Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hitler or Stalin?

Which was worse, living under Hitler, or living under Stalin? The question is absurd, of course; yet after reading literally scores if not hundreds of books about World War II and the Holocaust, I suddenly found myself asking this question when, this summer, I read two memoirs from the Stalinist era. Most of us know a little something about Stalin’s gulags because of Solzhenitsyn; some of us might have received a glimmer of understanding from the superb movie The Lives of Others; I read Darkness at Noon (uncomprehendingly) a few years ago; but until I read these two memoirs I did not really know anything.

Heda Margolius Kovály, a Jewish Czech native, died a few months ago, and her obituary in The New York Times was so arresting that I immediately ordered and read her memoir, Under a Cruel Star. Then I ordered her son Ivan Margolius’ book, Reflections of Prague, and read that. When I’d finished, I knew that I had known nothing, and that this ignorance was and is shameful.

It is not entirely my fault that I knew nothing, however. Stalin was our ally during World War II, and for various reasons, not least the powerful attraction of Marxist ideas for many idealistic people in Western Europe and America, we were very late in coming to understand that the “Iron Curtain” was more than an ugly wall dividing East and West Berlin. Who in America really grasped what was going on in the 60s and 70s in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, East Germany?

Heda Margolius (later Kovály) was one of the most striking, courageous, and admirable women I have ever heard of--an impression that comes through strongly in her memoir. Her parents were exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and she herself barely managed to escape, fleeing from one of the death marches from Auschwitz as the war was coming to an end. Only a few pages of her memoir, about a tenth of the total, are dedicated to this portion of her life. Most of the book is about life in Czechoslovakia after the war, during the Stalinist period, and it has been described as the very best personal account available of life under this totalitarian régime.

Heda was married to Rudolf Margolius, an idealistic, rather naïve Czech patriot who was swept up by his passion for Marxist principles and became a loyal servant of the Communist Party. His fate was to become one of the completely innocent Party members who were arrested in their homes, bundled into cars, “interrogated” (tortured) by horrendous methods until they broke and signed confessions, put on display in a procedure called a “show trial,” and then condemned and executed There were fourteen of these people, eleven of them “of Jewish extraction” as the Stalinists took delight in repeating. This farrago was called the Slansky Trial, after Rudolf Slansky, the General Secretary of the Czech Party, the most prominent of the guiltless victims.

Did you know about this? I suppose I must have at some point, but it made no impression on me at the time, and I have been so involved with Hitler and Nazism that Stalin simply did not register. I have now read Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, recently acknowledged to be the newly definitive account of what Hitler and Stalin wrought together, but even that did not pack the wallop of Heda’s first-person story. I was so gripped by it that I immediately ordered and read her son’s book. He was raised by his mother in poverty , deprivation, and isolation amidst the scorn of the community, yet did not know anything about the circumstances of his father’s death until he was sixteen (Heda waited to tell him until she thought he was old enough.) Eventually he was able to go to live in England where he thrived and became a successful architect. His book fills in a good many details that Heda’s book leaves out, in particular the gruesome types of mental and physical pressures used by State Security to turn political prisoners into human wrecks. I am sure it is my fault that I did not fully appropriate this from Darkness at Noon; only when I read this mother-son product was I reached at the deepest level.

Anyone who wants to understand the 20th century in greater depth can learn a staggering amount in just a few hours by reading these two short books (both available from Amazon). Heda’s should be read first, and then her son’s as a commentary on it. Unlike her husband, who continued to believe in the Communist ideal until he was crushed by it, Heda saw very early that such an ideal was impossible to attain without totalitarian repression. Her vision was unclouded and her courage astonishing. She emerges from the pages with a personality and a fire that the reader will never forget.

Václav Havel, who was imprisoned himself for more than four years, wrote that during the Stalinist era there was no clear line between good and evil, for “the line ran through each person.” Ivan Margolius writes of the “double personality” that everyone had to cultivate—one side given up to collaboration, lies, and deceit, and the other to resistance. Holding on to a semblance of truth and decency required a degree of moral courage that few of us in America today can imagine. It is moving to read of Ivan’s amazement upon moving, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to London where he never ceased to marvel at the way that people were able to speak their minds without fear. His testimony is a powerful tribute to the Anglo-American tradition which, in spite of everything, still remains the strongest and most liberating in the world. May we never relinquish it.

PS. Mao Zedong killed more people than either Hitler or Stalin, but that is another, different story.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Churches as “safe places”

When and why did churches start calling themselves “safe places”? Yesterday I went to a Bach choral concert at noon at Ground Zero, part of the 10th anniversary commemorations. The concert was absolutely wonderful (Bach, the “great comforter,” as one of The New York Times music critics called him), but I was bemused to read in the program that Trinity, Wall Street promotes itself as “a safe place.” It’s true, of course, that Trinity and St. Paul’s, Fulton Street, were unharmed by the collapse of the World Trade Center, but I don’t think that’s what’s meant by “safe place.” And besides, a small Orthodox church was completely demolished on that day.

Wasn't the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama an “unsafe place” when four little black girls in white dresses were killed in a racist bombing? What about the church hit by a tornado on Palm Sunday? The pastor’s daughter was killed in the collapse. And Bishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by right-wing thugs while saying mass in San Salvador. Indeed, in the USA, there have been 18 church shootings in 11 years. So clearly, no church can promise safety in a precarious and often violent world. So that can’t be what’s meant by “safe place.”

I think “safe place” must be a coded phrase, designed to reassure potential members that they will not be judged by anyone. A God without judgment defines liberal American Christianity, as H. Richard Niebuhr famously wrote in The Kingdom of God in America:

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment
through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.

That was written a long time ago, but it seems more true of us now than ever.

I am reminded of an often quoted but little heeded passage from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk:

Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a package
tour of the Absolute?....On the whole I do not find Christians, outside of the
catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest
idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? It is madness to wear ladies’
straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.

Coming into the presence of the living God should bring us to our knees at the very least (although we seem to have stopped kneeling in church) as we reflect on Abraham Lincoln’s words that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” He also wrote:

I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I
had nowhere else to go…Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been
a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. To deny it, however…is to
deny that there is a God governing the world.

When there is no conception of judgment, or justice, or “a difference of purpose” to define what is meant by the love of God, we are left in a helpless situation. At a conference recently, Dale Allison (professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) delivered a very effective lecture on the righteousness of God in which he passionately listed all the ills and atrocities of the world for which there was no human remedy. After the lecture, another attendee and I discussed it. He agreed that it was excellent, but said that he missed one thing: the longing for the purifying fire of God (Malachi 3:2-4) to burn away all the dross in our own selves, not just in others. I heartily concurred. I do not fear the judgment of God; I welcome it. I want to see the last of my faults. Unlike the judgment of human beings, the judgment of God contains within itself the power for complete rectification, as though sin and evil had never been.


P.S. A friend emailed this strikingly relevant quotation: Paul Scherer, the noted Lutheran pastor and scholar, said, "The presence of resistance in our lives may indeed be the presence of another's will trying to work against our own." We invoke that every time we say the Lord's Prayer--"thy will be done."