In the book of Genesis, God talks to Cain after Cain has killed his brother Abel and hidden the fact. When God asked where Abel was, Cain answered: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” He did admit that Abel was his brother, though.

I think one of the most painful things in our histories are not the murders themselves but the denial of brotherhood. Who is my brother? Who is my neighbor? Who is my fellow citizen who has the same rights and dignity?

We know that these age old questions are still being asked today. Are the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean our brothers? Are the immigrants our brothers? Are the people with opposing political views our brothers? Are the people with different skin colour our brothers? Are the sexually abused women and girls our sisters? Are the people sold in slave markets our brothers and sisters? If we are Christians, are the Muslims who are fleeing from war and violence our brothers? If we are Muslims, are the Christians persecuted and killed by extremist groups our brothers? If we are Bamar Buddhists, are the Rohingyas in Myanmar our brothers?

We need to get this right. So that future generations don’t need to light thousands and thousands of candles…

Latvian:

Vai es esmu sava brāļa sargs?

30. novembris Rīgā bija auksts, slapjš un vējains. Vārdu sakot, draņķīgs laiks. Vakarā mēs ar draudzeni Bellu devāmies pie Brīvības pieminekļa, lai palīdzētu aizdedzināt sveces un sagatavot vietu Rumbulas akciju piemiņas vakaram. Līdz oficiālajam sākumam bija atlikusi stunda, un brīvprātīgie palīgi bija aizņemti ar kārtošanu. Īsi sasveicinājos ar Lolitu Tomsoni, Žaņa Lipkes memoriāla direktori un vienu no pasākuma galvenajām organizētājām, un ķēros pie šķiltavām un svecēm.

Vēlāk mēs ar citu draugu kompāniju atgriezāmies, jo arī viņi vēlējās gan iededzināt sveces, gan atbalstīt šī piemiņas vakara vēstījumu. Kāds tas ir? Ka “mēs atceramies” un “mums sāp”! Vai tas ir vajadzīgs? Pietiks ar Marģera Vestermaņa atbildi:

“Mīļie,

Esmu piedzīvojis Rumbulas un Biķernieku šausmas, kur gāja bojā visi mani mīļie, visa mana ebreju pasaule. 75 gadus esmu gaidījis, lai Latvijas sabiedrība teiktu, tie arī ir mūsējie. Esmu laimīgs, ka gara mūža galā esmu šo brīņišķīgo brīdi sagaidījis.

Paldies Jums visiem labiem cilvēkiem. Cik labi apzināties, ka esam visi kopā.

Dr.hist.Marģers Vestermanis, viens no nedaudzajiem holokaustā izdzīvojušiem.”

Stāvēju pie pieminekļa un skatījos uz vārdiem “Tēvzemei un brīvībai”. Latvija taču bija šo ebreju ģimeņu tēvzeme, un šeit bija viņu brīvība, līdz tas viss tika atņemts un iznīcināts. Tad es pakustināju savus nosalušos pirkstus ar domu, ka jau drīz būšu siltumā. Kāds laiks bija tajā drausmīgajā dienā 1941. gadā? Drošvien arī draņķīgs. Novembris taču vienmēr ir visnožēlojamākais, viss tik tukšs un pelēks.  Kā būtu iet tajā garajā nāves gājienā pa sev tik pazīstamajām un mīļajām Rīgas ielām? Cauri Rīgai, savai pilsētai? Un, ko darīt, ieraugot pazīstamas sejas? Vai viņi uzsmaida, vai novērš acis, vai raud?

Nesaprotu, kā vēl var rasties jautājumi vai iebildumi, vai ebreju piemiņas vakarus jārīko pie Brīvības pieminekļa. Vai tad šis piemineklis nav visas Latvijas un tās vēstures simbols? Ja jau Māte Latvija, tad māte visiem saviem bērniem. Bet mēs vēl mācāmies sērot kopā, nesalīdzinot un nešķirojot ciešanas. Par Sibīriju, par Rumbulu

Nāk prātā vēsturiskā patiesība, ko tik spēcīgi atgādināja vācu luterāņu mācītājs Martins Nīmellers (1892-1984), kritizējot vācu intelektuāļu/luterāņu gļēvumu Hitlera varas laikā:

Vispirms viņi atnāca pēc komunistiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju komunists. Tad viņi atnāca pēc arodbiedrībām, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju arodbiedrībā. Tad viņi atnāca pēc ebrejiem, bet es neko neteicu, jo nebiju ebrejs. Tad viņi atnāca pēc manis, bet tikmēr vairs nebija palicis neviens, kas kaut ko teiktu.

