I am an American living in the town in Germany where a bomb from World War II detonated 3 days ago, killing three people. Last week, my husband Tim came home early from his regular Thursday pick-up game of basketball at the university sports center here in Gottingen, Germany. I was puzzled to see him; I'd expected him to be much later, and he explained the reason for his premature return: "They found a bomb from World War II near the sports center where they're doing some construction, and everyone had to leave the building." This seemed bizarre; we hadn't realized that thousands of leftover bombs still litter Germany—they're usually found and deactivated without incident. I didn't give it much further thought.
My father spent nearly three years as a "cold-warrior" at Hahn Air Base in west-central Germany in the mid-1970s. As an SP (special police) he guarded bombs—lots of very big and potentially very destructive bombs. He never saw combat, spending most of his time in Germany living off the military base, learning German, disco dancing, and flirting with German girls. At the same time, he became something of a military history buff, eagerly absorbing World War II history, and—being a guy with lots of Jewish girlfriends in his past and a fascination with Judaism—he also studied the Holocaust and visited former concentration camps. Later, back in the States, he re-met and married one of those former Jewish girlfriends, and they had me.
Though both my parents are practicing Christians, they were eager for me to have a sense of Jewish identity. They taught me to say the Shema in Hebrew ("Hear, O Israel, the LORD is G-d; the LORD is One"). They had me baptized—but in Israel, in the Sea of Galilee. They dragged me to Schindler's List when I was way too young to handle it, and I read and re-read my autographed copy of I Am a Star until my mom brought me to work with her to meet Inge Auerbacher, the author. I had Hebrew lessons with the local rabbi when my dad was the pastor of the nearby Baptist church. He was Israeli, made great coffee, had a cat named Nefertiti, and refused to eat anything imported from Germany.
My husband and I moved here, to Gottingen, Germany, last September. When we arrived on the train, I got off first with our two young sons; Tim headed back into the train to grab our suitcase. The train was running late and the engineer must have been trying to make up time, because the doors closed faster than had been usual; I clapped my hands against the glass door, mouthing "goodbye" to my husband before he sped on to the next city. It was silly, but my mind kept remembering horrific scenes of separation by trains—scenes culled from my overexposure to World War II films.
I work hard to live in the moment. For me, this means I try to live here in Germany without forgetting what happened to people of my pedigree 70 years ago but also realizing that those tragic events are over and done with. When my dad visited me last year, he also returned to the air base. Delightfully, the old weapons storage facility has been converted into a green energy plant with wind and water mills. We rhapsodized about the beating of "swords into plowshares," quoting Isaiah and feeling comfortable leaving the past in the past to enjoy and admire the peaceful and democratic culture of Germany.
But last night, I came home late from a local saltwater pool, where I'd enjoyed a long swim, to find my husband waiting up for me. "I heard a loud explosion and then an hour's worth of emergency sirens," he said. "I'm not sure what's going on." This morning, we learned another bomb, an American bomb, had been discovered near the same area; just before it was to be deactivated, it detonated, killing three people, seriously injuring two others, and blowing the fronts off of two nearby houses. One of Germany's bomb disposal experts explained that the acetone detonators in these old bombs are deteriorating, meaning that as time goes on, they'll become increasingly fragile and essentially impossible to deactivate safely. Many of these bombs are buried well below the ground, covered by buildings erected in the post-war period.
I'm reminded of the famous Faulkner quote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past," even as I remember the Old Testament's wisdom about violence repeating itself through the generations. It seems to me that armed and violent conflict, once begun, never ends. Even in Europe—whose medical systems and provisions for social welfare I admire as progressive and peace-promoting; where a "chunnel" connects the countries that were rivals from near-ancient times; where, for the most part, people of all faiths and colors and creeds can happily co-exist; where my children are safe to play; where organic gardening is as common, as, well, dirt; where bicycling everywhere is possible and encouraged and delightful—here, a bomb dropped more than 60 years ago can, and did, go off, taking lives with it.
More than 2,000 tons worth of bombs are found and safely deactivated in Germany every year; the three deaths yesterday are rare and tragic. It feels surreal, impossible, that here, now, in this sweet university town with its beautiful old buildings and posh modern shopping district, bombs from World War II can still exercise their deadly power. Yet deaths from explosives left behind after the end of conflicts take many lives—not usually in places like this one, but every 22 minutes, worldwide, someone is killed or maimed by a "leftover" landmine. And most often, it's not members of a bomb disposal crew that die or are wounded—it is those who, of all people, are most innocent and vulnerable, that is, children. In Cambodia, it's actually common to have had an amputation after a landmine injury; 85% of children wounded by landmines will die before they even receive treatment for their injuries. Why does the detonation of yesterday's bomb seem so outrageous and bizarre, while statistics on landmines float by without much of a ripple? If the bomb expert is right, and more hidden World War II-era bombs become unstable, perhaps we'll all have to open our eyes to the past that is still, actually, present.
Frequently I wonder how I can promote the peace of Christ in this world so marked by unending violence; but usually, violence like this seems far away from where I sit—violence like this belongs somewhere else, not here. If there is something I might find to be grateful for in this tragedy it is that it's a powerful reminder that the work of Christians to promote peace is never "over there," it's always "here"; it's never "back then," it's always "now." As a follower of Jesus I believe my way must be one of self-sacrifice and resolution of conflict through peaceful means. Since I'm the daughter of a Christian pastor who's a military veteran, I'm aware that this belief is by no means universal among Christians; nonetheless, most of us can agree that our world and the people in it need more Christ-followers who will stand with the oppressed and victimized and hurting, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor. Yesterday I realized that my corner of the world—and yours, wherever that may be—is no less in need of the word of peace spoken by our risen Lord than the most war-ravaged regions on earth, now or in the past. May the peace of Christ be with you.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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Previous articles related to Germany include:
An Invisible Wall | Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a pastor in Berlin assesses Germany's spiritual climate. (November 9, 2009)
After the Wall | Reflections on 20 years of mission in Europe (November 9, 2009)
A Lost Generation | Mainline churches in East Germany rediscover a sense of mission. (October 1, 2009)
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