People didn’t know about the heroic actions of Walter Suskind until after the war. Jewish survivors of concentration camps made their way back to Amsterdam to find their children who had been secreted away to safe houses. As these reunions took place Walter’s name began to surface as the hero. Walter was a German Jew who moved to the Netherlands in 1938 because it seemed safer than his home country. He was an actor who gravitated to the theater in Amsterdam. When the Nazi regime forced segregation, the Holland Theater became the Jewish Theater, the only place where Jews could go for their entertainment. At first Hitler’s men played nice after their surprising arrival in Holland. Dutch residents were on edge but believed that the Nazi occupation would be manageable. In actuality the soldiers were establishing relationships with Jewish Council members to learn the identity and address of every Jew in this metropolitan area. When their persecution began, they knew right where to go.
The Jewish Theater became the clearing house for Jews who were arrested and on their way to concentration camps. Walter was an easy talker and could readily communicate with the Germans. So he was chosen as the director of operations at the theater, keeping track of who arrived and when they left for particular camps. He was likable and earned the trust of the local members of the Third Reich. What they didn’t know is that Walter had a heart for his own people. He was a young husband and father to a little girl. He didn’t believe the soldiers’ promises that these Jewish neighbors were being sent to nice camps with pleasant amenities. He was determined to save as many of the children as he could.
We took a tour of the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam when we were there several years ago. Our guide pointed out that the handsome theater building was across the street from a preschool. There was a tram that traveled up and down the street all day, every day during the war. The tram provided a visual block for the Nazi soldiers stationed outside the theater building. Working with Henriette Pimentel in the preschool, they found creative ways to transport small Jewish children out of the city into safe houses in the countryside. Jewish parents were secretly asked if they wanted this for their children, often with only an hour or so to decide. Most thought they would be able to come back after the war to find them. But, sensing imminent danger, many made the unthinkable choice to allow their small children to be carried away from them and into the homes of trusted strangers. Some left the preschool in the backpacks of older children who carried them home. Others were hidden in laundry baskets carried by women who got on the tram. Others were seated next to a parent figure on the bus who traveled out of town. Walter’s very small group of trusted conspirators was so discreet that the Nazi soldiers positioned at the theater never knew what was going on just across the street. In his engaging manner, with fluent German, Walter conversed with the soldier on duty each time a child was moved from the nursery and into the tram. His distractions allowed for somewhere between 600 to 1100 children being spared from almost certain death in two nearby concentration camps: Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.
The usual ending to stories of heroes in Jewish resistance circles is one of sacrifice. Walter, his wife and small daughter were ultimately sent out of Amsterdam along with their neighbors. Walter could have been spared since he held a trusted position but he refused to be separated from his small family. They all three lost their lives in Auschwitz. The wife and child were sent to the gas chambers upon arrival but some uncertainty surrounds Walter’s death. One plausible story was that Dutch prisoners at the camp killed him because they believed he was a traitor to his people. They only saw his easy conversation with German soldiers on the street corner of the theater. They could not imagine that he was working against this occupation force. They had no way of knowing that he had a clever system that destroyed records of Jews brought to the deportation center so that they could escape unnoticed. He had contacts who made fake IDs for escaped Jews. Other theater staff miscounted when loading a bus destined for deportation so that fewer prisoners were shipped off to camps than the soldier believed. Walter schmoozed with the soldier in charge while another trusted Jew did the head count aloud: 36, 37, 38, 39. 50. 51… Those resisting a powerful and evil regime became masters of heroic dysfunction that saved the lives of thousands of innocent people over the course of the war. But the cost was still great. Walter Suskind died an unsung hero at the age of 38. It was only when people came back from the war, looking for (and finding!) their children, that the name of Walter Suskind was redeemed from traitor to hero. Today there is an arts school in the theater building. One staff member explained, “Suskind is used as a model for the lesson that we must care for each other. Everyone is as important as another. Even in the worst of circumstances, it is worthwhile to think of other people and to help other people and in whatever way we can do that and think about what he did, we will do it.”
Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and we remember the heroic dysfunction of Walter and countless others whose clever scheming and great love for their people cost them their own lives.
We meet Thomas in John 20. Thomas doubted that Jesus had risen from the dead. And who could blame him? He had witnessed the public execution of Jesus as a dissenter of the government. Who could survive the murderous plot of the Roman Empire? They had powerful ranks of soldiers at the ready. They demanded obedience and practiced their own ethnic cleansing. No one survives that! Yet here stood Jesus among them. Something about Jesus was different. Thomas had doubts that it really was his beloved teacher. So Jesus showed Himself to this disciple who is remembered as a skeptic. Through His wounds, Thomas recognized Jesus. He was the same yet different.
We understand that right now. Many aspects to our lives appear to be very much the same while others are wildly different. Kids aren’t riding along our neighborhood streets on their bikes together. Schools are shuttered. Shops are closed. Church bells are silent. In urban areas some buildings have been refitted and are being used for lifesaving purposes now. We put on masks when we go out. We feel isolated and bored. Those in hospitals tell us stories that we find hard to believe. Some of us are terrified that we are losing a loved one who is diagnosed with Covid 19. Things seem the same and yet they are so different. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the risen Christ is near.
In this resurrection account, John stresses that it is the first day of the week. It’s a fresh start. Jesus re-enters the world of His startled disciples, the same yet different. What Jesus started, He wants them to continue. They are horrified. They understand all too well that they could end up on a cross as despised traitors. So Jesus equips them. He breathes on them. They discover that they are not alone in battling the corrupt empires of the world. Christ’s Holy Spirit will empower them. Even doubting Thomas is given what he needs to become an impassioned apostle of a resurrected Messiah!
On this season after Easter we remember that, no matter the world around us, regardless of who is in power and how many are suffering, Jesus is resurrected from the dead. The stone is rolled away and Jesus is out of the box. He asks us to serve as His Body in out-of-the-box ways. Are we up to the job? Of course not! He tells the 11 men hidden away in a corner of Jerusalem that they have the authority to forgive sins—or not! Who, me? I do the pardoning or I continue to hold someone accountable for their sin?! We don’t think we are ready but Jesus does. In fact, He commands us! We act on His behalf no matter how unpopular our words may be, no matter how unrecognized our good deeds may go. On that First Day of the week, the disciples are charged with continuing the work that Jesus began whatever it might cost them.
We see that the challenges are great in our present circumstances. We wonder how we can best serve when we are told to stay away from others? How do we use our talents when our world has narrowed so greatly? Do we meet for worship in defiance of a governmental decree or do we trust that staying apart for a much longer time than we can imagine is our best and most loving course of action? Protests in cities across America this past week demonstrate that we are on edge and not in agreement with how to best respond to a killing virus. I am moved continually by the out-of-the-box ways folks are responding to the dire needs of our community. We remember that the Apostle Paul escaped a threat to his life by being lowered over the city walls in a basket. When it is hard to believe that Jesus is near, we are called to serve compassionately in His name in ways that bring peace.
Paul understood that our actions within the Body of Christ can be viewed as either traitorous or heroic. Persecuted and ultimately dying for his faith in Jesus, he wrote this to his beloved congregation in Corinth: “For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?”
The answer is that not one of us is able to pick up where Christ left off on our own. So we celebrate that the risen Christ equips us through the power of His Spirit. We preach boldly in everyday pulpits where some will greatly oppose what we say and others will find our message lifesaving. We act out of love but may even go to the grave unheralded for our goodness. Many, like Walter Suskind, have done that before us. But we do not lose hope because we are a resurrection people. In the makeshift hospital rooms where people are struggling for breath we see compassion by people who put their lives on the line for complete strangers. We keep away from each other so that we don’t inadvertently infect others whose systems cannot fight the virus. We share our love for each other in new and creative ways. We find the peace that Jesus offered those fearful disciples in a Jerusalem hiding place on the First Day of the week.
Christ has risen. He is calling us into service in the power of His Holy Spirit. Let’s go!