Citās versijās Nīmellers min arī katoļus, Jefovas lieciniekus, utt.

Ebreju Bībelē pašā cilvēces stāsta sākumā ir viena neaizmirstama saruna. Kains ir nositis savu brāli Ābelu, un Dievs viņam jautā, kur ir tavs brālis. Kains atbild: “Es nezinu! Vai es sava brāļa sargs?”

Vismaz Kains nenoliedz, ka Ābels bija viņa brālis. Man liekas, ka vislielākās ciešanas mūsu vēsturēs izraisa nevis pašas slepkavības, bet tas, ka mēs noliedzam vai aizliedzam brālību. Kurš ir mans brālis? Mana māsa? Kurš ir mans kaimiņš? Kurš ir mans tuvākais? Kurš ir mans līdzpilsonis ar tādām pašām tiesībām?

Šis mūžsenais jautājums paceļas atkal un atkal. Vai bēgļi, kuri slīkst Vidusjūrā, ir mūsu brāļi un māsas? Imigranti? Citas rases cilvēki? Politiskie pretinieki? Vai seksuālu vardarbību cietušas sievietes un meitenes ir mūsu māsas? Vai cilvēki, kurus pārdod mūsdienu vergu tirgos, ir mūsu brāļi? Ja tu esi kristietis, vai musulmaņi, kurš bēg no kara un vardarbības savā zemē, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi musulmanis, vai kristieši, kurus vajā un nogalina radikāli ekstrēmisti, ir tavi brāļi? Ja tu esi birmietis un budists Mjanmā, vai Rohindžas ir tavi brāļi?

Mums ir jāatbild šis jautājums. Lai nākamajām paaudzēm nevajadzētu dedzināt tūkstošiem sveču…

Rohingya and soul searching in Myanmar

Myanmar is making international headlines again and the news is not good. Tragedy for the thousands and thousands of people who are losing their homes, ancestral land, possessions and fleeing to neighboring country Bangladesh… hundreds are also losing their lives and their loved ones. The story of Rohingya ethnic minority has repeated through the years but the current crisis is a new low.

Myanmar (Burma) holds a special place in my heart. Peaceroads was inspired by my friends from this beautiful but broken country. We have spent many hours talking, working and praying for peace, freedom, restoration and reconciliation in this nation. Many are already experiencing peace and freedom but not everyone. Not yet … and it will take even longer now.

It is racism but this is not just about race. It is religious but this is not just about religion (most Rohingya are Muslim minority in a predominantly Buddhist country). Nationalism, economics, politics, military power, etc… It is complicated, yes, and long story. There are violent and angry people on all sides, yes, and someone’s freedom fighter is someone else’ terrorist. We don’t know all the facts, yes, and Myanmar government accuses international media of misinformation (while not allowing them access to the conflict area!). Still, many facts are too obvious, stories are real, pictures speak for themselves and there is suffering for the whole world to see.

This is why international community is reacting with such sadness, criticism and challenge to the current leaders of Myanmar. For decades and decades people and governments in democratic countries supported the long journey toward freedom, dignity and rights of the people of Burma, including demand to release Aung Sun Suu Kyi from house arrest and let her lead the nation. Now many of the Nobel Peace Prize laureates are challenging her to speak out, act fast and defend the rights of ALL people.

I deeply care about real and lasting reconciliation in Myanmar and right now it is facing a dangerous moment. There are plenty of evil forces that are ready to exploit this fault line and make it even more violent (Al Qaeda, ISIS and other such groups are looking at this as a new cause to support). It is like a perfect storm brewing if there is no immediate and courageous national leadership and brave decisions. It also requires a deep soul searching in the whole society – who is this country for, who is my neighbor?

I am no expert but I know enough about Myanmar’s pain of the past, the struggles of today and the hopes for the future. This is not just about human rights; this is about right human relationships. How will these communities live? What will happen to these displaced people? If they are allowed return, how do they rebuild their lives? What will make them feel safe, protected and wanted? What about justice? What about forgiveness?

I want to copy an open letter by Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, which expresses many of my own thoughts…

“My dear Aung San Su Kyi

I am now elderly, decrepit and formally retired, but breaking my vow to remain silent on public affairs out of profound sadness about the plight of the Muslim minority in your country, the Rohingya.

In my heart you are a dearly beloved younger sister. For years I had a photograph of you on my desk to remind me of the injustice and sacrifice you endured out of your love and commitment for Myanmar’s people. You symbolised righteousness. In 2010 we rejoiced at your freedom from house arrest, and in 2012 we celebrated your election as leader of the opposition.

Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted – and recently accelerated. The images we are seeing of the suffering of the Rohingya fill us with pain and dread.

We know that you know that human beings may look and worship differently – and some may have greater firepower than others – but none are superior and none inferior; that when you scratch the surface we are all the same, members of one family, the human family; that there are no natural differences between Buddhists and Muslims; and that whether we are Jews or Hindus, Christians or atheists, we are born to love, without prejudice. Discrimination doesn’t come naturally; it is taught.

My dear sister: If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep. A country that is not at peace with itself, that fails to acknowledge and protect the dignity and worth of all its people, is not a free country.

It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country; it is adding to our pain.

As we witness the unfolding horror we pray for you to be courageous and resilient again. We pray for you to speak out for justice, human rights and the unity of your people. We pray for you to intervene in the escalating crisis and guide your people back towards the path of righteousness again.

God bless you.

Love

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

Hermanus, South Africa”

tutu

photos from internet

 

The suffering of ‘unwanted’ people

This week I returned to my current home in Thailand and to the news headlines about the human tragedy in the Andaman Sea. This tragedy has been going on for many years since I have lived here. The story of suffering starts in Burma (official name – Myanmar) and it affects the whole region of Southeast Asia.

If you watch the news or read the headlines, you will see the boats crowded with starving, desperate people who nobody wants. Nations send their navy ships to pull them back out to sea. Thailand does not want them, Malaysia does not want them, Indonesia does not want them… but the source of tragedy is that their home does not want them. The Rohingya people are a large ethnic group, living in the western state of Rakhine. Most of them live in Burma and their religion is Islam.

International human rights groups describe them as one of the most persecuted people in the world. Since 1982 they are denied citizenship in Burma and the current government continues denying them citizen’s rights. They are not allowed to travel without a permission. There were even previous restrictions on marriage and children – allowed to have only two children, even though not strictly enforced. There has been communal violence in previous years, based on ethnicity and religion and a widespread sentiment in Burma, fueled by a few very nationalistic Buddhist monks, that these people do not belong there.

Thousands of them are forced to live in camps in terrible conditions they are not allowed to leave. In their own country! So, in desperation they attempt to make the dangerous journey across the sea. This becomes another huge tragedy of human trafficking, abuse, corruption and suffering. I will not go into all the details as you can read about it in any major international news source.

The challenges in Burma are complicated but one issue is very simple and clear. As I see the photos of these beautiful people… yes, poor… yes, uneducated… yes, Muslim and not Buddhist or Christian… yes, dark skinned… Rohingya are our neighbors. Human beings created in God’s image with exactly the same value as a Latvian, a German, a Thai, a Karen, a Chinese, a Barman, an Australian, etc.

Who is my neighbor? And do I love my neighbor as myself? Firstly, this is the difficult and important question for the communities in Burma. Secondly, this is a question for the neighboring nations and thirdly, this is a question for all of us. For me as a European, I think of our governments who are willing to ‘close their eyes’ and not bring up these questions in favor of economic trade since Burma is so rich with resources.

Many of my friends in Burma are wrestling with this most important question God asks of us. Also, to help Rohingya people can mean to become persecuted. Even big international NGO’s have been told by Burma government to stay away and not get involved.

This is time for serious and deep soul searching and time for brave and real neighborly love…

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Photo from news headlines